Liza Pavlakos’s life story is the stuff films are made of. Raped and abused as a young adult, single mother at 21, kidnapped and then human trafficked—life threw every extreme circumstances it had on her. But for Pavlakos, there is nothing to be ashamed about making the episodes of her private life public because she transformed those adversities into opportunities to make her the successful person that she is today.
Growing up in a conservative family, part Indian, part Malaysian, that moved to Australia from Malaysia when she was 12, Pavlakos experienced abuse at the hands of her own uncle from a young age. To top it all, her cousin raped her at the age of 14.
Angry with her parents, she ended up running away from home at the age of 16. “It was very difficult to leave the comforts of home, but I was very angry with my parents. For years, I had tried to articulate what was wrong and what had happened to me, but I think my parents chose my cousin and my uncle over me. It was very painful because all I wanted was my parents to have these two men accountable for the crime they had done against me. I felt there was no place for me at home.”
Leaving home came with other ordeals but Pavlakos never turned back. And although she learnt a lot—about tenacity, leadership, courage, she also learnt about the cruelty that exists in this world.
The latter came from making poor choices, she rues. “I fell in love for the first time at the age of 17 and I thought my boyfriend was good, but he wasn’t.” When she was 18, Pavlakos had to get the right side of her face reconstructed after he punched her hard. She recalls sitting at the hospital having food out of a straw and asking herself, “Do I matter, does anyone care about me?”
With not much support, Pavlakos worked hard to break up from this relationship to embark on a new journey, to start her life yet again.
But just when life started to get hopeful with her getting enrolled in university to study, Pavlakos was walking home one day when she was kidnapped and almost murdered by a stranger. “This was gut-wrenching, it was painful, it was cruelty to an unimaginable level,” recounts Pavlakos.
Surviving that experience has also been difficult, she says, as it made her wonder about all the people that have been kidnapped who didn’t survive. She had to deal with survivor’s guilt along the way. Every time she turned on the TV or heard a story of kidnap or abuse, she felt completely triggered. “So, I knew there was more to my life but I didn’t know what that more was.”
Once again, she did not find support from her parents and Pavlakos ended up going back to the same dysfunctional relationship thinking the boyfriend, who punched her, was the only person who loved her in the world. His violent ways didn’t change and he left her pregnant as a single mother when she was just 21.
But it was the birth of her son Adam that completely changed her life. Pavlakos experienced love and knew she had to do something for this human she had brought into this world. “Adam is my guiding light who inspired me in so many ways to become better, to dream, to hope. I was so inspired to give him a better life that I started a business.”
Pavlakos launched the first Miss India International beauty pageant in Australia with zero start up. “I launched this business because I thought I must not be the only woman who has experienced hardship. I thought if I brought all of us together and created one big empowerment show it would be successful.”
Sure enough, the show was a big hit with 4,000 people in attendance. “Overnight I learnt what power tasted like, and realised I also had the ability to have a dream and a vision to create something from nothing.”
It wasn’t long after this pageant show that Pavlakos had to opportunity to take over a failing café and stepped into the food and beverage industry in the heart of the city. The café became successful on all fronts such that she ended up marrying one of her customers (whose surname she has taken after), who had a tailoring business.
Pavlakos next joined his venture and helped expand the business opening five stores around Melbourne. She would learn how to negotiate, connect with people and bag big contracts. It was one afternoon when she was sitting at the Crown Towers, one of the clients, having lunch with singer Beyonce Knowles whose clothes her tailors were fixing that she had an epiphany and asked herself, ‘Have I arrived?’
“To be honest, I wasn’t happy because I knew there was more to life for me and that I had a greater purpose,” says Pavlakos.
So she sold her stores to embark on a new journey and become a keynote speaker. It’s been six years since she took on this role travelling all around the world and describing the experience as both amazing and challenging.
Pavlakos’s survivor story sees her plunge into another intricate situation in 2017 when she and her team had a stopover in the Middle East on their way to Nigeria for an assignment. “We were human trafficked by terrorists,” she says, adding, “Their driver turned out to be a human trafficker, luckily we were saved by military intelligence.”
As Pavlakos looks back on the journey of her life, she asks whether anyone can experience that much in life. But no matter what cost in emotion to herself, she believes, “We all have a purpose in life and sometimes the universe will just send you different signs and different doors will open. Opportunities, both good and bad, will come along and if you can follow those signs, however bad they are, you will end up with your purpose if only you believe in yourself”.
Pavlakos is bringing out the story of her life in her upcoming book Voiceless No More. “What I’ve got to do is share my story to empower others.”
Today, Pavlakos is recognised as the ninth female speaker in the world and claims to be the first Indian woman in the world to be the recipient of the prestigious Toastmasters Golden Gavel Award for 2021.
She is also the founder of Positive Breakthroughs, an executive coaching and counselling service, working with a team of qualified therapists and coaches to provide training, counselling, and professional and personal development guidance to individuals and corporate organisations through their employee assistance program.
If the amount of words Pavlakos speaks in is amazing, still more amazing is the voice she speaks in!