Elena Shahnaian, Founder of Two Wings. Interviewed by Michele Carroll. Photography by Roneil Chavez.


For our readers who don’t know, give us a little rundown of what you do.  I run a non-profit that works with at-risk youth and survivors of sex trafficking, empowering them to pursue their dreams through mentoring and a career development academy. As a founder of a young but growing organization, I wear many hats.

How and when did you first become aware of the issue of human trafficking?

My first exposure to the issue was at a church I was attending. They provided a training to educate us on the issue and to show us how prevalent it was in our own backyard. But it wasn’t until I watched an indie film that exposed the issue in a new light, that the information from the training became cemented in my mind. At that point I knew that I could not close my eyes to such an atrocity and needed to do something about it.

Did you have any previous non-profit experience prior to starting Two Wings?

Nope. I came from the corporate world, knowing I wanted to run the non-profit like a for-profit business.

Once you made the decision to move forward with the organization, what was the first action step you took?

My first action step was to hire  someone smarter than me as the Program Development Director to prove my hunch that the services we wanted to provide would work and were necessary for this population. 

How did you come up with the resources to get this idea off the ground?

A combination of our Program Dev. Director who did the necessary research, our very first volunteers who were sold out for the cause, and my 401K cashed out to pay for our start-up fees.

What were your biggest insecurities in the beginning? How did you overcome them?

Oh my goodness, where do I start? As a young woman starting my own company amongst a sea of older professionals who were working in this field for years, I had to overcome the initial intimidation of bringing a new service to a growing community that was skeptical of any newcomers. There was also the fear of leaving a comfortable career to pursue a passion I couldn’t extinguish, but couldn’t guarantee would be successful. 

Could you touch on the emotional journey of starting and growing Two Wings?

As an immigrant growing up in a family that helped other new immigrants get adjusted, I learned quickly that I had a heart to help people thrive by empowering them to activate their skills and talents that were transferable in this new world. When I started the organization I knew the need for our unique services was necessary because I met survivor after survivor who had so many untapped skills and a lack of self confidence to see their potential. Watching our young women come alive when they have a chance to discover what they are capable of, is priceless. 

Can you think back to a particular unexpected setback or mental block you had to overcome when starting out? What did you learn from it?

The biggest mental block I had to fight was thinking of myself as too inexperienced and too young to be entering this field. With mentors and talented people in my life I was able to realize that this was just a voice of fear in my head causing me to doubt everything we had built that was researched and intentional. 

What was your first ah-ha moment, when you knew all your hard work was coming together as a reality? 

My first aha moment came from watching one of our first clients have a moment of revelation that she was meant for something much greater than she was told she was capable of. Seeing her light up when she learned she would be a great entrepreneur proved that we were on to something valuable.


What is one specific resource you can’t live without when running your non-profit? 

Hmm, I would have to say my faith. To be honest, there were so many moments where I should have given up, but my faith in knowing that I was made to do this kept me going. 

What does a typical work day look like for you – morning to night?

I wish there was a typical day. Since I wear so many different hats my days can go from meeting with a prospective donor to meeting with a team of interns or potential clients. I find a lot of value in actually meeting every young woman coming through our doors and knowing that the program we have designed is going to personally empower them in some way.

Do you have any rituals for getting yourself in boss mode on days you might feel less-than-inspired? 

One of the things I find the most inspiring to get off my behind when I am sulking or feeling down is going through our client profiles. Seeing how many barriers and adversity each young woman faces while still pursuing our program reminds me that I have something bigger than myself to fight for.

Do you sense a change in yourself from your life before working in such a sensitive industry to now?

Definitely! Before my eyes were opened to the prevalence of this issue in my own city, my life was comfortable and void of anything that challenged my level of compassion. Now that my eyes have seen and my ears have heard first accounts of lives ruined and then rebuilt, I see the world through a different lense. I see a world that is broken but with flickers of hope shining through.


Favorite area of L.A.? The West Side – I feel the most peace there.
Favorite happy hour? El Carmen on 3rd Street
Favorite weekend activities in the city? Beach, walk/bike
Audio of choice when sitting in traffic? NPR – TED Radio Hour

-Elena Shahnaian, Founder of Two Wings