Posted on March 17, 2015
One of the joys of profiling interesting personalities is that any single day of the calendar has enough potential to bring my way someone who has an inspiring story to share. So towards the end of last year, I got an invite to a birthday party and this is where I met miss Laden who was also in attendance. And as you’d expect of any birthday party, this day had nothing but tons of merry making..and somewhere in between the loud music, dancing and folks feasting on cake, I had small talk with Tania where she proceeded to give me a glimpse of what she does. Going by my curious nature, I wanted to know more and regardless of how informal the event was, she had her business cards with her and she promptly drew one for me. Days later I went ahead and did some little digging, combing through what Tania has been doing in Kenya in the last four years..and I loved what I found out. So, to cut a long story short, what started of as a casual meeting with an executive director at a birthday party..has finally led to this interview which I’m glad to share with you today, which will unveil everything you need to know about this amazing woman who is clearly in a quest to change the lives of young, talented youth living in some of our urban slums. So put your reading glasses on and lets all find out what Tania is all about and what she has been up to, yes? Okay go! 🙂
*So Tania, I’ll begin by asking you to tell us a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up and how was your childhood life like?
I was born in sunny Los Angeles, California. I spent a lot of time on the beach or in a pool. My mother is from the island of Cebu in the Philippines and we visited every year since I was a baby. Her whole side of the family is there and I’m very close with all of them. I’m sure I probably have more than 100 cousins so we have a big family. I also have an older sister, an older brother, three nieces, and three nephews. I have a very diverse family and I love them all! Growing up, I tried a lot of different activities including piano, gymnastics, ice-skating and dance. I stuck with dance for about 12 years though, which I still love to do and I have always enjoyed performing. My friends and I entered the school talent show almost every year, doing everything from boy band and Britney Spears tributes to a rap song we wrote ourselves. I’m still very close with all 12 of my girl friends from middle school and high school, despite living on the other side of the world.
*You studied Management Science and Engineering and worked in the financial sector under Morgan Stanley. Question is, what drove you to venture in social enterprise? Is it something you had always anticipated?
In a way, it was. At 17, I wrote my college application essays about how I grew up with a close understanding of poverty and inequality given my family background and that I wanted to use the opportunities that I had been given to help those who had not been so lucky. I was president of the community service club in high school and volunteered with a non-profit organization in college that worked with at-risk youth. So while my CV might not show it, my passion was always in giving back, which is why I only lasted about six months at Morgan Stanley before I quit and moved to Kenya.
*Which leads me to my next question. How did the idea of Livelyhoods come to birth? And what exactly would you say is the main objective that Livelyhoods as an organization was established to achieve?
LivelyHoods was born out of a program that was designed to give youth entrepreneurship training and loans to start their own businesses. About two weeks into the pilot, the first group of youth we worked with said, “We don’t want loans. We want jobs. We have no experience and no education and now you want us to go out there on our own and be left in debt?” Fortunately, we listened to this feedback and engaged the pilot group in designing the program that is LivelyHoods today. They went out and interviewed 300 of their peers in Kawangware and found that every single one of them had sold something, from mangoes to drugs. We also realized that, while there is a lot of innovation and resources going into making products for the worlds’ poor, there is bottleneck in distribution to these communities. LivelyHoods addresses both the distribution problem in slums and the youth unemployment problem by building on the natural sales and hustling talent of these young people to bring life-changing products to their own communities.
*iSmart is Livelyhood’s first social enterprise operating in Kenya. Kindly take me through a detailed synopsis of what iSmart does and what you guys have been able to accomplish so far.
iSmart recruits youth and women in slums throughout Nairobi for a free, sales and marketing training. We teach basic sales techniques, professional skills, and business management. Upon successful completion of the training, trainees are offered the opportunity to work as a distributor selling the full range of iSmart products, which includes clean cookstoves, solar lamps, and household appliances. Our distributors, or Sales Agents, receive products on consignment so they do not have to take out loans or provide their own start-up capital, which allows us to work with the people who need jobs most. So far, iSmart has opened four branches in Kawangware, Kibera, Makadara, and Mathare. We have trained over 1,000 youth and women and created 400 jobs. Our products also create an impact. The cookstoves we sell have prevented 49,699 tonnes of carbon dioxide from entering the earth’s atmosphere, which is the equivalent of taking 10,463 cars off of the road, and saved 69,378 trees from being cut down for fuel!
*Did you guys go through any kind of challenges during the initial stages of setting up iSmart and how did you overcome these obstacles? Are there any challenges you are experiencing at the moment?
Hah! I could talk all day about the challenges we’ve faced over the past four years. There were plenty of times that we didn’t have enough funding and weren’t sure when we would get more, or that one of our team members faced a difficult time in their personal lives so we had to come together and cover for them, or that our suppliers ran out of products and we had a room full of Sales Agents who needed to sell something in order to make a living. But the important part is looking at those challenges as opportunities. It’s hard, but you have to believe that if you do your best and just keep trying, things will work out. Right now, we are working hard to scale our model from the four branches we have now to four more slum communities this year. Managing this growth is not easy, but we have a great team that is unified behind our vision of making sure that everyone has the opportunity to earn a dignified livelihood regardless of their education level or economic background.
*What would you say is the one thing that sets you apart from other organizations which are doing similar work of fighting unemployment among youth in urban slums?
From the story of LivelyHoods’ birth to the fact that 12 out of 16 staff members are former Sales Agents, this organization was built by and for the youth that we serve. This is not my organization. LivelyHoods belongs to all of the Sales Agents and all of the staff and is only successful because they take ownership over its success. The trainers and managers at each of our branches are changing people’s lives every day just by being proof that if you work hard, you can make a difference, regardless of your past.
