Nomi Network staff and program participants visit Fossil's headquarters in Hong Kong. (From left to right, Vichwath Buntheng, Fairwell Fashion, Supei Lui, Nomi Network, Chantha Thoeun, Angkor Bullet Jewelry, Marada Yeom, Villageworks, Sovanara Moch, IJM, Anak Norm, Villagworks, Kanika Lim, Nomi Network, Leakhena Tim, Carino). Photo courtesy of Nomi Network.

As brands and retailers increasingly embrace initiatives centered on consumer demand for sustainability and social responsibility, a new purposeful focus on female empowerment has emerged. And for organizations such as Nomi Network, a nonprofit economic development agency, its work aims to help international human trafficking survivors and at-risk women gain financial independence by teaching vital employment skills and offering career placement services for fashion industry jobs and professions.

Operating out of Cambodia and India, Nomi Network’s Workforce Development Program provides foundational training that “empowers and equips” women with the knowledge, skill and resources requisite for career success. The firm has worked with brands with such as Sephora, Patagonia, Gap Inc., H&M, Amazon, Macy’s and Fossil, which have provided talent and support for its Cambodia-based fashion school and incubator.

Here, Diana Mao, a cofounder and president of Nomi Network, talks to WWD about its comprehensive development program and the importance of technical skills and financial education.

WWD: Nomi Network’s basic curriculum is focused on technical skills and finance. What are the specific components of the curriculum and how is it structured? Does it vary by region?

Diana Mao: Nomi Network’s curriculum varies by region based on our client-centric approach. In India, we work in the poorest states where there is systemic violence and abuse against women.

For example, in India we work in the poorest states like Bihar, where 40 percent of the population — 103 million — live below the poverty line, and without access to health and human services, these factors lead to high instances of human trafficking. Challenges in Bihar include poverty, social inequalities, gender-based violence, caste discrimination and poor infrastructure. Half of Bihar’s girls marry before they are 18, approximately 95 percent drop out of school, and 90 percent are illiterate, with no formal education or job experience, supporting multiple children. Of the 32 million people enslaved globally today, half these slaves are estimated to live in India.

In Cambodia, we work in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Cambodia is a country plagued by the aftermath of the genocide that ended in 1978. It is a country rich in heritage in nonprofit support. We work in partnership with 45 anti-trafficking and community-based organizations that provide rescue, rehabilitation and counseling while Nomi Network provides empowerment and prevention services through our fashion school and incubator. We work in upskilling women and helping them become successful entrepreneurs and leaders in the fashion industry.

In India, we focus on rural empowerment and development, which entails working with women who have never had the opportunity to advocate for themselves, due to a lack of economic independence and illiteracy. Our focus is primarily on life skills (rebuilding confidence, addressing basic hygiene, time management and communication skills) and providing the necessary skills for each woman to be self-sufficient. We work with all women to open their own bank accounts and learn the basics of personal savings and microfinance. Each individual then learns technical skills, which allow her to find her place; some have become master trainers through our Train-the-Trainer program, others earn a steady salary by working in production, and those with an aptitude for entrepreneurship have started their own businesses.

Our Adolescent Girls Empowerment program tutors girls to help them pass their college entrance exam. In addition to hospitality and tailoring courses, we also have a beautician-training program to equip girls with marketable skills that allow them to earn an income and lessen family pressures to marry early. We also provide them with legal services and training so they can know their rights, stand up against their abusers and ongoing legal aid as cases arise.

Nomi Network participants tour Fossil’s “Asia Dome” warehouse inspired by the scale and organization. Photo courtesy of Nomi Network. 

WWD: What employment channels are available to participants? In what ways does cultural or gender bias affect job placement?

D.M.: The employment opportunities for the women we work with are severely limited based on many factors: caste, gender, the fact that many who come to us are illiterate, etc. But in addition to those who have gone on to start their own businesses, Nomi has a production site where women are able to employ the skills they learned at our sewing training center. We also have a wonderful network of partner sites, which have gone through a thorough vetting process by our staff, and employ many of the women who go through our programs — employment partners in the hospitality, food, agricultural and manufacturing sectors. We also help our trainees who have an aptitude for entrepreneurship to start their own businesses.

