“I witnessed the horrors of sex trafficking in Cambodia first hand while conducting research for a micro-finance bank.” Diana Mao

President and Co-Founder of Nomi Network, is an abolitionist who is working to ensure the complete end of human trafficking in her lifetime.

Diana's faith fuels her drive for justice. Her conviction stems from a research trip to Cambodia where she personally witnessed young children trafficked and sold.

Emy DiGrappa (00:04):

Support for this podcast is brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. We take a closer look at our human experiences and use stories to explore culture, history and contemporary issues. You can find us on thinkwy.org.

Diana Mao (00:26):

Scholars and academics estimate that there are 46 million people in slavery today.

Emy DiGrappa (00:35):

Hello, I'm Emy DiGrappa, and this is What's Your Why? Each week we bring new stories, asking our guests the question why? We learn about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care and what can we learn? What better place to explore the human landscape than from the state known for its incredible landscapes, Wyoming. And what better organization than Wyoming Humanities. Serving our state for over 45 years, we share stories, ideas, and wisdom about the human experience. Welcome to What's Your Why. This is Emy DiGrappa, and today we are talking to Diana Mao. She is the co-founder and president of the Nomi Network, a nonprofit that envisions a world without slavery, where every woman can know her full potential. Welcome Diana.

Diana Mao (01:37):

Thank you. It's great to be here.

Emy DiGrappa (01:39):

I read in your bio that you went to Cambodia-

Diana Mao (01:42):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy DiGrappa (01:43):

... and you had heard about human trafficking, but you had never, ever seen it and how it changed your life. So tell me about that.

Diana Mao (01:50):

I was in my early 20s, a graduate student at NYU, and I was sent to live in Cambodia for 10 weeks and really learn, um, how microfinance is impacting the lives of women that are living on less than a dollar a day. So, um, my first encounter was in a remote village where a single father offered my male colleague, his youngest daughter in his broken English. And I knew that they only had one bowl of rice to eat per day per person. I knew they had nothing, um, they were living in a shack. And so at that moment, I realized that poverty was a key driver to this multibillion dollar industry, $150 billion industry.

Emy DiGrappa (02:30):

And tell me about your establishment of Nomi after you had that experience, what- what drove you to establish this nonprofit?

Diana Mao (02:38):

Well, looking into the face of the girl who was offered to my male colleague really drove me to investigate this issue. And the more I read about it, the more um, stories that I read, the more people that I met, I just was more and more compelled to take action. And so I gathered two of my friends who um, one experienced in the fashion world and asked her she would help develop jobs with me and opportunities for women in Cambodia, because that was the key, um, lack of resources, lack of opportunity, and just really, um, lack of hope. And so we really felt that as Nomi, we could provide that.

Emy DiGrappa (03:20):

What have been the- the life changing experiences after you developed this nonprofit and started working on it, what really made you go forward and have hope?

Diana Mao (03:31):

Yeah, I would say it's Nomi, the girl that we named the organization after. I met her when she was eight years old and now she's 17 going on to 18 and she's being cared for and has gone through uh, extreme trauma, being exploited by her stepfather at a really tender age. And now when they found her, she was drooling, um, unable to speak. She was literally caged um, as a child. And so now seeing her every year be able to speak English even and learning, she still has a mental disability, but just really seeing her resilience, um, gave me great hope that even someone like Nomi me who has a mental illness now can be rehabilitated and can live a normal life. So for the organization, we really felt that she was a key representation of where we wanted to head uh, with the organization. And most importantly, with the women that we hope to serve.

Emy DiGrappa (04:28):

You've mentioned that this is how many billions of dollars?

Diana Mao (04:31):

It's 150 billion and scholars and academics estimate that there are 46 million people in slavery today. And so the worst forms of slavery exists in India, where half those figures come from India because of the caste system, because of discrimination, because of poverty, because of violence against women that you hear about in the news as well. And then in terms of age and being a source, destination and transit location, that would be Cambodia children, as young as five years old are abused.

Emy DiGrappa (05:06):

Wow. That is so heartbreaking. What kind of impact do you feel that you're actually making in- in the world of these women and the success stories that you can maybe tell us one besides Nomi, which is really wonderful since you started creating jobs, right?

