Our Founder is back from her first trip to Togo since 2019, so she wrote a blog to share her experiences!
I’m back from Togo and finally slowing down to reflect on what I learned from my time with our incredible Togo team. To summarize the trip in one sentence, it was the most informative and meaningful time I’ve spent in Togo, and that is thanks to the talented, heartful, and dedicated women that lead our program in Togo year-round.
When we started this organization 4 years ago, we were not only aware of the millions of girls and women who lack education and employment opportunities around the world, we were aware that the approaches used in the nonprofit industry for decades simply haven’t worked, and in some cases, have left communities more dependent on aid than when they started.
What’s something that I heard our partner communities say most often this trip that continues to surprise me? “Thank you for coming back.” I still find it so strange to receive this gratitude because ‘coming back’ to fulfill our end of the partnership isn’t even the bare minimum, it’s our responsibility. But it highlights the fact that lack of accountability and follow-through continue to be large problems in the international development industry, and that local communities have been stripped of their power in these relationships for too long.
So I was exceptionally proud to see that while S H E expanded into 20 new partner communities over the last year and enrolled 1,000 new girls in our education programs, our Togo team built every new relationship with trust and mutual respect. I loved hearing students, parents, teachers, and school authorities at village after village share their gratitude for our Togo Director, Francoise, because the support they receive from her is special. And I absolutely adored the moments when students would run over to Fawzi, or Elolo (the first girl of S H E), or Francoise to say “You’re my role model.” It's the reason S H E will always be led by local women: because our students see themselves in our team members, and that is more inspiring than words could ever be.
What were some of my favorite moments?
Meeting the girls and women who joined our program since I was last in Togo was so special. When I left Togo in July 2019, we had 150 girls in our program and 5 women on our full-time team. When I arrived in Togo this year, we had 1,200 girls in our education programs and 20 team members. Having been several thousand miles away from our program, I think our growth hadn’t fully set in in my mind. The majority of our time was spent visiting all of our new partner communities, and I was totally overwhelmed by the levels of community engagement. I was expecting small meetings with our students and a couple of teachers, so when we arrived at our first village to see more than 100 people: parents, dozens of students (both in and outside of the S H E program), teachers, chiefs, and headmasters, I knew that something special was being created, and our partner communities are as engaged as we are.
Talking with our student ambassadors. There are four incredible young women that help mentor younger students in our program. Elolo and Amoudia have been ambassadors since the beginning of our program, and Nadege and Sefako joined the ambassador team 2 years ago. We were having a short conversation before I left, and I was sharing how grateful and proud I am to watch each of them grow into such unique, courageous, and confident young women. The ambassadors were all saying goodbye when Nadege gave a send-off statement that will stick with me forever. She said “I just want to say that I am grateful to S H E for investing in me and the many girls that we support. I want you to know that I have 100% confidence that I will be successful in life. I didn’t always have that confidence. Before I started S H E, I was afraid to speak in front of a group and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to achieve my dreams. But now, I am speaking at our graduation ceremony with several hundred people in the audience without fear. I know I’m going to go so far in life, and I credit all of that to S H E because this is where I built my confidence. S H E saw my potential and invested in me. So, I want you and every S H E donor to know that it will be worth the investment. I know it.”
Our team retreat. For the first time, we hosted a small retreat with our full-time team members. We bussed our seamstresses and program directors to a small hotel on the beach to show our gratitude for the amazing work they’ve done over the last year. For our seamstresses, it was their first time touching the ocean (though they live just 90 minutes from the beach). This retreat was an opportunity for us to experience joy together because much of our work is emotionally heavy. It was an opportunity for us to bond over trying new things, like touching the ocean and courageously getting into a swimming pool for the first time. We laughed harder than I have in a long time, and I saw more moments of pure joy and presence than I can count. But this retreat was so much more than vacation and bonding time with our team, it was a physical representation of our belief that every person on the S H E team is a primary contributor to our core mission. Our seamstresses are so much more than the people who make our products, they are role models and changemakers in their own communities. And it was so special for them to feel valued and celebrated in this way.
What lessons did we learn?
The partnership approach is working very well in our village communities. Having heard many stories about S H E students from very difficult circumstances and knowing the nonprofit expectations that had been created before us, we weren't sure how supportive/hesitant villages might be towards our work. But at each of the 15 villages we visited, there were over 100 local parents, teachers, students, and headmasters there to celebrate their girls in the S H E program. I was amazed at how well our communities understood our purpose, and the trust and enthusiasm our local team has built in such a short time gave me so much belief in the future of the program.
Our team culture is truly unique. It’s taken nearly 4 years for us to build the culture we’ve dreamed of at S H E because it is difficult to build complete understanding and trust when we’re building a company across two continents, 3 languages, and multiple cultures. But the last year of challenges really forced us to lean on each other and support each other in new ways, and that has created a special sense of sisterhood and bonding with our team.
Students are thriving – hearing Nadege’s statements about the afterschool program made us realize how impactful our afterschool program has become. Our talented and dedicated tutoring staff have done an incredible job helping our students build their fundamental learning skills. Our girls are reading and writing with much higher proficiency than before they entered the program, and our students shared many times about the confidence they’ve built during their time at S H E. When we first started S H E, we expected the school uniforms and scholarships to be the most impactful part of the program, but over the years, we’ve seen that the consistent support and additional curriculum provided in the S H E program is having profound, long-lasting impact on our students’ sense of agency and belief in their future. It’s this combination of addressing short-term barriers and building long-term skills that we believe is the magic of the S H E approach. And listening to our students, parents, and teachers, really reinforced that lesson this trip.
How are we putting these lessons into action?
Seeing how well the partnership approach is working in our villages has honestly shifted a lot for our long-term outlook. Leading up to this point, we weren’t sure if we could overcome the years and years of development work that have left some communities very skeptical of nonprofits. Even while touring the villages, we saw remnants of so many nonprofit projects that had been abandoned. But Francoise has helped our communities understand that we are trying to shift the paradigm and create something that keeps our partners at the center of their own development and creates real, sustainable change.
Our community partners have stepped up to this challenge even more than we could’ve hoped. Their support of their girls and women is palpable, and this makes us want to lean in further to this decentralized program. Over this next year, we’ll continue investing out into our partner communities and begin introducing our afterschool programming into our rural partner schools. Currently, our afterschool program is operated in our HQ town of Notse, and this year, we’ll be piloting afterschool programs in 3 partner villages.
In order to scale our vision to its full potential, we know that this is the time for investing in our team. Right now, we have 2 Program Directors and 1 administrator supporting 20 women, 1,200 girls, and 20 partner communities. Our focus this year is to continue building and sustaining our high-impact program and avoid burning our incredible team out. So we need to grow our team and hire additional support. The beautiful opportunity here is to create more jobs for women while we expand our mission, so it all works hand-in-hand together.
I always hoped S H E would become something much greater than the services we provide for girls and women. I’ve dreamed it would become a space where every team member feels equal ownership over our mission, direction, and long-term vision. That we all would play a role in becoming the voice of S H E. What I didn’t fully anticipate, but this trip showed each of us at various times, was that every member of our team is both building the mission of S H E and benefitting from it at the same time. And that is an incredibly special place to be.
I too am a woman who is now flourishing because the women at S H E lift me up every day, and I’ll forever be grateful for that.