What does progress look like?

I was able to spend January in Rwanda this year. I get to visit Rwanda about 3 or 4 times a year and while working outside of Rwanda has its drawbacks, the benefits are seeing the leaps of progress each time I visit.

The bakeries are the most obvious indication of progress. The women have mastered their workflows, are baking with confident know-how, and producing breads that look and taste delicious. Many women have become target customers for accessories, like bras and purses, because they are now seen as having money. And many women report powerful changes in their lives – they know how to prepare a more nutritious meal for their children; they feel confident in their abilities; they feel respected in their communities; they feel successful/lucky/grateful/empowered by their incomes.

It’s the shiny side of our work.

But what does the dull side of our work look like? Or, perhaps a better question, what is the ugly side of our work? What is not working?

Well, we thought our bakeries would be profitable by now; we thought the women wanted to own the bakeries (they don’t); we thought we’d get picked up by Oprah or Ellen; we thought our bread products would speak for themselves (many Rwandese value quantity over quality…); we thought building businesses in Rwanda would be much less expensive than it is (hellooooo taxes!).  But here’s what I find so inspiring about The Women’s Bakery, our model, and especially our team: our ability to transform.

Transformation is different than adaptation.

To me, adaptation means you accept your surroundings and modify yourself to work within them. We have certainly done (and have had to do) this, but I don’t think that paints the full picture, nor does it give credit to our innovation. Accepting our surroundings would mean that we simply make doughnuts or nutritionally-weak white bread because that’s what sells. It would mean that we work with men because women stay in the field and the home since “that’s what women do.”  It would mean that we, as a hybrid nonprofit/for-profit company, would consider our people – the reason we have successful programs – overhead and keep them at 10% of our overall budget.

But what if there were more? What if we didn't accept that realities?

What if people did buy bread because it is nutritious or good quality? What if women wanted to work somewhere else? What if a company valued its people as much as it valued its customers/partners/beneficiaries?

We believe all of those “what if’s” are possible. And we’re doing it. WHAT? It’s exhilarating.

I recently remarked to TWB’s Co-Founder and Co-Director, Julie, that her greatest quality is resiliency. Then my eyes popped out of my head because I realized that this trait – perhaps infused by Julie – epitomizes our Women’s Bakery company culture. We believe in our mission. We listen. We learn from our mistakes. We remain committed to what we know can work. And we act with a shrewdness that would make Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, proud. 

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