In 1989 my husband and I started a professional hair care company with very modest beginnings: hand-filling bottles in our basement on a shoestring budget. It was not our goal at the time to build it into a $30 million business, but that is what it has become 25-years later. We performed every function in the company until we could afford to hire people better than us, and today; although we are still very connected to all aspects of our business, I lead the strategic direction of the brand in marketing while my husband’s focus is on product development and manufacturing.
About ten years ago, I remember a distinct moment in time when I came to the realization that our business was going to make it. We’d overcome all sorts of adversity over the years and I knew that there really weren’t any insurmountable hurdles left. Cash flow was good, our business practices were solid, and our product was well received and had lots of opportunity. I had always wanted to give back and I knew that now was the time. Although I would drive the initiative; my husband and partner was, and always has been, fully on board.
There was never any question what my area of focus would be: empowering girls and women - and Africa. I was born in South Africa and left when I was 9 years old, but I had cultivated a lifelong passion ever since I left to mitigate some of injustices I had both witnessed and read so much about. I also happily labeled myself a feminist in my early teens and felt an equal intensity for promoting equality for women as I did for Africans. After raising two confident daughters, who were pursuing careers of their choosing, I now wanted to extend that that opportunity to girls in an underdeveloped country through education.
Having left Africa 45 years ago, I had no connections left to anyone there and no idea where to start. I began by sponsoring 30 girls through a World Vision program, but found no satisfaction in just writing a cheque. With their help, I ramped up the donation and the focus, and built a water project that serviced three villages and brought water directly to schoolyards so that girls wouldn’t have to miss school to fetch water every day. But that didn’t fill me with a sense of purpose either. I wanted to do much more; and I wanted to be on the ground doing it, meeting these girls, following their lives and helping to guide the path to success for them. I wanted to build the schools and cultivate the learning environment that would help them achieve their potential.
The thought of this terrified me and kept me awake at night. I had no experience; I didn’t know what country to start in; how would I manage a construction project thousands of miles away; and although I’d built a successful business in partnership with my husband, I’d have to do this alone. I was plagued with self-doubt and fear, but at the same time, I knew I had to move forward.
My lean-in moment happened at a dinner party one night with several friends, when I saw my chance. I have exceptional follow-through and never backed down on a commitment. I made my announcement over dinner and let everyone know that I had decided to embark on another career – I was going to build schools for girls in Africa. There was no putting the words back in my mouth, it was out now, and the next morning I started making a plan and reading everything I could about this continent.
I contacted a local NGO in Africa and arranged airline tickets for my whole family to come with me and buy into my new career. The rest started to fall into place step by step. In seven years, I’ve raised over $2 million, built five schools, and started a scholarship program that will have 102 girls in secondary, vocational and university programs this year. I began my own NGO called One Girl Can last year and now have a full time employee in Uganda and one in Canada. I visit Africa twice a year, I have relationships with every girl on a scholarship and am in contact regularly with them. Many of them call me Mom, and nothing gives me greater satisfaction than to know I have been able to nurture their growth. I have started a coaching and mentoring program called Empower Me and hold workshops with the girls in our schools to help them set goals and develop confidence. Helping to build schools for girls in Africa has become one of the three brand pillars for our hair care company and both our employees and our customers are involved in a big way in everything we are doing.
I believe in the ability of women to become leaders, no matter where in the world they come from. We’re still struggling for gender parity in the Western world, but women in underdeveloped countries could get there a lot faster with a little help from their sisters, who started to pave the way almost a hundred years ago. My strength and confidence has grown immeasurably since I started doing this, and it is my privilege to share my story and help support these fiercely determined girls who may well define the future of Africa.