Yes, you Can, young girl!

By Um’Khonde Habamenshi

Imagine you were born in South-Africa, in the early years of the apartheid era. Imagine your family migrate to Canada when you were just 9 years old. Imagine that the discriminations you witnessed as a child were to make you sensitive to discrimination of any kind throughout your life. Imagine that later in life, you built one of the most successful businesses in North America and you decided to give back to society, to the continent where you were born and where so many little girls don’t get the chance to move forward as you did, thanks to your parents. Where would you start? Would you be able to get things moving the way you are used to, you the hands-on, self-made woman?

Today, I am inspired by Lotte Davis of Canada. Lotte Davis was born in 1951, a few years after the Apartheid (“separateness” in Afrikaans) was enacted as the law of the land in her native South-Africa. Her family couldn’t bare living in such an increasingly hateful environment and decided to leave the country. It all went very quickly: one day, she came back from school and found they had put all their belongings for sale. Once everything was sold, they bought one-way ticket to a faraway place in the northern hemisphere called Canada. She was only 9 years old.

They landed in Toronto, the capital of Ontario. Toronto in the sixties and early seventies was not as cosmopolitan and multicultural as the megapolis of almost 6 million inhabitants we know today. In those days, the commercial city on the shores of Lake Ontario had about 700 000 inhabitants. Its ethnic make was dominated by immigrants of European descent and the most recent newcomers had fled the second world war and depression. West Indians, South Asians and East Asians migrants had started coming and their numbers would grow over the years. Africans arrived in Toronto much later, many of them fleeing the waves of wars the continent has known in its post-independence history.

Though she was very young when she left South-Africa, the discriminations, atrocities and continual injustices she witnessed toward blacks and other non-whites groups made her very aware of the way people treated one another. She recalls that it is in her first years in Canada that she became aware became aware of how much women were undervalued in society. Many women didn’t work and had to stay home to take care of the family, without much support. And when they did wok, they could not get good jobs and were underpaid.

Those early realisations of how society can discriminate against people just because of their skin colour or gender were going to inform her life choices and lead her to the path where we meet her today.

But I am getting well ahead of myself. Rewind. After completing her education, Lotte started traveling a lot, curious to discover how the rest of the world and the rest of Canada looked like. Her professional life started in the US. She lived in Los Angeles and Phoenix doing visual merchandising and then finally moved to Vancouver, in British Columbia.

That’s where she met John Davis, whom she married in 1984. In 1989, her husband and her decided to create a professional hair care company. Though they thought their combined skillset was all they needed to succeed – John an expert in hairdressing and product performance and Lotte, an expert in retail merchandising and design – they quickly realised that running a business needed much more than that, and much more money than 5000 dollars loan they had taken!

“We were too broke and too stupid to know better”, she jokingly says.

Despite all the hardship, they kept on going. AG Hair had very modest beginnings, with only two employees – her husband and herself – hand-filling bottles with a peanut butter filling machine in their basement and literally selling product off their car! Besides being their own labourers, they were also the company accountants, marketing directors, client service representatives, the janitors, you name it, they did it all.

They didn’t think of becoming millionaires, they just wanted to make it, doing what they loved.

“We learned as we went, and we sure learned how to solve problems. When we discovered the vast majority of hair care products are thickened with common table salt, we were motivated to find a better way. Today, we have an entire research and development department, so we can keep our standards extremely high. And that leads to consumer loyalty.”

Their dedication gradually paid off. AG Hair meticulous selection of natural ingredients helped them established a reputation as an environmentally-friendly and ethical enterprise. That coupled with their highly effective retail marketing, helped them grow and become a leader in the hair product industry. Today, some 29 years later, AG Hair has become the largest Canadian hair product company, and the largest in North America to produce all its own goods. Their products are distributed in over 15,000 salons and beauty stores across North America, Taiwan and Australia. Their hair care cottage industry has grown exponentially from a company of two to an employer of over 80 people and sales of 30 million dollars a year!

And of course, they have since moved out of their home’s basement.

You might think that that was the biggest mountain top she could reach, and it would be time to rest and enjoy her success. Not for Lotte! All her life, Lotte knew there would be a time where she would go back and do something meaningful in Africa. Running a company and raising two daughters had never really left her time to go and follow that dream.

The moment was going to come unexpectedly, sparked by an event that was completely unrelated to Africa. It all happen when her youngest daughter moved out of the family home in 2006. Lotte was one day walking in the empty house, so strangely quiet in the absence of her daughters, she had an overwhelming feel of emptiness. When she went to her daughter’s room, she burst in tears, a long cry, that type of cry we can’t stop and don’t want to stop, a cry that in which you let go of all the pain you’ve ever felt in your life.

She knew right then that she had to find something to do to fill that feeling of empty nest. AG Hair was doing well, but she wanted something different, something closer to her early life dream to help young African girls to get a good education.

