The Social Impact Leaders Series is a collaboration between Fairlight and The Silicon Valley Podcast, spotlighting groundbreaking philanthropists and social entrepreneurs who are striving to elevate communities, improve the economy and protect the earth. These discussions are summarized and edited excerpts from interviews conducted by Shawn Flynn with social impact leaders we think you should know about.
Next in the series we have Vanessa Russell, founder of Love Never Fails, committed to the restoration, education and protection of young people being sexually exploited in California. Since inception, they have educated thousands on the issue, trained over 100 mentors for positive change, launched elementary, middle and high school abuse prevention programs and located over 100 missing and exploited women and children. The organization has also provided young women with sustainable jobs in real estate, banking, and healthcare, to name but a few.
Shawn Flynn, The Silicon Valley Podcast: Vanessa, can you give a little bit of background of your career up into this point?
Vanessa Russell, Love Never Fails: I worked as a senior sales leader at Cisco Systems for about 12 and a half years. I’ve worked in the IT world for just about 25 years. I left Cisco two years ago to run my nonprofit full time, which is called Love Never Fails where we address the issue of human trafficking throughout the nation.
Shawn Flynn: You hear the term human trafficking, but a lot of people don’t really know what’s going on. They don’t know how profound it is.
Vanessa Russell: I think I was in a similar place. I actually grew up in quite a bit of poverty. And of course, I knew about prostitution growing up. There was a little bit of that going on with maybe older women. I always believed the myth that, oh, they want to be there. That’s a life they’ve chosen. Until in 2010, one of my 15-year-old dance students was raped in Hayward and was sold throughout California for a year. That was when I became aware of this epidemic. The term human trafficking was coined probably in 2008, 2007 or so. Prior to that it was just referred to as prostitution. We really didn’t know how to deal with it when children were being prostituted. And we now know that a child can’t be a prostitute, because that’s a legal designation. They’re actually victims of childhood rape. When I was looking for my student, going up and down certain streets in the Bay Area, I saw for the very first time people being sold. Hidden in plain sight. I just didn’t know what I was looking at before. I spent many sleepless nights working in my plush job. I had my kids. I had my beautiful home. It sort of wrecked me. And from there, I decided I just couldn’t shake it. So that’s when I started Love Never Fails.
Shawn Flynn: I’m kind of confused. You’re looking for your student, but how are you able to find all these trafficked kids, but not the police?
Vanessa Russell: That’s the interesting part about it. If you don’t what you’re looking at, you don’t realize that you’re actually encountering human trafficking all around you. We find human trafficking in very affluent areas. One of the largest human trafficking rings was running out of Danville for 13 years. The exploiter in that case just received over 100 years in jail for exploiting a myriad of women over the course of those 13 years. And there he lived with his wife and his two daughters, whom I actually taught dance to. These things are happening in front of us. To people doing our nails, giving us massages, people cooking our food, people selling fruit on the side of the road or picking our fruit in farms. They are experiencing labor trafficking and sex trafficking. We’re not aware because maybe we don’t know what to look for. We don’t know what the signs are. Of course, there are certain areas in our community that are a little bit more known for sex trafficking. Those would be the streets where people are being sold, like in Oakland, San Jose or Hayward and in some of the larger more urban cities, like San Francisco. But it’s happening all around. I could literally go and search online right now and do a search for erotic girls and all of these ads would pop up.
Shawn Flynn: How does technology play a part in it?
Vanessa Russell: I actually just did a national presentation for the Think Big conference for the anti-money laundering group. There were like 800 bankers at this conference. I talked about the intersection between human trafficking and banking transactions. The financial industry interacts with 94% of human trafficking. What do I mean by that? Well, whenever someone is buying someone, there is a trail. They’re buying a hotel, they’re buying a rental car, they’re buying a plane ticket, they’re getting something at the convenience store, perhaps condoms of something of that nature. There are really great patterns that you can begin to look at to file suspicious activity reports, or SARS reports, required by FinCEN (Financial Crimes Enforcement Network). If somebody is doing something that seems suspicious to a banker or a member of the financial community, they have the obligation to report that. I was giving them some patterns that they should look for that show that there’s some potential human trafficking going on. And in certain industries, there’s things like structured deposits, where you’re depositing under a certain amount, so you don’t raise any red flags. The patterns of making purchases are one. There are things like putting people on your payroll, but they get paid very little because they’re working under debt bondage or involuntary servitude. Maybe they’ve been brought here from another country and they’re on the payroll in order to remain here, for their visas to be active, but they’re only getting paid $10 and $15. Well, why is that? Well, because they’re paying for their room and board. How much are they paying for their room and board that they only have $15 left over? These are the kinds of behaviors that we see specific to cryptocurrency transactions. The website Pornhub, which receives 115 million visits a day, has 169 years of unvetted, user-generated video content. This has now become a congressional investigation. PayPal, MasterCard and Visa have said they will not receive any transactions from these types of sites, but cryptocurrency remains a viable transaction. That is troubling for me. I don’t want to say all crypto is involved in these dark transactions, but I think that crypto investors should be asking, is my crypto provider endorsing these kinds of behaviors? Or are they going to line up with the other concerned financial entities?
Shawn Flynn: Now let’s talk about Love Never Fails.
Vanessa Russell: We opened up our first house six years ago for women and their children. Since then, we’ve opened up three more. So we have four total houses: two houses for women and children, one house for men and their families and one house for girls, ages 13 to 17. So we have 27 beds. As people were graduating from our first home, we had helped them become emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually restored, but we hadn’t worked on financial freedom. And so that’s where we began to focus on economic sustainability. We decided to become a Cisco Networking Academy initially. Since then, we’ve become a California-certified cybersecurity and networking pre-apprenticeship program. We’re also a Department of Rehabilitation vendor and a CalJOBS training provider. Our specialty is to get people that know nothing about tech and get them interested in tech. They never thought they were smart enough. They never thought anybody would take the time to show them what tech entails. We start by doing a digital literacy class. Then we move them into a tech entrepreneurship class in partnership with Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center. Then we progress them into an intro to cyber and then we end with a CompTIA A plus class. Each year, we look at what the hot certs are and where should we focus. It’s a 35-week program, 10 hours a week. We are so grateful that Google agreed to sponsor 20 interns. HP agreed to sponsor 10 interns. An organization called Corporate eWaste Solutions sponsored 20 as well. Other high-tech organizations are stepping up to say, I’ll sponsor an intern. And that internship is a 40-hour internship. When they come out of that we need to be able to place them in positions as a help desk technician type of role, a network management or security management position, or a customer service position. And then of course we’re encouraging all of them to diversify their income by becoming entrepreneurs while working for someone else. Become your own boss. And like I said, we are getting some support from some tech firms in the Valley. We enrolled 300 students during the pandemic and 70 students right now are in our cohort. They have their baby sitting on their laps while they’re learning about tech. There are people that have disabilities. Some people are on the autism spectrum. There are things about each one of our students that demonstrate their resilience.
Shawn Flynn: Can you share some success stories from the program?
Vanessa Russell: Our first cohort in 2018 was made up of five students. Four of them went on to obtain sustainable jobs, meaning at least $20 an hour, but most of them were more than that. And they’ve maintained those jobs since then. Our valedictorian of that cohort now works at Cisco as a network engineer and she was never in tech. She was trafficked for eight years. Her son, who was on the spectrum, was held as a hostage until she made her daily quota. Another student who graduated from our Google IT cohort, no tech in her background, is getting ready to buy a house. Her story is so inspirational. The students feel that they can do it because she has.
Listen to the Shawn Flynn’s whole interview here.
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