Child sexual abuse material has exploded since the dawn of the internet era, while child sex trafficking also has increased as a result of being made easier for traffickers. The number of child sexual abuse files exchanged online grew from 450,000 in 2004 to 25 million in 2015, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. As many as one in seven runaways becomes a victim of sex trafficking, and many of these children are advertised online. Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore cofounded Thorn to combat this problem. The non-profit’s mission is to build technology to defend children from sexual abuse online by eliminating all child sexual abuse material from the internet.
Thorn partners across the tech industry, government and NGOs and leverages technology to combat predatory behavior, rescue victims, and protect vulnerable children. The non-profit’s products are used today in 35 countries and have helped identify more than 30,000 victims of abuse, 10,000 of whom were children. Recently, Thorn was one of eight recipients to share in an over $280 million grant from The Audacious Project by TED.
In her role as CEO of Thorn, Julie Cordua manages the Thorn Technology Task Force, the largest organization of its kind, uniting technology companies committed to fighting child exploitation. She also collaborates with other NGOs, policy makers, law enforcement agencies, and the private sector in her work. “We started Thorn seven years ago to address the growing problem of online child sexual exploitation. We saw how technology was being used to exploit our children through child sex trafficking, the spread of child sexual abuse material, and online grooming and coercion. Yet there was no concentrated effort to use technology to fight back and stop this abuse,” Cordua says.
Prior to running Thorn, Cordua ran marketing for (RED). During her time with the NGO, she helped raise more than $180 million to fight AIDS in Africa. Back then, she did not know much about child sex trafficking or online child sexual abuse – mostly because these are things we don’t talk about as a society. “Most of us don’t know the realities of these crimes or how pervasive they are,” Cordua says. “They are hard to talk about. Most people would rather turn away than really dive into the issues.”
Cordua was drawn to this work because she saw an opportunity to harness technology for good. “I believe we can make a dramatic difference incredibly fast and literally transform our world’s response to a major issue,” she explains. The more she has learned about online child sexual abuse, the more passionate she has become about her work.
However, Cordua faces plenty of challenges in running Thorn. There is not a lot of money to be made in the field, it is a hard subject for people to talk about, and in technology, the game is always rapidly changing. Nevertheless, at Thorn, she feels she has tapped into a perfect intersection of her talents and her passion to make the world a better place.
“I can see the impact of our work, and that creates passion and drive within me,” Cordua says. “As Thorn has grown from two people to nearly 40, what has added even more meaning to this work has been the opportunity to create an organization that others can be a part of and feel similarly passionate about. We are tapping into technologists and business people who have always wanted to channel their talent to world-changing work and now have a platform to do that.”
Cordua says that she defaults to action in her career and life in general. “I have always learned best by doing,” she says. “So, my advice to others looking to align their career with their life purpose is to first do your homework, talk to a lot of people, and read up on what you’re interested in, but then jump in and start working. By working and doing, you’ll learn. You’ll learn how to fail and how to succeed, and each step will be part of your path of both impact and self-discovery. If you give yourself the grace to evolve, then you won’t be paralyzed by the decision-making process and you’ll value each opportunity in front of you.”