Around two years ago, Alissa Moore (left), now 24, and Diana Mao (right), now 27, started the Nomi Network, an anti-trafficking organization that trains former sex workers in Cambodia for new careers.
The cornerstone of their project is to design goods in the U.S. that can be produced in Cambodia, thereby empowering former sex workers by providing them with a living wage, health benefits, childcare, and insurance. By partnering with other organizations in Cambodia, they've also been able to identify at-risk women and give them jobs. They've recently started selling a tote bag emblazoned with the slogan: Buy Her Bag, Not Her Body.
I spoke with Diana and Alissa in New York recently about the successes they've had, the challenges they face, and how great it would be to get Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore on board.
[Doree interviews interesting women every week for us. If you have a suggestion, email her.]
Tell me how you guys started Nomi Network—how you guys know each other and how this whole thing came into being.
Diana: I went to NYU Wagner School of Public Service and I was sent to Cambodia to do research on microfinance. In five different provinces, my research team and I gathered interviews. We interviewed women who make less than a dollar a day. In the villages I really felt this vulnerability existed—especially when fathers and mothers offered their children so willingly to strangers. I came back here and I felt a little overwhelmed, not only because of what I'd experienced in the villages but also in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, I saw young girls with really old men. I came back and I didn't know what to do, so I thought I'd gather a few people from church and we could talk about the issue and pray about it. Alissa was one of the five who came, and we prayed about it.
What church do you go to?
Diana: MSNY, which stands for Morning Star New York. From that point it was sort of a launching pad, because I had a product that I identified in Cambodia. It's a business card holder with a very ethnic design that I thought would do well in the luxury market because it's made out of wood and it was just a really unique design. Alissa looked at it and she was like, oh, what a great idea. She has sort of a design/artistic background, so she was able to look at it and offer some suggestions. From that point on we started meeting and drafting a business plan for the purpose of bringing it to the luxury market. Then we got involved with an anti-trafficking organization, and we decided we needed to go back to Cambodia and really assess the needs, and meet with the local NGOs that were already working with survivors, already providing the training, job opportunities, have a social enterprise. We interviewed about a dozen of them. They told us the same thing: they need a demand for their products. Many of their products are very fair trade looking in that they only appeal to a small market, people who buy things for a cause.
You wanted it to appeal to a broader market. So, Alissa, you heard about Diana's idea at church. Were you immediately like, oh my goodness, this is something I want to get involved in?
Alissa: It was, and particularly the design aspect. I learned about this issue in college, and it was an issue I did not hear addressed in a very tactile way. There was an organization called International Justice Mission, which today has actually changed its name to Love 146. And they were the group that I first heard talking about this issue. They do a lot of outreach in Southeast Asia. They allowed there to be chapters on different college campuses. We tried to start a chapter at our school, Skidmore College, but people had other commitments and didn't really cling on to it. So I had the early experience of being interested in the topic but I didn't really know how to address the need, engage on a deeper level. This seemed like an opportunity to do so. I don't have a background in business. My degree was in theater and American studies, so this was very appealing to me—I have a chance to stretch certain muscles that I didn't really use before.
What do you guys do in your day jobs?
Diana: I'm a consultant.
Alissa: And I work for the Theatre Communications Group, which is a national organization for non-profit theatres. We work with over 500 theatres that are all non-profits and we kind of work to ensure their access to professional development and tools for non-profits.
Can you guys sort of paint a picture of what life is like in these villages? How old are these girls, what are their families like, how much are they being sold for? What are their lives like after they get sold?
Diana: I can speak specifically to the villages. Most of these villages people are agricultural-based. They're farmers with three others jobs. That can mean they have a business that charges batteries, or they sell soap, or they sell products that everyone else is selling. We did research and microfinance is great. However, in certain areas where the economy is so depraved, it's really difficult for anyone to break over the per capita expenditure, which is a proxy for income, because no one really has a bank account.
What is the per capita expenditure there?
Diana: Based off of my research it was between $1 to $2 a day. Some of these women have gone through many funding cycles. The children were in school or weren't in school. We'd ask them questions like, where are your kids? They'd say, they're working somewhere—in a garment factory in Phnom Penh. Given the age range, they're likely not working in a garment factory. They're likely the same girls I saw on the street in Phnom Penh. In terms of what happens to them when they're sold, I'm not the expert. But pretty much their lives are at the mercy of whoever bought them.
