What women everywhere can learn from Ugandan women

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What Women Everywhere Can Learn From Women in Uganda

Devin Hibbard launched Street Business School to teach women skills. But the lessons she learned were invaluable

By Dara Pettinelli

Devin Hibbard is the kind of woman who keeps spare change in the cup holder of her car just in case she drives by someone in need. “It takes one second and five dollars to shift your perspective,” she says, explaining why she gives money to men and women who are homeless. “I meet their eyes and tell them to have a good day. It transforms me. Changes my entire day.”

She cites Pope Francis as an inspiration: “He says to ‘give [others] what you can and give it to them with dignity, don’t judge what they need it for.’”

Treating others with dignity and compassion seems to be inherent in Hibbard. In 2004, she and two of her friends (Torkin Wakefield and Ginny Jordan) founded the nonprofit organization BeadForLife after they encountered a woman sitting on a Ugandan street making jewelry out of paper. They learned that this woman, Millie Grace, was widowed and the sole support for her four daughters, two nephews, and sons from a brother who had died of AIDS. She had fled the war in the north and was living in a slum.

Five months later, BeadForLife was born — selling paper-bead jewelry and other fair-trade goods to the US market. In subsequent years, they’ve built entrepreneurial business training programs — most recently the Street Business School — to give more women like Grace the skills and confidence they need to create their own local businesses. It’s BeadForLife’s mission to help lift one million women out of poverty by 2027.

Devin Hibbard of Street Business School

Hibbard talks to TheCovey about the decisions that got her where she is today and what we can all learn by stepping outside of our comfort zones.


The Encounter that Changed Her Life

TheCovey: What in your life brought you to that moment in Uganda when you met Millie?
Devin Hibbard: My parents met in the Peace Corps.  When I was two, my parents took me to Kenya and we lived in a remote village. I continued to go back to Africa throughout my life. There’s something about it that has drawn me. I feel like I have red dust under my fingernails that I can’t brush off.

TheCovey: How did your parents inspire you?
Devin Hibbard: They reinforced the ideal of “to whom much is given much is expected.” Your privilege gives you the opportunity and responsibility to give back. They both lived lives of service. Dad would take Medicare patients and run free clinics. We certainly were comfortable financially, but I learned to value money and every dollar. [I learned] there are so many things I don’t need that aren’t going to make me happier in the world.

TheCovey: How does this affect your own parenting?
Devin Hibbard: We’ve lived a good chunk of our lives in Uganda so my kids have seen the other side. My son has seen kids who desperately wanted to go to school but their parents couldn’t afford it.

Countering the Pull of Materialism

TheCovey: What’s your advice to parents in the US struggling with the pull of materialism?
Devin Hibbard: Take your kids out in the world. Don’t sit in your air-conditioned hotel — meet real people, volunteer. You don’t even have to go around the world, you can look in your backyard and see economic differences. That can be life-changing.

TheCovey: What appealed to you about world travel?
Devin Hibbard: At 19, I dropped out of school for two quarters and went to Nepal where my parents were doing medical relief work. It changed my life. I thought I knew everything about how the world worked. I remember landing on the tarmac at the Kathmandu airport and waiting as cows crossed the road. No one moved because cows are holy there. I couldn’t get my brain around that. I spent time in remote villages and realized I knew so little. It was humbling and scary. It sent me on the path to knowing there was a lot to learn about how the world really worked — and I was only a mile into the marathon of understanding.

TheCovey: When did you know what it was you wanted to do with your career?
Devin Hibbard: April 2004. I had finished my master’s degree the year before and was working with international groups like CARE and Save the Children doing consulting work and strategic planning. I was doing informational interviews in Uganda to see if there was a potential [job] opportunity. [My husband I] had decided we were gonna move back there in the fall anyway. Ginny Jordan and her mom were there. The three of us had no business experience. We started with nothing but we have this phrase: “the river seemed to be carrying us forward to selling beads and we said yes.” This has really guided our business: we [said] yes to things we didn’t know anything about.

