An Interview with Nicky Mih, Free to Shine Founder

Chris Gill July 09, 2020
An Interview with Nicky Mih, Free to Shine Founder

Back in 2009, Nicky Mih spent a month in Cambodia with survivors of sex trafficking. Inspired to find out how she could help, Nicky spoke to this group of survivors and found out they believed if they’d been in school the day they were trafficked, they would have been safe. She knew she had to do something.

So, she co-founded Free to Shine, an organisation that seeks to prevent the exploitation of girls, by strengthening family and community systems to prioritise the safety and education of their children.

Do What Matters

Earlier this year, Nicky Mih released Do What Matters, a book about courage and achieving the seemingly impossible. In this book, Nicky takes us on a journey through the challenges of leading a child protection organisation and shares many lessons that have changed the way she lives and leads.

We caught up with Nicky about Free to Shine, Do What Matters and why she loves Boody.

Nicky Mih

Hey Nicky. You're originally from England, but have also lived and worked in Greece, Cambodia and Australia. What did each experience teach you and how did it lead you to where you are today?

Living and working in four different countries and cultures has been incredible. It has taught me a multitude of things, hundreds of lessons perhaps, including but not by any means limited to: 

  • How privileged I am simply being born into a country where going to school is the norm, and where there are services in place to assist struggling families and children 
  • How rich and diverse each different culture is
  • How beautiful the world is
  • How much I like and appreciate a simple life
  • How similar cultures and countries are and at the same time how different they are, and how many layers there are to uncover

The book I’ve written, Do What Matters, includes many of the lessons I’ve learned working in Cambodia. 

You have a degree in psychology, a post-grad in education and a diploma in coaching. What led you to these studies and how have they gone on to inform your career?

Nicky Mih

I remember when I was eight, I sat at a table with a group of adults and listened as each one talked about how their life might have been. Each spoke about regretting something they hadn’t done. I noticed not one spoke of regretting something they had done. I became fascinated by why it is that people do what they do, and also why they don’t do what they don’t do. 

At 15, I did a school project on the sexual abuse of children. I phoned Childline and got some statistics and learned some stories. I read a book called Dibs In Search of Self by Virginia Axline, a clinical psychologist, and decided I’d study psychology.

I then learned that a psychology degree doesn’t make you 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.

As a teacher, I learned about child protection and how to report and respond to abuse. I undertook additional training. I learned that it’s highly unlikely that a child will ever tell you they’re being abused – and you’re not legally allowed to ask. I learned that one in four girls are sexually abused before the age of sixteen, and one in ten boys. That meant that every year, in a class of thirty-three, four of my girls and one or two of my boys had been abused, or would be in the next six years. 

I also realised I didn’t want to be an educational psychologist. Psychology wasn’t quite the fit I was looking for. So I did a 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. One day, I had to karate chop a board in half. I’d never have thought I could do that. 

You're the co-founder and Managing Director of the child protection organisation Free To Shine. Tell us what the organisation is all about and what your role there entails.

Free to Shine

Free To Shine came about after I spent a month with survivors of trafficking and learned that none of them were in school when they were trafficked, and each thought they would have been safe if they had been in school, under the watchful eye of a teacher. They asked me to go out into the rural villages, find the girls who weren’t in school, and get them into school, so they’d be safe. 

Free To Shine is a child protection organisation that prevents school-aged girls being trafficked into the commercial sex industry in Cambodia. We conduct monthly safety visits and social work interventions, focusing on strengthening family and community systems to prioritise the safety and education of their children.

We teach families how to protect themselves from exploitation and abuse. We address complex factors such as poverty, hunger, illness, unemployment, migration, addiction, violence, family breakdown and debt.

We provide the materials and funds girls need to access their local state school, and keep girls in school by providing access to water, food and shelter. We model gender equity and invest in the next generation of Cambodian women leaders by providing leadership training to emerging leaders, and funding university places.

My role is to lead a team of 22 professionals, and raise the funds required to keep more than 500 girls safe in school. 

The lessons you've learned through your child protection organisation has led you to become a public speaker on these topics. Tell us about this.

I realised that working with families facing immense difficulties, and children battling to go to school, has taught me many lessons that have changed the way I live and lead. In my work with business leaders I began discovering that the lessons I had learned were really valuable to them, and I began getting invites to share these lessons at business conferences around the world. I’ve spoken at events and conferences across Australia and England, and in Bali, Singapore and Cambodia. 

You recently released your book, Do What Matters. Described as a book for people who are ready to step up in their life and leadership, what can we expect from this book?

Do What Matters

You will be taken on a journey of the complexities and challenges of leading a child protection organisation. But the lessons I have learned along this journey, and that I share with you in Do What Matters, are ones that you can apply in your own life and leadership.

It’s about Strength – you’ll get to see what real strength is. I’ve learned so much about harnessing and ‘borrowing’ strength.

It’s about Perspective – I used to overthink and over-analyse. I used to drive myself (and others) crazy sweating the small stuff. Not anymore, not with what I learned. 

It’s about Joy – I literally have more joy in my life now than I did before. Considering I work to prevent one of the most abhorrent human rights abuses on earth, that’s kinda crazy, huh? 

And it’s about Community – I now understand community in a way I didn’t before.

Do What Matters is a call to action to do more with the life we too often take for granted. 

I hope it will leave you inspired and energised.

What was it that originally inspired you to write the book? 

Do What Matters

This book is my attempt to bottle something very special. Of course, we in the so-called ‘developed’ world ought to help our fellow brothers and sisters and advocate for basic human rights, including the safety and education of children. But what I’ve discovered along the way is how many things they have got right that we haven’t, and how much we could learn from them too. From early on, I’d find myself saying, ‘If only I could bottle the way they think – this education thing could be a two-way street.’ 

I share what I’ve learned over the last decade from the children and families I’ve worked with, who have wisdom and an approach to life I think you’ll find valuable. 

Do What Matters is a reminder to do what matters most to you; whether that is with your family, in your work or in the world. 

Here at Boody, we're all about living a sustainable life. In what ways do you factor eco-living into your every day?

Sustainable life

I favour a simple life over wanting materialistic things, I have a veggie patch, compost and worm farm, I use natural organic skincare and household products, possibly the biggest thing I do to help protect the planet is follow a plant-based diet instead of contributing to the harm that animal agriculture has on our environment. 

We hear you're a fan of Boody. What is it about our comfy everyday essentials you love?

Boody Essentials

I love that they’re bamboo. I love the fit and the feel. I love that they’re super soft. And that you use sustainable practices. 

Any top picks from our ranges?

Crew Neck T-Shirt

I love it all. My new fave is the crew neck tee in black. I think I might get it in grey, too. 

Finally, what can we expect from you in the near future? Any exciting plans on the horizon?

Our plan is to get Do What Matters into the hands of 1,000 leaders this year. That will help us secure the entire Siem Reap province from sex traffickers. 

Keep up with Nicky by connecting with her on LinkedIn or following Free to Shine on Facebook and Instagram.

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