Somaly Mam's resignation is pretty awkward for Sheryl Sandberg and Brandee Barker

By James Robinson , written on May 28, 2014

From The News Desk

Following last week’s Newsweek cover story accusing anti-sex trafficking activist Somaly Mam -- once named by Time as one of its most influential people in the world -- of lying about her past history of abuse and encouraging members of the Somaly Mam Foundation to do the same, the Cambodian-born Mam has resigned from her own foundation this morning.

In a letter expressing the foundation’s “heartfelt disappointment” at recent developments, a spokesperson for the Somaly Mam Foundation said that following a two-month long investigation by Goodwin Procter LLP into the personal histories of Somaly Mam and foundation spokeswoman Long Pros both would be stepping down and moving on.

“The work of the Foundation and our grant partners must and will carry on. We have touched the lives of over 100,000 women and girls,” Executive Director Gina Reiss Wilchins said in the statement.

Newsweek had alleged that Mam was never kidnapped and forced into sex work at all and that people from her home village remembered her moving there with her parents when she was a young girl and living there late into her teenage years. Likewise Newsweek raised serious questions about Long Pros’ version of her life story -- one that she has been a guest on Oprah talking about.

Somaly Mam's fall from grace leaves quite a few high profile people looking red in the face -- everyone from Hillary Clinton to Susan Sarandon have toured her foundation's centers.

Closer to (our) home, Facebook COO and author Sheryl Sandberg was an advisory board member and Mark Zuckerberg's former PR guru Brandee Barker also sits on the board. While neither Sandberg nor Barker can be blamed for lies told by someone else, the embarrassment around such a high profile female founder being forced to step down presents difficult "optics" for Sandberg whose bestselling book, Lean In, "examines why women’s progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled, explains the root causes, and offers compelling, commonsense solutions that can empower women to achieve their full potential."

Barker, meanwhile, was described by the New York Times as “perhaps the most sought-after image consultant in the startup world.” This feels like exactly the kind of PR disaster she should have been well placed to identify and resolve, long before Newsweek published its story.

Reached for comment on behalf of the Somaly Mam Foundation, Barker told Pando, "We don't have anything to share beyond the statement."

[Image credit: Fortune]