One Woman's Facebook Success Story: A Support Group For 1.7 Million : All Tech Considered Inspired by the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls, Lola Omolola started a Facebook group that soared in size and quickly became a support network for women around the globe.
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One Woman's Facebook Success Story: A Support Group For 1.7 Million

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One Woman's Facebook Success Story: A Support Group For 1.7 Million

One Woman's Facebook Success Story: A Support Group For 1.7 Million

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NOEL KING, HOST:

All right, this next one is a question for the ages - or at the very least, for our age. Does social media make us more connected or does it make us lonelier? For now, we do not know. The science isn't conclusive, but there are a lot of interesting anecdotes. NPR's Aarti Shahani has the story of a woman who's using Facebook to build a movement for women's rights.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Facebook has more than 2 billion users. And last year, at an invite-only event, Mark Zuckerberg introduced one of the most influential.

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MARK ZUCKERBERG: You know, a few weeks ago, I had a chance to meet Lola Omolola. Where are you Lola?

(CHEERING)

SHAHANI: Loma Omolola runs a wildly successful group for women on Facebook. She has nearly 1.7 million members. Her group has grown organically - word of mouth - and turned her into a major Facebook success story. Company leaders pick her brain, study how she uses Facebook's tools, and last month, they flew her out to California to star at their annual conference.

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LOLA OMOLOLA: I just feel like the universe is coming together to validate me in some way.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How do you mean?

OMOLOLA: It's overwhelming.

SHAHANI: Omolola is a 41-year-old mother of two. She looks younger in her bubble gum pink T-shirt and beige leather jacket, her hair in a short Afro. Sitting in an armchair at a hotel in Cupertino, she tells her group's origin story. It starts in 2014, when nearly 300 girls were kidnapped from a boarding school in Nigeria.

OMOLOLA: Whenever I turned on the radio and television, everyone was talking about the terrorism angle.

SHAHANI: Boko Haram - Islamic militants - did the kidnapping. But Omolola saw another angle - patriarchy. She saw men targeting young women for getting an education. She needed a way to be part of her country's mourning and healing. She's from Nigeria but lives in Chicago, far away from the protests and prayer vigils back home. So she turned to Facebook and started F-I-N - FIN - Female IN Nigeria, a support group for women.

OMOLOLA: I didn't know what I was going to do. I just knew I wanted to find them - at the very least - so that I wouldn't be by myself because it feels really lonely.

SHAHANI: Omolola invited friends, who invited friends. They organized meetups for members to socialize in the real world. And she found anecdotes on the Internet to share about other Nigerian women - for example, this one about a woman who wants to get her hair cut short like a boy. The hairdresser says, no, she needs a permission slip from her husband first. Omolola figured FINsters, as she calls them, would discuss the situation.

OMOLOLA: But guess what happened? And this was a shock to me - I think still is.

SHAHANI: I want to guess.

OMOLOLA: Tell me. Tell me.

SHAHANI: My guess is that people started sharing their own experiences like that.

OMOLOLA: Boom.

SHAHANI: Another time, Omolola was struck by a comment buried in a long thread about a woman who was dragged through the streets by her husband as people watched and did nothing. She messaged the FINster, who, it turns out, wasn't talking about someone else. It was her. NPR spoke with the woman. We'll call her by her first initial, O.

O: I just got tired of hiding. I just got tired of trying to put up a happy face when I'm actually not happy.

SHAHANI: O doesn't want to use her name for privacy concerns, but she let Omolola share her story, naming her on FIN, because, O says, it's a private group, and there are strict ground rules like, do not judge. A team of moderators enforces these rules, stepping in to delete personal attacks. FINsters responded to O with supportive notes, financial help, two offers for housing, and O left her husband for a while. When she decided to return to him - she says they're working things out - some group members were upset. But O recalls the message she got from Omolola.

O: You have my support. You found your voice. Make sure you do not lose it. And that was all I needed to hear.

SHAHANI: Omolola, who is trained as a journalist, has become a digital organizer, and she says her members are her mission.

OMOLOLA: There are women who, their entire lives, have been carrying such burden.

SHAHANI: Her eyes well up as she talks, and I ask what a lot of people have asked her - if something terrible happened to her. She says no, that both her father and husband encouraged her to be outspoken and helped her to believe in herself.

OMOLOLA: I know what true love feels like. I want that for everyone. That stuff isn't complicated.

SHAHANI: Back at that event last year with Mark Zuckerberg, he spotlighted how Omolola's work is having consequences he never expected by breaking the silence around domestic violence.

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ZUCKERBERG: When someone posts in your community, they're going to get thousands of messages of support and offers of places to stay and help with childcare all within minutes.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAHANI: In recent months, Zuckerberg has been very busy apologizing for Facebook's many failures. But Omolola believes his technology can be used for good if that's what's in people's hearts. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco.

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