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'It's not about one woman': A young Australian's fight to end sex trafficking

Portrait of a young woman with long dark hair and dark eyes.
Stephanie Lorenzo is the former CEO of a charity called Project Futures.

Supplied: Timothy Nicastri

At 22, Stephanie Lorenzo was headed for a corporate career. Then a personal story about the sex trade altered her trajectory.

Ms Lorenzo was visiting Cambodia when she picked up The Road of Lost Innocence, the memoir of international human rights activist Somaly Mam.

She couldn't put it down.

In the book, Mam tells her story of being sold into sexual slavery, and her work to help other young women after she escaped the horrors of exploitation.

"What I loved about the book was her total honesty. It was so personal," Ms Lorenzo says.

Reading the story ignited Ms Lorenzo's passion to end sex trafficking. A year later, she'd organised a charity bike ride through Cambodia with a group of 20 people.

The ride raised close to $100,000 for Mam's organisation, Agir pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire (AFESIP), which translates to Acting for Women in Distressing Situations.

While in Cambodia, the cyclists also met Mam, who had gained the attention of media and celebrities.

"I was actually a bit in awe by her. I think most people say the same thing," Ms Lorenzo recalls.

"You meet this woman and you want to help her."

Seeing the long-term work happening in AFESIP's centres also left its mark on Ms Lorenzo.

"It was rehabilitation, reintegration, education," she says.

Beyond a bike ride

Group of cyclists in Cambodia surrounded by their bikes and coconut trees.
A Project Futures cycling trip to Cambodia in 2010.

Supplied: Project Futures

The fundraising bike ride was supposed to be a one-off thing.

"I really thought I was going to climb the ranks, and be the CEO of an advertising company by the time I was 30," Ms Lorenzo says.

But her ability to rally those around her made Ms Lorenzo realise her skillset was empowering young people like herself.

She founded the not-for-profit Project Futures in 2009, with a mission to "engage a generation" and "end sex trafficking".

"At that time, charity wasn't appealing to young people. [It] seemed like a concept for people with deep pockets and money," Ms Lorenzo says.

Project Futures began putting on parties "on par with a night club". They were a natural fit for young corporates, but vastly different to more traditional $500 black-tie charity events.

"We'll give you an amazing experience... You get a free drink, bands, DJs. But you're doing something for a great cause," Ms Lorenzo says.

Their early events cost around $40 — a figure aspiring corporates could afford.

"Our profit margin wasn't great, but it was something," Ms Lorenzo says.

The group took a toned approach to communicating the issue of human trafficking to its audience.

"Let's get them to understand the issue, but not dwell on the sadness of it," she says.

The not-for-profit grew alongside the university graduates who quickly found themselves in high-paying jobs. The charity showed profit and purpose were not mutually exclusive.

"You can have your job, you can earn a great wage as an investment banker, or an analyst at 23. But you can also be purposeful in your life," Ms Lorenzo says.

A book of lies?

Project Futures developed a long-term financial relationship with Mam's organisation, and helped bring her to Australia multiple times.

Lady giving another lady a big hug and a kiss on the cheek
Somaly Mam and Stephanie Lorenzo in Cambodia

Supplied: Project Futures

But in May 2014, Newsweek published a front-page article questioning Mam's story.

Her gut feeling was that Mam was telling the truth, and she has never asked the activist directly if she lied.

"If I look back, maybe part of me thought it wasn't necessary; maybe part of me was afraid to hear the answer," she says.

"But, at the end of the day, I don't care what the answer would have been."

Alongside her instincts, her perspective was driven by the shared work of the previous six years.

This was key in the Project Futures board's decision to stand by Mam. They were one of only a handful who did.

"We had been to Cambodia at least twice a year. We did reporting. We had done everything a good charity does to ensure the transparency of their partners," Ms Lorenzo says.

"I was willing to resign if we did not support Somaly."

Media coverage of Mam and her organisation continued, but Project Futures moved on, returning to its work to end human trafficking.

Ms Lorenzo says the integrity questions surrounding the Cambodian not-for-profit's figurehead were not a priority.

Bigger dollars, bigger risks

Stephanie surrounded by people involved in the charity Project Futures
Stephanie Lorenzo (centre) helped ignite $5 million in fundraising through Project Futures.

Supplied: Project Futures

Year on year, Project Futures' growth continued, with more than $1 million raised in 2014-15.

But with increased budgets, Ms Lorenzo was feeling less confident in her decisions.

"I started to get nervous for taking a risk," she says.

A friend offered the clue that she might be suffering a known issue for start-ups, founder's syndrome.

"Starting and scaling an organisation is very different, and usually requires two different types of people," Ms Lorenzo says.

She adds: "I guess you get so caught up in it because your brand, your personality and who you are is so entwined."

After considerable reflection, Ms Lorenzo stepped down as CEO of Project Futures in March this year.

She has since taken six months off to consider her next move, and allow the incoming CEO space to take the non-profit in new directions.

To date, Project Futures has raised $5 million towards ending human trafficking and sexual slavery.

While Ms Lorenzo is undecided about what's next, she's hoping to combine her corporate knowledge and not-for-profit heart to continue to help others.