Telling stories. Sharing knowledge.

Featured Changemaker: ALLISON GRENNEY on Socially Conscious Business and the Power of Educating Girls

Philanthropiece Program Intern Kelley Anderson recently had the opportunity to sit down with Allison Grenney, Founder and Owner of EduKate, a Colorado-based social enterprise. After speaking with Allison for an hour, Kelley’s life was forever changed for the better. We think yours will be too!

How did you get the idea for EduKate?

I’ve always been very interested in education, and it’s almost as if my entire life was building up to starting this social enterprise. I was traveling in the fall of 2011, and during this trip I had two moments of epiphany. One was when I was in a small floating village in Cambodia, and we passed a one-room schoolhouse. Many of the young students were girls, but among the older students, there numbers were fewer. There were still many older boys at the school. I had noticed this pattern in other education systems, but somehow seeing it in Cambodia was different. This  experience made me realize how many opportunities we have here in the United States, and I wanted to bring this realization back home with me. We have so many gifts here.  And I just started to wonder, how could I enact people to actually be changemakers, to want to use their opportunities to benefit others? That was my first epiphany.

The second came a month later when I was hiking in northern Vietnam with some local tribal women. We were accompanied by a male tour guide and his son. The tour guide was from the same village as the women, but he was well-dressed; his son was four and I noticed how much taller he was than all of the other kids. You could really see the difference between him and his father, who were nourished, and the women who were malnourished. The difference was startling. Kong, the tour guide, explained the atrocities these women were dealing with. They lived in stark poverty, but they were happy and they were grateful people. I asked Kong, “What makes your family so different from theirs? I don’t understand how you grew up in the same village, you are from the same tribe, and how you are so different?” He said, “My wife is educated.”

I have always believed in educating girls and women, but it was in that moment that my belief was confirmed. Later I learned about other statistics, such as that when a woman earns an income she reinvests ninety percent of it to her family, versus a male who reinvests only thirty percent.That statistic shows that a family’s prosperity and livelihood is really dependent upon the woman. It really made me think about how you can begin creating solutions to poverty by helping educate girls.

How did you develop your business model?

When I got home from my trip I struggled. Previous to my travel, I had worked for a few nonprofits and I saw the amazing things that they were doing. But when I was traveling, I saw nonprofits that had started to do good work, then lacked the funding needed to complete their mission. So I questioned, “How can I support those amazing nonprofits, and create a support system so that they can fulfill their missions?” So it really came down to this idea. Throughout my entire trip, I was wearing Tom’s shoes. It made me think about how you can create a movement around a product and unify a group of people. You can donate and forget about donating to a cause, but if you have a product that you are wearing or carrying, it’s a reminder. It’s like, “I stand for this.” And you see someone else carrying it, and you are like, “They stand for that as well.” And this creates community.

In my vision, I wanted to be a connector. I wanted to build a company to connect people to charitable giving, to connect people to US made products. I wanted this product to be about America and about our local community, but also about supporting others. I married this idea of a US-made, women’s manufactured product, to this concept of helping girls through supporting international education and empowerment programs.

Where did your interest in education equality stem from?

When I was a kid I was diagnosed with three learning disabilities, and people said that because I thought differently I wasn’t going to be successful in school. They said I wouldn’t make it through high school, let alone college. They basically put me in a box, put up all of these barriers. But I was lucky because I had a lot of people who believed in me. These girls that I am supporting, they have a barrier. In their culture, they are not expected to go to school, they are not seen as being worthy of an education. I had a barrier too. Both are barriers to education. They have the desire, I had the desire. I want to believe in these girls the way other people believed in me. I graduated at the top of my class in high school and then went on to Denver University on a scholarship, because I had this support system. I want to be the support system for these girls.

You mentioned that you are exploring how to get people to engage and to become changemakers here in the United States. How’s that going?

I think more than anything it’s about inspiring others through these girls’ stories. I think when people hear about the adversity that these girls are overcoming, they are in a sense like, “Oh my gosh, that’s so amazing. What can I do as well?” They are moved to act. I think that becoming more aware of the experience of other girls and women – of the opportunities and hardships that they have – is a uniting experience.  People want to work for a cause, they get to feel more purpose, and maybe it instigates that feeling of being part of something larger.

You said that you want to meet people, to be a connector. How did that come about for you?

I have always been a curious person, and I am very interested in relationship building. I love hearing other people’s stories and getting to know them. I think that we can all learn from each other. These interactions and relationships mold you. I think this belief system probably came from my experience of going to an all girls’ high school in Denver. I was taught about being a global citizen and engaging in all different areas of the world and of life. As a freshman in high school we were asked, “What does it mean to be human?” This investigation was a year-long project and at the end we were required to give a twenty minute presentation in front of a panel of judges and peers. At the age of fourteen you have to come up with what you think it means to be human! As a ninth grader, you are thinking, “How can I possibly answer that question? This is insane!”

Do you find yourself coming back to that question?

