Stephanie Lorenzo never planned to start a charity, it was a chance encounter she had with a biography she read by Somaly Mam, a Cambodian woman sold into the sex trade as a child.
Fast-forward five years and she’s running PROJECT FUTURES, a not-for-profit targeting the next generation and asking them to take action now for a better future. In this short space of time, they’ve gained major corporate partners, raised over $2.1 million, attracted over six thousand donors and offered direct support to over 250 victims of slavery.
Here’s Stephanie’s story – I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a wildly inspiring one…
Why did Somaly Mam’s story have such a direct impact on you?
I guess I had never read anything that had struck me so much. I went through so many emotions when I read that book, including a deep sadness and sorrow for so many women and girls that had been through a horrific situation. As someone who grew up in a loving family – with every opportunity for the best education – I felt I had a responsibility and wanted to give back.
In today’s society I think it’s really hard for people to feel compelled because it seems like we haven’t heard or seen anything new. The nightly news is filled with shocking and grave stories of the world around us, but we seem immune to them or they seem too far away to affect us.
After reading this book, a trip to Cambodia changed your life’s trajectory forever. How did your idea for Project Futures evolve?
I felt I had a lot to give as a young person, but I wasn’t the demographic that charities were targeting because to them I didn’t have a large disposable income. I wanted to show people that my generation could still give back and make a huge difference by giving our time, skills and talents.
Much of the work you do is through youth social interaction – how does social networking work hand in hand with social responsibility to make a difference?
Our goal was to make charity cool for the next generation, so we looked at what that generation liked to do and turned these activities into a worthy cause. At the very beginning all we did was run an international cycle challenge across Cambodia – because we liked adventure, we loved a challenge and we figured others our age would too. Events and parties have obviously been a significant part of what we do too as the majority of young people love to drink, dance and have a fun night out.
Why do you think Project Futures has had such a huge influence in such a short time?
We kept the momentum going after each event, we made it fun and we set the bar pretty high. When we started it was never our intention to hire staff, we just wanted to do this in our spare time and so it had to keep us interested and create fun events and campaigns that young people related to and wanted to be a part of. We wanted people to identify with the Project Futures brand through our statement that young people cared, had solutions, ideas and a will to be the change we wanted to see in the world.
You believe that once you discover your ‘why’ you are able to empower yourself to take action and manifest your gift to the world. Can you expand on your message about the ‘power of purpose’ in our lives?
I have a very deep belief that having a purpose to your life beyond your own self interest is critical if you want to live a happy, healthy and successful life. With so much turmoil in our world today, how can the haves feel good about everything they have when there are so many have-nots? I truly believe that serving others expands your mind, your sense of purpose and your happiness. When we help people we feel good, we feel connected and we feel inspired. I think that higher sense of purpose is something everyone looks for at one point or another and I feel lucky that I found something to be proud and passionate about early on in my life.
You talk at various events with the goal to inspire and activate other people’s purpose – what do you enjoy about this?
I’m an extrovert through and through – ask anyone who knows me! I love meeting people and I thrive on connecting with people and learning from them. I never shy away from a good chat either! I know public speaking is really scary to a lot of people, but for me it’s a way to spread the word about who we are and what we do and any chance we have to do that is really a privilege.
Combatting the world’s third largest crime is a mountain most people would find too high to climb, but you found it too big to ignore. What’s your advice for others who are doubting whether their contribution can actually make a difference?
I would say start small, even helping one person makes a difference. You don’t need to be raising millions in order to do your bit of good in the world. It’s funny because with charity, I feel people compare themselves to what others have done and this is never a good thing to do; there will always be those that have donated more, have done more and continue to do more, so you just have to focus on what it is you want to achieve and how it is you want to help. No matter how big or small that is, the impact is always important and sometimes the affect is endless.
There’s often a certain level of fear and self-doubt that comes with starting a business – what gave you the resilience to bring Project Futures to life?
I literally put one foot in front of the other and kept going. From day one I never had a grand plan (I still don’t), I just ran event after event and we saw what those events could achieve, how much we were raising and how many people we were engaging and the results made us excited. Sometimes you have to keep going, not think about all the things that could stop you and not be afraid if your plan doesn’t work out. You also have to work really bloody hard and that’s a fact. There is a little bit of luck in there, but I think when hard work and luck collide that’s when the magic happens.
What’s been the most challenging thing?
Right now our biggest challenge is looking at the sustainability of the organisation and growing beyond my networks and contacts as the founder. It’s actually really hard! Managing a team is also challenging with having to let go and delegate many things I have looked after before. At the end of the day, we have a fabulous team who is passionate, dedicated and are just legends so I know we can get there!
Throughout this whole journey, what’s been your highlight?
It’s hard to pick one, but I love all the Cambodia trips I’ve been on. We’ve taken over 300 people to Cambodia and that has been a real highlight cycling across the beautiful countryside and knowing you are doing it for a purpose – it’s amazing! I would encourage everyone to try it!
How do you relate to the word ‘adrift’?
To me, being adrift means being open to everything that is out there in this world – being conscious of the abundance and doing what we can to live our lives with a purpose.
PROJECT FUTURES are heading to Spain and Cambodia in the coming year and would love people to join them! If you’re interested in learning more about the itineraries, visit their website.