Soon after, she started looking for an NGO already doing the type of work she had in mind. She chose World Vision and through them, sponsored the education of 30 African girls. But she felt she could do more than just sponsoring girls, she could build schools. Lotte knew that even if you sponsored all the kids of the continent, there weren’t enough schools to host them all.

“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.”

Bigger than her fears and self-doubts, was the fear that this anxiety might lead her to abandon the project forming in her mind. Lotte invited her family and close friends for dinner and made her big announcement that she had decided to embark on another career, 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.”

Lotte got involved with an international non-profit organisation based in East Africa. The NGO took her to Kenya. They had projects in Kibera, the giant 2.5 square kilometres slum in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. With its 1.2 to 1.5 million dwellers, many of them youth and orphans, it is said to be the biggest slum in Africa.

That was in 2008, and it was the first time Lotte had ever set foot in Africa on the continent since she left almost 50 years earlier. The 57 years old CEO took her family with her to show them the continent she came from and get them to buy into her dream.

The visit to Kibera moved her in ways she can hardly describe. She could not believe people could live in such conditions of extreme poverty. When they visited the school and saw the children and how they were so happy as though they were unaware of their surroundings and the conditions in which they were getting their education, she knew that she had found the calling of her life.

“I saw this school and I knew that I was going to do this for the rest of my life. It was cobbled together with rust and mud, in a real horrendous condition. So I had to figure out how I was going to get the money to rebuild this school to a six-room school on the piece of property that they had”.

Back in Vancouver, Lotte met with her company’s executives and sold them the idea that AG Hair should do something for those kids in Africa.

The Kibera project was estimated at 50,000 dollars but she managed to raise almost double that amount. That was just the beginning. Over the years, Women Leading Change work was going to raise more than 2 million dollars and build five schools in Kenya and Uganda.

But raising funds and having another organisation building the schools, without being involved in the work on the ground proved to be very frustrating. She felt she wasn’t getting where she wanted to get.

“I became dissatisfied with someone else building our schools. They weren’t on time. They weren’t delivering on their commitments. They didn’t have a sense of urgency. They were making huge mistakes and not reporting back to me. The communication was bad.”

She felt that the people she was working with didn’t share her sense of urgency, communication was poor, the bureaucracy was crippling, money was being lost. A real nightmare.

Lotte decided to tackle the issues the same way she did, some 20 years earlier, when, after realising the products she wanted couldn’t be found on the market, she had gone on to create her own business.

“I thought if ‘I’m going to make a success of this I’m going to have to do this myself.”

In 2008, she created ‘Women Leading Change’, a philanthropic arm of AG Hair, which was going to raise the funds to build the schools, and ‘One Girl Can’, an NGO with offices in Kenya and Uganda.

This time, the sixty-something CEO was going to oversee everything and get directly involved with the work on the ground, with no intermediaries.

In the 8 years since she started this journey, Lotte has raised more than $3.4 million, built six school in Kenya and Uganda, and provided scholarships for over 235 girls in secondary school and university. Every girl in her program is supported throughout her education. ‘One Girl Can’ pays their school fees and living expenses for those in boarding schools.

When Lotte is praised for the work she does for the young African girls, she replies that it is the contrary, that her girls (as she calls them) are doing more for her, for her spirit, than she could ever give them. One of those highly spiritual moments came last year, when her first girls graduated from University and Lotte was invited to do the Commencement Speech.

“These girls will be unstoppable. They will pull not only themselves, but also their families out of poverty. They will change cultural norms that favour education for boys over girls. They will postpone early marriage, have fewer children and become role models for other girls forced into arranged marriages. These girls are trailblazers, and they will slowly start to shift the needle and change gender parity in Africa. “

One of the girls she is most proud of is a young girl named Rahma. Lotte met Rahma on her first trip to Kibera. She was then just a little girl. Over the years, Lotte has watched her grow into a young woman, and followed her family struggle to keep her in school, despite being so poor. Thanks to One Girl Can, Rahma has been able to pursue her education and will soon go to University.

“My parents are poor, but I am not poor”, Rahma once said in a speech to thank Lotte on behalf of the other girls. “I may live in the slums, but the slums don’t live in me. I am determined and have a strong belief I will be able to achieve my dream with great success.”

Yes, you Can, young girl!

Lotte was chosen as the 2008 Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst and Young and was the 2016 winner of the YWCA Women of Distinction award for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Right Your Legacy, Lotte! You are the best example that indeed,
One Girl Can…become a CEO,
One Girl Can …become a Mother,
One Girl Can …become a Development Worker,
One Girl Can …become an Encourager,
One Girl Can …become an uplifter,
One Girl Can …become a mentor!

Thank you for shaping the future of Africa by bettering the chances of these young girls to make it in this fast-paced world where they are too often left behind!