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Her candle company empowers victims of human trafficking in Ohio by giving them a new life

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(CNN) — In 2013, Amber Runyon decided she had to start a business — any business — that would help victims of human trafficking. But she had only $250 to get it off the ground.

Runyon was on a medical mission trip Ethiopia when the plan struck her. A hospice care nurse at the time, Runyon was walking through a village in the capital, Addis Ababa, when she met a five-year-old girl named Mulu.

“From the moment she held my hand I knew in some way she belonged to me and I belonged to her,” she recalls.

Runyon would check up on Mulu whenever she visited Ethiopia. On one trip, she spotted two young girls being led by a man along the side of the street. She recalled them being blindfolded.

“I asked my translator where they were going. He said they would be sold for sex,” said Runyon. “When you see something like that, it changes you. I thought of Mulu. In that moment, I realized I had to do something.”

After returning home, Runyon did a Google search and was shocked to find that her home state of Ohio ranked 4th in the nation for reported cases of human trafficking at the time.

“It’s the same depravity here that I saw that day in Ethiopia,” she said. Poverty, addiction, homelessness, illiteracy and unemployment, she later learned, were some of the prevailing causes of human trafficking.

She decided to tackle one aspect of the issue — unemployment — by launching a business that would provide jobs to women who were trafficked or exploited in other ways.

“My business would teach them a skill they could use to create something,” she said. And it had to be a business that didn’t discriminate based on age or criminal background. “These are women in their 20, 30s, even 50s, some with felonies,” she said.

Eager to get started, Runyon searched for business ideas that had low overhead and were inexpensive to launch.

She settled on a candle company. “I don’t even like candles but it was the cheapest type of company to start,” she said. “I jumped right in, with no business plan.”

Runyon launched Eleventh Candle Company in December 2015. With $250, she bought supplies — glass containers, wax, wicks — and enlisted her friends to make candles in her kitchen using her stove top and pots.

She quit her nursing job and would spend 16 to 18 hours a day making as many as 100 candles to sell at farmer’s markets, on Etsy, and through the company’s website.

“I basically didn’t take a salary for 18 months. I lived off of what I had and sold some things I owned for more money,” she said.

Runyon’s persistence and her social mission helped her build traction for the business. “We started to get into a few stores around Columbus. In two years we moved the business into a warehouse, hired four women, and still had no debt,” she said.

Eleventh Candle became profitable in 2018, and now generates $1 million in annual sales. It has sold 250,000 candles to date. The brand sells candles with 11 signature scents, and operates two retail locations in Columbus.

Last year, the company partnered with Worthington, Ohio-based COHatch, which rents coworking spaces to entrepreneurs. Runyon said COhatch is providing production space and investing $400,000 in the business to fund retail expansion over the next few years.

But what matters most to Runyon is that she’s been able to employ 15 women, eight of whom are full-time. Several of them have been victims of exploitation or suffered from addiction.

Some of the women Runyon has hired have relapsed into using drugs.

“We have experienced overdose, even traffickers coming here looking for the women. So every day we look each other in the eye, and we look out for each other,” Runyon said.

‘It symbolizes our belief there is hope in the eleventh hour’

One 32-year-old woman hired by Runyon last November, who asked that she not be identified in this article, was just 16 when she had her first child.

By 20, she was a mother of three. And soon after, she was pulled into trafficking, and gave birth to a fourth child.

She met her trafficker when she was out one night with a friend at a bar.

“He invited us to a house party. When I got there I was trapped. I couldn’t leave,” she said. For several months, she said she was introduced to drugs and sold against her will.

She eventually was able to escape after finding a way to contact her father, but later struggled with drug addiction, was arrested and charged with solicitation and lost custody of her kids.

She heard about Eleventh Candle from a friend in a recovery program. “Working here has made a lot of difference in my life,” she said. “I wake up every day excited that I have a job to go to.”

Having a job has also brought some stability to her life. “I have a car. I go to work every day. I’m trying to rebuild a relationship with my kids,” she said. “If Amber will have me, I want to stay here forever. I don’t get judged here. No one looks down on me because of my past.”

Runyon said she named her company Eleventh Candle because it “symbolizes our belief that there is hope in the eleventh hour.”

Eventually, she wants to turn the business into a franchise and create opportunities for vulnerable women in other cities.

“But my goal is to never hire more than 15 people [at any location],” she said. “You can be like a family and effect change in each others’ lives when you stay as a small team.”

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