Several years ago, when Choate Construction Founder and CEO Millard Choate was first told about sex trafficking in and around Atlanta, he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“The then-CEO (of Norcross-based Street Grace) came to our Rotary and started talking about this thing called sex trafficking and sex enslavement,” Choate said. “It just blew me away. In Atlanta, Ga., the birthplace of civil rights, we’ve got slavery in our midst? I got my eyes opened very quickly.”

That talk, and further research Choate did into Georgia’s sex trafficking trade, prompted him to make changes at his company, starting with a zero-tolerance policy for employees: “If you’re convicted of any such act,” Choate said Tuesday, “you’re immediately terminated.”

But Street Grace’s information also sparked something else in Choate: a desire to help the corporate community take action to combat sex trafficking.

On Tuesday, Choate got the opportunity to do just that, alongside Jim Sprouse, executive director of the Georgia Hotel and Lodging Association, and Greenberg Traurig Business Development Manager Louise Cohen, who served as panelists at a business roundtable discussing human trafficking.

Hosted by Ted Blum, managing shareholder of Greenberg Traurig and chairman of the Rotary Club of Atlanta’s anti-trafficking committee, the roundtable luncheon discussion was led by Street Grace President and CEO Bob Rodgers, and featured U.S. Attorney BJay Pak, who lives in Lilburn.

The goal? To inspire local business owners and other corporate employees to help end sex trafficking.

“We have got a problem of slavery that is existing in the 21st century,” Blum said. “We all have learned of the ills of slavery ... in different parts of the world, but slavery is alive today, and we have an opportunity to fight it and stop it.”

That fight is already being fought on many fronts; on the law enforcement side, the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI and other federal agencies, in conjunction with state and local agencies, are working hard to combat trafficking, Pak said.

“This is a topic that I think was ignored for a very long time, particularly because it makes us feel very uncomfortable; we don’t want to think about these things that may be happening in the corners of our society, in our communities,” Pak said. “It’s been on the Department of Justice’s radar for a long, long time, though ... and our district has been at the forefront of fighting this crime. But the thing that we’re lacking the most is education (for) folks about what’s needed to solve the problem.”

The first two things that are needed, Rodgers said, are assessment of the problem and awareness about the issue. Then comes engagement, and asking the question of “how do we start finding ways to do something about this?” Rodgers said.

After that comes clarity, and a hard look at what tools are successful in combating sex trafficking.

“I think for the last 15 or 20 years, we’ve lived in these first four stages, and the really good news is, on any given day, you can make an argument that we’re in a very different place than (we were),” Rodgers said. “But now, collectively, especially around metro Atlanta, we’re starting to move and dance into some of the fifth and sixth (stages).”

The fifth stage of solving a problem, Rodgers said, is looking at “the things that have measurable impact on the issue.”

Finally, there’s the convergence stage, where “business leaders and legislators and law enforcement and faith communities and not-for-profits and citizens come together.”

“(Through that convergence), you create this sustainable impact that has a measurable way of pushing things back,” Rodgers said. “We’re (doing that), and I’m encouraged by that.”

Still, there are steps the corporate community to take to further their roles in combating sex trafficking, including offering training to employees to help detect potential victims.

But it all starts by having conversations like Tuesday’s, Rodgers said.

“When you get people from organizations that can get together and actually go back and start something, that’s how you help,” Rodgers said. “Part of it is the awareness piece, and the other (part) is how do you affect change. These (discussions) are how you affect change.”

Crime Reporter

Isabel is a crime and health reporter for the Gwinnett Daily Post. She graduated from Emory University in 2016 with a B.A. in international studies. She is originally from the Boston area.