How much money are we talking about here?
Alissa: I've heard several numbers thrown around. I've heard that some children are sold to be given away at a certain age. So when they're three years old they'll be sold for $500 and when they come of age, like age 7, they'll actually be handed off. There's a range of pricing. Those people who are more desperate, who tend to be in even more rural areas, the prices get lower and lower.
Diana: Some parents know their children will be in the brothels. They know. Other parents, they think their children are going to be in a garment factory, and they don't know. By the time the girls figure it out they can't go home, because it's a shame culture. They're not shunned but they can't face their parents, and they're sending back money to feed their seven other siblings and the parents sort of turn the other eye.
Alissa: In some situations there is not money coming home. Some traffickers put on a guise that out of guilt tripping, they will send a little bit of money home. That creates an even deeper sense of guilt. It makes them feel like there is a thing holding them there. But there are cases where these women and children actually disappear. The parents have no contact with them. They have no idea what's happened to their child.
Explain exactly how this is all going to work—the production of stuff and how you're going to be supporting these women.
Diana: We want to increase the demand for the products so they're not just products you buy because you feel good, but eventually we want to design products like T-shirts, ties, that will be brought straight to market and increase utility for the consumer. Buying from your heart only goes so far. You buy because you need something. If you work with the social enterprises, currently we're working with StopStart in Cambodia.
What do they do?
Diana: Their signature product is a rice-paper tote bag. In terms of product diversity, here and there there are cloth bags. We have designers here who we've worked with, who did the "Buy her Bag, Not her Body" totes. We're in the process of designing T-shirts. They want to use our designs for other things as well. We helped them source 2500 bags to another organization that needed the bags—they didn't have the time or the resources to work with a manufacturing facility, because it takes a certain skill set. We have people who have retail experience, production experience, buying experience. We have people who have worked for Saks. That expertise is very valuable for both sides. We were able to get the product over and provide 23 jobs for women, including health benefits. One meal a day, childcare, accident insurance. Things that are pretty much unheard of in Cambodia at this time. So that's one aspect. It makes it easy for the retailers too. A lot of them are criticized for their supply chain. So we're assuring, at no cost to them, that the products that get produced are employing women who are survivors or at-risk. At-risk we quantify as making $1-$2 a day.
Alissa: Looking at the big picture, I feel that as Diana and I got engaged with the anti-trafficking organizations, we were really listening hard to where the gaps were and where the needs were. It seemed like there were different needs to address the design aspect of the products that were being made. Also, making sure that the products do reach the Western market and that they're receiving placement next to products that are of the same quality. And then also leveraging this as a social justice issue and making sure that if they're going to be buying anyway, they can buy responsibly.
I think a lot of people feel like there's no options in terms of buying responsibly.
Alissa: One of the things we've done is we've put together a map on our website of New York City listing all the different organizations that do fair trade. And eventually we're going to scale that up and have it be slave-free products. So any organization that carries our bag would technically be carrying a slave-free product. It's hopefully going to drive that demand.
Diana: Because we are selling at a minor markup, part of the proceeds will be channeled back into individual training accounts for women. A lot of the women were trafficked at the age of 7, and they had hopes and dreams of maybe becoming a teacher, becoming a lawyer. We want to set aside money for women who have that drive to leave the manufacturing and go back to their villages and teach and whatnot. We really want to reconnect women with their families.
Where does the name Nomi come from?
Alissa: We had an opportunity when we were there last June to go to a rehabilitation home. We met survivors and there was a young child who immediately ran straight to us, flung her arms wide and bear-hugged Diana. It was one of the most welcoming receptions we had received in our time in Cambodia. I was very apprehensive at that moment because we had been meeting so many organizations, this was the first time we had been able to see the people behind this issue. I was thinking that all the girls were going to run in the opposite direction. The girl who ran towards us—she followed us around the entire time we were there.
How old is she?
