Lotte Davis is the Canadian regional honoree for the 2021 YPO Global Impact Award. The award focuses on YPO members making impact outside the organization that is both sustainable and scalable, affecting people, prosperity, peace or our planet.

Growing up in South Africa during apartheid, Charlotte (Lotte) Davis, Founder of One Girl Can, became aware of racial discrimination and injustice. Even as a child, she understood it was wrong. After immigrating with her family to Canada in the late 1960s, she personally faced a different type of discrimination and injustice – this time toward women.

“I knew that one day I was going to become successful and that it would prove that women could do anything they wanted to do,” says Davis. After raising two daughters with purpose and direction, Davis made the decision to return to Africa for the first time in 45 years. Her goal was to try to impact gender equality for young women and help them find that same purpose in their life.

Davis, Co-founder of AG Hair, leveraged her success as Canada’s only manufacturer of professional haircare products to combat gender inequality and alleviate poverty. Her approach to building the organization was similar to the way she launched her for-profit business from the basement of her home: by identifying a need, creating a product and allowing customers to inform how the business developed.

Finding her purpose

After initially supporting African girls through World Vision, Davis realized that, as an entrepreneur, she was not satisfied with simply writing a check. Becoming actively engaged in helping others 11,000 kilometers away requires educating yourself, finding the right partners and starting small. Davis first researched various countries before selecting Kenya — a landlocked, English-speaking, less volatile country that was a relatively prosperous and emerging market. She then flew to Nairobi and partnered with Amref, a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) that offered her “liberal access to the projects.” Touring a mud-walled school with no lighting or ventilation in the Kibera slums of Nairobi, Davis decided rebuilding the school would be her first step in helping lift impoverished young women. “It was an incredible sense of homecoming mingled with purpose,” she says.

Magomano washroom before and after One Girl Can renovation.

Investing in girls

Through the construction project, Davis witnessed firsthand how a safe, secure school provided girls in marginalized communities with an opportunity to get a quality education. Over the ensuing four years, she raised funds, familiarized herself with the country and its issues through more frequent visits, hired a local project manager to be her “eyes and ears on the ground,” narrowed her focus and built five more schools. Still, she says, “I knew if I was going to make a success of this, I had to do it myself.”

Developing a visually compelling story was critical to starting her own project and to engaging “people in a country that felt they needed to give back to their own community and not to somebody else’s,” says Davis. It turned out to be less challenging than she expected. The secret: pay attention to those who want to be involved. AG Hair employees volunteered to produce the website and promotional materials for a charitable shampoo-conditioner duo, helping to raise CAD90,000 at the outset. Her customers, distributors and salons also became active participants by purchasing and promoting products that supported her initiative. The collective effort paid off in her first fundraising event when they far exceeded the goal of CAD35,000 by raising CAD120,000. “I was able to create a huge footprint because my company wanted to be involved, and I had access to those funds and resources,” she says.

In 2008, Davis launched One Girl Can to help girls break out of poverty through education, supporting them from high school until they are fully educated and gainfully employed. The organization now partners with 10 girls’ high schools in Kenya. In 2021, One Girl Can will have built or fully renovated 136 buildings, mentored more than 35,000 students through formal workshops, and awarded over 1,000 high school and university scholarships, 400 specifically for young women to attend university. One Girl Can hosts a two-day conference in Nairobi each year to prepare 200 university students for the job market, coaching them on recruitment, internship, entrepreneurial training and more.

Understanding the need

Davis built One Girl Can much like she built AG Hair: by listening to the needs of her customers. Insufficient funds prevented students from attending school on a regular basis, and a lack of role models made it difficult for them to envision alternative futures. Davis realized it was one thing to build a building and quite another to “ensure that the brightest and most determined girls were able to stay in school every day and become the best that they could be to reach their potential.” She expanded the scope of her work to include granting scholarships for secondary school and university.

In addition, Davis developed a series of mentoring workshops, titled Empower Me, I Want to Be, I Will Be and University Preparedness. The workshops help high school students develop confidence, set goals, think strategically, gain leadership training and discover career options. “I became successful through goal setting,” says Davis, “and anyone anywhere in the world can move their lives forward in increments through goal setting, even a girl living in extreme poverty in Africa.”

In their final year, students have an opportunity to connect with successful Kenyan women for inspiration and guidance and to learn how to become mentors themselves. Ultimately, Davis says she wants the girls to “earn their own living, make decisions for themselves, educate all of their children equally, and also have a multiplier effect on gender equality because women tend to coach other women.”

