When Stephanie Lorenzo graduated from university, the 22-year-old was ready to enter the corporate world.
With a degree in International Communication majoring in marketing, Stephanie never expected that reading one book would change the course of her professional career, let alone her life.
The book was The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam, which is a memoir of her life as a human rights activist who had escaped the horrors of the Cambodian sex trade.
Instead of pursuing the advertising path Stephanie had been set on, the fresh-faced graduate became inspired to make a difference to the sex trafficking industry and in 2009, Project Futures was launched.
The charity supports established projects in both Australia and Cambodia, helping protect those affected by human trafficking, but also creating an educational, empowering environment to teach our generation how to stand up and make a change to this industry both locally and internationally.
Since its inception, the charity has broadened its goal to tackle sex trafficking in both the Asia-Pacific region and Australia, raising over $1 million per year for anti-trafficking projects.
Somehow, between advising the new CEO of Project Futures and commencing her new role as a marketing director for a social enterprise, Stephanie found the time to sit down and have a chat with us about the rise and falls of making a difference in the world with your own charity.
So, you were 22 when Project Futures was started – being so young, you must have had some challenges. What do you think were a couple of the biggest you faced starting an organisation at that age?
“Project Futures was set up as a charity when we began.
“We had a Board of Directors, a management team that was made up of lawyers, marketers, graphic designers, accountants, photographers, public relations people.
“Project Futures wouldn’t be where it is today without all of those people and all the people that supported us and for the first four years we paid nobody. They gave their time, skills and talents to the cause.
“But, because it was voluntary, Project Futures was not their first priority, so we had to make it fun, and we had to make the things that we did something that young people enjoyed.
“I guess the challenge was, at the very beginning, the fact that they weren’t being paid, so the incentive had to be greater than money.
“Our difference was we were about making charity a cool thing that young people banded together to get on board with.
“Using your skills and talents to support a great cause, learning about something that many people didn’t know much about, which is human trafficking but also making new friends.”
As the charity grew, do you think your goal changed or adapted at all – or did you always have that one goal in sight?
“Yeah, it definitely adapted – our tagline actually changed a couple of years ago.
“It used to be just about sex trafficking because of the book I read, but then we learnt that sex trafficking was one issue under this huge umbrella of human trafficking. As we learnt more, we expanded our goals, we thought bigger.
“Our mission has also shifted from just ‘treatment’ to also including prevention and education projects.
“Our funds initially impacted only Cambodian women and girls who had been rescued from sex slavery.
“Then, as we grew and raised more money, we started to say: hang on a second, a holistic approach is needed.
“We need to educate the community about things like gender equality, about a woman’s worth, how we are equal to men.
“We’ve started to look at education, obviously, as a way to overcome a lot of these barriers and build confidence amongst the women and girls we were supporting and their communities.”
As you say, you’ve learned so much about the issue yourself – so did you come across a lot of misconceptions about sex trafficking and human trafficking?
“Oh, absolutely. One big one was that sex trafficking and slavery is only perpetuated by western men going over to Asia.
“It’s actually a very local, cultural issue too and this was something we needed to work with the locals in each of the countries we worked in to understand.
“Western men can be a problem, but it’s local culture and attitudes that fuel the demand for young women and girls just as much.
“Another misconception is that sex trafficking and human trafficking doesn’t happen here in Australia. We found out that it absolutely does. Definitely not to the extent as in places like Cambodia, where there’s a lot of poverty, but it 100% happens here.
“That was something which truly shocked me – it was really incredible and so shocking to uncover that this kind of slavery and exploitation is happening in our own backyard.”
Obviously Project Futures is your baby and has clearly grown with you, but you’ve now moved on to a new company. What provoked the decision to move on?
“I think we all have cycles in our life.
“It’s been 10 years since I started Project Futures and the journey has been absolutely one of the highlights of my young life.
“But I had to listen to myself and ask myself, ‘can I take this any further than what I already have with my skill set?’ And I just felt like I couldn’t.
“It was a humbling experience, as took a lot longer than it should have. It was hard letting go, but I needed to do it for me and to sustain Project Futures. It needed new blood, new ideas, new leadership.
“The new CEO, Clare, is so wonderful and we get along really well. We have dinner once a month and we talk about things that she needs, but I let her do her thing.
“It’s been a very humbling process and she is making her own mark on it and I am so proud. It’s been over a year now and Project Futures is going strong and I couldn’t be happier supporting and donating from the sidelines.
“I believe I am a self-aware person, and towards the ten-year mark, you have to ask yourself if you could take it on with the same vigour and passion as you did at year one.
“I really couldn’t, and it was someone else’s turn.
It wasn’t easy, but it was the right decision, and as I’m sure you know, ten years is a pretty long time for any millennial! Hehe.”