the beauty of empowerment

south africa

When in Crisis: Don't Forget the Milk.

Isabell Bernal

The day I met four women who would change my life. 

Three months after meeting everyone. The day of the neela photo shoot and two days before I would have to say goodbye and leave South Africa.

Three months after meeting everyone. The day of the neela photo shoot and two days before I would have to say goodbye and leave South Africa.

It was 5 a.m.  I was terrified.  Pure unadulterated anxiety had kept me up all night.  I was alone in a guest house that I had rented on AirBnB as I got ready for my first day at work.  Only a couple of miles away from me was a slum where four mothers were also getting ready for the day.  Getting the children ready for school and out the door by 6 a.m. and getting themselves ready for work.  For two of them it was the first morning they had ever spent getting ready for work. 

I took all the supplies to the studio space the Saturday before.  It was stocked with a big beautiful dining room table, office chairs, a bright blue sofa and rug.  Cute mugs and lamps and a kitchenette I had stocked with snacks, tea, and coffee. 


The office needed two things: people and milk. 

I went to the convenience store on Sunday and grabbed the freshest milk they had.  I brought it back to the AirBnB and kept it in the mini fridge there.  On the door of the AirBnB I had left one sticky note.  "Don't forget the milk."

Knowing myself, I anticipated being stressed in the morning and forgetting the milk in the fridge.  So I HAD to have that sticky note. 

Thankfully I remembered the milk. Because neela provides breakfast each morning before work. And I make the ladies coffee and tea each day.

Thankfully I remembered the milk. Because neela provides breakfast each morning before work. And I make the ladies coffee and tea each day.

I wasn't stressed as much as I was scared.  I had met the women in March and it was now August.  I told them I would be back to start the business in June and it was August.  It took me a long time to learn about making handbags, source materials, save money, and get everything together.  I was worried that they would be mad at me for showing up late. 

I was scared because I was here to empower women.  But what's empowering about being taught a business from a 20 year old? Who am I to run a women's empowerment project when I still consider myself a girl?  I was worried they would be upset about my age and find my presence offensive. 

Who am I to come in and try to help? Especially about a craft I had literally just learned.  There are so many more qualified women who are older, smarter, and more experienced.  If only they were here instead.


But they aren't I kept thinking.  "These four women are waiting for you, Isabella and you need to remember the milk and show up." 

Don't forget the milk was my mantra that morning.  It gave me something to focus on and think about to keep self doubt and fear at bay. 

I met the women at a charity organization where their children all attend.  This was the charity that introduced me to the mothers back in March.

They were standing together outside, under the mango tree where I had met them for the first time.  Each wearing bright and beautiful tote bags made from traditional African prints. They had made these bags at the two week sewing machine course I had sent them to after meeting them in March.  I ran and to them and hugged them.

feminist mug and Nabuhle working hard in the background

feminist mug and Nabuhle working hard in the background

There were only four, not ten that the NGO told me they had found and that I had met in March.  These four were the ones who by August still wanted to come and work.  They were dedicated and committed.  And a couple of them persistently asked the leaders of the NGO when work would begin every day for the past couple of months. 

I hugged everyone and we ran through names again.  It occurred to me that I had passionately worked on neela tirelessly for the past few months all to start a project to benefit women whose names I didn't even know.  We chatted for a few minutes about their lives and how they were doing and piled into a van owned by the charity. Paid the driver, and he took us on a thirty minute ride to the studio.

our first studio. Dobsinville, Soweto.

our first studio. Dobsinville, Soweto.

The Case for Empowering Women

Isabell Bernal

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. 

oprah quote

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. 

Junior and I, 2016

Junior and I, 2016

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.  


melinda gates classic quote

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

women are the key to ending hunger in Africa.
— world food project

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.

pink quote on women and economics

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.