The Exodus Road team is excited about the future under the leadership of our new CEO, Laura Parker.
Laura Parker and her husband Matt are the founders of The Exodus Road, and they have worked together to launch and lead the organization for the past decade. Matt, who has served as The Exodus Road’s CEO since inception, is transitioning to Chief Strategy Consultant for our international programs — a position he is passionate about, as well. You can read a bit more about the transition of leadership here.
Laura is a leader, a writer, and a passionate advocate for trafficking survivors. We wanted to take this opportunity for our community at The Exodus Road to get to know her a bit better.
Q: Laura, you’ve been a part of The Exodus Road team since the very beginning. Tell us a little about those early days.
A: When Matt and I first started The Exodus Road, it was such a humble effort. We were two very ordinary people, who found ourselves organically confronted with the horrific reality of children being sold for sex in the city right where we were living in Thailand. It was something we couldn’t turn away from. When Matt started working as an undercover informant with local police, the issue started to take on real names and real stories. The further I went into the work, the more it wrecked me on a deep soul-level.
We started The Exodus Road out of this audacious belief that maybe we — this ordinary couple without much experience — could help police find and free survivors. And when it started to work, I was honestly surprised. In those early days, we learned so much about what police needed at the ground-level — and we learned from many mistakes along the way too. When people heard about the work and started joining us, it was motivation to keep going.
The real joy for me came when we started to work directly with national operatives and social workers. It was so exciting to watch them use what we had learned and apply it in their own cultural contexts, and it was a joy to be able to resource them to do the work of justice in their own countries. I think that’s when The Exodus Road really became something I wanted to commit to long-term.
Q: You’ve watched The Exodus Road grow over nearly a decade. What have you learned along the way?
A: I have learned so, so much along the way. Leading The Exodus Road team through my various roles has been one of the greatest catalysts for my own growth and development. Launching a nonprofit of any kind is tough, but doing work that is full of security risks and mental health concerns for operatives, in often corrupt environments, felt impossible many days.
When you come up against the impossible, you learn a lot about yourself and you’re given an invitation to grow and develop new muscles. I started out pretty fearful — both personally and professionally. At times, I’ve been co-dependent on people’s opinions and on the success of the organization. The journey over the last 10 years has really called me out of those negative places, and I’m so grateful for that.
On a personal level, I’ve had to walk through what this work has cost my family and myself. I didn’t know when we started The Exodus Road that it would require so much of us — from moving internationally multiple times with small kids to dealing with the trauma that comes with being exposed to abuse. It’s been a really costly road. But, as I tell my kids, “anything worth doing costs.”
Q: What are the roles you’ve held as part of The Exodus Road team and what is your professional skillset?
A: I have a BA in Middle Grades Education and a second major in English. I always loved to write, and when we moved to Thailand to do humanitarian work in 2010, I began a blog where I wrote honestly about our experiences. It was my first experience writing professionally. I loved it so much that I began writing for other publications as well. When Matt and I started The Exodus Road, I dove into the communications needs. I launched the brand, website, marketing materials, donor communications, and social media. I learned about digital fundraising campaigns and launched our monthly giving community, Search + Rescue. Essentially, I got to become the voice of The Exodus Road.
I learned so much along the way about organizational development, marketing, and executive leadership. As The Exodus Road grew, so did I. I served as the VP of Marketing for four years, as the Chief Communications Officer for two years, and as the President for over a year. For the last year, I’ve led the launch of our two newest programs — Traffickwatch Academy and Beyond Rescue, both programs I’m incredibly excited about.
Professionally, I have gained expertise in marketing and communications, cross-cultural communications, program development, staff and culture development, and executive leadership.
Q: Anti-trafficking work can be dark, and nonprofit leadership is difficult. Why do you stay in the field despite the inevitable discouragement?
A: I stay in this work because of the people of The Exodus Road. I’m inspired by them, and I want them to succeed wildly — both personally and professionally.
