For most families in Togo, Africa, the cost of school uniforms is too high to pay.
At an estimate of $15 dollars, the garments are not seen as a necessity in this small country, where nearly 70 % of its rural population lives on less than $1.90 per day.
Inspired by a story featured in the bestseller book Half the Sky (2010) on how the provision of school uniforms helped school retention rates, Payton McGriff started brewing a simple business idea: teach girls how to sew their own uniforms so they could always go to school.
Her business model took form in an entrepreneurship class at the University of Idaho and during those final months of her undergraduate’s degree, a meeting with a professor from Togo ended with an invitation to the West African nation so she could get a better grasp on the context.
She booked a trip and founded S.H.E. (Style Her Empowered).
«I got to spend a lot of time with girls from local junior highs and high schools to really understand how big of an impact school uniforms have on their ability to go to school. Then learned more about menstrual supplies and skill training opportunities and that’s kind of what encouraged us to create this holistic program for girls», McGriff said.
There are multiple studies on how school uniforms are defining factors to keeping girls in school, one of them The Impact of Distributing School Uniforms on Children‟s Education in Kenya (2009) explains how «a uniform reduces school absenteeism by 6.4 percentage points (43%) from a base of 15% school absenteeism. The effect is 4.3 percentage points larger for students who had a uniform at the baseline.»
Building a business model from this idea was one of the most inspiring and challenging personal and professional growth journeys for McGriff and her international team.
The program began in summer 2017 sponsoring 65 girls in Notse for a year. In 2019, more than 180 girls have been sponsored so far.
The school uniforms have faced many iterations by learning very quickly that girls were outgrowing their dresses and that any efforts moving forward should keep sustainability in mind.
In two years, the team was able to create a design where a girl can grow 6 sizes and a foot in length from recycled fabric to last for over three years.
But S.H.E. wanted to add extra value to girl’s and women’s empowerment.
While girls receive training on how to sew their own reusable menstrual pads, their mothers and other women in the village have been able to receive skills and entrepreneurial training to sew uniforms and sell menstrual supplies.
«We often have single mothers wanting to be involved. For the course of two years they wanted to become more engaged and that kind of kickstarter the fire and encouraged us to test these job creations programs so women can gain commission from their work,» McGriff said.
With this initiative, S.H.E. has been able to create a circular economy where each time a person donates or buys an uniform for a girl in need not only does so but also helps «create a job for a woman in our village».
The social startup is aiming to expand to other communities and Togo and beyond, currently holding partnership talks with a women’s group in Uganda to license the uniforms and help create a revenue stream for them.
McGriff is very aware of the «white savior complex» and the importance of intercultural communication and respect, something she and her team (in the US & Togo) are constantly reflecting upon.
To work on it, she explains «we are really trying to build the skill sets and agencies within our own students to know that they have everything in themselves to solve their own problems, overcome their challenges and determine their own future.»
S.H.E.’s founder says her team doesn’t think of their work as trail blazing as they are embracing more the concept of «wave breaking.»
«Trail blazing is like burning this narrow path through a forest, wave breaking is breaking the surface of the water and then creating a much wider opportunity and ripple effect», she said.
In a time where there is a growing number of social enterprises aiming to provide girl’s education around the world, the cause seems to not get old because of the potential it carries: educate a girl, educate a nation.
S.H.E. has sponsored 395 girls since 2017 and employed 18 women year-round.
To learn more or sponsor a girl, please visit: https://styleherempowered.org/
Photos Credit: S H E | Style Her Empowered