By Jacqui Lazo and Abena Foreman-Trice

With Fall 2014 classes in full swing and Second Year students excited to begin working on their global field elective projects, it is worthwhile to remember the incredible impact the pilot GFEs have had during the last two years.  The Freeset project serves as an example of the kind of social contributions students can make with communities around the world and the learning that takes place when students have first-hand experiences.  Darden’s Center for Global Initiatives has moved the GFE program out of its pilot phase and formalized it as an ongoing program as a result of students’ desire to work towards solving real, complex, pressing challenges in the world today.

“We’re in the business of freedom,” said Annie Hilton, co-founder of Freeset. In 2001, Annie and her husband, Kerry, started Freeset, a fair-trade business operating out of Kolkata, India, that addresses the growing problem of human trafficking by employing women trapped in the Sonagichi red-light district. The women manufacture custom bags, shirts and other garments, and in turn are able to provide a better life for them and their children.

“I can’t tell you how old I am. I don’t know,” said Shurti, who came to work at the Hilton’s company to support her family. “Before I started working at Freeset, life was very tough. Day after day I would stand in line. On the days when customers didn’t come, I didn’t eat.”

Shurti’s story is one of the many shared by the company on its website.

“There are some 10,000 women in Kolkata alone working in a one square-mile brothel,” said CJ Jain (MBA ’14), who initiated the relationship between Darden and Freeset as the President of the Emerging Markets Development Club during his Second Year. The Hiltons have come to Darden twice in the last two years to speak with students about their venture, and this past year, Jain collaborated with the Center for Global Initiatives to develop a Global Field Elective (GFE) experience. Four students participated in the inaugural Freeset GFE, where they had the opportunity to consult to Freeset.

“Our business is about women being set free. It’s about new girls not being born and sold,” Annie said. “We need to multiply, we need to grow. We’re excited about the partnership we have with Darden because the students have the expertise we don’t have on the ground.” Darden students conducted research to help Freeset develop new relationships, find new products to manufacture and expand its marketing strategy.

Unrestricted funds raised by the Darden Annual Fund supported more than 13 of the pilot GFEs around the world for the 2013-2014 academic year, giving Darden students the opportunity to apply the business skills they’ve gained from the classroom to impact lives such as Shurti’s and her 200+ co-workers employed at Freeset.

“Freeset is interesting to me both as an MBA student and as a person,” said Jain. “The issue the company deals with is so fundamentally huge. We’re talking about basic human rights for women.

”What’s astonished me about Freeset is it tells a very different story about business. As a business person, it’s inspiring to think about how I can use my profession to change the world around me.”