June 18, 2013 § Leave a Comment
It was just me and Malbec, on Tuesday, washed up in a tiny bar south of Houston.
I was in SoHo catching up with myself. I do it best in new pockets of the city, surrounded by strangers.
Everything is different now.
If someone asked me about it. I’d have to say it was me.
I’d had a beer with a branding mentor and good friend on 28th and 7th just hours before, and told him I wanted to give a singular perspective on Africa – the one that belongs to me. 30 days of business on the ground as a 24 year old New Yorker in Kampala. I go to Africa to make a living. Like any other Joe. Same thing, different place.
I was all pumped up, walking down 7th exploding about social strategy camped out on Africa’s rising place in the international market, and my individual place in driving it forward.
That was before it happened again.
“I hear its pretty rough over there.”
That’s how it started. That’s how it almost always starts.
A woman I met in passing had a friend, Ray, who had told her all she needed to know after a week long clinic he worked in. Ray. The would-be expert in Uganda after seven long days in a hot, white tent.
“Just terrible,” she shook her head. “I’m not sure how you do it.”
Everyone’s an expert on African misery.
I’ve learned that part of my job is to provide something different – first, on the ground and second, in my interactions about the work that I do there. How will I represent Africa?
I am responsible for the stories I tell.
“There must be reciprocity of culture,” Maria Chavez reminds me on a conference call, the next day. “Not just knowledge from us, but capturing knowledge from their language, story and culture.”
She tells me that its the marginalization of the impoverished that most often keeps talented women from surfacing and contributing.
Women have traditionally been asked for their weaknesses, she notes. Work and partnership has been built on that weakness – meeting its need with strength from the an outside source, and, most often, an outside culture. She calls attention to the importance of identifying strength, instead.
Strength is already present, she tells me. My job is to enable it to surface – not to provide it from the outside.
Her’s was the voice that wrapped up the lessons I’d been learning for the past year and a half. I’ve done a 180 since last setting foot in Africa, changing from a perspective of help to partnership, from asking for weakness, as she so eloquently put it, to asking for strength – both from myself, and the women that I partner with, regardless of our backgrounds or prospective occupations.
I’m feeling introspective, once again, from a spot tucked away in a city surrounded by strangers.
This time, in London’s Covent Gardens. Coffee instead of malbec, but the strong feeling of differentiation from before is much the same.
On my mind, today, is a meeting I’ll be having with 12 women on Thursday – women that I’ve worked with for months, now, but will only just be beginning to get to know.
Here are 10 10 things I’ve learned about my work with women, in particular, that I plan to take back to Uganda with me tomorrow morning.
1. Don’t ask a woman what other people have done for her, ask what she has done for herself.
2. Ask her what she wants you to know about her, instead of assuming you already have found out what it is.
3. Look for the strengths she brings to your partnership, instead of searching for weaknesses to fix.
4. Find out what resources she has available to her – and how she is willing to use them.
5. Look for reciprocity of culture – opportunities to learn from her and her culture, instead of simply teaching her about yours.
6. Don’t ask her to to change her sexual or otherwise personal behaviors in order to work with you – protect her privacy.
7. Find out what her goals are.
8. Find out what she is willing to do to reach them.
9. Find out how she thinks you are going to help her do that.
10. Don’t tell her you’re going to do it for her.
June 16, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I met Grace during my first trip to her village, but it wasn’t until I started Nakate that she and I were able to sit down and talk.
Grace has a round, mud and thatched hut on the edge of Kakooge where she is a mother both to her own children and to her late children’s children – 12, in all, and she cares for them by herself.
I told Grace she must keep busy, and she laughed with me. She poured us milk tea in the afternoon shade of the banana trees around her home, and Grace asked me a pointed question.
“Why did you choose to work with women like me?”
She said that she knew I could have chosen a career as a doctor, a woman in finance, or a female lawyer – that there was much opportunity in the United States for girls like me, both for education and for business. She said she thought I should have taken one of those opportunities, and expressed her concern for me and my career. Why had I come to Uganda to work with impoverished women? Why had I thrown away professional opportunity?
She asked if I had brought shame to my family.
That day was the beginning for me – the start of when I really knew what it was that I was doing with Nakate.
I was creating new stories.
