Outstanding Young Alumni Award recipient Callie Brauel (BSBA ’09) tells about her experience as co-founder and U.S. director of A Ban Against Neglect (ABAN).
ABAN sponsors and runs a resident program for young women, ages 17-22, who are often single mothers, poverty stricken and unable to rise above their current state without assistance. The women selected are those who are willing to commit two years to breaking the cycle of poverty, changing their lives and preparing for a more participative role in their communities and society. Because the women are in a resident environment, ABAN is able to focus on developing a sense of self-confidence by teaching a basic educational curriculum, developing vocational and social skills, money management and counseling in nutrition and physical and mental health. Developing the whole woman is the ultimate reward.
Q: Before visiting Ghana as a foreign exchange student, had you thought about the possibility of starting your own business, or what career path were you considering at that point?
Callie: Part of the reason I went to Ghana was because I didn’t know what my next step would be. I had seen many of my friends get really good jobs in consulting or banking, but I knew that wasn’t the right fit for me. I was really active in the Carolina Microfinance Initiative my senior year and thought that microfinance might be part of the solution to solving global poverty. I knew that when I arrived in Ghana, I would try to look for an internship in that arena. I knocked on several doors to find volunteer opportunities, and despite my persistence, nothing panned out. At the time, I had no idea a huge door would open that would lead me to my life’s work – ABAN.
After I returned from Ghana, I found out that I had gotten a full ride to a master’s program in international development from the University of Trento in Italy. I was torn up about this decision for a while, especially because at this point I had graduated and was balancing taking “Launching the Venture” MBA course at Kenan-Flagler, working at a coffee shop 50 plus hours a week, and trying to start up ABAN every hour in between. In the end, I followed my heart to pursue ABAN, and I have not once regretted that decision.
Q: How did you first meet the other co-founders of ABAN, Becca and Emmanuel?
Callie: Becca and I met her first day in Ghana. I remember it very clearly because she made an impact on me right from the start. I was both nervous and excited to study abroad in Ghana. My nerves were mostly eased by the fact that I had four other females from UNC that I could discuss and process all these new sights, smells, and experiences with. The UNC group got to Ghana a week early to settle in and orient ourselves to the campus and culture. Each night we would sit outside our dorm rooms and overlook the balcony and into the courtyard so we could see all the new student groups coming in each day and guess where they were from. Our dorm quickly filled with hundreds of international students from all over the US, Europe and West Africa. Towards the end of the week, Becca entered alone. I knew in that moment I had to befriend this brave, young, soul who came to Ghana as the first rep from her university in California- Concordia- to see if there was potential to implement a study abroad program. We were friends instantly. She was adopted into the UNC group from that night on.
Emmanuel and I developed a friendship and mutual respect for each other over the course of a project in our nonprofit management class. The project required the group to assess a need we saw in Ghana and come up with a plan for a non-profit that would address it. Our idea was to recycle the plastic waste we saw everywhere in Ghana and even on the campus and turn it into bags that we could sell to create environmental awareness. Instead of just keeping our idea on paper, we felt so strongly about it that we decided to setup recycling bins all over campus. This project was the first seed sewn for what would later be our own full-fledged nonprofit. To this day, we still visit our professor of this class and give him updates on ABAN.
Q: Briefly tell the story of how you and the others started ABAN.
Callie: Stepping off the plane as foreign exchange students in Ghana, we were immediately greeted by the alarming amount of plastic pollution littering the streets and the practically non-existent means for their disposal. “Why is nearly impossible to locate a trash can in a city of 2.5 million?,” we constantly asked ourselves. It wasn’t until later in the semester that we came across a more hidden and more disturbing problem lingering in the streets of Accra – the neglected children.
It wasn’t until after creating a mock non-profit on recycled products for an NGO management class that a light finally went off: “Why not help solve both street epidemics with one solution?” ABAN was born. From that day on, we worked with our professor, Catholic Action for Street Children, Street Girls Aid, and local and international students to create a means of sustainable income for these children.
Q: Many people have ideas for a new business, but few of them actually follow through and make it happen. How did you first get it off the ground?
Callie: There is no one formula to starting a non-profit or any business for that matter. We have found that our best quality as a startup is our adaptability. We have gone through many growing pains as an organization – all of which have only made us more resilient.
We went from a class project trying to help fund two other nonprofits on the ground in Ghana to starting our own nonprofit that was focused on the economic empowerment of young homeless women through giving them a job, a safe place to sleep, and way to save. We thought this would be life shifting for these ladies. This was our textbook definition of how development could best work. But, we quickly discovered we had a lot to learn. The population we were working with were still children themselves – young ladies who had given birth on the streets at a very young age. They had faced tremendous amounts of neglect – 70 percent had been abused or sexually assaulted. And most had not seen a family unit as we know it. Economic empowerment wasn’t enough, so we changed our model. We created a holistic healing approach— an intensive two-year residence program that taught job and life-skills.
