16 AAPI Voices You Need To Know

Vital Voices Global Partnership
12 min readMay 21, 2021

In Celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

For Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPIHM), we are proud to celebrate women leaders in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community around the world who are catalyzing change, fighting for progress, bringing about innovative ideas and building a more equal future for us all.

With the rising hate crimes against the AAPI community in the U.S. (where 1 in 10 members of the AAPI community have experienced anti-Asian hate in 2021 alone, and Asian women are disproportionately affected by this racism, making up 68% of the nearly 3,800 recently reported racist incidents), it’s critical that each and every one of us uses our power to empower, elevate and support Asian leaders, neighbors, colleagues, friends and family to STOP ASIAN HATE and create a more just society.

This AAPI Heritage Month, join us to celebrate the AAPI leaders within the Vital Voices network! From their unique business ideas, to their meaningful cultural change and deep positive impact within society, check out a few* of the women leaders across the Vital Voices network who are ensuring that everyone’s voices, especially women’s, are always heard at the table.

Anja Juliah Abu Bakar

IG: @anjajuliah

Business: @athenaempowers

Anja Juliah Abu Bakar has dedicated her life to tackling the glaring issues that surround menstrual cycles and the social inequality that comes with them. She is the Social Impact Director of Blubear Holdings, an innovative social enterprise that has pioneered the reusable and eco-friendly menstrual product business in Malaysia. They take over half of their profits and seek to empower girls and promote healthy menstrual hygiene through their signature programs, Athena Empowers, Big Girls Talk, and Anja’s most recent program, the Sisterhood Alliance, which was launched in 2018.

Check out VV GROW Fellow Anja on the Womenpreneur Asia podcast where she hares what it means to be a social enterprise and what shifted the balance for her in her entrepreneurial life.

Anna Casalme

IG: @annacasalme

Anna Casalme is Founder and CEO of Novelly, which is an education technology non-profit dedicated to creating youth-driven civic engagement through stories and an innovative mobile app. As a Rotary Maternal and Child Health Scholar and a Scottish Saltire Scholar, Anna completed her MSc in Childhood Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She is also the youngest-ever board member of the School-Based Health Alliance. She has worked at the intersection of childhood health and technology at AltaMed Health Services and the California Planned Parenthood Education Fund. The proud daughter of Filipino immigrants, Leadership Incubator Fellow Anna has dedicated her life to building youth-driven civic engagement for a generation growing up with school gun violence, climate change, a global pandemic, and so much more. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Anna worked tirelessly to advocate against the rise in hate crimes against the AAPI community, and launched the #Peoplearenotthevirus campaign to push back against the vitriol.

Learn more about how Anna uses her voice to build up young people as experts and changemakers on the most complex and pressing social issues of our time.

ElsaMarie D’Silva

IG: @elsamarie_ds

A globally recognized pioneer in tech for good, ElsaMarie D’Silva has changed the face of technology as the CEO of Red Dot Foundation Global. The foundation’s platform, Safecity, crowdsources personal experiences of sexual violence and abuse in public spaces. It both helps to reduce the stigma surrounding sexual assault by hosting an online platform to facilitate anonymous conversations between survivors, and has assisted in the reduction of crime rates through the publication of anonymously reported statistical data about the prevalence of sexual assault in different geographic areas. As a Global Leadership Awards Honoree and VVEngage Fellow, Elsa’s work has been internationally recognized and today, Safecity is the largest crowd map on sexual abuse in India, Nepal, Nigeria, Cameroon and Kenya.

Check out Elsa’s story at the 2017 Global Leadership Awards ceremony honoring her work in empowering youth to break the cycle and end gender-based violence.

Khulan Davadoori

IG: @hulancka

Khulan Davadoori is dedicated to showing the world that a new generation of manufacturers exists and that businesses can create a positive social impact. In 2014, She started Mongolia’s first ever organic skincare brand, LHAMOUR, working to diversify the economy and be a role model for the next generation of innovators. FORTUNE program alumna Khulan is committed to making positive social change both in Mongolia and around the world through her use of raw material and employing those in marginalized communities while giving back to those communities and the environment. In 2016 she received the Best Young Entrepreneur of the Asia-Pacific Award and 2018 she was selected as the international Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Organization’s World Ambassador for Mongolia.

Check out Khulan’s story in an interview with Formula Botanica where she shares her experiences and story of creating Lhamour in a country that was previously only known for mining and cashmere.