TheCovey: You’ve been doing your work for over a decade — what keeps your passion alive? Do you ever feel discouraged?
Devin Hibbard: I feel discouraged and afraid everyday. Saying out loud that I’m going to reach one million [women] is probably one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. There have been dark times. As hard as my problems are, I think about a woman in Uganda who can’t sleep because she’s worried about feeding her children. That makes me think of my problems as less severe. That gives me one more day. To see these women who have been beaten down their entire lives buy a house for their children — their confidence against the most difficult circumstances is so inspiring. If they can do it, I can get through this day.

Graduates of the Street Business School

Building Women’s Confidence

TheCovey: You’ve been quoted as saying that it’s not money women have trouble accessing, it’s confidence. Explain why you think that.
Devin Hibbard: Microfinance has swept around the world. I would guess almost everywhere people live they can go out and get a loan. Capital is out there. The problem is women in poverty don’t have access because they’ve been told they’re a girl and therefore not worthy of education, or [they’ve] been beaten, raped, or forced to flee because of conflict. They’re not taught [they] can be anything. If you give a woman who doesn’t believe in herself all the capital in the world, she won’t do anything with it. Once [she] believes [she] can be successful then you can teach [her] the skills. We teach them how to grow and reinvest.

TheCovey: How do you teach confidence?
Devin Hibbard: We visit [women] in their homes to coach and build their confidence. Local Ugandan women do the coaching. We want to find two to three things we can appreciate about her: her kids’ health, her garden — people don’t normally get compliments. We also bring in alumni to tell their stories. You can see these women get wide-eyed. When they see someone like them who’s done it, that makes all the difference.

We also create a culture of human dignity; we think a lot about the language we use. We all call each other “coach” — we have as much to learn from them as they [do from] us. We’re all human beings and all deserve dignity and respect.

TheCovey: What have you learned by working with Ugandan entrepreneurs that you never would have learned otherwise?
Devin Hibbard: How to think about hardship and struggle and how to laugh and celebrate in the midst of real suffering. There’s a value that everyone can bring to the world by giving something to someone else. What we have is enough.

TheCovey: Is the formula for entrepreneurial success among women in Uganda different from the formula for success for women in the US?
Devin Hibbard: All women entrepreneurs need confidence, knowledge, and a network — it’s universal. If you ask why someone didn’t do something you find it’s because they didn’t believe in themselves. You need support and coaches. Here in the US we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that corporations and businesses that have women in leadership make more money.  And yet we still consider confidence a soft skill. It drives me crazy! It’s a critical skill.

Millie Grace

Millie Grace can now support her family

TheCovey: What’s your advice to American women who struggle with confidence?
Devin Hibbard: There are women in the world who literally don’t know if they can feed their kids and they are still taking risks. For me at least, it contextualizes the risk I’m taking and makes it easier to say, “I might fail at this, but it won’t mean my kids aren’t going to eat.” My goal is not to avoid being afraid. My goal is to be afraid and to keep going anyway.

How You Can Make a Difference

TheCovey: How can people in the US help your efforts?
Devin Hibbard: There are three specific ways that we would love to invite people to get involved: We’re looking for organizations serving people around the world that may want to incorporate our Street Business School into their work. We’d love to hear about groups doing cool work, especially in Africa and eventually Asia, and get those referrals.

Donate to support our work. It costs us $346 to educate one woman, and that allows her to go from making $1.35 day when she starts to $4.19 a day (above the UN poverty line) two years later. That investment pays itself off over and over again with the woman’s ability to support herself and her family forever.

We need people to believe in our work and partners to tell our story. Share what we’re doing, introduce us to a friend.

TheCovey: What’s next for Street Business School?
Devin Hibbard: We currently have 41 partners in seven countries. In the next three years, we will go up to 180 organizational partners across Africa and Asia. We have huge expansion plans and are working hard to bring Street Business School to organizations all around the world that are supporting people living in poverty. We have a social franchise model. We know there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to global poverty so we are taking the proven intervention that is Street Business School — those components that are critical— and asking our partners to bring their expertise of their local communities — the politics, the religious and gender norms — and customize the program based on their needs.

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