The Path to Empowerment
A story from our founder Roxanne Joyal, CEO, ME to WE
It started with a string of beads. A symbol of culture and tradition, they also represented opportunity for thousands of Kenyan women. With the chance to earn a sustainable income, they’ve be able to do things they never imagined possible, like send their children to school, build strong, safe homes and become entrepreneurs. Working with our charity partner Free The Children, ME to WE has been able to accomplish more than WE could ever imagine.
Through our Artisans program, we’ve transformed countless lives and entire communities thanks to these beads. Our most popular piece, the Rafiki Bracelet, is sold almost everywhere you go—from the movie theatre, to the bookstore, to the mall. Made with love by the hands of these women, our jewellery connects you to a purpose every time you wear it. It was from this idea that ME to WE Artisans founder Roxanne Joyal created meaningful employment for these women and at the same time, created meaningful work for herself—a career built on empowering others.
You’re incredibly passionate and committed to empowering women through Artisans. What drives you?
1) The business imperative—what I love about ME to WE is that we work within a business framework, but success within our company means success for so many people—our employees, customers, guests, stakeholders here and overseas. Every time we have a win, it’s a win that creates a lot of good.
2) The people are the reason I come to work every day. I love collaborating and working with them. I appreciate that I can have input and guide our decision-making, but our sense of innovation comes from incredibly young and fresh minds.
3) The incredible amount of joy working with people overseas—the Maasai Warriors and mamas in Kenya are the most memorable people our trips participants meet. We also provide meaningful and long-term employment for the mamas. Being able to leverage their heritage and artistic background in a way that they are counted as people within their communities is amazing—it’s a good job.
It must be such a gratifying feeling to do work that positively impacts so many people and most importantly, gives women a voice like that. Speaking of Artisans, what are you most excited for right now?
Our Rafikis programs! My goal with the Rafiki Bracelet is to get people wearing their values on their arm, like a badge of honour. We’re starting to see them randomly in places like coffee shops and when I do, I ask the person where they got their Rafiki. They always say it has a special meaning to them—our message is getting out there!
And beading Rafikis is a part of the Maasai culture—a tradition that’s being preserved and shared with the world. To think it all started with tiny beads! What have you learned about working with the mamas who make Artisans products like Rafikis?
I’ve learned so much from them. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons is one should never underestimate the human ability to respond to opportunity. These women were thought of as only good for fetching water and cooking meals, but they can be artists, entrepreneurs, caregivers, organizers and more—it’s very powerful.
Mama Helen is someone who was introduced to this opportunity and really embraced it. I’ve seen so much growth in her—in her physical demeanour and her self-confidence—she empowers many other women but still comes to work with incredible humility, a spirit of collaboration and a willingness to learn.
I have to give credit to Robin Wiszowaty, the link to the Maasai community. She made it possible for us to speak with the mamas and learn from them. They are very smart and I wanted to create a new way for them to make an income using their skills. My responsibility to them is to ensure the ME to WE shop stays open.
Given this kind of inspirational work, is there a moment you experienced with the mamas that rises above the rest?
We had a number of mamas working at the Atelier one day and my daughter Lily-Rose was there—she’s had constant exposure to these women and when anyone says ‘beads,’ she says, ‘mamas!’ I had sandwiched myself in a group of mamas for a photo and they had put necklaces on me as symbol of our connection. As Lily-Rose made her way to my lap, she was warmly welcomed by the mamas in the traditional way by putting their hands on her head and necklaces around her neck. It was then that I realized how my personal life and work life were coming together in a meaningful and authentic way.
That’s such a beautiful image you’ve painted—to share a connection with women across the world but also create a life where your work and personal life can unite. What have been the pivotal moments in your life that have taken you in this direction?
It’s been a journey! I would say meeting my husband, Marc Kielburger, having the opportunity to volunteer in Kenya when I was 18 and the opportunity to serve as one of the first employees at Free The Children by virtue of Theresa Kielburger [Marc and Craig’s mother]—all built up to this.
We actually tried to start the beading program in 2003. I took a sabbatical from my studies at Oxford and no student had ever requested that, but I condensed my courses so I could have one term in Kenya to witness the leadership centre being built. The beading program didn’t take off because we weren’t officially established in the community yet—it took an additional four years to create trust and obtain the knowledge we needed from them. It’s been a path of building and an incredible team effort, made possible by so many amazing people.
And where do you see that direction going—what’s your vision for the future of Artisans?
We’re always learning and have been in a phase of rapid growth. We’ve had incredible mentors along the way and what I marvel about most is the momentum on our side. I must decide what direction we want to go with a tremendous amount of wisdom and care because I have a duty to these women overseas and our employees in Toronto. I’d like to grow our Rafiki program! We’ve achieved a lot on a fashion level working with bones and beads in Kenya and now we’re bringing an Artisans line to Ecuador. These items are handmade with love and we’re able to make them accessible to a wide audience. This idea is really luxurious because it’s the authenticity, care and uniqueness that also goes into designing couture pieces!
On that point, you’re proving that being socially conscious is stylish and a lifestyle that anyone can adopt by making the right choices. How do you see Artisans shaping the future of social conscious consumerism?
I think we’re at a very interesting flection point where there’s an expectation from millennials that items in the market are thoughtful. I always want our products to stand on their own because I don’t want them to be something purchased out of guilt—consumers should choose them because they feel empowered! We’re headed toward a caring economy and enterprises will be awarded for authentic products and what they stand for.
Learn more about ME to WE Artisans and shop socially conscious products.