Sonya Passi combined her legal expertise with her devotion to activism in founding FreeFrom, an organization that empowers victims of domestic violence to become financially successful through its compensation, credit, and entrepreneurship programs.
Sonya is confident that tech can do more to empower underserved, neglected populations around the world. And her humble, yet proactive approach to leading and learning was apparent in our interview for the latest installment of Proust Goes Tech!
What would you otherwise be doing right now?
I would be a pediatrician. That was where I thought my life was going until I was sixteen.
The original thought behind it when I was four was that I wanted to be a pediatrician to help people, undo harm, and ease pain. Then when I was sixteen and had to make life choices about my education I realized I didn’t really like science, and so then I had to find another avenue to do that kind of work.
What is your main fault?
Sometimes it’s a fault. Other times it’s what gets things done, but I definitely overwork and burn out.
What is the quality you most desire in a tweet?
Having an actual point.
What is your idea of misery?
Spending too much time away from my wife.
What do you appreciate the most in your friends?
What is your chief characteristic?
I get things done.
If I have a good idea, I’ll figure out how to make it happen, even if it seems impossible.
What skill do you wish you possessed?
I feel like I’m such a type A person that if and when there’s a skill that I want, I work at having it.
When I started FreeFrom I had never been a boss before, and that’s an entirely new skillset that I’ve had to learn. I’ve invested so much time in the last year and a half taking the time to learn. I’ve had to have patience with myself to understand what it is to be a good manager and a good boss– someone who is able to get the best out of people. That is something that I feel that I’m constantly learning and developing. It’s true both in my relationship with my staff and my relationship with my clients. I think the key is learning how to get the best creative potential out of someone.
I don’t plan to be the executive director of FreeFrom forever, so my first job as a founder is to be able to support my staff in being able to run the organization without me. This is so that in however many years when I step down, or step away, there is a solid structure in place. If I don’t invest that time in my staff and then leave, there’s a huge vacuum in the organization.
What is your most impactful book?
Right now I’m reading An Era Of Darkness: The British Empire In India. It has been life-changing and life-affirming to understand the impact of the British Empire, colonization, racism, and global financial abuse on my country of origin. You see those parallels between the way in which world powers financially abuse other countries, and financial abuse as it occurs in intimate partner relationships.
What defines success for you?
Fulfilling my creative potential.
When is confidence lost?
I think I lose confidence in myself usually when I’m tired and haven’t had time to rest and reconnect to myself. It makes me feel a little ungrounded.
In terms of my reputation and other peoples’ confidence in me depends on my being true to my word, acting responsibly, doing everything with integrity and honest and good intentions. I think it’s very easy to lose sight of that. You can take a lifetime to earn a reputation and earn respect, and you can lose it a second.
Which buzzword is exhausted?
What virtues do others have that you don’t?
I’m also not an extrovert. I’m very much so an introvert. As much as I’m out in the world on a daily basis, I need to go inward and recuperate. I’m often in awe of people who can just keep going out in the world and go from event to event, to meeting, to party, to gathering.
What impact do you want to leave behind?
The reason I got into this work– besides the fact that it’s a global crisis– is that the systems that we have in place are failing the individuals that they’re meant to serve. So as long as there are still systems that need to be rebuilt or reworked, I am interested in working on them.
I want to use this life as impactfully and efficiently as possible. I want to use the skills that I have to get as much done as I can in the forward progress of structures that we have in place that are designed to support us, protect us, and be platforms for us to lift off from. I may work within the gender-based violence movement for the next five years, for the next ten years, for the next fifty years, but it’s less about being in the movement for me and more about whether or not there’s work for me to do here.
What is the biggest problem tech is failing to solve?
It’s not so much that I think tech is failing to solve this problem, but I think that it has only scratched the surface in filling the gap in access to justice. I think we have an access to justice problem in our country and in this world. Very few people can afford an have the information and knowledge to advocate for themselves, protect their rights, and know their rights. The solution there isn’t to train everyone as a lawyer or even to have more pro-bono legal services. The solution is to make the information that is easy to break down and disseminate available to people using technology.
FreeFrom just put out a self-help compensation tool for survivors– it’s an online tool that survivors can access any time. It provides survivors with the information that they need in order to understand what their compensations are and what they need to do to pursue them. It’s been up for 10 weeks now, and we have almost 70,000 users. We could not in years have served that many people as a non-profit doing this work one-by-one. I think there are so many other areas of law where we can thoughtfully disseminate information so that people have the information themselves and aren’t reliant on a lawyer that they may or may not have access to to tell them what their rights are and how to defend them.
Editorial Note: Answers edited for brevity and clarity.
Illustration Credit: Li Anne Dias
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