Chatting with Lotte Davis: Founder of One Girl Can

Tomorrow is International Day of the Girl. Based on recent events in the US, it’s clear that empowering women and young girls is more important than ever. And if it’s important here, then it’s even more crucial in other parts of the world where women don’t share our privileges as North Americans. So, in honour of International Day of the Girl, I want to turn our focus to One Girl Can: an incredible organization vitruvi has partnered with that helps mentor and educate young girls in Kenya. These are girls who go on to be women who break the cycle of poverty by obtaining careers in the science, business and tech fields. The program starts in high school and the top students in each school are awarded scholarships to attend university. The model is incredibly unique because One Girl Can supports these girls from every possible direction. It’s a holistic approach that combines building new schools/infrastructure, educating and mentoring the girls in high school, and also providing them with university scholarships. There are organizations that do this singularly, but One Girl Can does all three.

I had a chance to sit down with Lotte, the founder of OGC. Lotte is an incredible woman who knew from a young age that she wanted to impact gender and equality. Growing up during the apartheid era in Africa, she witnessed the injustices against women and, once she moved to Canada, she knew the only way she could really help would be for her to become successful. So that’s exactly what she did—Lotte and her husband went on to found AG Hair. It was about 15 years into AG when Lotte knew the business was stable and that she could pursue her passion to help women. She started working with NGO’s in Africa, then eventually started her own charity: One Girl Can. Now, OGC is in its 10th year, and Lotte works full time running the charity—which includes trips to Africa to meet all the girls in the program. The fact that she comes back every year to see these girls through their education is a true testament to her commitment to every individual involved with OGC.

When I chatted with Lotte, she spoke with warmth, sincerity and confidence. It’s quite inspiring to be face-to-face with someone who is so passionate about what they do. Her desire to help these girls and young women seems inherent—like it’s an integral part of who she is. In the interview, Lotte discusses the origins of OGC, her most recent trip to Kenya and her plans for taking her organization global.

Alex Falconer: When did the idea for One Girl Can come to you? 

Lotte Davis: I’m not sure how far back I need to go for this, but it probably went back to my childhood because the desire to impact gender and equality and the injustices that I witnessed growing up in Africa during the apartheid era, paired with my rebellious nature, really all sort of came together in my teens. Also growing up in the 60’s during the cultural revolution, the sexual revolution, the civil rights revolution—that really shaped who I became for the rest of my life. So I always knew that I wanted to do something about women and I knew that I wanted to do something to make amends for what I had witnessed in Africa. And I also knew that the only way I was ever going to be able to do that was to become successful. So as a teenager in the 60’s in Canada, I knew that I was going to figure out how to do that.

I was very fortunate to get married to a man who was also very entrepreneurial, so together we built AG Hair and it was probably 15 years into the growth of AG that I realized it was actually stable and that it wasn’t going to go bankrupt overnight. We were very profitable and we were growing and that’s when I knew—I had raised two daughters of my own and they were just finishing high school and starting university and I had such joy raising both of my daughters and seeing them fulfill their own potential and I was really sad that it was coming to an end, so it all came together at the same time: my girls leaving home, missing the best job that I’d ever had in my life (raising them) and realizing that the time had come that I wanted to do something about Africa.

So I had absolutely no idea how I was going to do this. I hadn’t been in Africa for 45 years. I just started reading a lot and then one day I decided to get on a plane and go there. I chose Kenya, I found an NGO there who was based in Africa and gave me liberal access to projects. I told them I wanted to build schools for girls and they introduced to me to some very rural schools in dire need, so I started doing this. I had no idea where it was going to go—no idea that I’d be running my own charity one day, but as soon as I started to get involved in this, I knew that I was going to need a lot more money. And then I could personally donate, so we started involving our business. That happened really organically, because our employees knew I was going to Africa they wanted to know more, they wanted to see pictures, they hadn’t known anyone who had been to Africa—it intrigued them. Then they would tell their customers about it and there was this groundswell of interest, so we ended up taking our two best-selling products and giving all the donations to build a school in Africa. And we developed a package with African girls on it, which looked really weird in a salon environment, but it really appealed to our market because 95% of our customers are women. So it really started that way and the first year when we did a promotional package we made $90,000 and then our distributors became involved, then our suppliers became involved, so it was low hanging fruit to start with and the more and more I got involved, the more I realized that this wasn’t sustainable by working with an NGO. As an entrepreneur I got very frustrated with their lack of accountability, their lack of urgency, the bureaucracy, so it was probably 5 years into it when I realized I had to run this myself and got a charitable tax license and then I started fundraising outside of the business. But up until that time, I was able to raise probably $400-500,000 just through AG promotional efforts, through events with our distributors—so many ways to involve our customers who wanted to be involved, who asked for more participation, so completely inadvertently we had created a brand loyalty we hadn’t expected or anticipated and One Girl Can is so intrinsically enmeshed in our organization that you could not take it out because we would lose business—people would be disappointed. We have higher employee retention because of our involvement, so it had a real spiral effect in everything we were doing. Many of our suppliers have sponsored girls on their website and want information, so I came to understand how important it is for a profitable business to give back. And how easy and effortless it is that you never notice you’re giving a percentage back and how much social good you do, but the side benefit of that, if it’s really authentic, is that you gain untold brand support and loyalty from your customers for doing it. So that was a very long-winded answer to question number one.