*So, as an organization, which communities have you covered and what are your future plans? Are there any expansion plans to more communities in the country?
We are definitely looking to expand throughout Kenya, including more locations in and around Nairobi. Next year we are planning to open branches in Kisumu and/or Mombassa as well.
*How would you describe the difference that iSmart has had in the communities where you work? Feel free to share an inspiring case study.
The biggest impact that iSmart has is on the perception of youth as social burdens, troublemakers, and a danger to their communities. When our Sales Agents canvas their communities with information about solar power and clean energy technology, wearing smart uniforms and highly trained on how to talk to customers in a polite and professional manner, they shatter the stereotypes about slum youth. Not only do the adults in their communities take notice, but also the youths themselves feel more confident in their abilities and hopeful about their future. They also serve as positive role models for their peers, siblings, and children.
Alex, a co-founder of iSmart and our current Training and Recruitment Manager, has a very inspiring story. Alex grew up on the streets in Kawangware and is the epitome of a hustler, which means he is both smart and has an insane worth ethic. Before working with us, Alex collected scraps or stole phones and whatever else he could find. When he was given the opportunity to sell solar lamps instead, he was immediately a top Sales Agent. The first time he came back after selling enough to earn $50 in commissions in one day I asked him if he had ever made that much money before. He replied, “Yes, when I was stealing.” Alex was actually taking a pay cut to bring positive change to his community instead of creating insecurity. He knows that most youth in his position would do the same, which is why he now dedicates his life to bringing the opportunity to earn a dignified livelihood to as many youth and women as he can.
*Say someone who is reading this would love to support the work already initiated by iSmart. What are someone of the avenues they should consider taking?
We always welcome supporters in any shape or form. Of course we are a non-profit so funding is the easiest and most effective way to support our work. We also have a fellowship program where people can volunteer two to six months of their time to working on specific projects for us. More information can be found at www.livelyhoods.org or by emailing me at Tania@livelyhoods.org.
*Other than social entrepreneurship, what are some other things you are passionate about?
I’m passionate about health, wellness, and self-improvement. I think it’s so important to always work on bringing your best self to every situation and it’s even harder to do that when you are sleepy, eating too much junk food, or you’re not exercising. Things like yoga, reading, meditating, and having fun with friends and family are just as important as any work you can do or meetings you can have.
*As an individual, how has LivelyHoods and living in Kenya impacted your life?
Living in Kenya and starting a business here has been an invaluable experience. I’ve been able to try, succeed, fail, and try again, all with the support of my staff, a network of fellow entrepreneurs, and some very close friends. I think the environment here for entrepreneurship is more supportive and less competitive than it would be in US. And of course, seeing first hand the power of opportunity to change a young person’s life forever is absolutely priceless and forever inspiring. I know that the young people I’ve worked with at LivelyHoods will do amazing things with their lives and I can’t wait to see where they all are 10 or 20 years from now.
*Who are some of the people who greatly inspire you to do what you are doing now?
My mom! She was always a hustling entrepreneur, selling everything from soda to jewelry to make some extra money to help her family in the Philippines.
*Share with the world a Tania-Laden-philosophy that you religiously abide to.
The philosophy that I religiously abide to is don’t religiously abide by anything. Always be open to new points of view, situations, outcomes, and experiences.
*So my first question on this section is the dating question. So, is there some lucky guy in the picture?
There is a lucky guy, but I’m not sure he’s in the picture.
*What’s your way of unwinding after a long day?
I love watching TV series. Empire, House of Cards, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, the list goes on and on…
I would definitely recommend Kenya. It has its challenges, but there is also a lot of opportunity for trying new things and getting useful experience.
*What are you currently reading? Any good reads you would love to recommend?
I just finished reading The Dancer by Colum McCann. I would definitely recommend it!
I was a cheerleader in high school and during a pep rally on the quad I did a high kick on some wet grass and slipped and fell on my butt in front of the whole school, including my crush at the time.
Well, that’s the much Tania had to share for now. I hope you have loved the read as much as I have. If Tania’s story is anything to go by, then it shows us there’s much to be done with regard to uplifting the lives of others around the world. If social entrepreneurship is your calling, then livelyhood’s story is a classic example that its never too late to express your heart’s passion of serving others. Like Tania so well said, there maybe challenges in stepping out..but progress will only be realized if we look at these challenges as opportunities. Enough said!
For Tania’s photoshoot, I engaged Victor Peace who was the official photographer for this project. We were hosted at Studio90z, which is on the 5th floor of Cardinal Otunga plaza courtesy of the studio’s MD, Steve Rigii. Victor’s work literally left me staring at the images he sent over like a retard! It’s no wonder his blog has earned the #BestPhotographyBlog nomination in this year’s BAKE awards. Voting is still ongoing…so vote for him here. Victor also came along with Ivy Minyow who was the shoot director and the BTS photography was done by one of Studio90z member, Victor Munga.
The make-up artistry was courtesy of Suzy Beauty Ltd and they sent over one of their best artistes, Victor, who dolled up Tania the best way he knows how to. This is the second profiling project under our partnership with SB Ltd and I have nothing but love for the entire team who made this possible.
I would also love to thank Miriam Atuya, a good friend of mine who has always expressed interest in shadowing me in my profiling work. Miriam’s core work was to formulate the questions for this interview so she helped a lot in the research stage and I couldn’t be more thankful. So I’ll leave you with this short film done by celebrated filmmaker Sam Nuttman which summarizes the whole idea behind Livelyhoods. Have a productive rest of the week. Cheers! 🙂