Renee Brinkerhoff: “Don’t be so timid”

What we should all ask — is — ‘what’s the life of one child worth?’ — ‘if it was your child what would you do?’ Those children are our children, the children of the world are our children. For me, being a wife and mother, caring for children extends globally, we need to help the children of the world and these […]

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What we should all ask — is — ‘what’s the life of one child worth?’ — ‘if it was your child what would you do?’ Those children are our children, the children of the world are our children. For me, being a wife and mother, caring for children extends globally, we need to help the children of the world and these children in particular…

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing woman racer and philanthropist, 64-year-old Renee Brinkerhoff who has traveled the world for one cause — to rescue children around the globe from human trafficking.

Through her car racing and fundraising arms, Valkyrie Racing/Valkyrie Gives, she is challenging the global community to take part in her 1mm-dollar mission — a philanthropic effort that coincides with her own endurance conquest to complete six rallies on seven continents for a total of 20,000 miles in a vintage Porsche 356 racecar — bringing her message on a global journey. Her final frontier will be this winter in Antarctica, where Renee takes on a final 356 miles on ice and attempts a land-speed record on the blue ice at Union Glacier.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I do not believe in coincidences. After homeschooling four children who successfully achieved academic collegiate scholarships, and having now been married 40+ years, a chance meeting with an FBI agent introduced me to the global pandemic of human trafficking; and shortly after, an encounter on a rental car bus with a child predator who was viewing an indecent photo on his phone — I realized I was being led to get involved in a solution. The issue of child trafficking sought me.

Prior to this, I had dreamed of racing a car — and in my mid-fifties when I began racing, in one of the most difficult but globally renowned endurance rallies in the world, I grasped that as a woman, coupled with driving a very unique vehicle, I had a ‘voice’ to raise my concerns and foster support.

It was after a first in class podium finish in my very first race in 2013, (La Carrera Panamericana — known as one of the most treacherous rallies in the world) — that I began to realize being a woman competitor was a rarity and that this oddity could afford me an opportunity to speak out on a global platform to initiate awareness and raise funding to impact the lives of women and children at risk throughout the world.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Each continent, and more importantly, each people we have encountered, has shown me that all cultures share a commonality –that if you are passionate and committed about what you are doing — they will do anything within their strength to help you achieve your goal, and alongside you and together, by never giving up, you will find success.

After facing a serious mechanical issue in the Andes of Peru that sidelined us on a dirt road only a few miles from the finish, it was the unseen villagers that came down from the hills to help tie up the car to temporarily fix a broken suspension and cross the finish line. We thought we were alone in the mountains and all of a sudden there was an enthusiastic crowd surrounding the car, cheering for us to get to the finish — they brought clay bricks and rocks to lift the car, then strapped the broken parts together –ingenuity and perseverance is a necessity for their very existence, they can’t give up or they won’t survive — not a bitter cold winter, nor a growing season without rain. I’ve repeatedly learned this in racing, whether in Mexico or Mongolia or …, you need to find a way…. You just don’t give up, there’s always a way — and the enthusiasm of the local people showed us — it was just as important for them as it was for us to get to the finish line –our success became their success.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

For nearly a century, racing has been more of a ‘man’s’ world — and most often surrounded by younger men. And here I was, a middle-aged woman competing in a traditional ‘boys club.’ We were doing the most extreme events, in the most extreme places in the world — from Tanzania and Peru, to China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Africa and soon to be Antarctica.

After winning a few races in my class, I was placed on a panel among the winningest racing men.

It was my first time in Peru and everything was spoken in Spanish. All the national and local press was there: radio, tv etc. and there was one other woman that was competing — she was a beautiful celebrity, and through another racer, I later learned she had mentioned in her speech which was prior to mine, she was only there “to have fun” and that “the men should not look down upon her skills or get upset by her lack of competition.” I on the other hand, having a fierce competitive nature and not knowing what she had uttered, mentioned “We’re here to win! I’ve got an amazing team and we’re serious in our goal to reach the podium!”

Had I known her lesser positioning of herself as a woman competitor, I would have softened my words. Meanwhile, after the next day’s racing and getting a fast time in our first experience of racing in high altitudes, and mud and rain — with a struggling engine which we later found had two mechanic’s gloves mistakenly left inside — we got to the end of the day, to be greeted by our entire local team encircling us, and with a great deal of pride said “She’s really here to race”

My lesson was that whenever possible have an interpreter on hand — one to help in real-time, just in case we need to temper our enthusiasm!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

I was selected by a U.S. NGO to be part of a carefully vetted and select group of volunteer operatives to work on anti-trafficking efforts to rescue and restore victims of intercourse trafficking, including children. These evidence-gathering efforts to build strong cases for local law enforcement around the globe, place one in the throes of a very dark and ugly world not many get or want to see.

Within a team consisting of former Army Special Forces and current members of undercover US law enforcement, we secretly video and photograph the trafficking of children to gain needed proof which can then lead to arrests — our overall efforts support the work of nationals on the ground fighting intercourse trafficking with local police partners.

