Entrepreneurial student threads ways to prevent trafficking

GCU entrepreneurial studies senior Elise Whitman speaks about her clothing line, Return to Eden, which raises money to help those trapped by human trafficking.

Photos by Ralph Freso

While researching a project to develop a business as part of a class project, Elise Whitman was shocked to learn that some of the neighborhoods around Grand Canyon University are not as comfortable as her hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana.

She remembers calling her mom and talking about the possibility of human trafficking going on right outside of GCU’s gates.

“I thought, ‘Wow.’ It just breaks your heart to see that,” said Whitman, who was motivated to do something about it.

With a passion for making clothes dating back to her high school days, Whitman decided last spring to start a clothing line, Return to Eden, to raise money to help those trapped by human trafficking.

The entrepreneurial studies senior works with IdentiFreed Attic, a thrift store that's part of an outreach center whose proceeds go to rescue women from human trafficking and addiction.

“She has not only the drive to create a company but to impact a community. ... I think Elise’s story is really amazing, this money that she brings in,” said Robert Vera, founding director of GCU business incubator Canyon Ventures. “It helps her get people off the streets in our neighborhood, 27th Avenue between Bethany Home and Thomas."

Elise Whitman watches fellow students as they model her designs during Demo Day in the fall.

Despite the challenges of addressing such an overwhelming societal issue, Whitman is steadfast in her determination to help because she feels it's what God wants of her. “I know that as long as I’m walking in His calling, and where He’s called me to, and inviting me to that, He’s got His hand on it,” she said.

With the help of student models, Whitman displayed Return to Eden products as part of a modeling segment at the first Demo Day, which showcased the work of GCU startup companies, and at Canyon Challenge, the University’s “Shark Tank”-like entrepreneurial competition.

Whitman’s models at Canyon Challenge displayed attire while referencing, in her clothing and in the fashion show, the plight of those trafficked, from bondage to freedom.

One of the events where Elise Whitman showcased her clothing designs was at Canyon Challenge.

“I wanted to start by just showing that we're here to advocate for everyone that's stuck in bondage, and for everyone that doesn't have a voice,” she said.

After hours of researching nonprofits and their missions, Whitman connected with human trafficking victims and felt she could make an impact by incorporating her love for making clothes.

“Long term, I wanted to do mission work, but I didn't know, ‘How am I going to make money? I don't just want to be broke,’” she said. “You can't really do much with that.”

But her heart took over, and she realized, “I have to help somehow.”

Three Marketplace events organized by entrepreneurial club the IDEA Club last fall helped Whitman donate money to IdentiFreed, where she once interned. She also has learned immensely from Carrie Bradley, a missionary who rebounded from addiction to earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting at GCU and has used her experiences to help those in need.

Missionary Carrie Bradley said of GCU student Elise Whitman, "Elise has a strong commitment to reach the trafficked community."

Whitman is part of an eight-person group led by Bradley that helps women on Tuesday nights by feeding them and providing them with care packages.

“Elise has a strong commitment to reach the trafficked community,” said Bradley, adding that Whitman is a light in helping the team in their work. “She has such a fiery and passionate anointing, and she is gifted in many areas, including business and ministry.”

Whitman would like to help Return to Eden reach a point where she can afford to teach the survivors of human trafficking how to sew and give them a living.

She is currently assisting the organization with clothing inventory, but “the outreach is where my heart is set,” she said, and she prays for a day when IdentiFreed can pay its rent without the monthly stress.

A late discovery of GCU, coincidentally, helped alleviate the stress Whitman felt after learning shortly after high school graduation that the college she originally planned to attend was not going to provide enough financial help.

“I came (to GCU) on my Discover Trip in July, and then a couple of months later started here,” she said with a smile.

Whitman did not know anything about GCU until her grandparents, who are snowbirds, told her about the school. With her grandparents close by, she didn’t have to worry about loneliness, considering she’s 2,000 miles away from the rest of her family. That was an added asset to the benefits of GCU as an affordable Christian school.

Beyond that, Whitman recalled, “It's a really great school.

“I would not be where I was at if I wasn't in the environment of GCU. I wanted to be a doctor growing up, and that's what I came here for. And it took a very specific environment to cultivate the ears to listen to what the Lord actually wanted me to do.”

Whitman might veer away from her full-time devotion to Return to Eden once she graduates to seek a bigger stage in addressing human trafficking.

Elise Whitman didn't start her Return to Eden company brand until late last spring.

But as she makes her way through college, she said, “I love what I do” and loves the clothing line and how it helps her in her mission to help others.

In the future, she said, “I really would love to have a foot in the political world to make political influence in changing laws and human trafficking. … I love law enforcement, but there does need to be something that needs to be done. And I think the Lord has just really put it on my heart to learn more about that system so I can help change it.”

Regardless of what path Whitman chooses, Vera is extremely proud of the foundation she and fellow student Kate Hames, who started Anomaly Co. (a clothing business designed to help the needy), have built as entrepreneurs and described them as the “tip of God’s spear.”

“I couldn't be more proud of them that they've chosen to do this work,” said Vera. “For them to go out and not just create a job for themselves but live a mission and to use their skills and talents in a way that glorifies God and serves our community is really just a powerful testament to who they are and what they're doing.”

GCU News senior writer Mark Gonzales can be reached at [email protected]

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Related content:

GCU News: Tribute to stricken cousin sparks winning product at Canyon Challenge

GCU News: Entrepreneur student wraps business around helping needy

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