Shihoko Fujiwara

Twitter: @lhjapan

A determined advocate for the eradication of human trafficking, Vital Voices Global Freedom Exchange Fellow Shihoko Fujiwara serves as the Founding Director of the Lighthouse Center for Human Trafficking Victims (Formerly Polaris Project Japan). Harnessing her experience in community engagement and victim recovery from her time at US organization Polaris, Shihoko strives to expose the largely underacknowledged realities of human trafficking on Japanese soil. The organization operates a human trafficking hotline and provides direct intervention, counseling, and other support to human trafficking survivors. Cognizant of the impacts that law enforcement can have on the lives of human trafficking survivors and efforts to end trafficking, Shihoko also works to educate law enforcement officials as well as the general public about the realities of human trafficking while advocating for improved public policy that is more coordinated and victim-centered.

Watch this interview of Shihoko with Mowbi Content Creation on cultural communication within her career in activism against human trafficking.

Michelle Hong

IG: @rooftop_republic

When she began growing her own food after moving to Hong Kong, VV GROW fellow Michelle Hong discovered the challenges of the modern urban food system and came to realize how disconnected many people are from what they eat. Michelle founded Rooftop Republic Urban Farming with the goals of supporting the urban agricultural movement, reconnecting individuals to their food, and reviving the organic farming industry. Since founding Rooftop Republic in 2015, Michelle has helped to transform 68,000 square feet of unused urban spaces into over 61 productive landscapes in Hong Kong and China that are used as urban farms, vertical greens, indoor farms, and agri-tech development.

Listen in to Michelle talk about how COVID-19 is revealing vulnerabilities in the food supply chain and how she’s reconnecting people with how food grows on the Vital Voices Podcast.

Leah Lizarondo

IG: @LeahLizarondo

Nationally recognized by NPR, FoodTank, and Fast Company Magazine, Leah Lizarondo turned her passion for food into a career fighting environmental damage by tackling the enormous food waste problem in the United States. She is the co-founder of 412 Food Rescue, based in Pittsburgh, which uses technology to link retailers who are left with excess food to distribution volunteers, preventing leftovers or un-sellable food from going to waste. As CEO of 412 Food Rescue, WE Empower Awardee Leah has expanded the organization and helped redirect over 9 million meals to those who need them most.

Watch Leah speak about combatting hunger with food waste during a conversation with actor Elizabeth Banks at NowThisNEXT.

Judith Martinez

IG: @jud.ithmartinez

Judith Martinez is truly a young innovator. As CEO and Founder of InHerShoes, she works to catalyze courage for young women and girls around the world to make a difference in their communities. Through InHerShoes, Leadership Incubator Fellow Judith has worked with organizations such as Ashoka, GOOD Inc, The Transformative Action Institute, and has spoken at the United Nations. She co-authored Students Lead Now, a book by and for students on youth leadership in the academic space. She was also named as a nominee for the Forbes “30 Under 30”, and was the recipient of the Stuart Weitzman x Vital Voices Spring 2021 Campaign grant!

Check out Judith’s reflections on AAPI History month and the sacrifices the previous generations have made to pave the way for change in the future.

Wai Wai Nu

IG: @waiwainu

Wai Wai Nu is a true fighter. After spending seven years as a political prisoner in Burma, Wai Wai has dedicated her life to the preservation of democracy and human rights, focusing on marginalized women and ethnic minorities such as the Rohingya in the Rakhine State. The VVEngage Fellow has undertaken many roles focused on the construction and preservation of human rights including working as the Executive Director of Women’s Peace Network, founding both the Yangon Youth Center and Justice for Women in Yangon and organizing the My Friend Campaign. All of her efforts strive to increase conversation between differing population segments and reduce discrimination against gender and ethnic minority groups. Her incredible work has earned her the recognition of the United Nation’s Office of the Prevention of Genocide and Responsibility to Protect.

Watch this video of Wai Wai reflecting on her family’s imprisonment via the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.

Heidy Quah

IG: @heidyquah

Heidy Quah is the founder and director of Refuge for Refugees, a non-profit organization that seeks to raise awareness regarding the status of refugees in Malaysia as well as provide education for refugee children. Recognized by Queen Elizabeth II, Heidy founded the organization alongside a group of friends when she was just 18 years old! In 2012, the group came together to save a school for refugee children that was on the brink of abandonment due to a lack of funding. Today, Global Freedom Exchange Fellow Heidy uses her education “to give the gift of education to those who can’t have it.” Refuge for Refugees continues to provide accessible education to refugee claimants and refugees across Malaysia, advocates for refugee rights on a global scale, and inspires Malaysian youth to support the members of their communities who are in need of help.

Listen in to Heidy’s conversation on the Vital Voices podcast where she shares the unique ways the COVID-19 pandemic has affected refugees with host Alyse Nelson.

