From Human Trafficking Victim to Successful Business Owner — This is How She Did It
Credit: Nakia Vestal

Nakia Vestal was 17, broke and alone when her mother kicked her out. Without many options, she turned to stripping to support herself. That quickly shifted into other forms of sex work that left her yearning for a way out. 

The Knoxville, Tennessee native soon found herself pregnant and firmly entrenched in a sex trafficking ring that she says led her feeling “addicted”  to the lifestyle she was a victim of. 

Her story is similar to many others throughout the country. Of all human trafficking cases,  40% of sex trafficking victims were identified as Black women according to the Congressional Black Caucus’s 2020 report on the issue. 

This is unsurprising. 

As USA Today’s Faith Huckel Motter put it, the common reality is that traffickers disproportionately prey on people who experience intersecting vulnerabilities like racism, misogyny and classism. Yet for too long, our society has perpetuated a narrative of what the perfect victim of sex trafficking should be – a narrative that often excludes Black survivors.

Fortunately for Nakia, 45, the determination to shift her life in a different direction led her to making some incredible changes, and launching her own lash extensions business with the support of her community and helpful resources. One, for example, was the online Digital Ready Curriculum  by Verizon, which helped her  bring more small businesses for free across sectors to transform into the digital economy.

Nakia recently sat down with Essence to share her transformational journey and how others in a similar situation can find their way to success. 

To start, could you share a bit about your background with me? Where did you grow up? 

I’m a mother of two and I also have one granddaughter. I currently live in Houston, TX. Not only am I an entrepreneur but also, a human sex trafficking overcomer, public speaker, and mentor. I was born in Memphis, TN but I grew up in Knoxville.

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For how long did you do sex work? Could you share a bit about your experience being a sex worker? 

My mom put me out at 17 and that’s where the sex work began. I went to Atlanta with nothing but the clothes on my back and that’s when I started stripping and selling my body. I was harassed by so many pimps and had only bad experiences that I knew I didn’t want any man controlling my money, mind, or life, so I was what the streets called a renegade.

At what point did you make a pivot in your career? What made you want to explore entrepreneurship, particularly with lashing? 

Being a single mom in the sex industry was exhausting, but addicting, and I knew I wanted better for me and my children. I had so many thoughts of suicide and was just going through a really dark time in my life, but I found God and that was the light that gave me hope. In 2013, I went to Cosmetology school and got my license. I quickly learned I hated working in hair salons, but then I saw this lash company was hiring and that’s where my lashing career began. I’ve been lashing for six and a half years and an entrepreneur for five years! I started as a home-based business and now I have my own studio and brand of lash products with plans of expansion.

Can you tell me a bit more about your experience with Verizon’s Digital Ready program? 

Earlier this year I was awarded a small business grant with Verizon at the beginning of last year as part of their Small Business Recovery Fund with LISC (you can learn more here.) But earlier this fall they reached back out with an opportunity to try their new Digital Ready Program. I have completed 20+ modules so far and I am gaining so much business knowledge with the program because I went to beauty school and not college! I never learned about finances or branding, but now I’m learning so much with the different modules and quizzes provided. It’s truly a life saver to my business.

What’s the proudest moment you’ve achieved in your business? 

Every day is a proud moment for me because I love what I do, and I love my clients who continually support me. I’m blessed to be able to be an entrepreneur and live on my own terms. I love the freedom to make my own decisions!

What’s your hope for your business? My plans for DollMaker Lashes are to help other women and girls/boys that are on the street that have no hope. I want to be the Mary Kay of lashes and support human sex trafficking victims/survivors! My vision for my future is to see my DollMaker Lash products on the shelves in major department store. It’s crazy how a little thought in my mind has manifested into something tangible. I’m grateful that I didn’t give up! Life is so great now.