Yes! It’s a question that I still ask myself all the time, and I think that the curiosity around human connection has driven my desire to see the world and meet other people. I am a very introspective person, and I think reflection plays a huge role in learning from those people with whom I interact. There is a lot to be learned from other people’s perspectives and how they see the world differently. They have been shaped by their own experiences as have you. Reflecting on that and finding a connection, I think that is what creates love. Without reflection, I wouldn’t have been able to pursue EduKate. I wouldn’t have connected the dots of my past, my epiphany in Cambodia, my epiphany in Vietnam, to why I want to support girls. I would have missed an opportunity, in a sense. An opportunity isn’t a visitor that stays for a long time, so you have to jump on it.

Have there been any struggles that have made you question what you are doing?

Yes. One of the most difficult parts is that I don’t have a partner. I am an extremely team-oriented person so not having anyone in particular to share this experience with is difficult. I do share with friends and family, but it is still pretty isolating because they can only understand it from an outsiders’ point of view. It’s this unbelievable contrast: I have never felt so alone, and I have also never felt so connected. Every day, when I’m meeting people and talking to people like this, I’m so connected and thankful for all of these amazing interactions. The isolation comes because in the end, it all falls on me. There are moments where it’s like, “What am I doing?”  You look at other people and you are like, “Wow, she goes to a 9 to 5 and can leave her work,” and you get envious of that comfort, that safety. But I would never fit in that; I wouldn’t be fulfilled. For other people that may be different but I think being a changemaker, you have to constantly be fighting failure, and fighting this idea of giving up. It’s so much easier to give up. I never actually wanted to give up. I have definitely thought that would be the easier at times, but I have never had a desire to just give up.

You promote an American made product. How did that come about?

From the start of EduKate, I explored the idea of helping women locally. On a visit in Aspen, I saw an article on the front page of the newspaper about a community initiative that was trying to get single mothers off public systems by training them for the workforce. I went to them and said, “I want to be the first private company to employ the women who have been trained in sewing; I want them to manufacture EduKate’s bags.” It definitely made me realize how much need there is locally, and how there are so many issues locally that you can help.

EduKate currently benefits girls in Guatemala. How did you get connected there?

To fulfill my idea of supporting nonprofits who are doing great things and who are working with girls, there were two crucial pieces to consider. The first was this idea of scholarship. One of the biggest barriers to getting girls into school is that families often don’t want to invest their money into daughters. They see educating their daughter as a lost investment. In other cultures, it is common for parents to “marry off” their daughter, and then she becomes the other family’s property. So, they would see their daughter’s education as a loss of time and money. The other piece was the empowerment and mentoring aspect, because I don’t believe that you can just be like, “here is a book” and expect people to learn. Support on a personal level and encouragement for the girls to want to go to school and stay in school and overcome the cultural barriers is crucial, so the mentoring aspect is very important. I found that Starfish One By One was an organization that met those two criteria.

What is your relationship with Starfish One By One?

One-third of the profits generated by the sale of our EduKate tote bag goes towards supporting girls education efforts globally. Initially, we are partnered with Starfish to support their mission of mentoring Mayan girls to stay in school. Starfish has an amazing model. I traveled to Guatemala last November to meet the Starfish girls, and when I departed, I left with two hundred more heroes in my life. It was amazing just to connect with the girls. They were so open and willing to share about themselves, their aspirations, and about the challenges that they are overcoming. I was moved the entire time by how committed they are to their life, to their opportunities, and to how they recognize that education is the key to them helping their families and their communities.

Was there a Starfish girl that particularly impacted you on your last trip?

Irma is one girl that I got to know particularly pretty well. She is the seventh of twelve kids in her family. I went to visit her and her family in her home; there were twenty-four of them living in one room. It was incredible. At age fourteen, she was really the leader of the family because of her role at Starfish. We came in and she introduced us, and she explained who everyone was and talked to us about what she had learned. She told us that she had brought a water filter back to her family, and how that was going to help them, and how her dream is to become a public activist. She said she knows she has to be really selfish right now by working hard in school instead of helping with the income of the family. But, she explained that in the long run it is better for her family because she will become successful and take care of them and her community. You could see a blaze inside of Irma when she talked. She was on fire; she was ready to serve and seize this opportunity, and it was amazing. You can have experiences with people and know that you met them, but I left feeling something more, like I was so connected to her.

Do you sense that the Starfish families are receptive and supportive of their daughter’s education?

Starfish One By One has a rigorous application process for their participants, so the family has to buy into the program from the start. They have to come to Starfish to ask for it. So it does create a different dynamic. Irma’s father told us right away, “I would have never paid for my daughter to go to school.” Prior, he didn’t see the point of paying for it, but through Irma’s participation in Starfish, he recognizes the value of her education. Even at age fourteen, Irma’s father recognizes her as a leader in the family. The Starfish mentors do an incredible job, too. They are local Mayan women who guide and support the family of their participants. They do monthly check-ins with the family, and they are resources for them, as much as for the girls.

What sustains you in your work with EduKate?

For me it is all about the girls. It’s about seeing them succeed, and about seeing the change that they are making in their community.That energy really sustains me. I also love hearing about what other people are doing to make this world a better place, that’s so inspiring to me. We are all on our own journey and we are all going to leave a mark in our own way, I think that’s so cool.