Maria Ronna Luna Pastorizo-Sekiguchi

IG: @mariaronnaluna

Maria Ronna Luna Pastorizo-Sekiguchi has been inspiring positive change throughout her career, building a business that has inspired others to do the same. The VV GROW Fellow is the founder and Creative and Innovation Director of the Greenhouse Studio, a boutique multidisciplinary creative design and communications studio based in Suva, Fiji. The Greenhouse Studio is passionate about making positive change in both Fiji and the Pacific by working with individuals, companies, and organizations to articulate and communicate information that positively affects the lives of those in their own communities.

Watch Maria Ronna talk about the courage to be in business and what worked for her as she shares her experience and knowledge on why Fiji must support upcoming young entrepreneurs.

Priti Patkar

IG: @priti.patkar

For nearly four decades, Vital Voices Global Freedom Exchange Fellow, HERlead mentor and VV100 leader Priti Patkar has worked to ensure that survivors of sexual exploitation and their families are guaranteed their rights to freedom and safety. Years after its inception, her original system of night-shelters for at-risk children and families in Mumbai’s Red-Light District now serves as a global model for shelters assisting victims of sexual exploitation. Her non-profit organization, Prerena, provides children and their mothers with accessible healthcare, education, and vocational training. More recently, Priti was appointed by Indian central and state governments to assist on monitoring and consultative bodies dealing with child sexual exploitation and trafficking. She currently sits on the Supreme Court of India’s special panel to assist the court in addressing issues of sex worker rehabilitation and the prevention of trafficking. Learn more about Priti’s work in child protection, child rights and ending intergenerational trafficking in India!

Check out Priti’s podcast episode on Breaking the Cycle of sexual violence with Host Alyse Nelson and other VV Woman Leader Saskia Nino de Rivera!

Mari Sawai

IG: @wedu.global

Mari Sawai is the co-founder of Wedu, a social enterprise with the mission of catalyzing the development of women leaders in Southeast Asia by providing inspiring mentorship and innovative financing to complete university education. Wedu works to empower university-aged women to achieve their leadership potential and help other women develop their skills by sharing skills, becoming a mentor to other women, or an investor themselves. They provide young women with the mentorship, funding, and other support to help them access higher education, with the belief that investing in education will lead to long-term economic and societal benefits for the world. Mari is an alumna of the Global Ambassadors Program, a Vital Voices and Bank of America partnership.

Read more on the incredible impact Mari is making on Asia’s young women enterpreneurs!

Cristina Sevilla

LinkedIn: Cristina Sevilla

Cristina Sevilla believes in the power of the law to defend and support victims of gender-based violence and exploitation. Currently a Regional Human Rights Lawyer working with victims of torture in Asia, Cristina establishes, coordinates and mentors a group of litigators from different countries in Asia, who litigate torture cases before national and international courts and bodies. Applying her various prior roles in the field of law to her own civil society organization, ACTIVE (Action Against Violence and Exploitation Inc.), Global Freedom Exchange Fellow Cristina works to amplify the voices of women in the field of Filipino human rights law, a space that has long been overlooked and dominated by men.

Melissa Shang

IG: @melissa.shang

Since she was in middle school, HERLead fellow and disability advocate Melissa Shang has been showing the world that people with disabilities are not defined by their challenges, but rather by what they can achieve. In 2013, she started an online petition asking her favorite toy company to release a doll with a physical disability — a character to whom she could relate. Melissa then went on to co-author “Mia Lee is Wheeling Through Middle School,” with her sister, exploring the life of a girl with a disability. Hundreds of copies have been sold to families around the world and the book has been deemed the beginning of a more representative future for young adult literature. Today, an incoming freshman at Harvard University, Melissa continues to advocate for the disabled community through various publications including Teen Vogue and The New York Times.

Read Melissa’s take on the COVID-19 vaccine efforts especially for people with disabilities and learn more about her passion in advocating for equality for all.

Maya A Tamayo

LinkedIn: Maya Tamayo

Maya Tamayo has dedicated her career to uplifting women in the Philippines. She is co- founder and program manager of Angat Bayi (Uplift Women) which aims to promote women’s entry into politics. They gather elected women leaders to advance a holistic social development agenda by engaging young women in building a broader constituency for women’s issues in politics. VVEngage Fellow Maya has been awarded the Connections Through Culture-Arts and Creative Economy Research Grant by the British Council in the UK and East Asia and was also selected as part of the first cohort of the Women Together for a Better Normal program by Ashoka and the S&P Global Foundation in 2020.


*These are just a few of the several incredible women leaders across Vital Voices’ 18,000-person global leadership network.

Vital Voices Global Partnership invests in women leaders who are solving the world’s greatest challenges — from gender-based violence to the climate crisis, economic inequities, and more. We are “venture catalysts,” identifying those with a daring vision for change and partnering with them to make that vision a reality. We scale and accelerate impact through long term investments to expand skills, connections, capacity and visibility.



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