AF: I imagined it started as an early passion for you, so that makes sense. It’s incredible that you were running a business and starting your own charity at the same time as well. Now that One Girl Can has been around for 10 years, are you still 50/50 with AG versus One Girl Can or have you shifted full time?

LD: No every year I had to take something off the table and I would say I’m probably 5% AG now. A year and a half ago I found a VP Marketing to take over my role and that was a huge relief. And now I have a staff of 4 full-time and a couple of part-timers that I manage, so I’m really just involved in the strategy for AG and that really opened up opportunities for a senior management team. So we now have a CEO as a result of this (I was the CEO). We have an executive Vice President—a lot of people got elevated to the vice president role and it gave them all opportunity and it refreshed the brand as well. It was very good for the brand.

AF: You mentioned when you were starting off it was purely more focusing on building and infrastructure, then there was that shift to education and mentorship. Can you pinpoint what promoted that shift?

LD: Yeah, it happened very organically as well. I had hired an NGO to oversee the projects that I was building, because of that I always dealt with contractors or with board of governors and teachers associations, heads of schools and I never had that access to the girls. As soon as I terminated my partnership with the NGO I got to know the girls. I was in the midst of them—I had no more visiting dignitaries honouring me when I went into the school, which I hated, and once I started talking to the girls, I realized I wanted to tell them something about me and I started doing powerpoint presentations and I showed them my family, showed them my business and told them I came from Africa and why I did this. And then I started having more and more meetings with them and I started asking them what they wanted to be and that’s when I discovered that no one had ever asked an African girl living in extreme poverty what she wanted to be because it was always assumed she would start having babies at 16 and carry water on her head for the rest of her life. And they couldn’t speak to me—they were talking into their chest, barely audible. They couldn’t make eye contact with me and I’m really bold so I would say, “You want to be a doctor? You can’t talk to your chest, you have to stand up and you have to say it loud or nobody will believe you, unless you scream it.” And I started having them stand up and speak really loudly and I realized that they didn’t have any role models—most of their mothers are illiterate they’ve never gone to school themselves. They’re teachers from rural areas that have no sophistication and being with them made me realize how much information I had collected over a lifetime that I completely took for granted. I started thinking about what I had in common with an African girl living in extreme poverty—how I could have the audacity to speak to her and tell her that she could do everything that I did because I couldn’t find that link. I had so much more infrastructure in my life to get me there, and then I realized that the one thing I had in common with her was that we could both create a vision for the life we wanted to live, set goals and execute on them. Everybody can set a goal and if it was just “I wanna get a C+ in my physics exam”—how do you do you the steps? How do you get there? “I want to become a civil engineer.” What do you have to do today to get there? What do you have to do tomorrow? And so that became the basis for all that mentoring. Every program we go through has smart goals as its foundation and envisioning and career planning and confidence building. And so that’s really how the mentorship program grew. And it continues to be the backbone of everything that we do.

AF: For the schools that you do partner with, how do those relationships start?

LD: Initially the NGO I worked with introduced me to the first four schools that I built, and then I hired a program manager who lived in Kenya and she would do the research and find good schools for me. They’re rural, they’re in very poverty-stricken or drought-stricken areas, but she looks at the average grade of the school and looks at the leadership to make sure they’re strong and then we go and talk to them. Obviously they all are very excited and happy to meet me and get started. “How many girls can you take now?”

AF: And then I just wanted to touch on your most recent trip as well. You were mentioning that it’s a conference that you hold yearly.

LD: It’s called “Becoming the Best Version of Me.”

AF: Is it a few days or just one day?

LD: It’s two and a half days—they come in on Friday morning and they leave Sunday. Three days essentially. Keynote speakers, maybe twelve different workshops, and all of them are aimed at helping them figure out how to get a job, because it isn’t enough to provide a scholarship and walk away. Unemployment is rated at almost 45% in Kenya and in most African countries, so making sure that their resume hits the top of the pile and that when they get an opportunity to get an interview, they’re ready—they’re confident, they know how to walk in and shake somebody’s hand. They know how to get somebody’s attention, they’ve had experience in the workplace—it’s all about building that resume, building their confidence and making sure they get a job. Our mandate is that we have not done our job unless a girl is earning a salary. So I think there’s a lot of organizations that build schools in Africa and build classrooms. There’s many more that offer scholarships to girls in high school and I think there’s more and more that are offering some sort of mentoring, but nobody puts the whole thing together and stays with the girl from the time she starts high school until she earns a living. So that is what the university classes are about and they come back every year and add on more and more. And we also pay girls to take on an internship. If they use the skills we taught them on how to write a resume, a cover letter and they go out and find an internship for free, we’ll pay for her living expenses for that period of time. We’re that committed to it. And when we’re there, we’re in touch with them every single year, I can see the growth. We have a support system for them all year round—we have people in Kenya they can talk to anytime their computer breaks down or they can’t find something or they’re worried or something happened to the family. There’s always someone there to support them.

