Interview with Mahnaz Lee by Inspirational Women Series
Mahnaz Lee was a former executive at Lee Kum Kee (USA) Inc. in Marketing, Advertising and Corporate Management for over 10 years. As a wife and mother of two, Mahnaz also works closely with several Foundations and NGOs, which has provided her many years of in-depth fundraising and charity experience. She is the Co-Founder of Women Helping Women Hong Kong (WHWHK), a non-profit organization established in 2010 that strives to help families facing domestic violence and abuse in Hong Kong. WHWHK partners with local NGOs offering educational classes to create awareness and solutions through therapy sessions and focused workshops for underprivileged women and children facing abuse. Believing “women are the heart of the family”, Mahnaz sets out to make a direct and positive impact on Hong Kong society. With a profound sense of purpose and mission, Mahnaz continues to raise much needed funds to create effective programs in communities where domestic violence is most prevalent. Thus far, WHWHK has reached out to over 45,000 women and children locally.
What is your background?
I was born in Iran. My parents immigrated to US from Iran in the mid 70s when I was about 12 years old. Raised in United States during my teenage years, I finished my high school and a Bachelor of Arts university degree. Given my Middle Eastern values, growing up in the super free US life was a bit of adjustment. My parents were super conservative and tried to protect me from boys! It was an interesting time in my adolescent life. I met my husband at university and we Married in our early 20s. After graduating from University, I joined my husbands family business in Los Angeles and worked for about 10 years in Marketing, Advertising and Corporate Management. My husband and I have two sons, both of whom are married and living in HK.
You are the Founder of Women Helping Women Hong Kong (WHWHK), a nonprofit organization assisting families facing domestic violence. What inspired you to co-found WHWHK and what have been your favorite experiences with WHWHK?
Hong Kong has became my home for many years. I wanted to do something for women and children in our community – some way to empower women and promote a loving family environment. During my research to see how I can help my community, I stumbled upon government statistics about women and children who face domestic violence in particularly poor local areas. During the process I recall reaching out to all my friends and asking them to help me while I was applying for the non-profit organization process through the government.
I clearly remember those who discouraged me not to start! They warned me starting a nonprofit is a lot of hard, redundant work as there are too many similar charities. As my journey continued, I met Mrs. Patti Ho, a wonderful, experienced and charitable woman who shared my passion and believed in the same cause; she ultimately became my Co-Founder of WHWHK. Our partnership is a blessing and I feel God brought us together for a reason; meanwhile many friends who truly believed in us became our board, advisory ambassadors and committee members contributing to our cause. We established WHWHK in 2010 and had 6 successful years. Since it was founded, WHWHK has helped 45,000 women and children receive educational classes, counseling, therapy and workshops.
The most gratifying feeling for me on this journey is to know that with small steps and hard work, we helped so many people who, without our programs, would not have had any chance to recover from the crises they faced. I am certainly thankful for all our members for their support and trust; I also thank all of our donors, sponsors and contributors. We couldn’t have done this alone.
Can you talk about some of WHWHK’s initiatives that set it apart from other nonprofit organizations related to women’s empowerment?
WHWHK programs are effective because they fill the gaps that the government and other NGOs do not fill. Women and children who face domestic violence can be helped through WHWHK’s education series as well as workshops to learn relationship stability or find the way out to live on their own and raise their children in a happy environment.
WHWHK mainly combats violence against women and children. We also focus on women’s empowerment through education through our programs addressing anti-violence in the home. We believe women are the heart of the family and we want to provide the support when they are in time of trouble. These women are mothers – they take care of their children and they also take care of their parents so when we help these women, we in turn help multiple generations of families. WHWHK programs are run with partnership with local NGOs to provide a solution to those in need and it has been proven effective in helping those underprivileged families who qualified for the programs. Operating costs of our organization are all absorbed by the founders so we can use 100% of the funds raised toward our programs. This is something that perhaps set us apart from other NGOs.
What were some of the biggest challenges you experienced founding and leading WHWHK? What has helped you get through those challenges?
WHWHK is platform for like-minded women philanthropists to unite and contribute to their community in a way a person can’t do alone. This model make our organization model very unique and special. Our challenge is fundraising for our programs. Each year, we organize a Ball or a Gala and raise funds to continue our programs. As we rely on sponsors and donors alike, it is part of my responsibility to reach out to as many financial organizations and individual donors for such funding. With our effective programs and great track records it is not hard for our donors and sponsors to lend their trust and helping hand. We are very lucky and thankful for their continuous support over the years.
In your opinion, what needs to change to eradicate domestic violence against women and children?
I think to stop violence at home, we must educate men to respect the women and their children. Families with low income face a lot of stress in their lives which will effect their daily lives. The research shows that, those who have little or no education are most likely to live in abusive relationships. So education plays an important role for people. However, it is not possible to totally eradicate violence in these families but we certainly can try by intervention and educational programs to empower them to change their lives.
On a personal level, what does women’s empowerment mean to you?
As a woman, I hope I can empower other women to learn skills to over come their crises and abuse at home. I hope we can equip them with good skills through our educational programs and therapy sessions and workshops so they can find their purpose in life and be happy.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
I would say my mother impacted my life greatly. As a child I was raised in a very loving and supportive family. Being the youngest of four, I was blessed with all the valuable advice from both my parents and my older siblings. My mom played an important role in raising me to be who I am today. I feel the love and support she gave me and the self confident I built over the years allow me to over come many obstacles in life and be the person I am today!
What advice do you have for people interested in starting a nonprofit related to women’s empowerment?
I believe there is a lot of room for helping our community. People can start a NGO and help their community. There are many meaningful causes.
Are there books, movies and websites that are inspiring you right now about women’s empowerment and social impact?
Please visit our website WHWHK.org and learn more about our programs and how we care impacting families facing violence in HK. Also join our FB page and receive the latest news and event schedules and see how you can support our cause.