See, the only story Grace had ever been told was one of her poverty and weakness – her need for help. She had been given money by nonprofits. Her children had been handed sponsorships at a local school. But Grace had never been told that her talent and strength as a woman was worth partnering with – that her unique skill set was important to the global market – enough so that a young, enterprising American woman would want to work with her over being a doctor or lawyer.
That day, I was able to tell Grace that working with her was a job that gave me respect at home in the USA, that my parents and grandparents were proud of me, and it was a career choice that I considered just as dignified as working in finance, law or the medical field.
I watched Grace sit a little taller, after that.
“I never knew,” she told me. “I’m glad to be doing business with you.”
That’s the heart of our work, at Nakate – empowering individual women to see their own talent and power through design. We want them to understand that they are businesswomen – enterprising, brilliant females in a global market.
That’s their new story.
Tomorrow, as I take off for Uganda – you can join me through shopping our online store (40% off just through today with code NEWSTOCK). Alternatively, you can join me in creating impact here.
April 27, 2013 § 1 Comment
Most of the women we work with at Nakate are mothers, if not grandmothers.
We tell the story of their lives alongside our own.
In 2010, we launched out of Kakooge with Agnes Kabugo, a mother of three, and around 30 grandmothers and mothers making handmade pieces to test out in an American market.
As Mother’s Day approaches, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the mothers in my life – not only my own, but these women I work with, and that stand with me at Nakate.
This mother’s day, I choose to honor the women that first stood with me.
The Kakooge Collection – a Journey Back to our Roots, is my way of taking you back to the stories that Nakate began with.
Designer Amira Mednick has partnered with me to create a line that re-purposes beads from my first ever buying trip to Uganda. Together with South American knotting techniques and sterling silver, 14k gold or brass, these beads celebrate Nakate’s Kuzua, or beginning, in Uganda.
We invite you to celebrate your own mother through returning to our roots with us – to travel back to the place where it all began, here at Nakate. Honor her through purchasing a piece supporting the kind women that make not only our businesses, but our very lives, the beautiful journeys we experience them to be.
Where Will She Take Africa?
April 20, 2013 § 2 Comments
If you pinned parts of me to cork board like a dissected art class beetle, you’d find the stories of a race I’m not a part of.
I can still smell pine needles and oak sap around the open spaced sanctuary where I was raised in California. I’m 10 again, just like that – sitting on a green fabric chair in a blue, carpeted room. God didn’t choose my European ancestors to follow him through the Red Sea, but I was taught, nevertheless, that faith is a thing you stumble upon when you discover your shoes don’t wear out, and cracker bread falls from the sky.
Its been a lot of years since then. I don’t have a word for it anymore – not “Christian,” not “Buddhist.” I’m pro gay, pro abortion, pro sexual freedom, pro follow your dreams and stick it to the man – and I’m pro doing right by everyone around you, including the folks that try and tell you that you’re hell-bound, together with all that feminist freedom and your neatly rolled spliffs and birth control.
I ignore them, on the subway, yelling about hell. But I resonate with loving my neighbor, and I still like to imagine one particular story of the Israelites gathering stones to carry as remembrance of a river crossing – a big to-do. They’d made it a long way since Egypt, god said. They should stop and take note.
I’m following suit, this weekend – picking up fortune cookie sayings and saving champagne bottle tops to mark a year, now, that I’ve been on the road to my own promised land – earmarking moments to remind me that just when I thought the current might carry me away, it didn’t.
It also won’t.
Here’s what I’ve learned in a New York City year – the lessons I carry, like my own bag of remembrance stones from the foggy Hudson river.
I wasn’t ready, you know. I arrived on April 20th, all blustery weather and trains running along a system of numbers and letters I didn’t understand. I didn’t know anyone to speak of. I only had $137.50 in my checking account.
When you jump into something like that, it’s all mouthfuls of water and salt in your eyes. Full throttle, uncomfortable emotion. You don’t get to dip your toes in. There will be no wading. Your money, your reputation, your heart and your relationships are all in a neat row, set up together like targets, waiting for someone to punch them in the gut.
I guess I’d caught wind that was the only way to ever do it, really. Some lives you can live apart from some professions. But my life and my job are like water – pulling them apart like breaking down a river current for parts. I knew I had to go all in on myself, as an entrepreneur – balls out, all calculated risk and determination.
All that salt in my eyes and the water I choked down taught me a lot. But I had to start going through the motions of doing it before it made any sense. Like a dog paddling toddler in the water – “look! I’m swimming I’m swimming I’m swimming!”
