This is a love story, in four parts. Alissa fell in love, but not with boy (okay, also with a boy, but that’s not the story I’m going to tell) but with a faith, a belief, a mission—
to create something that was bigger than herself and, because of hard work and a few chance encounters, she was able to do just that.
Part 1 : The Introduction
The story starts like many other love stories. Alissa was at a small liberal arts college in the northeast, and like most other college students, was trying to find herself. In particular, she felt a bit disillusioned about how religion, that had helped define her younger years, fit into her life as a young adult. She was a regular attendee of a Christian campus fellowship called InterVarsity, however internally she was questioning her faith. Intervarsity, as a character, will play a role in this story, almost like a human character itself, threading it’s way through, introducing her to new people, connecting her to crucial ideas. Intervarsity, for those who don’t know, is a Christian fellowship that exists in 650 American college campuses and has ties to many other programs abroad.
In her junior year of college, Alissa decided to go to a conference organized by Intervarsity. The conference was called Urbana, and from how Alissa described it, if you were an active part of your college’s Christian campus life, you would know Urbana.
She showed up at the conference in St. Louis, filled with thousands of other people who identified in similar ways as her: young, Christian, college student, but still felt…out of place. What am I doing here? She thought. She was the only one from her particular college campus who had decided to go that year. She also failed to internalize, when registering for the conference, that this was a “Missions” conference, which she had mixed feelings about. She couldn’t help but think of negative connotations associated with the word- ethnocentric, paternalistic, wreaking of colonialism.
The conference was split into different tracks and Alissa was mainly attending sessions in the arts- she was, after all, an arts management major. But she felt uninspired and alone among her peers in these sessions and found herself walking around aimlessly, popping into a session here and there. One session that she found herself in was in the public health track. The speaker in the session was talking about a safe house that he had worked at in Thailand. He spoke about human trafficking. Alissa felt moved and haunted, affected in a way she hadn’t felt yet at the conference. In addition to being introduced to a topic she knew very little about, this speaker was taking an active role in living and learning about a new culture, and from a place of deep respect for the friendships he had made, was learning how to support local work that addressed crime impacting those who were most vulnerable. It was the first seed that started to shift her perspective into seeing mission work as broadening the global reach of the church while respecting cultural context rather than exporting views.
At the end of the conference, Alissa returned to her campus and did what most of us do when we are greatly moved by something. She placed it in a small corner of her mind and went back to her life as a college student.
Part 2: The Connection
After graduation, Alissa moved to New York City, found an entry -level job at National Arts Association and, through her Intervarsity connections, found a roommate to live with in a Brooklyn brownstone that was part of a Christian intentional community. Although Alissa wasn’t in school anymore, her roommate was in graduate school and was connected to the different Intervarsity graduate student fellowships in New York.
Sometime during the first year that she was living there, her roommate invited her to a Prayer Meeting, a community gathering that focuses on praying as a group, at another graduate student’s apartment. At this particular event, Alissa said a prayer for victims of human trafficking, which had been on her mind, in a small part, since the Urbana conference. Diana, the graduate student hosting the prayer meeting, approached her that afternoon. They had never met before, but Alissa’s prayer had struck a chord. Diana explained that the summer prior, she had been doing research in microfinance, which had led her to Cambodia for a fellowship there. She had done quite a bit of data collection with families who were trying to tap into microfinance. Diana explained to Alissa- one of the things that she had been thinking about was the idea that the microfinance model could be improved to allow for more sustainable income- instead of giving a family some farming equipment, for instance, could skills be taught to them so that they could tap into the western market more directly? Sewing, for example.
Diana and Alissa formed a bond over this shared interest and started meeting in the evenings and weekends to talk about how they could potentially start something that would address that gap. They began working on a business plan- what would a non-profit that focused on supporting human trafficking victims and vulnerable populations by providing support and skills for a prosperous job market look like?
They did this all while being in school and working, respectively. This was still their “passion project” in 2008, when they decided that, to move this work forward, it was crucial to take a trip to Cambodia to meet with some of the already established non-profits there that focused on product manufacturing. They planned a two-week trip to meet with some of these groups and do, what they call in the biz, market research. Was their service needed? How could they fill a gap that existed?