What we should all ask — is — ‘what’s the life of one child worth?’ — ‘if it was your child what would you do?’ Those children are our children, the children of the world are our children. For me, being a wife and mother, caring for children extends globally, we need to help the children of the world and these children in particular…

We’ve been fortunate — through Valkyrie Gives, we’ve already raised more than 200,000 dollars that has contributed to organizations in remote areas of Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Peru and Kenya. But there is so much more to be done. We’re on a million-dollar mission — and each contribution begins a means to educate, rescue and support victims of human trafficking while we continue to take steps to foster awareness that can help to end the global issue completely. We are calling out to compassionate hearts to give and help end this illegal 150 billion dollars business.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

– I would have to say it was the FBI agent that brought the issue to life for me — had I not had this chance encounter, I don’t know if we would be doing this today… those encounters are not accidental…

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Awareness — 9 out of 10 people don’t realize it’s a 150-billion-dollar business — the second largest illegal business in the world next to drug trafficking, 25–40 million victims — 25% being children. Public spaces in airports, sports venues, convention centers, public bathrooms, etc. should be used to educate people on the scale of the problem and who to contact for help.
  2. Funding for Police — As a citizen who wants to be boots on the ground and use investigative resources to fight child trafficking, it pains me to see police in our country underfunded in this arena. The traffickers use the latest technology to do their business of selling victims, and frequently local law enforcement doesn’t have access to modern technology to find victims and traffickers, nor if available, have people they can train to use it… they need to allow community involvement — a way for those that want to be involved to be trained to do what’s right — ways to do things similarly in the US as they are done abroad… it’s frustrating that I have to travel around the world to assist, when I should be able to do it in my own U.S. backyard where the trafficking is equally extensive
  3. Reform of Foster Care — many of the trafficked children in America have at some time in their lives been in foster care. The primary goal of the foster care system is to return these children to their families which many times may not be the best answer, as not infrequently they run away from abusive or unhealthy situations at home and are then picked up on the street and lured by traffickers — there needs to be better oversite–

Time, money and talent — these are truly the greatest resources we all have — so if you really have a passion for something, find a way to use all three.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I don’t know that I’m a leader, but I believe that if I’m not willing to do something, how can I ask someone else to do it? One must lead by example — get dirty, get sweaty, get stretched. You need to get your hands in there and be a part of the solution to a problem, not defer to someone else… be that person yourself… Get out of your comfort zone and make things happen. You’re broken down on the side of the road. Are you going to just wait for someone who is designated with the job of doing repairs to come and help you, or start being the solution yourself?

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Don’t worry about the end game — take each challenge one step at a time, because every accomplishment or failure will make you stronger for the next challenge. Figuratively: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
  2. Develop a ‘women’s team’ sooner — Women can be equally strong and competitive in arenas that are typically male-driven and there is a very special esprit de corps when women work together. I’ve had the amazing experience of working with my daughter, Christina, in the running of our race team and philanthropy, and in our last rally, I had my other daughter, Juliette, join me in the car as navigator. A lot of prior concerns about ego between driver and navigator were non-existent, and we were able to focus our energy and purpose in a very powerful way.
  3. Don’t be so timid — it’s okay to talk about what we’re accomplishing and how we’re unique — and we needn’t be bashful to ask people to support what we are doing philanthropically. If you believe in it and you know your cause is just and true, it’s your responsibility to speak up and ask for help.
  4. Use your voice — we found that by being different — we stood out and were being listened to and that we could use our voice to represent those that could not speak for themselves.
  5. Sometimes it’s important to be brutally honest with a teammate and not worry about being offensive or hurtful — if you say it with grace and salt, you will gain their respect and ear, and both be better for it in the end.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would ask people to get off their social media and phones and to stop taking selfies all the time and start going out and living a real-life — doing real things, with and for real people. Also, to develop friendships with people that want to get out of their comfort zone and face their fears to experience growth and positive change. I have experienced this personally through racing, by facing abundant fears — literally, shaking uncontrollably at the start of a race as they are counting you down to start. And as soon as I got moving and focused on the road ahead, the shaking quit and that energy was transferred to performing the task at hand.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Go to the Edge… Conquer Your Fear… and Find What You’re Made Of” — Racing in just the La Carrera Panamericana rally alone, you have to make a decision about what you are doing and whether you are willing to take the risk necessary to be competitive… you have to face your fear of losing life and limb and be okay with it.

There is no achieving of great things without taking risk, at whatever level. To make an impact and be heard today, you have to go for something difficult and “out there” — to take a chance and put yourself beyond the norm. We have a fire system in the car and we wear protective clothing, but a flame-retardant suit can only protect you from second-degree burns for about 9.5 seconds. That’s not much time. It’s okay to be like the celebrity woman in Peru who was out there to have fun, but I would say be a competitor and go for it! You may embarrass yourself or you may fail, but it will all be worth it in the end.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I couldn’t choose just one since I would like to meet with all the decision-makers in law enforcement and other responsible government agencies and NGOs that deal with child trafficking in our country — the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (, the head person in the FBI etc.

The purpose would be to brainstorm with those individuals to determine how ordinary people like me can become citizen “angels,” modern-day Valkyries… to use the untapped resources of our citizens to do something like MADD, which claims drunk driving has been reduced by half since its founding in 1980. We have untapped human resources in this country in every city, suburb and rural community, and child trafficking is taking place in each of them.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Facebook: @valkyrieracing

Instagram: valkyrie_racing

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