To grow any type of enterprise, Davis recommends running it like a business, one in which “you make an investment and expect to get a return on that investment.” She applied the same key performance indicators and strategies used in business to One Girl Can. “The students had evolved and changed because they could see that they were making strides in their lives,” says Davis. “They attributed this to the coaching and the mentoring that we were doing, and the opportunity for scholarships that created this competitive environment where girls wanted to go to university and would work hard, listen to our programs and do the goal setting. The grade average in all the schools began to escalate year after year due to the competition to earn a university scholarship, and the schools benefitted from gaining a better national reputation.

Anyone anywhere in the world can move their lives forward in increments through goal setting, even a girl living in Africa. ”
— Charlotte (Lotte) Davis, Founder of One Girl Can share twitter

Providing job opportunities

One Girl Can university students study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses with an eye to high profile careers in business, medicine and law. Even with a university education, finding a job in a nation with 40% unemployment can be difficult. To equip them with the tools they need to generate their own income, the organization launched an entrepreneurial training program in partnership with the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business in Vancouver and the Strathmore Business School in Nairobi.       

“There’s a huge opportunity for entrepreneurialism in emerging countries like Kenya,” says Davis. “Whether they ultimately do get a job in civil engineering, they will have developed all of the skills they need to build a business plan, offer customer-centric service, learn to market their goods or service, as well as gain experience for their resumes so that when they do get an interview, they’re further ahead than other candidates.”

Creating change themselves

“I think of this as an investment in another human being,” says Davis. “I provide people who have the skills and desire to improve their lives with the coaching and the funds that they’ll need to get to a certain point and then make sure they’ve got all the tools to continue on that path.”

One Girl Can is innovating to serve the girls throughout their journey and to financially empower more girls by offering its entrepreneurial training program to high school students in the future. In addition, Davis says the organization is developing an internship program that will allow foreign businesses to hire students remotely, more affordably and provide those students with invaluable work experience and the ability to earn a decent Kenyan wage.

Providing a for-profit purpose

While Davis intended to keep her nonprofit and for-profit business separate, the two became interconnected because of employee and customer interest. A percentage of all product sales are donated to One Girl Can and provide the administration costs, as well as help build facilities and sponsor students. What Davis found as an individual became true for her employees as well: “using our time and treasure to help people with no means become successful is far more rewarding than achieving the success ourselves.” It has become one of AG Hair’s core beliefs – ‘Giving Back is the Reward for our Success.’

People gravitate toward our brand because we give back, because we donate some of our profits to help other people become successful as well. ”
— Charlotte (Lotte) Davis, Founder of One Girl Can share twitter

Involving your business, employees and partners in a philanthropic venture creates an incredible community and builds trust. The key is to find something relevant to your core business and engage your employees and community through in-kind work so they “feel that they’re connecting and making a difference,” Davis says. “The type of philanthropy I do is very appropriate for a business that caters to a high percentage of women involved. Our customers appreciate being involved in a company that empowers other women to achieve their potential. It’s a win-win.”

In fact, One Girl Can has helped to grow AG Hair. “People gravitate toward our brand because we give back, because we donate some of our profits to help other people become successful as well,” says Davis. “I think all businesses should be doing something like this or they will get left behind. It’s what consumers want. It’s what employees want.” For leaders looking to create an impact, “if you are passionate about the cause, just do it,” she says. “Let the people you’re hoping to impact tell you how to do it. Let them guide the process and inform the model that you’re going to build.”

Championing the cause

“Making an impact is an obligation, but it is also a privilege to be able to do it,” Davis says. She felt compelled to invest in the future of girls having achieved financial success and experienced the reward of watching her daughters come into their own. It is her proudest achievement, she says, and she knew she wanted to be able to help guide more girls toward independence and a life of their own making.

One Girl Can is a family affair. Her husband and two daughters all sponsor girls throughout their journeys. Additionally, in 2019, her daughter, actress Mackenzie Davis, stepped into the newly created role of ambassador to reach a broader community of supporters, help amplify the voices of the girls and become a younger role model for the students. During a tour of schools, she “spoke with the girls about what our power is and how we’re going to use it to change the world,” says Davis. “It’s just been a wonderful thing for our family to be able to have something to help change other people’s lives and share the success that we’ve had.”

The success of One Girl Can gives Davis confidence the model could be replicated elsewhere to create even greater impact. Her goal: to create an international organization. Davis has created templates, clearly articulated presentations and a blueprint outlining how to find champions, start a fundraising campaign and many more materials that a passionate individual can use to start a similar organization in places such as Malawi, Southeast Asia and Haiti. “It would be useless to just keep all of this to ourselves and not share it,” says Davis. “It’s a franchise that you don’t pay for but has all of the success markings through monitoring and evaluation so you can just start this up yourself.”