Recently, I had a chat to Stephanie Lorenzo, CEO & Founder of an innovative organisation called Project Futures. Supporting the Somaly Mam Foundation, they’re an Australian non-profit, gradually making a mark around the world. In fact, Steph has even given a TEDx talk. Anyway, they’re a little bit amazing…and so is she.
On the phone from Sydney, Steph Lorenzo has just returned from a wine tasting fundraiser for Project Futures. “There were 90 people there and they raised $15,000 in one night,” she says, understandably proud. In fact, she could’ve been quite easily forgiven for requesting to postpone an interview, given the lateness of the evening, though this wouldn’t be her way. After all, Lorenzo’s bio on Project Futures’ website even compares her with the iconic Energizer Bunny. Her unwavering energy and passion has arguably been pivotal in her quest to raise awareness about the world’s third-largest criminal industry, human trafficking. It all started with a bike ride.
In 2009, Lorenzo read The Road of Lost Innocence, the confronting biography of Somaly Mam. As a young girl, Somaly was sold into sex slavery in Cambodia, before escaping its harrowing grip – amidst death threats – and launching the Somaly Mam Foundation, to support present-day victims and survivors.
“I felt compelled to do something,” Lorenzo recalls, “So I found myself organising a 500km bike ride through Cambodia where people had to raise money in order to go,” she explains.
The bike ride raised $80,000, a result that would make the most driven of people content. But not the now-inspired Lorenzo, who refused to rest on her laurels.
“From there, I just thought this is definitely a lifetime commitment – $80,000 is really going to do nothing in the grand scheme of things…we need to do something more.”
This marked the beginning of Project Futures, a non-profit organisation with a discernible point of difference. Based in Sydney, the organisation is preparing to launch a chapter in Melbourne this November. Lorenzo explains, “The whole ethos of what we were trying to do with Project Futures was to make it different…we were really trying to target young Gen Y’s. We want to redefine the way charity is seen (by them).”
The first Project Futures bike ride coincided with the moment Lorenzo first met Somaly Mam and set the tone for the way in which the organisation would engage people.
“I was starstruck,” she recalls, “she has this really beautiful presence about her…I just felt…pulled towards her. I looked at my problems in Australia and I thought, ‘far out this doesn’t even compare’, let alone going back with her through these areas (recovery centres in Cambodia).”
Inspired by Somaly Mam’s dedication to the welfare of human trafficking victims and survivors, Lorenzo found herself vexed in a maelstrom of emotions upon her return to Australia.
“I used to get so frustrated and actually went through reverse culture shock,” she recalls. Initially, Lorenzo resented the “first-world problems” her friends would get caught-up in. However, like anything in life, the angle from which an issue is viewed can shape the way it is approached.
“Instead of getting angry…I thought, what better way to harness this energy and this passion to want to do something than to create a positive outlet, where we didn’t ‘guilt’ people into feeling like they should get involved with the cause,” Lorenzo says. She emphasises the significance of this, adding, “That’s something Project Futures really pride ourselves on…we tell (people) the issue and how they’d like to get involved…they’re meeting like-minded people, they’re helping a great cause and they’re feeling like they’ve got some sense of purpose.”
There have already been several examples of young Australians embracing the Project Futures philosophy, even in Melbourne. Former local Bernadette Lavery organised numerous ‘DIY’ events around her accounting job. For her, things started when she received an email from a friend of a friend, looking to generate involvement.
“This person had gone to a movie fundraiser for Project Futures and had been moved by the story of Somaly Mam and also the plight of the women and children over in South East Asia”, Lavery explains. “This friend of mine forwarded it (the email) on to me because she thought I’d be interested, and I was.”
The events Lavery organised varied, including live music shows, movie fundraisers, a trivia night and raffles. The manner in which Project Futures seeks to engage volunteers was one thing that particularly resonated with her, “I think it’s good…you’re less restricted in where you’re going with the event…there are no boundaries…you’ve got a fundraising target and you can get there whichever way you want.” She also suggests that such a model presents the most productive way for volunteers to achieve their targets, “I think it’s enabled people to come up with innovative ways to raise money and it also empowers them to get there as well.”
