How One Woman Overcame Her Past and Used That to Better the Future—And How You Can Too: With Shandra Woworuntu
“I was homeless for three years and it was very hard to find employment in New York to support my life. The main problem I found was that there wasn’t enough resources to help survivors live independently.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Shandra Woworuntu, the founder and CEO of Mentari Human Trafficking Survivor Empowerment Program Inc., and 2017 L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth Honoree. Shandra raises awareness about violations of human rights, especially human trafficking and modern slavery in the U.S. and internationally through educational books designed for children. The books have been distributed to many schools as a part of Mentari’s public awareness programs.
The organization has also distributed prevention tools including feminine hygiene pads that display a human trafficking hotline number and list signs of human trafficking. Shandra and her organization have been able to assist survivors to live independently through mentorship and empowerment programs. Their culinary arts program for survivors of human trafficking and modern slavery survivors is the first of its kind in the United States. They also provide a knitting program and assist survivors in establishing their own businesses. Shandra is an international advocate that believes in strengthening State, Federal and International legislation in the fight against human trafficking. She has worked very hard to bring light to this hidden criminal activity. She has been recognized by the United States Government and appointed by President Barrack Obama to the Advisory Council to the White House on Human Trafficking.
Shandra Woworuntu was recently named a 2017 L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth Honoree for her work with Mentari. From now through November 29, the public is invited to visit WomenOfWorth.com to vote for Shandra to become the National Honoree and receive an additional $25,000 for Mentari.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?
I’ve learned from my experiences surviving hunger, homelessness, and vulnerability. I graduated from college and worked at an International Bank as an assistant general manager of treasury department, money market trader and financial analyst. Due to political turbulence and religious persecution in Indonesia, I lost my job and was recruited by an employment agency. I came to the United States to work in the hotel industry. However, instead of working in a hotel in Chicago, I was forcibly taken by members of organized crime, sold and forced to work in an underground sex business in the greater New York City area. I managed to escape from captivity and with the help of NYPD, the girls were rescued, my traffickers were prosecuted, and then convicted.
Afterwards, I learned that surviving wasn’t easy due to lack of resources to support survivors like myself. I was homeless for three years and it was very hard to find employment in New York to support my life. The main problem I found was that there wasn’t enough resources to help survivors live independently. I enjoy the culinary arts as a hobby and started a cooking class in my tiny kitchen for other survivors. I realized that this was an opportunity to give them employable skills. Because of my passion and compassion, I established Mentari to ensure that other survivors would not have the same experience that I did.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company/organization?
I do a lot of speaking engagements for Mentari to raise awareness about human trafficking and have been told that I am a “fire cracker”. You know how a fire cracker sounds, loud and powerful. I speak from the bottom of my heart, I speak straight, bold, and with determination.
So what does your company/organization do?
Mentari provides direct services, resources, education, training, advocacy initiatives, and mentorship, also known as D.R.E.A.M.
Our organization provides clients a centered approach and trauma informed services. Mentorship and empowerment are the keys to reintegration. Survivors have the opportunity to be reintegrated into the community and live independently through our programs. We have raised awareness and educated a million people about human trafficking and modern slavery through our programs.
What do you think makes your company/organization stand out? Can you share a story?
Our culinary arts program is the first in New York and in the U.S. Our success rate of culinary arts program participants in finding employment is over 95 percent. We help to prevent human trafficking and modern slavery. This is our success story. I started the culinary arts program in my tiny apartment kitchen and now we have a commercial kitchen space to teach survivors. A wonderful example of our culinary arts program’s success is Sharlena. She came to our organization with the desire to learn and to use her skills to find employment. She completed the culinary arts program in March 2017 and now she is working for the NYC Department of Health as a cooking instructor.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are?
There are many people who help shape my work. One particular person that always supported me and helped achieve my goals is Randall Roca. He has empowered me to do the work I love: helping people. He always say “You can do it!”
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Through the “DREAM”: direct services, resources, empowerment, advocacy and mentorship. I mentor and empower survivors of human trafficking in their reintegration back into society so they can live independently.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I launched my company/organization,” and why?
- How hard it is to get grants—especially for a new nonprofit organization. Many grants are given to big organizations.
- Many people have money, but few have interest in donating. Especially to small organizations who do the grass roots work in this fight against human trafficking. For the most part, they are interested in big organizations who profile famous people and it is hard for me to convince people to fund our program. I’ve spoken to thousands of people and potential donors but there aren’t many people interested in helping survivors reintegrate to the community.
- Stay focused on your organization’s strategic plan, and keep moving forward.
- There are always going to be people that try to bring you down. Because of my life story, people and organizations try to take advantage of my notoriety and our organization’s work.
- Everything I do relates to my personal life. Because of this I have to take extra care of myself. After I listen to client’s stories which are similar to my
experiences, it creates secondary trauma.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Yes, there is. I would like to meet with Mr. and Mrs. Obama to talk about global prevention and support of programs that help survivors of human trafficking and modern slavery to be able to reintegrate into society.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
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If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series in Huffpost, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.