I think of our national operatives, leaders, and social workers. I think of their commitment to freedom despite the dangers and the odds stacked against them. It makes me realize how small my challenges are in comparison. I feel so honored to even rub shoulders with them in real life. Interacting with these individuals and supporting them is a highlight for me, always.
I think of the national organizations that are doing so much good in their communities with so little, and I want The Exodus Road to come alongside them and support their work. I think of our team here in Colorado (they are incredible!) and our generous donors around the world (also amazing!). They encourage me on days when I feel that progress is slow.
Above all, I think about the individual lives The Exodus Road teams are impacting. I think about the 12-year-old girl in India who isn’t sold for sex anymore. I think about the communities that are learning how to spot trafficking in their own neighborhoods. I think about the women who are receiving comfort from our social workers. When I can remember to focus on the people impacted by this work, it helps me to dig deeper.
Q: Tell us about your leadership style.
A: I’m an encouraging, collaborative leader. I’m an Enneagram 3, an ENFJ on Meyers-Briggs and Positivity is my top quality in StrengthsFinder. I bring energy to the room, but I love to bring many voices to the table when it comes to decision making. Perhaps one of my greatest strengths in leadership is that I’m self-aware. I consistently evaluate my conversations, leadership, thoughts and emotions, and I’m open and vulnerable about my weaknesses and mistakes.
I also believe that healthy individuals build the strongest teams and produce the highest quality of work, and so I pay special attention to the wellness of our people and am trying to address what it looks like to foster health and longevity in a field in which people typically burn out quickly.
One of the things I am learning in leadership lately is to foster slower leadership and to celebrate progress over perfection. So often when we move quickly, we make poor, rushed decisions. I’m learning that a slower pace often saves us from costly mistakes. I’m also learning to honor every step forward towards making the organization better. In the past, I’ve been so goal-driven that my idea of success is almost impossible to reach. I’m shifting our focus to celebrate incremental and consistent progress.
Q: What are some of your favorite leadership books that have influenced you?
A: I love Dan Allendar’s Leaders Who Limp and Peter Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Leadership. I also love Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly and am currently reading her book, Dare to Lead, and leading our team through some of her teaching, as well. When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert greatly shaped the way I view international humanitarian work, and Sold by Patricia McCormick has been the most impactful book on human trafficking I’ve read.
Q: Tell us a little more about yourself and your personal life.
A: I am still wildly in love with my high school prom date, Matt. We have lived through so much over our 20+ years together, including over 20 moves, four of those internationally. I’m so proud of the man he is, and am so grateful we get to continue working together with The Exodus Road community.
We have three amazing kids who are all teenagers now, from 14 to 18 years old, two daughters and one son. We are a tight-knit family who love to travel together. We now spend lots of time out in the wilds of Colorado — hiking, fly fishing, mountain biking, and exploring.
I grew up in North Carolina, where I met Matt, and both of our families still live there, so you’ll sometimes hear my southern accent. I grew up being called by my first and middle name, Laura Leigh, which gives me extra Southerner-cred, I guess.
I also love to write and enjoy my husband’s gourmet cooking. We have good friends all over the world and here in Colorado Springs, which I’m really thankful for. I am learning lots and loving contemplative spirituality, and I’ll take deep conversations about real life over small-talk about the weather any day of the week.
Q: What are you most hopeful about in the future of The Exodus Road?
A: I think The Exodus Road is on the verge of exponential growth and impact. We have the strongest team of professionals we’ve ever had, both internationally and in the United States. We have opportunities before us that we haven’t had before in terms of our work continuing to have impact. New doors are opening, and this is incredibly exciting to all of us here. This momentum has been built by so many people in our community — staff, donors, and supporters — over the last 10 years, and I am deeply grateful for each of them and their fingerprints on The Exodus Road today.
I’m most hopeful about this community over the coming season. I want it to thrive in its work and impact on human trafficking, and I want it to flourish in its health and connectivity to each other. We get to be a part of a bigger story of freedom in the world for the most vulnerable, and I can’t wait to see how this community is going to write another chapter in that story.