Given Lorenzo’s marketing background (she does freelance marketing two days a week), innovation is unsurprisingly at the forefront of the Project Futures way. Which is probably ideal, considering the confronting nature of the issue at its heart. An initiative that kicks off in July, Stella Fella, is particularly aimed at raising awareness among men and celebrating male role models. A focal point of the campaign’s marketing includes a ‘Bow Tie Friday’ (7 September), where men are strongly encouraged to ‘embrace their alter-ego’ and wear a bow tie, wherever they may be.
“It’s uncomfortable for men,” Lorenzo says, alluding to the reality that men perpetrate the human trafficking industry. “More men need to stand up for it…the only way we can stop this is to stop the demand. If we stop the demand, we can end the supply. Stella Fellas is just a really fun way for men to highlight really great role models in our community.”
One of Lorenzo’s proudest moments was in January 2011 when, amidst the depths of a New York winter, Futures Global was launched. She says the idea was born in June 2010, when the CEO of the New York-based Somaly Mam Foundation, Bill Livermore, visited Australia with Somaly.
“It was phenomenal”, says Lorenzo of that week, “he saw the work that we did…all of us who were running Project Futures organised this massive Somaly Mam ‘Tour Down Under’ – we had six sold out events”.
As it turned out, Project Futures had organised a surplus of engagements for Somaly. Livermore, though, didn’t let the organisation’s efforts go unnoticed.
“He said to me ‘we need something like this in America,’” Lorenzo recalls. Before she knew it, she was being invited to New York and sitting in a boardroom establishing how the ethos of Project Futures could be replicated in the US.
“That was massive for us, because they obviously saw that we had this great model of youth engagement,” Lorenzo says. “To globalise something that started off locally and from really humble beginnings…within two years, it was just such an amazing experience.”
Project Futures has since launched chapters in other parts of the world, including Canada and London. Arguably a successful initiative, Lorenzo, 26, immediately credits her outlook, “I’ve always had a really positive attitude and mindset.” She also emphasises the importance of connecting with as many people as possible.
“Don’t ask, don’t get…that’s seriously the motto I live by. It’s about relationship-building. Project Futures has seriously become what it is by asking simple questions like ‘can you help?’, and just giving people options to support in whatever way they can.”
Significantly, Lorenzo adds that the ability to listen has been crucial to her success.
“I talk a lot, but I also listen to understand and learn from other people. I’ve been really lucky to have some great mentors. I asked them to support me because I saw something great in them that I really admired.”
Lorenzo reiterates the importance of communicating ideas, as, more often than not, people are willing to help.
“You’d be surprised by how many people want to support you if you’re genuinely, wanting to do something good and worthwhile…you never know where different networks can lead.”
The growth in Project Futures’ networks has been “crazy”, according to Lorenzo. To remain inclusive, it has since adopted language such as “young professionals” and “young at heart”, often using the term ‘Generation F (Futures)’.
“This generation, they have so many ideas and a lot of the time they want to do things that are for a purpose,” Lorenzo says.
She also alluded to the capacity to act during a recent TEDx talk at Macquarie University, suggesting that the capacity to make decisions was ‘the ultimate power’.
“People need to think about the decisions they make, because they don’t realise that their decisions really affect others in different ways.”
So, the Project Futures message spreads, at least officially, to Melbourne in November, when Somaly Mam is due to visit Australia. Among other engagements, which include a corporate breakfast and meetings with anti-trafficking organisations, Somaly Mam will give a free lecture at La Trobe University, where students from across Melbourne are invited to listen.
“I just think it’s going to be a great awareness event,” says Lorenzo. “It’s going to be focused on raising awareness about what Project Futures does, getting more people involved in the cause (and) involved in really trying to combat this issue. She’s got a great energy about her, so I think people won’t be disappointed.”
As for Lorenzo, we needn’t look too far for the ultimate compliment. Lavery says, “She’s one of the very few people I know that would basically give up everything to commit to something like this”, also describing Lorenzo as “special” and “inspiring”. If the plethora of commitments piled on her plate was causing her fatigue, you wouldn’t have noticed. Lorenzo’s bio on the Project Futures website also states that she can “talk the leg off a chair”. It’s no lie. Not that you could hold this against anyone who’s accomplished so much in just three years.
Oh, and you can embrace your alter-ego here.