There is a great focus right now on socially responsible brands that not only make a statement in the world, but also make a difference. Entrepreneur Rahel Mwitula Williams and her proudly African lifestyle brand, ILAVA(which translates as IT CAN BE DONE), is passionate about making women feel empowered through fashion, whilst at the same time positively impacting the lives of others.
What does your company do?
ILAVA is a socially responsible lifestyle brand that uses fashion to empower women and inspire change around the world. Currently, ILAVA specializes in four strong products:
lifestyle fashion, jewelry, handmade cards, and home decor. ILAVA is devoted to making women feel empowered and celebrated by offering a variety of collections that tell the story of ILAVA women from Tanzania and Kenya. Through fashion, ILAVA has created community, women are empowered, and everyone looks fabulous!
Our mission is to provide African-Inspired fashion, accessories, and other lifestyle items to our consumers while celebrating powerful and inspirational women around the world! With every purchase, ILAVA provides school uniforms to children in Tanzania, Elimaa Preprimary School, Kwamorombo, Arusha and Bicycles to Girls at Mwitikira Secondary School in Dodoma, Tanzania, and helps to create jobs for women.
What inspired you to start your company?
In December 2009, I had an opportunity to travel to Kenya for three weeks through a study abroad program for my Master of Science degree in International Public Service from DePaul University. When considering why I chose Kenya, I must be honest and say that it was because I knew that it was only 6 hours away from my homeland, Tanzania and more importantly I would have an opportunity to visit my grandmother.
Never in a million years did I think that I would fall in love with Kenya. I visited several women’s cooperative organizations, but one organization in particular stirred up something inside of me. The Kibera Paper Project (KPP) is an organization that makes greeting cards using recycled materials. Meeting the women of Kibera Paper Project changed my life and confirmed the one thing I had always known, which was that in Africa with hope, determination and hard work it can be done. I ended my journey filled with both excitement and frustration because I was confused about the next step. While my trip to East Africa ended, my contribution towards the economic development in Africa was just beginning. As an African woman, I understand my responsibility towards it. Early 2010, I began volunteering with KPP helping the organization sell their cards here in the United States. Within months of selling cards to family members and friends, I realized that my involvement needed a strategic plan. As result, the formulation of ILAVA: It Can Be Done! came into existence.
Why should anyone use your service or product?
ILAVA creates a culture where women will embrace the uniqueness and versatility of African clothes without feeling out of place in mainstream society. By celebrating women, entrepreneurship, education, and success against all odds, ILAVA continue to grow ahead of the curve and offer unique products to service the ILAVA woman. In addition to this, ILAVA will to give back to the country of Tanzania and other countries through amazing programs, partnerships, sponsorships, and giveaways!
Tell us a little about your team
Our team is composed of beautiful, robust and talented women. Currently, we have 12 women and two men who are contracted to work with us. This number changes season after season. Nevertheless, we have a team of 4 permanent employees.
I am the founder and lead designer of ILAVA. As a social entrepreneur, I was born and raised in Tanzania, East Africa. I migrated to the USA with my family when I was 12 years old and held my Tanzanian heritage near to my heart. I obtained my bachelor of science degree in psychology from Loyola University and went on to receive my Master’s of Science in International Public Service from DePaul University in Chicago, Ilinois. I believe that women entrepreneurs are vital in enhancing both women’s and overall community development. I aim to incorporate my culture into fashion and give back to my native country. While popular culture may see African attire as a trend, I see it as a lifestyle.
Mwasi Mwitula is the CEO of ILAVA. She was born and raised in Tanzania, East Africa. She migrated to the USA with her family when she was 13 years old and held her Tanzanian heritage near to her heart. She obtained her bachelor of science degree in Education from Roosevelt University in Chicago. Mwasi is a talented Make Up Artist and Natural Hair Expert.
Our Director of Operations Neema Kisasa is an Entrepreneur with training in Water Resources Management, Women Development, and Tailoring. Ms. Kisasa is a mother and wife. She oversees the daily operations of ILAVA in Tanzania.
Our Buyer and Manager is Frida Joseph, a pre-primary teacher. She has an exceptional eye for selecting perfect fabrics. She has resilience and is a hard worker.
Share a little about your entrepreneurial journey. And, do you come from an entrepreneurial background?
Growing up, I saw my father take on different business ventures, and my paternal grandmother’s family (her brothers) were excellent business people in the farming sector. Nevertheless, I never considered myself an entrepreneur or fashion designer. I saw myself as a global citizen with a love for fashion and an overwhelming desire to make a positive impact in my home country. These are the things that lead me to where I am today. While in graduate school, my professor suggested that perhaps the reason that most African Countries do not develop is that those who leave the continent to study never return to contribute to the economic development, and that most Africans are not philanthropists. These two statements not only hurt my core but they challenged me to dig deep into this theory or perhaps a myth. Of course, it was a myth, and it was my dream and self-challenge to prove in my graduate school thesis. I did not want to be another researcher, I wanted to be the implementer. Thus, my long walk towards my contribution to my home country’s economic development began!!!
What are your future plans and aspirations for your company?
ILAVA aims to become one of the leading, socially responsible fashion brands in the industry by offering the best quality attire and lifestyle items at a price-point that reflects the brand's ability to give back. I believe Tanzania can become a manufacturing hub and produce competitive products. To have a business that is owned by Tanzanians and to create products in Tanzania is imperative.
What gives you the most satisfaction being an entrepreneur?
To be able to give back and to inspire others. The joy of seeing a little girl’s eyes after I tell them my story, that they too can achieve their dreams regardless of who they are. Most Tanzanian girls believe the only way they can become influential in the society is if they come from a family that has a name (politician or government or church officials etc.. ), former beauty queen, married to someone from western countries and someone who is older and wealthy. I want to show little Tanzanian girls that I don't have any of the above "statuses," ' but I am working hard every day to make my dreams come true and be a positive influence in society, and they can do the same thing. Indeed, it's hard, but I want to show them IT CAN BE DONE!!! The endless possibilities of what life could be.
What's the biggest piece of advice you can give to other women looking to start-up?
Go ahead, DREAM BIG but have an ACTION PLAN. Every day do something towards realizing that dream. But, be aware of dream killers. You will always have people that will give you millions of reasons as to why your dream will not happen, but you can always find millions of reasons as to how you can make it can happen. Therefore, choose your company wisely. You will work hard for what you believe in, and there will be times when you will doubt yourself and you will want to quit, but don’t give up - press forward - it can be done!
Source: Lionesses of Africa