AF: So for a woman who would have been in the first scholarship round you ever did, how old would she be now and are you following her?

LD: Yeah we stay connected: Grace and Eva. 2013, they graduated in 2016—we went to the graduation ceremony for the first two girls. Invited all their parents to a banquet afterwards to celebrate and regrettably they are both teachers, and both of them regret having gone through education and so do most of the others who are now graduating. But they’re working hard—we keep in touch with them all the time and they’re trying to get placement in better and better schools and as soon as they start earning more money they want to start taking their masters in a more specified field rather than education. So we’re always staying in touch and finding out what they’re doing.

AF: It’s nice you’re always there for them, no matter what stage they’re at. What was it like having all the girls in one area? Were they really excited to meet each other and what’s the atmosphere like during the conference?

LD: Yeah, great networking. We mix them up so they have their first day with their high school students and then we pair them with like university, so they may not have met girls in the same university system. By the Saturday night we have a gala dinner where we do an awards ceremony and then we brought in an African DJ who was playing some really wonderful tunes. And then they all got up and danced and so the energy just got better. By Sunday, when we were doing all of our closing speeches, you could hear a pin drop in the room. They were just laser-focused on everything you said—every bit of information that comes out of my mouth is so vital to them, they don’t want to miss anything. And then the girls who were there last year now have new friends and we’ve just started an online community called WeConnect that someone donated and built the entire platform out for us so all these girls can network together. They can write down all their preferences, find out who’s like them, keep in touch. We put photos of the events—it’s a really robust program. Networking is one of the courses that we teach “How Rich are You: Managing your Network” and it’s just as important as managing your budget. Everybody you meet in your life can be of some benefit to you and you may be of some benefit, so we really teach that. I will say, in the last day in the last speech I could barely even speak because the past couple of sentences were so emotionally charged that I had trouble articulating the last few words and then there was just a massive group hug with 134 people—and it was lovely.

AF: If the conference is going on for a couple of days but you’re there for a couple of weeks—are you visiting people or what do you do?

LD: We do a school every day and it’s usually three hours to drive there and three hours back and a presentation and a lot of shots we need to take and video and meetings a workshop.

AF: That’s going to existing schools you’re already working with?

LD: That’s to all the schools. So we have nine schools—we went to Uganda, we fly to Mombasa, we fly to certain places then we drive to places, so they’re really long days, but we hit every single school. And that way I get to see every girl in the program, plus all the university girls’ relationships and coming back over and over and reinforcing what we’re doing—that’s what I was saying that’s the difference, because they’ve now seen me two years, three years, four years, and they’ve now seen me see girls going off to university every year—five, ten, fifteen and the excitement is really, really building for the opportunities. I show them pictures of the girls once they’re in university and what they look like and how mature they look and they’re all like “Ooo I want to look like that.” So it’s really exciting for them.

AF: The last question is just—you touched on it a bit—but I was going to ask if you have any exciting initiatives coming up, but just the idea of expanding globally is really incredible. Is that on the down low or is that something we could talk about?

LD: No, it’s not really. I have this philosophy. In one of the workshops I did for the girls, I think it was during my opening address, I said, “I can’t believe there are 114 of you here today”, but at the same time I wonder why that should surprise me because I’ve been wanting to do this since I was 16 years old. I think if we could articulate our dreams more boldly as we were going along, why should we be surprised when things happen to us? And so many of us are afraid to say what it is that we really want to do in case it doesn’t happen. And men aren’t afraid of that sort of thing—they will say things and if it doesn’t turn out, they’re not as concerned, but when a woman says she’s going to do something, she needs to be 100% sure that she’s going to do that. Men only need to be 40-60% sure and if it doesn’t work out, it’s fine. But we’re so focused on doing what we say we’ll do, so I was actually coaching them on that. For me, the first time I said I was going to go and build schools for girls in Africa—I did that 11 years ago at a dinner party and I knew once the words came out of my mouth, I couldn’t stuff them back in again. So this was the same thing. So I got every girl in the conference to stand up, all 114 of them, and tell me their biggest, scariest goal and articulate it out loud in a loud voice. And the stuff we heard was amazing and I was the first one that got up and said, “I want One Girl Can to be a global organization and I want to open it in another country in two years and one new country every year after that.” So once you say that, then all you have to do is start executing on it. It’s getting it out of your mouth that’s so frightening, but once you do, now all you have to do is put all the pieces in place.

AF: It’s so exciting.

LD: Yeah! It is exciting. It’s scary but it’s exciting.

AF: So much potential to bring it around the world.    

LD: Yeah it’s an army of women who would otherwise just be relegated to never realizing their potential. What a waste. When you see these girls and you get to know them you think, “God, this is incredible who this individual has turned in to” and we just need to do more and more and more of that.  

We are so excited to grow our partnership with One Girl Can over the next year. If you’d like to get involved yourself, click here for more information. 

Words by Alex Falconer. Photos courtesy of One Girl Can.  

October 12, 2018