Empowering people with ‘I can’ opportunities

This month we speak to Tracey Gilmore of The Clothing Bank (TCB).

Tracey, The Clothing Bank is a social entrepreneurial venture. How does this differ from a conventional entrepreneurial venture?

Our end result is not focused on profit being the bottom line. We take a comprehensive approach to business growth.

South Africa’s social foundation needs to be strengthened and our environment needs to be taken into consideration.

By taking an inclusive, regenerative approach to supporting our stagnant economy, we can identify opportunities for change.

We understand that the household is at the core of our economy and to change the trajectory of poverty, people need to be linked to opportunities that support financial inclusion.

Our business model encourages personal and professional growth, financial sustainability (for our organisation and the people we serve) together with solutions that support a healthy planet.

Please tell us a little about The Clothing Bank.

TCB opened in February 2010. Since inception, we have opened five branches around the country, Cape Town, Paarl, Johannesburg, Durban and East London. The programme assists 1 000 women across these regions; 180 men within its Appliance Bank programme, and supports 45 early childhood development (ECD) centres.

You are the co-founder along with another Tracey. Please tell us a little more about how you met and started TCB.

In the 10 years prior to opening the The Clothing Bank I spent my time focusing on my young family and managing small start-up family-run businesses.

One of these small businesses found me working out of my comfort zone, managing a small handweaving business. Collaborating with the weavers was the spark I needed to find my passion.

The success and failures I experienced along the way taught me to understand the challenges small businesses face.

During 2009, after much soul searching, I decided it was time to act. I was fortunate enough to attend a course titled, “The Adventures of Living.”

The course helped us identify what our passions were and gave us the courage to follow our dreams. I believe that finding innovative solutions to social change is deliberate, and I began researching international development and training organisations for inspiration and direction.

As a result, I contacted the Businesswomen’s Association and together we started a campaign to collect donated gently used second-hand clothing. This clothing was for women who were going to job interviews.

The project sourced a huge amount of clothing, but the truth is that our structural unemployment problem causes barriers for women living in vulnerable situations and there was a real lack of job applications available, hence no interviews to attend.

During this time, I was open and engaging and I had the good fortune of meeting my business partner, Tracey Chambers, through mutual friends. During social events we would always connect and share ideas. Our personalities and strengths are quite different, however what we share is what we deeply value.

The TCB model was crafted during a conversation we had about our shared passion to support South African mothers living in low-income communities. We acknowledged the importance of connecting mothers with access to income generating opportunities and the relevant personal and professional skills needed for development.

Part of our discussion focused on the large volumes of excess “waste” merchandise found within the retail supply chain and how this merchandise had the potential for women to establish trading businesses within the informal sector.

Tracey has a financial background with corporate experience, her professional knowledge and industry insight helped us build our business model and implement systems that support our operations and gather relevant data. Unpacking data authenticates our impactful story and helps us adapt and respond to the needs of our beneficiaries.

Please give us a glimpse into the world of the beneficiaries that you assist. Can you share some success stories?

The people we support are unemployed South Africans living in low-income communities, who are willing to step outside of their comfort zone and explore the opportunity to establish a micro enterprise.

To succeed, micro entrepreneurs need the skills that support personal and professional growth.

Identifying individuals with internal volition who are ready for their TCB journey forms part of our selection process. Our eco system is built on providing “I can” moments which builds self-esteem and self-efficacy.

Building an eco-system that provides a safe space for people to heal, learn and grow is critical to catalysing change.

Here is a story of change and growth: Nombulelo Magunya is a TCB beneficiary and graduate.

She is originally from Umtata, but now lives in Langa. She has two children and a mom with two older sisters. Her story of growth is heartwarming. She experienced extreme levels of economic need before joining TCB.

She relates how she wore size seven takkies to her interview, rather than her size four, as she couldn’t afford new shoes. In addition, she struggled with managing a personal budget. The programme has helped her not only to gain the skills of budgeting and grow in confidence, but also to generate a sustainable income.

She has reached a level of growth that she is now a TCB ambassador.

Being a social entrepreneurial venture does not exempt you from the challenges, disappointments and setbacks that are part of the entrepreneurial journey. How do you navigate these “icebergs”, Tracey?

We are a solution-focused entity. Our approach to the challenges we face is to take the time to think and respond and not impulsively react. We encourage contribution, we are open to listening and engaging with our various teams. We have strong passionate teams managing our various branches. They are on the ground and constantly identifying and responding to opportunities and challenges.

We are agile and reach out for professional advice and support when we need to adapt. It is important to stay current and not allow ourselves to deviate from our mission.

You are a woman-owned enterprise that has done amazing things, consistently. Any advice for fellow woman entrepreneurs?

Having a clear vision of your end result and identifying what structures need to be in place to make it happen are critical. Collaborating with people and organisations who share your values and support your mission help entrepreneurs leapfrog their growth.

Build your brand and understand that change is inevitable.

Creating an environment focused on care and growth helps build a strong team of committed individuals who share the organisation’s vision and are clear about the intended outcomes.

● Steve Reid is the manager of the Centre for Entrepreneurship at False Bay College. Contact him on Steve.Reid@falsebay.org.za