WWD: How does Nomi Network ensure upward mobility through its curriculum?

D.M.: Many of the women who come to us, who are at risk of trafficking, have been deprived of any opportunity. By providing both individual support and teaching technical skills, each woman gains higher levels of employability and confidence. We are in constant contact with partner sites, and provide consistent follow-up to make sure women from our program are employed and working under respectful conditions. Where they go from there is for them to explore and decide. Through our curriculum, they gain self-confidence and the ability to advocate for themselves. They also have our ongoing support once they are placed in jobs. But we help lay, and continue to support, the foundation.

Upon completion of Foundation Training, graduates are placed in jobs and apply their skills to start a new life. In our experience, a job and income give women a voice, choice, and ability to stand up for their rights within their family and community. Most importantly, after our training, women see the value of education and investing in the education of their daughters by reenrolling them back in school or paying for additional tutoring services as the education system in Bihar is not good.

Through our approach, we believe that we can reduce trafficking figures — estimated 46 million slaves worldwide — in the next few years. By providing training, opportunities, and work for survivors and the most vulnerable women, they will be able to financially provide for themselves and their families. Thus, victims have an alternative means to financial independence, families are not forced to sell their children into the sex industry, the women have a new sense of personal value and potential, and families are able to afford to send their children to school.

At the individual and community level, over time, the perceptions of the value and worth of women and children in the community will change, the region no longer becomes a destination for traffickers, and as their children succeed, they will also help to provide for their families; therefore, breaking the cycle of poverty. At the industry level, we also create high quality, advocacy-focused products, a network of partners develops to create a sustainable market in the region, and the products themselves bring awareness to the issue of sex trafficking. In the long term, a community with a trained workforce will attract more industry, increasing job opportunities and reducing poverty, and also awareness will reduce the demand for trafficking.

Students working on a project at Nomi’s International Fashion Training (NIFT) as they learn about spec sheets. Photo courtesy of Nomi Network. 

WWD: What is the process to certify that Nomi Network’s labor force is transparent for retailers and other partners?

D.M.: Each partner site that employs women from Nomi has been vetted to make sure they align with our vision and belief in gender equality. We conduct interviews for all partners and an initial site visit to vet partners. They meet strict standards in terms of economic standing with the government, and after meeting all our requirements, have a formal agreement with us. We also have staff [members] that frequently visit these sites.

WWD: What are some of the “socially conscious” retailers that Nomi Network works with?

D.M.: Many of our items and collections are sold directly on the Nomi web site, but a few of the most notable names we have worked with are Sephora (sourcing products), Patagonia, GAP, H&M, Amazon, Macy’s and Fossil, which have provided talent and support to our fashion school and incubator in Cambodia. Fossil hosted a delegate of trainees at their office in Hong Kong for an exposure trip and exchange with executives in their different departments. Some of our trainees had never left Cambodia prior to the trip.

WWD: Why are nonprofits and social enterprises key organizations for Nomi Network’s vocational training?

D.M.: Human trafficking is a $150 billion industry. While little effort has been made by governments to prevent and prosecute trafficking, for survivors, the emancipation process is challenging as they lack income and viable job opportunities; many end up re-trafficked. Despite laws against trafficking, women living in extreme poverty are highly vulnerable to sexual exploitation due to a lack of, and barriers to ethical and sustained employment.

The private sector does not have a mandate to help those who are trafficked or lift those who are vulnerable out of poverty. However, they do have a problem and that is the potential child or forced labor in their factories. Nomi has created a cost-efficient training model lifting survivors and women out of extreme poverty and into meaningful sustainable work in garment manufacturing and advanced manufacturing. Brands like Sephora and Walmart have already partnered with us to create job opportunities for vulnerable women. It is a symbiotic relationship as brands and factories seek ethical products and greater market share from Millennials, while Nomi provides the training and upward mobility opportunities women need to secure better jobs.  For example, our trainees who could not even sign their name have been promoted to become pattern-makers, quality control managers, and line managers.

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