Diana Mao (05:25):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy DiGrappa (05:26):

What kind of success is happening there?

Diana Mao (05:27):

Yeah, it's amazing. Um, a lot of the women were living in fear, fear of leaving their communities. Many of them are segregated, most of them are Hindu communities. And so in the workplace, they've built relationships and friendships and broken down a lot of barriers were caste system is very strong there. So depending on the color of your skin and your last name, women don't pass tea to each other. They don't pass utensils to each other. And so in the context of our training program, address that, and now they're visiting each other's huts. They're sending their daughters to school. Studies show that when you educate a woman and you, I would say, if you give her income, she now has a voice and a choice to um, send her children to school instead of the traditional path that girls have in rural Indian Cambodia, which is child marriage, or being forced to work in brothels or being sent to work as a domestic maid. So now the children are being educated as well. And we see the generational cycle of slavery broken in those countries and in those communities.

Emy DiGrappa (06:34):

That is so wonderful. How can you educate people in the United States about the importance of how this does change the world and how it changes your heart and my heart to just know this, even if you don't see it firsthand?

Diana Mao (06:49):

Well, I recently was at a conference, [inaudible 00:06:52] Delta conference and an executive got up on stage and said we are all slave owners. And so that was very jarring to me because I was like, well, I fight human trafficking. I couldn't possibly be, you know what you're saying? It was just very jarring, but he was correct. And the fact is that 70% of human trafficking comes from labor. So it's in the tomatoes we eat, it's in the coffee we drink, it's in the clothing we wear, it's in our supply chain. And it manifests through force and child labor, in places like [inaudible 00:07:24] Sudan to India. And so the places where we work are hotspots for sourcing, both for sex work and also labor. So those are places where women end up in factories migrating unsafely, and sadly, many of them don't end up securing a job in a factory and in very vulnerable circumstances.

                 And so for Nomi, we've created a model where we really are strengthening the livelihood options of women. And in fact, changing those hotspot areas in Northern India and in Cambodia to places where women and children can roam freely and have the opportunity to stay in their communities. And then for us state side, we have products. So we just launched a partnership with Sephora. We have a partnership also with Walmart, where we distribute some of our products. So that's a small way that the average person stateside or in Europe can contribute is just by simply getting a product.

Emy DiGrappa (08:22):

And so when you go into Walmart or Sephora or one of these stores, how will you know, you're buying a product that is produced by these women that you are contributing to their cause?

Diana Mao (08:33):

Yes, if you go on Walmart site, if just Google uh, empowering women together at Nomi network, we have live, laptop cases, iPad cases, so you have to kinda search us out. At Sephora, Sephora purchase the products and their, if you're a customer, or if you're part of their classes for confidence program, then you'll get a bag. So basically they purchased it and average person can not order it yet, but hopefully in the future, we will be on the shelves of Sephora as well.

Emy DiGrappa (09:01):

What is your message to young women in this country to not only just protect themselves, but to help them realize that they make the world a better place by helping and how can you get young women involved in that cause?

Diana Mao (09:18):

Well, as a millennial myself, I think traveling and seeing the world, I find my peers that do that, tend to understand the difficulties and challenges, but also the great need overseas. And then when they come home, they start seeing homeless children. And those aging ou- out of foster care are actually very vulnerable to sex trafficking, state side. And so I would say really broaden your horizon and that openness, 'cause we're such a global economy and as global citizens, I think, um, when it happens in Cambodia and India, it also happens here. And so locally, there's so much that you can do, you can volunteer at your local shelter. You can get involved in life of a foster child as well because those children that are exiting the system are the most vulnerable and stats show that they're the ones that are being trafficked and being solicited by pimps.

Emy DiGrappa (10:10):

Well, it's been so enlightening and wonderful to talk to you. Thank you so much, Diana.

Diana Mao (10:14):

Thank you for having me. It's so great to be here.

Emy DiGrappa (10:17):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why a production of Think WY, Wyoming Humanities. This has been executive producer, Emy DiGrappa. Please subscribe and never miss a show. For more information, go to thinkwy.org.