Many people now acknowledge the healing power of animals for humans: equine therapy helps people overcome trauma and personal issues; and research on having a pet companion has shown that it leads to increased social behavior, better health (think: lower blood pressure, fewer heart-related diseases, and decreased likelihood of obesity), and better mood (everything from battling feelings of loneliness to dealing with depression and gaining more overall happiness).
So why then are so many domestic violence survivors forced to leave their dear pets behind when they walk away from an abusive situation? Why do many others stay in an abusive situation longer in order to keep a pet?
Jordan Ross, Founder and Executive Director of PetsEmpower.org, a nonprofit umbrella foundation dedicated to helping domestic violence survivors keep their pets, spent a year struggling to hang onto his beloved companion, a black lab named Jazz, while escaping an abusive situation at home. As a recent graduate from Cornell, Jordan returned to his Boston home to find his family fallen apart and his parents abusive and violent. When he worked up the courage to leave, opting instead for the Boston streets, he was dismayed to find that shelter after shelter refused to allow pets.
The only alternative for someone in Jordan’s position was to board Jazz--for the hefty price tag of $35 per day. After months of looking for better options, a social worker introduced Jordan to the Stapleton House, a group home for men transitioning out of homelessness. Jordan finally had a safe place for Jazz to live. He visited him every week and each time he did, he noticed a bond forming between his dog and the other men living in the house. The men told Jordan that Jazz was giving them a common purpose and unconditional love.
That’s when Jordan knew that he had to do something to help maintain the relationship between pet and owner during times of trauma. He did some back of the envelope math and found that 1 million low-income domestic violence survivors need short-term pet fostering but only 1% of them are getting it. Today, PetsEmpower.org is dedicated to helping fill this need: they bring together disparate short-term pet fostering programs (currently in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but soon across the country) and support their growth through grant funding, volunteer and foster recruitment, consulting and sharing best practices.
I asked Jordan to share more about what it took to start his organization and what he hopes to accomplish in the future through this powerful work.
Steve Mariotti: When did you first think of yourself as an entrepreneur?
Jordan Ross: I built two real estate developments, but I never actually thought of myself as an entrepreneur. In the process of founding PetsEmpower.org, I realized I loved creating value on my own and thinking outside the box. This organization is inspired by my own experience and has a deep personal meaning to me, much more so than any other job I've held. I thought through a number of iterations of ways to help people in crisis, starting with a men’s group home concept I proposed for a multi-family home I owned in Boston, but the foundation model gives us the best options for helping as many domestic violence survivors as possible foster a pet, enter shelters, reunite with their pet, and achieve positive health outcomes going forward.
JR: Finding entrepreneurship communities has been key. At Social Enterprise Greenhouse (SEG) in Providence, I found a small community of social impact professionals and advisors invested in my success. The Impact Hub in Boston connected me to other entrepreneurs to share ideas about public speaking, content marketing, and brand positioning. The MIT entrepreneurship community has also served as a great resource, teaching me to trust my instincts and introducing me to incredible experts who now serve on our board.
So many people have helped us by volunteering as fosters or by developing other parts of our business. In just three weeks, 40 people inquired about volunteering with us! Even more people have shared personal stories about surviving domestic violence and leaning on their pets through the process. Collaborating with volunteer fosters and students has been especially impactful and affirming. Community members really do want to help.
SM: Who has helped you along the way?
JR: During a brainstorming session identifying ways to make the greatest impact Peter Pyclik, my mentor at SCORE, suggested the United Way model. PetsEmpower.org can help as many domestic violence survivors as possible improve the trajectory of their lives by strengthening local capacities to provide services.
SM: What are the biggest challenges someone starting a business faces today?
JR: In my own experience, it was initially difficult to deal with business rejection and disinterest. Sometimes, I took it personally but I overcame this by reminding myself that this mission is to serve others in need. It's not about me. In this case, the need is so powerful: 99% of domestic violence survivor-pet owners have nowhere safe for their pets. Our work often means the difference between a domestic violence survivor entering a shelter and accessing support, or not.
SM: What’s on the horizon for PetsEmpower.org?
JR: In the next two years, we have the ambitious goal set to raise a $500,000 fund from corporate, foundation, private, and social impact sources. With that fund, we are hoping to financially support short-term fostering agencies for veterinary care, food, and pet transportation. We are starting in Rhode Island and Massachusetts and over time intend to spread across New England, the U.S., and worldwide. In fact, I’d love to connect with allies and friends out there: feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are also running a #HowPetsEmpower campaign and would love to hear your story of how your pet helped you overcome a life challenge in a 30-second video. Just send it to me or submit via our website at PetsEmpower.org. Written stories with pictures are also accepted.
SM: Any final thoughts you would like to leave with readers about your issue?
JR: Please join me in together building the leading foundation worldwide preserving loving and healing pet relationships for domestic violence survivors. If you want to get behind this incredible cause during this holiday season, I’d love to speak personally at email@example.com, consider a donation, like us at PetsEmpower.org on Facebook, or follow us at PetsEmpowerOrg on Twitter and Instagram.