In addition, this past summer, we started a completely separate program that hires workers in the community (ABAN Community Employment, aka ACE), so we can ultimately be self-sustaining. Eventually, we may have ACE make all the products and take the sewing out of the girl’s programs altogether if it doesn’t provide them with the most value for life post-ABAN.
We have found that entrepreneurship requires the initial creation, but then continual reflection and improvement. This flexibility and adaptability has ultimately built our organization into something that is becoming stronger each day.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge for you so far?
Callie: Losing girls. We started with ten our first year in 2010 and only six graduated this past summer in our first graduating class. We lost girls throughout the course of two years for numerous reasons including addiction, men/family pressures, and broken rules. Each girl we lost made us feel like we were failing. But, eventually we had to realize that we were young and learning and our model is continually improving. And to the six girls who did graduate this summer, their lives have been forever transformed. They have gone from living on the streets to providing for themselves and others. This transformation spills over into their children’s lives and even their communities. With our new class we have had a 90 percent retention rate over our last year. And, one of the girls who left in the first class has come back to work with us as an ACE employee! We have learned that every life changed is our biggest success and we must rejoice in each one.
Q: What is the most rewarding thing for you about starting ABAN?
Callie: The most rewarding thing is seeing the lives changed by ABAN. Not just the girls in the program, but even here in the states. We have worked with over 50 UNC interns and countless other businesses and professionals in the community who have donated thousands of hours to ensuring ABAN’s success. These people have not even seen our mission in person and yet our girls and their stories leave footprints on their hearts. This generosity creates a global community and connection that inspires and renews me daily.
Q: What has been the initial reaction from the Ghana community?
Callie: I distinctly remember the first time I went through customs as a student returning from my exchange program to the states with 1,000 coin purses made from drinking water bags stuffed in my suitcase. The baffled officer wanted to know why Americans wanted their trash. I didn’t really have a good answer at the time. Since then, of course there has been some confusion from some of the population as they see ABAN turning their plastic waste into products, but overall the reaction has been great. We have gotten support from several large companies in Ghana, created a Ghana Advisory Board and have partnered with numerous schools to initiate recycling programs.
Q: What has been the reaction from your customers?
Callie: All positive feedback from customers! We are really proud to say that our products have come a long way from our initial all-plastic coin purses. Each one is a masterpiece. We recycle water bags from the community and patch the logos of each together in a unique and visually appealing way. The fabric is made from a labor-intensive batik dying process and sourced form local artisans. And now every product comes with a key chain made from recycled glass. Our products stand on their own without the ABAN story. But, I think people really get behind the fact that each product purchased supports both the environment and female empowerment in Ghana. Who wouldn’t feel good about sporting something beautiful inside and out!
Q: Is ABAN making a profit financially at this point?
Callie: Product sales generate about 1/3 of the revenues for our mission work. We have gotten into Whole Foods in the South East and have several other large sales channels we are pursuing. The long-term plan is to build our production capacity and sales channels so that we can become decreasingly reliant on outside funding.
Q: How is ABAN is making an impact?
Callie: Six girls graduated this summer, and they are all now providing for themselves and their children. Our most educated graduate was able to get a full ride to a private high-school and dreams of becoming a military officer in two years, breaking stereotypical gender roles in Ghana!
We currently have 20 girls in our program and 12 babies and anticipate expanding to 30 girls plus their babies in our new class this summer. We have already bought land nearby in hopes that we can build an ABAN campus and graduate 50 plus girls yearly in the near future. We have 12 staff in the ABAN community in Ghana, 10 additional in our ACE program, 3 in the US, and 9 UNC interns learning a ton along the way J
We recycle over 10,000 plastic bags monthly and form partnerships with local nonprofits, churches, and schools to help keep our local community clean.
Q: What advice do you have for other students or recent graduates who have an idea for starting a business?
Callie: In my opinion, entrepreneurship is not about preparation, it’s about persistence and commitment and pushing through the hard times. You are going to fail in this field over and over again. You probably will even fail BIG, or at least it will feel big in that moment. But don’t be afraid to fail. Some of your biggest successes and “aha” moments will come out of your failures. I heard this once described as “failing forward.” Learn from it and move on. It is too easy to get hung up on your failures and forget to celebrate the successes. But you must recognize your and your teammate’s hardwork to keep you going. It’s essential.
Another tip: don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you are pursuing the path less traveled, there are so many people who have already been in your shoes and would love to talk about it. Me for example –give me a call.
Q: How can people reading this article help?
- Host an ABAN house party- we do a majority of our sales through this model. It’s simple: we would come and setup products in your home and tell our story and all you have to do is invite your friends!
- Financially – we are always looking for donors to sponsor a girl or child.
- Volunteer – we are always posting opportunities on our ABAN website. Currently, we are looking for someone with sales experience to help us develop our channels.
- Sport an ABAN product and spread the word! Products are available on the ABAN website.
- Follow our blog, facebook and twitter! And share with your friends!
For more info on any of the above, feel free to contact me at Callie@aban.org.
A big thanks to everyone who has helped us along the way! We cannot begin to list everyone who has been instrumental, but please know we are forever grateful.