Originally from Idaho Falls, Idaho, Payton grew up playing sports, enjoying recess, and going through the motions of academia. She was always a good student, but she mostly saw her academics as a mechanism to help her play college tennis. She played at Pacific Lutheran University her first year of college but after taking various classes in Anthropology, Art History, Psychology and Math she found that for the first time, tennis was getting in the way of her academics.
A serial major-switcher throughout college, she gained a diverse education in Architecture, Philosophy, Dance, Psychology, Archaeology, and Nuclear Energy History but eventually settled into her Marketing program.
During the summer of her Sophomore year, she read the book, Half the Sky, and though she cringes at the cliché, it changed her life. She felt so drawn to the work of empowering women because she had found the fuel to her feminist flame. Inside the book (which we HIGHLY recommend) is a story of a doctor in Africa who struggled to keep girls in school. He found that providing a free, well-tailored uniform was the best motivator for keeping girls in school. And that’s what inspired the idea behind S H E.
What’s your story of s h e beyond what we read in the news articles?
I enrolled in an entrepreneurship class at the beginning of the semester with an idea to redesign luggage (random, I know). But for some reason, I walked down to front of the class and knew I needed to pitch the idea that had been in the back of my mind for the last two years about providing school uniforms to girls in developing countries so they can go to school. I got some good feedback from fellow students and my professor, so I went with it!
I started talking to professors at the U of I, and I immediately had to flip the idea 180 degrees when my now advisor hit me with some hard-to-swallow news: my business model wasn’t accomplishing the goal of truly empowering young women and placing them at the center of their own development. From there, I shifted the business model from providing a hand-out to providing a hand-up by teaching girls to sew their own school uniforms.
I got an offer to go to Togo last minute for a spring break research trip, and scrambled to get my paperwork in order. My dad set up a crowd-funding page to help offset the travel costs, and I was completely blown away by the support. Family and friends donated over $2,000 in 3 days for the trip. Yes, this funding allowed me to afford the trip, but the most meaningful part was seeing how much people believed in me. They did this with no idea of what was ahead, and I still hadn’t even figured out if the business model would work.
The trip was amazing. I met some of the best people I’ve ever known, and I learned so much about the person I want to become by talking to the girls I interviewed.
When I returned, I had 3 business plan competitions starting in one week. I flew solo for these competitions, which was pretty intimidating, but was able to win all three. This gave S H E the funding for a pilot project and the legitimacy to go from an idea to a real business. I was jazzed.
Starting S H E kind of happened organically from there, though it took A LOT of convincing for me to jump in with both feet and commit full-time to S H E. I had been interviewing for 6 months for my “dream job” out of college, and I was offered the position about a month before I graduated. It wasn’t until I received the call for the job offer that I realized I was no longer excited about the job. S H E had taken over all of my thoughts and my passion lied with the girls I met in Togo.
What’s your favorite achievement in life?
When I first interviewed girls at the orphanage in Togo, they told me they didn’t think they could go to school and learn a skill at the same time.
The greatest part so far has been watching their excitement as they start their sewing lessons and prove to themselves that yes, they can go to school AND learn skills at the same time.
What’s been the hardest part about this work?
Most of it, Haha. But I think the hardest part is having no frame of reference when starting a business. I’m relatively young (23), so I have pretty limited job experience to begin with, and I have a hard time figuring out what our organization, my management style, and everything in between should look like.
I rely pretty heavily on my advisors, and I learn EVERY single day. This work probably seems glamorous and that us ladies are constantly lifting each other up in a sort of perma-empowerment mentality, but I must say that it’s not always the most empowering work. I often say I’m falling face-first through my journey to find empowerment, but what a ride… I couldn’t be happier that I chose this work. And I couldn’t have a more supportive group of incredible people around me.
When you close your eyes and imagine an empowered woman, what do you see?
It’s probably a bit different from what most people imagine, but I see empowered women through the lens of my own experience. I see a humble and hard-working woman who still suffers from self-doubt but she continues to take risks and use her voice because she’s excited about what she has to contribute to the world. And, of course she’s in a fabulous pant-suit and killer heels.
What’s the best advice you’ve received recently?
“Avoid experts like the plague and trust your gut”. I often let me feelings of inadequacy hold me back from making decisions I’d be fully capable of making. I don’t have a background in gender studies or international development, so I’m constantly learning and most-often the least experienced person in the room. So I have to encourage myself to speak up in conversations and hold my perspective with as much value as others.
"I think as long as I remain humble, maintain awareness of the context surrounding me, and communicate my intentions, I’m just as worthy of an opinion and capable of making decisions as any “expert” in the field."
How do you define empowerment?
I get asked this question a lot, and I’m still trying to figure this one out for myself, but here’s my best shot at it. I think we often define empowerment by its outcomes. We say it’s strength, liberation, courage, self-confidence, success, etc.
But I think as people trying to feel empowered, defining it by the outcomes is counter-intuitive. It further separates us from feeling empowered because it puts us in a place where we feel we haven’t accomplished something, which is pretty disempowering if you ask me.
So I feel like the most compelling way I’ve defined empowerment is as everything we think it’s not. It’s vulnerable, self-doubt, gritty, not-there-yet, and mostly it’s flawed, inconsistent, and imperfect.
So how do you empower yourself?
I give myself permission to be all of those things, and I give myself credit for where I’m at along that journey. And, of course, I try to stay a little silly.
How do you empower others?
Give them credit for their place along the journey, and give them permission to be all of those things too.
What’s your favorite quote?
I collect quotes, so that's a hard one to narrow down. But in the context of this work, my favorite quote is definitely
“I've always believed that when you educate a girl, you empower a nation”
– Queen Rania of Jordan