Alissa: Now she's 8 years old. She is also mentally handicapped. According to the director there, he was saying it was probably a result of the abuse she experienced throughout her lifetime, at whatever brothel she was trafficked to. It was such an amazing experience for us, and we wanted to commemorate her as an individual who is still on the path of recovering. We're not allowed to disclose the location of the rehabilitation home—we can say it's in the northern region of Cambodia, closer to the border with Thailand, which is where a lot of the trafficking is happening. It was an incredible experience and because of that facility and other facilities in Cambodia, we really think she has a chance of being rehabilitated back into society.
And her name is Nomi.
Diana: Yes. We changed the spelling and the variation of it—we want people—it's anonymous for "know me." Because we want people to know her, know her story, know her success. And the rehabilitation home is one aspect. There's rescue—girls and boys are rescued. Then there's rehabilitation, then there's reintegration, and then there's our part, which is empowerment. We focus on empowerment, as well as prevention. There are a lot of variables with trafficking—we're not saying that everyone who is economically vulnerable will be trafficked. However, it is a huge factor.
What are your goals for Nomi Network? What do you hope to achieve in the next year, three years, five years?
Diana: Various non-profits are doing similar work in the area, and we hope we can streamline it, and really build a hub. Each one has a network where it's sort of like, not only is it training—right now the sewing is technique, buttons, things like that. There's not a capacity to have a zipper and buttons. We want to increase capacity. At the same time, like I mentioned, individual training accounts. We really care about the women and their development. We don't want it to end at just a job. We want them to have a career and go back to their families if they want to.
How are you going to track their progress?
Diana: Right now we have staff in Cambodia and so we've interviewed individuals from that organization, as well as other organizations we plan to work with. Right now we're getting the products over, but once we sort of have established more of a demand for the products, we can send people there to interview the women, find out what their daily per capita expenditure is, find out their stories, find out their goals, and basically create an individual development plan for themselves. Where they are now, where they are in two to three years—we can measure that, and then we can give them additional training, additional schooling, whatever they need.
Alissa: Currently there's this sense that right now the only organizations and businesses that are actually going to make it in Cambodia are foreign-run. And we'd like to see that mentality change. Culturally, Cambodians can have difficulty understanding an entrepreneurship mentality and there's a lot of undercutting that happens from the top to the bottom. There's a lot of shortcuts taken. We really do believe that with individual staff on the ground there, and with patience and time—because this really is a long-term investment—that we really can see individuals rise up and master a more viable outlook on entrepreneurship.
Kind of the teach a man, or woman, to fish theory.
Diana: Right. Another long-term objective is to target areas in India where basically half of the slaves are in India. I think there are 13 million.
Half the slaves worldwide?
Alissa: Worldwide. A lot of that is actually due to labor trafficking. If you look at research on trafficking, you'll see that entire villages or families will be quote-unquote "enslaved" or in bondage. And there are children who are born into bondage. Whether or not they are able to comprehend that, that's for them to say. But based on the definition that the State Department has, or basically anyone who's an expert on human trafficking has, these people are enslaved.
Are you identifying the women with the staff you have in Cambodia?
Diana: Currently they've already gone through the process of rehabilitation and counseling. So the non-profit that we're working with—you go through the process of healing and the process of training. What's the next step? A job. So a lot of these non-profits end up expanding their scope. [Pictured below, hair styling training.]
Alissa: A lot of people we talk to say that people know that—they know that training is the next step. It's not actually changing these women's abilities to break into the workforce. And that has to do with better training and a more diverse set of skills that you're training. On the other side, breaking the stigma of other organizations employing these women. We've talked to some organizations in the Philippines and also in India, and both of those organizations, particularly in the Philippines, have a leg up on Cambodia because of the work they've already set. It's kind of already pre-established with trying to get the organization to employ trained women. Getting the mainstream businesses to hire them.
And giving them the skills that these businesses will want.
So how are you guys funding this?
Diana: Right now we have four core individuals who are constantly involved and volunteering. But we all work full-time at other jobs. So in terms of labor it's all volunteer. We have a network of about 18 individuals. Some of them are design, graphic design, different areas. These are all our friends and some colleagues. We sold the business card holders, and our friends and family members have been donating to us.
On August 15, you started selling the Buy Her Bag, Not Her Body?
Alissa: Yes. Eventually we hope to be able to make revenue off the sales of these products. One of the things we've always had in mind to do is to help nonprofits in Cambodia become more sustainable. Especially in hard economic times you can't rely on donations to get you through.
