‘What are your dreams?’
BY LAURA OLENIACZ
DURHAM – While recruiting for a training and education program to be launched in Ghana as part of start-up nonprofit ABAN, co-founder Callie Brauel asked young women and girls the question, “What are your dreams?”
“It was hard for me,” the 25-year-old said, when she said she found that many of the girls she spoke with didn’t know how to answer. “You think about how many times you were asked that question growing up of what you want to be when you grow up.”
That was in the summer of 2010, when Brauel and the nonprofit’s other co-founder, 23-year-old Rebecca Brandt, returned to the African country of Ghana to launch ABAN, an acronym for “A Ban Against Neglect.”
Their program is now in its second year, offering courses in English, math and other subjects, and training in the production of batik bags and jewelry for homeless young women and girls.
The two had studied abroad in 2008 at the University of Ghana, and got the original idea for the nonprofit from their work on a class project. The idea was to use the plastic water bags that littered the city streets to make bags that they could sell – offering an environmental solution that could have an economic benefit.
They brought the idea to the nongovernmental organization Catholic Action for Street Children, where they were both volunteering.
They taught the children to make bags and said that in their first week, they sold about $75 worth.
When their study abroad came to an end, they stuffed their suitcases full of the purses to sell at their universities – Brauel at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Brandt at Concordia University Irvine in California – and recruited another student to continue running the project in Ghana.
Back in Chapel Hill, Brauel, an undergraduate at the Kenan-Flagler Business School, entered a course that helped her develop a business plan for their entrepreneurial idea.
Then in the spring of 2010, they won first place and $15,000 in the Carolina Challenge, a business and social venture competition, along with another $1,000.
They used the funding to travel back to Ghana to launch the nonprofit. They recruited girls and women, aged 15 to 20 years old, who had come through the organization Street Girls Aid that provides temporary housing for pregnant women.
In March of this year, they raised $30,000 from donations as well as sales of ABAN bags and other products.
They used the money to move the program into a rented home located outside Accra. The program now includes 18 women and girls, 12 of which have children, to whom they offer classes and training in making bags and other products.
Brandt said they also encourage the women to save their earnings by matching money they’ve saved. They hope that those savings will help the women further their education after the two-year program ends, or to enable them to start a business.
The nonprofit employs eight full-time workers in Ghana, and is supported by 15 interns, students at UNC-Chapel Hill, who offer services in marketing, grant writing, sales, and accounting.
“We’ve learned so much through this whole process, we’ve been blessed to have had so much support,” Brauel said. “I feel lucky to be doing what we’re doing.”
Jim Kitchen, a lecturer at the Kenan-Flagler Business School who was one of Brauel’s coaches in the course at UNC, said he believes the nonprofit will be successful as they grow their product sales channels.
“It’s an incredibly powerful story, and their product … has so much meaning to people, so I think they’re well on their way,” Kitchen said.
Brauel said their products are through outlets including One World Market in Durham, and at Foster’s Market in Chapel Hill, as well as online. They’re also hoping to sell at Whole Foods stores in Durham and in Chapel Hill.
Both co-founders have part-time jobs to help them meet their own costs, but they hope to eventually operate several different centers in Ghana, and have hopes for the graduates of their program.
“Every day I feel like more and more I want to see 100 percent of our graduating glass transition and never return to the street again, and be proud of who they are, and be able to share their story,” Brandt said.
Brauel added that when she returned to Ghana this past summer, she said she heard several members of their program saying that they dreamed of pursuing futures as doctors or military officers.
“That was so cool for me,” she said. “Mostly to see that they had started to think about that stuff, and that they knew that they had people that believed in them, and would believe that they were capable of accomplishing a lot with their lives.”
Kitchen also founded an incubator meant to foster the growth of social mission-driven enterprises, the Franklin Innovation Center, of which ABAN is a member. He said he believes people that are part of Millennial Generation, or Generation Y, are “much more apt to pursue social entrepreneurial ventures.”
“With UNC’s push toward innovation, there are a lot of students in the pipeline that are trying to create these meaningful organizations,” he said.