As far as impressive college essays go, Shreya Mantha probably has a lot of her peers beat. When she was just 14 years old, she started her own nonprofit called Foundation for Girls. Her goal was to give resources, education, and support to girls who were at risk of falling into sex trafficking. Last year, she was one of the honorees of the L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth program, the company’s signature philanthropic program, which is guided by their tagline: “Because you’re worth it.” The Cut spoke with Mantha about the long process of getting a nonprofit off the ground, the inspiration she draws from the women around her, and the misconceptions she wishes to dispel about sex trafficking.
What was a particularly challenging aspect of getting Foundation for Girls off the ground? How did you eventually succeed?
At the beginning, there were three things that were particularly difficult. One, being young. Starting off at the age that I did, a lot of people didn’t really believe that a young person, and a young girl specifically, could actually make a difference. But as people saw Foundation for Girls starting to grow and impact the lives of girls who were homeless or trafficking survivors or teen moms or foster-care abuse survivors — when they actually saw the impact of the work we were doing — they started believing that yes, young people could make a difference.
Second, building partnerships was really difficult. I think particularly in the nonprofit sector, organizations tend to become territorial and want to go at these issues on their own. But I believe that you have to work on issues with the mind-set of collaboration. A younger person might have a new idea, and then an older professional has the experience necessary to add to that conversation. When people saw Foundation for Girls start to partner with after-school programs and homeless shelters, they saw the power in our model.
Third, raising funds was particularly difficult. I didn’t really know much about fundraising, and it’s hard to apply for grants as a young person because people tend to not want to support you at the beginning. We started with what we had. But as people heard through word of mouth that the girls in our program were becoming more independent, people started realizing that they needed to get invested. Because we were addressing the root causes, we weren’t waiting until the girls were homeless and then saying, Okay, where do we place them? We were looking at the root of the issues instead of the back end.
What’s a common myth or misconception you’ve encountered in your work with sex-trafficking survivors that you wish the general public knew more about?
The biggest misconception people have is that girls go into sex trade willingly and they know what they’re getting into, or they’re doing it because they want to. The truth is that they’re forced into it by desperation. What I’ve seen is that maybe they were a foster-care kid, and they didn’t get food or clothes and their foster parents presented sex trafficking as an option, and they did it because they were desperate for those basic human needs. Or their parents were homeless, so they were homeless growing up and living on the streets and needed, again, food and clothing, those basic survival needs.
None of the girls that we’ve encountered so far, and we’ve worked with over 1,800, have gone into it willingly. It’s because they need money, they need something to support themselves, and sometimes to support their kids. We need to provide them with more opportunities. There shouldn’t be girls who have to go into sex trafficking because there is no other option or because they don’t have the skills, resources, or support they need to get another job.
What keeps you motivated when you’re busy or stressed?
When I see girls’ lives transforming in front of my eyes, that keeps pushing me to do more. I see girls getting jobs and becoming independent, or simply becoming confident and believing in themselves like they never did before. Or even girls having, like, restored hope that people genuinely care about them and want to help them have a better life, and to be reminded that people are not just here to take advantage of them. When I see that shift in their mind-set, it comes out in their actions and in how they express themselves. When I see that, I know we can’t stop. There are so many girls who need help.
How have the women around you shaped your view of leadership and strength?
My mom is a huge role model. She raised both my sister and I with warmth but also strength and determination. And that’s something we carry with us on a daily basis. She’s all about positivity and about doing good things for others, but doing it everyday. It’s not just a once-a-month thing or a once-in-a-while thing. When you do good for people, not only do you feel good but it’s impacting them in a good way too. More than anything she raised us with really strong values. My sister and I believe that anything is possible if you put your mind to it and surround yourself with the right people. When you have people around you who support you and your journey, that completely changes your ability to do things.
What advice would you give other girls and women who are working hard to meet their goals and follow their dreams?
I would say that persistence is key. You’ll get a lot of “No’s” starting off. But that shouldn’t discourage you and that shouldn’t stop you from continually moving forward. There are going to be ups and downs and things that you don’t get. For me, it’s always like, Why didn’t we get that grant or that support or partnership? But honestly, everything does happen for a reason. Those instances made us evaluate what we were doing and that was really important for us as an organization. Surround yourself with people who want to support you and are willing to work with you. It’s going to take a team no matter what dream it is. It’s hard to go at anything alone.