Diana Mao, the co-founder, president, and CEO of Nomi Network, developed a passion for human trafficking service work during a research fellowship trip to rural Cambodia while pursuing a finance degree at NYU.
“After we had interviewed [a finance client], he proceeded to offer my male colleague his daughter, in broken English,” she says. “You like her, you take her,” the client said. Mao’s travel group had also seen girls as young as 12 with foreign men on the streets near Phnom Penh’s brothels. “That really opened my eyes to the issue,” she says.
When she returned to New York in late 2008, Mao joined a business consulting firm and began conceptualizing what would become Nomi Network. Spending her nights and weekends building out the nonprofit, she returned to Cambodia and interviewed about a dozen anti-trafficking organizations before deciding to dedicate her efforts toward workforce development.
“I had the idea of ‘Well, what if we could create job opportunities for women and girls in these communities and keep families together so that families wouldn’t have to send their children to go work in the city or wouldn’t have to resort to selling their own children,” Mao says.
While there, she met an 8-year-old survivor, Nomi, who had been trafficked by her stepfather and was on the road to healing. “I thought, ‘She is our client,’” says Mao. She named her nonprofit after the young girl, founding Nomi Network in 2009. Three years later, she left her consulting career to focus on the organization full time.
From 2012 to 2019, Nomi Network served more than 10,000 human trafficking survivors in Cambodia and India, where half of those living in slavery worldwide reside, through workforce development assistance.
“In these rural communities where there’s sometimes no access to running water or electricity, women are now able to secure the means to provide for their families, keep their children in school, and prevent the next generation from being trafficked,” Mao says.
“Companies want to get involved and help tackle the issue of human trafficking.”Diana Mao
A 2015 Presidential Leadership Scholar and New York Academy of Medicine Fellow, she has written advocacy articles for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and served on the White House’s council to end human trafficking. Now, Mao has relocated to North Texas to expand Nomi Network in America, starting with Dallas, which has the country’s third-highest incidence of human trafficking and the nonprofit’s first U.S. training program for adolescent girls.
“There was just a real strong demand for similar type services that we offer in India,” Mao says.
The program will help 50 young women in the Letot Juvenile Detention Center in North Dallas—who have faced charges of prostitution or other nonviolent crimes—foster professional skills and find internships.
Attracted to Dallas in part by the corporate base in the area, Mao plans to leverage existing relationships with Gap, Fossil, AT&T, and Sephora and is in talks with leaders at Neiman Marcus, Southwest Airlines, and Hilti.
“More companies want to get involved and help tackle the issue of human trafficking, and that has definitely worked in our favor,” Mao says.
The program will launch in June. Mao will then review success metrics with the hope of replicating the program across the state and, eventually, beyond. “For us, it’s really a matter of continuously staying on top of data and which cities have the highest prevalence rates,” she says.