Growing up I was surrounded by empowered women. I attended a school for girls with incredible role models and peers that preached the importance of women's empowerment. But I never fully understood the need to empower women around the world. That is until I went to South Africa on a volunteer trip when I was 18.
Children being the focus of the trip, I spent my days teaching children, feeding children, and clothing children. I spent three days at an after school care center in Johannesburg, called Tshepang. Tshepang is bright and colorful beacon of hope that cares for over 300 children who live in Roodepoort informal settlement. Tshepang is expertly run by a team of skilled African social workers. Their level of dedication astounds me, many of them live in the slum by choice to look out for the children they serve during the day.
On my last day at Tshepang, I was holding a boy in kindergarten when his mother approached me. It was my first time meeting a parent from the slum. Her son's name was Junior, and when I handed Junior to her, we began talking. We started with my name "Bella" and quickly began bonding, since that was also the name of Junior's grandmother. "Your son seems to be very smart, you must be so proud," I gushed. Junior's mom began to break down. "What we really need are jobs," she pleaded to me. That was the moment I realized it. Junior's mother loves her son just as much as any parent; yet, she was born into extreme poverty and has to watch her son suffer with her. When she is able to send Junior to school, she waits at home all day for him to return. The biggest issue in South Africa is unemployment- it drives the cycle of poverty.
In my head the gears began to turn. Was I doing what I really needed to do on this trip? Was I investing my efforts into the wrong people? I came on this trip to give money to schools, teachers, and social workers to care for children, when the best care taker for Junior was standing right in front of me begging for a way to support him.
There will be no need to feed or educate children through charity if their mother's are empowered. I finished the volunteer trip but couldn't shake the experience I had with Junior's mom, a woman whose name I didn't even know. I spent my freshman year of college thinking about her, powerless and sitting in her home all day unable to care for Junior. I was obsessed with the idea of doing something.
I began researching global development and found that around the world, 80 cents of every dollar earned by women is invested in her children, compared with 30 cents by men. - World Vision
In March of 2018, I returned to South Africa to investigate the issue further. I asked the social workers at Tshepang if they have ever done anything to combat unemployment in the community. They said they had, however their projects (bakeries and hair salons) fell apart because they were trying to sell to the poor community. That's when I had an idea- empower women to make a product and remove the burden of selling from them.
At neela women earn a living wage (double the minimum wage) and their families are out of poverty by the first pay check. We have found that if you give a poor woman money, the first thing she will do is spend it on feeding her children. The most efficient way to improve the life of a child, is to give their mother the resources to do so.
It is a privilege for me to be able to work with five inspiring, vibrant, and resilient women. To watch as our work transforms the lives of them, their children, and their communities. I look forward to the launch of our first products in August.