Around the time that Alissa was planning for the trip, a guy from Ohio was staying with the community that she lived in for the summer. Alissa struck up a conversation with him and, in telling him about her upcoming trip, he recommended a contact that he knew through his church back in Ohio- the Director of a safe house in Cambodia that served child trafficking survivors. Alissa sent a quick email out to the Director of the safe house a few days before her trip, not expecting to hear back.
She and Diana departed for their trip and spent most of the two weeks meeting with NGOs and non-profits that were working in product manufacturing. They were winding down their time in Cambodia and preparing for a few days of rest and sightseeing, when Alissa got an email response from the Director of the safe house, inviting them to come for a visit. They were thrilled-they promptly ditched the sightseeing and bought tickets for a long bus trip to the city nearest the safe house.
Part 3: Nomi Network
When they arrived, local staff picked them up in a truck to drive them to the safe house. What happened in the truck happened in Alissa’s head, but it is just as much a part of the story as anything, because honestly, isn’t our head where most of the self-doubt, insecurities and messages of “stop now, what are you doing??” happen?
She spent the car ride panicking- what was she doing here? She wasn’t an expert or a scholar, or licensed or certified—she was just someone who decided to pursue a project that she was passionate about, had a partner to keep her accountable and somehow, she had ended up here.
They pulled up to the house and as they got out of the car they could see kids peering out at them cautiously. One girl ran right up to them to hug them. As soon as this happened, all of Alissa’s nervous insecurities melted away. She quintessentially replaced the why am I doing this for the who am I doing this for? The girl who approached them stayed by their sides for much of their time there and Alissa started thinking about how their work could help to restore this girl’s future- that someone can be defined not by what happened to them, but by what they are able to overcome.
Being at the safe house allowed them to connect with a group of people who they were hoping to affect. Alissa had been devouring books on human trafficking but this was different- she was seeing the consequences of it on the faces of real people and in the lives of real families. This moved her and Diana in a way nothing else had. The people they met had resilience that was inspiring.
Alissa’s project was not just a business model anymore, but it had turned into a mission – how could they help create sustainability in the process of rehabilitation?
Back in the states, with a newfound sense of urgency, they continued working on their business model and were eventually joined by a third co-founder, Supei, who had a career in fashion merchandising.
Nomi Network, the name of their non profit, launched with a mission of supporting the development of skills for women in vulnerable populations- with the idea that if you can empower women to be financially secure, you can change the course of lives for entire families.
Nomi Network launched a pilot in Cambodia in 2009 with their biggest effort aimed at supporting existing fair trade NGOs to provide skill-based training in manufacturing for vulnerable populations. They’ve scaled their business to support work in other countries as well- in India, they developed their curriculum to train individuals directly.
Part 4: The Present
At the beginning, this was all a side project and then slowly, all three co-founders rolled onto working full time for Nomi Network with Alissa joining last in 2015. Today, Nomi Network has a staff of 8 people at headquarters and over a dozen local field staff. Alissa, having recently moved to England with her husband (who she also met one year at Urbana, the conference at the beginning of this story) is now doing consulting on specific Nomi Network projects and joining the board.
When I asked Alissa how she persevered through all of the self-doubt around her ability and experience to create an international non-profit, she said
“I just kept going. It scared the crap out of me, but I just kept doing it. I knew that it’s okay to be vulnerable, to ask God to show me the way when I doubted my ability”.
It occurred to me while threading together this story that it started in a place where Alissa felt uncomfortable-uncomfortable in her physical place at the conference, uncomfortable with the theme of the conference “Missions”. But this story really becomes about Alissa’s personal mission and about how the presence of a mission allowed her to become stronger than any discomforts- physical or perceived.
What does that mean? I don’t know. Maybe not all discomfort is bad. Maybe sometimes it means growth.
Oh and where did Nomi Network get its name? From Nomi, of course, the girl who greeted them at the safe house in Cambodia, who reassured them that it’s okay to be vulnerable, it’s okay to not know everything, as long as you can see the potential in the people you’re supporting and you believe in your mission.
You can find more about Nomi Network at : https://nominetwork.org/.