Inspirational Woman: Nicky Mih | Co-Founder, Free to Shine

Nicky Mih

Nicky Mih has a background in psychology, teaching and coaching.

But now, she’s a woman on a mission – to prevent children being trafficked into the commercial sex industry, a mission set for her by survivors themselves after she spent a month with them nine years ago.

Nicky Mih asked these survivors what they wanted and how we could help.

They wanted to end sex slavery. They explained that when girls are rescued from brothels the traffickers don’t go without girls, they just go out into the rural villages and take a new young girl. They wanted these girls to be protected. Not one of the girls Nicky met had been in school when they were trafficked. They believed that if they were in school they wouldn’t have been trafficked. If they were in school they would have been safe.

These survivors had identified a gap. There were organisations collaborating with the police on rescue operations, there were aftercare centres and there were legal teams working in the justice system to bring about prosecutions. But Nicky couldn’t find an organisation out in these rural villages specifically identifying these girls before the traffickers did. And so was born Free To Shine.

When she returned home to Australia, she was given a weekly radio show to raise awareness of trafficking and went on to establish a child protection organisation preventing children being trafficked into the commercial sex industry in Cambodia.

As the co-founder and MD of Free to Shine, Nicky leads a team of Social Workers and Education Officers who work with girls to secure their safety and achieve their rights to be free from slavery, access education, safe drinking water, enough food and adequate shelter. Nicky and her team work closely with police, community leaders, councils and schools. They have kept more than 750 girls across 59 rural villages safe.

Nicky is the author of Do What Matters, is a book about courage and achieving the seemingly impossible. It is for people who are ready to step up in their life and leadership.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I grew up under the grey skies of England. I loved school and books played an important part in my life. By the age of 15 I’d read my way through five libraries. At 13 I decided I’d immigrate to Australia. On my way, I lived for a year in a little Greek village, hiked mountains in Canada, swamps and volcanoes in Hawaii and glaciers in New Zealand; kayaked the Colorado River and stayed on a Navajo reserve; drove a monster-truck school bus over crushed cars and did aerobatics in a plane over a lake, before settling on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland.

My background is in psychology, teaching and life coaching. I was a primary school teacher, having taught hundreds of children across England and Australia as well as coaching driven principals and surgeons who wanted to combine succeeding in their careers with adventure.

Now I’m the co-founder and Managing Director of the child protection organisation Free To Shine. With a team of social workers, psychologists and education officers, we secure the safety of girls across rural Cambodia. We work with community leaders, police, and schools to prevent school-aged girls being trafficked into the commercial sex industry, and help them achieve their rights to access education, safe drinking water, enough food and adequate shelter.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No, it didn’t really work like that.

As I stood before survivors of sex trafficking who were saying to me, ‘Nicky, go out into the rural villages, and find the girls who aren’t in school before the traffickers do, and get them into school so they’ll be safe,’ the pieces fell into place.

I hadn’t realised that each qualification, degree, certificate, course, piece of knowledge, skill, tool and life experience I’d earned had been collected for this task. This was the job I’d been preparing me for.

At fifteen, I did a school project that required me to design a brochure, write a poem and perform a monologue. I chose to do my project on the sexual abuse of children. I phoned ChildLine and got some statistics and learned some stories. From then on, I wanted to work with abused children.

I read a book called Dibs In Search of Self by Virginia Axline, a clinical psychologist, and decided I’d study psychology. Then I learned my psychology degree doesn’t make me a psychologist, so I wasn’t actually qualified to start helping abused kids yet. I had to choose between clinical psychology and educational psychology in furthering my studies. I decided to start with educational psychology. Apparently you needed to know ‘normal’ kids before you can help abused kids, so before I could do a postgraduate course in educational psychology, I had to become a teacher and get two years’ experience. So I did my postgraduate degree in teaching.

As a teacher, I learned about child protection and how to report and respond to abuse. I also realised I didn’t want to be an educational psychologist. Psychology wasn’t quite the fit I was looking for, but I didn’t know what was.

Once I’d settled in Australia and had been teaching for a few years, I began to look ahead. I didn’t want to just stay in teaching, but I knew I didn’t want to do psychology. That’s when I began my diploma in Life and Business Coaching, which included Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Coaching doesn’t get stuck in the ‘why’, it just gets on with solving problems. It was empowering. It taught me to think differently. It challenged me and set me up with the beliefs I’d need to eventually lead a child protection organisation.

I read a bunch of books that upset me greatly, yet simultaneously inspired me. I felt so deeply for the women and children whose stories were being told. I hated that such awful things happened to them. I was so inspired by the strength and resilience of these women and girls, and by the determination of the people who helped them. I longed to help these women and girls – but I had no idea how.

And then one day I made a promise; the next book I read, no matter what the country or what the issue, I’ll do something.

And hence I found myself in Cambodia teaching life skills to a group of young women who had survived being trafficked for sex. And so the journey of Free To Shine began.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Oh yeah!

There have been so many different challenges, from finding a bomb outside our office – an unexploded ordinance – to well-intentioned volunteers whose lack of child protection experience meant their actions set off a chain reaction that put the organisation and children’s safety in jeopardy. And the biggest one: firing 15 people in a day and then rebuilding the organisation.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Securing the safety of more than 750 girls across 59 rural villages, helping them achieve their rights; to be free from slavery, and access education, safe drinking water, enough food and adequate shelter. It’s been an incredible team effort – I certainly haven’t done it alone.

And also writing and publishing my book Do What Matters; what leading a child protection organisation in Cambodia taught me about Life and Leadership. I’ve actually just launched the kindle edition and it’s shot to number one on Amazon in the categories of Business Ethics and Business Leadership.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Determination.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

We have so much information available to us that it’s easy to think that you can do anything on your own. But gaining a personal connection to people who have been there, done that in a mentoring relationship is invaluable. It’s efficient.

I find that I learn so much when my mentors share their struggles and successes. Also having someone in my professional world that I can trust and who is my supporter, a confidant, an advocate and an ally, is invaluable.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

More women leading their countries.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Stop thinking about what other people think of you, trust yourself, and do what matters most to you.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

To engage business leaders. To provide safety and education to girls and their families, I work closely with a lot of businesses, particularly those keen to drive their profit through purpose. What I’ve learnt is how you lead your business matters. Really matters. It matters to your team, to your results and for your business’s impact in the world.

Now more than ever before, business has the power to create the world we want to live in. People no longer trust governments to do that. People now choose, switch, avoid and boycott brands based on their stand on societal issues. So more and more businesses are playing an ever greater role in creating the world we want to live in.

I’m hoping to partner with business leaders to secure the entire Siem Reap province from sex traffickers.


WeAreTheCity has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Cherie Blair, Paula Radcliffe MBE, Caprice Bourret, Anna Williamson and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here.

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