If people want to become involved through volunteering, what do you guys need volunteer-wise?
Diana: We're really trying to work with retailers. If someone works as a buyer we'd love to show them our samples and establish a pipeline of products into their store, and adopt us as a cause. There has been a major retailer that has recently adopted trafficking as a cause—the Body Shop. They've partnered with ECPAT [End Child Prostitution Pornography and Trafficking]. Second thing is raise awareness on the issue. We want to not only raise awareness but also generate income for the women. Basically, sell our products, tell your friends, go to the website, place an order. If they want to get involved, we need people with specific skills—marketing, technical skills, programming, finance. More of the business aspect, less of the programmatic aspect. They can submit info at nominetwork.org.
Alissa: We're not quite there yet, but we are very network-oriented in the sense that we like to make connections for people. If we see someone with a skill set or a passion, there is a sense that down the road we could help fit certain people to certain needs, in a larger anti-trafficking picture and really create a network with matching people to organizations who need it.
I follow Ashton Kutcher's Twitter and he and Demi Moore are super into the anti-trafficking cause. Have you guys tried to hook up with them?
Alissa: We have some organizations that we've been working closely with who have been trying to access them. And so instead of vying for their same affection we would really get it by—if they were to partner with the organization Stop Trafficking Now—they are launching a national campaign of walks, moments of solidarity across the country. They're approaching them and we feel like that would empower us as well. But in terms of looking for a celebrity endorsement, that's something that we really desire. Also—we would like to take the fashion industry by storm. But we would like to see designers who really care about the people who care about sustainable fashion and make designer products.
Diana: We've identified quite a few but unfortunately there hasn't been much progress in that area.
Alissa: It definitely generates sales and buzz to have a celebrity endorsement.
So how much time per week are you guys spending on this?
Alissa: It's like every waking hour that isn't devoted to our day jobs.
Diana: I would say 40 hours a week.
So you basically have a second full-time job.
Alissa: I think one of the things we'd like to do when we do get funding is make some of our staff full-time.
Do you guys think you'd ever want to do this full-time?
Alissa: Oh, absolutely. We talk about it all the time.
Diana: We've been talking to potential funders and that's the first thing on our list. Labor is definitely the driver of an organization and without a full-time staff it's really going to be a stretch for everybody, as it is right now.
Alissa: One of the things that I've so enjoyed about our development is looking at this issue and thinking about the capacity that people our age have to create innovative ways to affect social issues. We started this about two years ago. We think that at this moment in time there's this incredibly powerful generation that's standing on the forefront of change and technology, and there's this idea that we could really change something.
Diana: We're called a "network," and it's not a two-man show. There have been hours and hours of work put forth by multiple people. I would say that's what's really unique about this—we really are a network. And we are all volunteers.
What advice would you guys give to other young women who want to start a non-profit devoted to a cause that they're passionate about? Are there things you would have done differently, or things you did right that you want to share?
Diana: I honestly would not have done anything differently. Constantly ask for help. Be prepared to ask questions. Ask people that know more than you or even people that don't know more than you. You definitely have lots to learn. There have been mistakes that we've made but I feel like we've learned from them. You might not have the skills, you might not have the experience, but if you have the commitment the rest will come. Don't be scared of limitations—like money. We've just been like, we're going to do this, and somehow, some way, it's come.
Alissa: I would say that travel the world, and make sure you're open to the possibility of getting to know another culture. And don't rely on other people to make assumptions about the culture for you—make sure you do it yourself. The potential that I see in the people that we met with in Cambodia, from Nomi, 8 years old, to some of the women who were working there, the potential is astounding. I think that's what ultimately drives us because we know that can and should be tapped.
Diana: One more thing—set goals. I think idealists can often be like, we'll just do it. We wrote a business plan, and then from that, we're like, this is good, this is not, but we had it all down on paper. We also have a strategic plan that we initially, with our team members, seven at the time, sat down and laid out our business plan for the next year. We've done that and we've actually exceeded our benchmarks. It's good to actually see it on paper and not get overwhelmed.
I think that's good advice—be idealistic but also be realistic.
Cambodia photos: Tara Israel
Nomi Network [Nomi Network]