I was drowning, half the time.
Doesn’t matter. I stayed in the water. And eventually, I started to swim.
Entrepreneurship is a life you walk into the day you quit saying yes to everything else. I’ve learned that’s the only way you get going, or keep at it, for that matter.
The trouble is, it doesn’t feel natural. People mostly congregate in groups – religious groups, ideological groups, groups depending on where they grew up. Posse like. Follow the leader.
Make a home
Barbara Kingsolver writes that home is where you answer the question: “what life can I live that will let me breathe in & out and love somebody or something and not run off screaming into the woods?”
New York is the place where I’ve ever felt “home,” by her definition. They say that once you can make it here you can make it anywhere. I don’t believe them. I’m not sure that homes aren’t like best friends. You get only one real one, in your life – two or three if you’re extra lucky.
New York asks you who you are over and over and over again. This kind of work isn’t just what you “do” – it’s an ear mark on all your life pages – your friends, your bars, your groups, your places, your beliefs and commitments.
She’s a regular class bully. After you answer, New York will push you around a bit, and ask if you’re sure.
You have to be.
The night I met my flatmate, I’d shown up at a fundraiser I didn’t want to be at, and paid for an unlimited drink wrist band I couldn’t afford that week. But it was for the Congo, and then there she was, busting balls and wearing bright red lipstick. A month later, we were hiring brokers. Six months later, I wake up every morning and blink twice, just to make sure this big, beautiful apartment is for real, and my home life is really this full of peace.
Somebody, somewhere presented the idea that entrepreneurship was all excitement and heady feeling.
I’d like to kick them in the balls.
“I do wonder…whether some people opt for the entrepreneurship ‘experience’ over the lonely, exhausting, and terrifying real thing,” Eric Schurenberg writes in April’s Inc issue. “Companies get built in the spaces between you, your customers, your investors, your vendors and your team, where things get gritty and complicated and rarely go according to plan. They don’t get built, unfortunately, on a pitch-contest stage.”
Schurenberg nails it. Some days I’m terrified. That’s the worst of it. Others its just that I don’t feel useful, or smart or inspired. I don’t have a great answer for that – except that I keep trying anyway.
I think that’s the best anybody can do.
It’s only temporary
I’d paid my staff, my taxes, the business phone bill, my internet bill and bought chutney and red curry and had (very few) dollars to spare (I thought) for the week when a sneaky dollar fifty put me over the edge, clutching a coffee mug and wailing over my financial instability.
My father told me that it was a morning, not my life.
“Its the people inside your business that define it – the kind of work you do,” he said. “Not your bank account at 9 am on a Tuesday. This is called start up life, and this particular struggle will go away. But the people will stay, and so will the ideals you have built on.”
He told me there’s a wide road running between failure and frustration.
This too, would pass. And it did.
You’re going to need some help with that
The first time I moved in New York city, I did it on the subway, with big red rolling suitcases I had to drag up flights and flights of stairs. I had just about collapsed on my last transfer, when I felt my bag get lighter and realized the gentleman behind me was holding it up with his hands.
“You’re going to need some help with that,” he said.
God, have I. I wouldn’t know who to start with, if I listed out people to give credit to for every inch of this business.
I’ve learned that you can neither build nor enjoy a story by yourself.
It’ll come back around
I’ve learned that life is cyclical. On your team, even. She’ll pitch at you until you catch.
I try to live a lot, in the meantime, so I’m ready when she does.
Fall in love
I forget to love my life, sometimes – all caught up in bills and business deals, quality control problems and waiting to “make it.”
But I can and should and do fall in love with a million things around me every single day – the Albanian man who tells me that I have steel blue eyes, the flower stand I always pass on 84th and Columbus – the band playing Motown at Essex street on a Saturday morning, that one waiter in East Village, two weekends ago, who kept my coffee warm and my champagne filled just so — the sudden rain that one night I felt everything was ending until it soaked me through to my skin, running for my train.
I remember stopping in between 7th and 6th and crying, letting myself get all wet, getting it all out, alone on 23rd and feeling acutely aware that it really was going to be okay.
That was ten months ago.
Now, I catch myself falling in love with conversations and restaurants, brands of whiskey and certain Saturday morning traditions, coffee blends, champagne labels and familiar smells…people.
Most of all, I catch myself falling in love with what I have.
If that isn’t worth remembering, I’m not sure what is.
(photo by Sandi Elle).