ZAHARA’S DREAM FOUNDER, VERLAINE-DIANE SOOBROYDOO, ON THE IMPORTANCE OF SISTERHOOD & #POWERJACKETS with FASHIONOMICS, African Development Bank.
Verlaine-Diane Soobroydoo’s personal journey and professional experience working in international development with a focus on women’s rights and diversity has led her to travel extensively throughout the African continent and around the world. This led her to understand a universal truth: from Juba to Paris or from Mogadishu to New York, it takes a superhuman effort for women to just be. “This reality is even more challenging for young women, who find themselves at the crossroads of the “gender, age and very often skin color cards.” I fell into all the categories, as a young black woman, in a world that gave limited space for someone who looked like me to have a voice,” she told Fashionomics Africa. “It took inner strength, personal efforts and the support of family, friends and mentors for me to redefine myself, own who I am and discover the positive contributions I could bring to the world.”
Marian Wright Edelman’s quote, you can’t be what you can’t see, always resonated with Verlaine-Diane, and she feels privileged to have had such positive role models in her life. “My parents, of course, but also academic teachers who believed in me and who would inspire me to do and be more when I could not see the end of the tunnel,” she explains. “Most recently, I have been fortunate to work in a space and environment, which re-centers women’s leadership and transformative contributions in Africa and the rest of the world. I have witnessed the strength, leadership and vision of incredible African women, mothers and sisters, who own who they are and break down the false assumption that women are passive bystanders in their lives and communities. This experience has also nurtured the seed in my heart to say yes, it is possible for an African woman to be the highest version of herself and to lead positive change – however she aspires to.”
Like many young women rising from poverty and/or vulnerable backgrounds, starting her adult life journey was extremely challenging. And like many of her sisters, she knew early on that to get her foot in the doors of the best schools, universities, programs, trainings or career paths, she would have to have faith and work really, really, hard and be the best version of herself. This drive brought her to New York, where she studied and later worked. The challenges she faced, however, remained. “I struggled to find my voice in a world where I could not hear a voice that sounded like mine. For long, I auto censured myself because the world made me understand that my voice had little value. Maya Angelou captured the struggle powerfully: There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you. This is where the critical journey of redefining myself as a young woman started. I nurtured my inner self better and tapped into what I really wanted to be and what I wanted to do in life. I believe that the sooner you can do this, the easier it is for you to live a fulfilling and empowering life. Our time and journey here are relatively short. Thus, we must be in the driver’s seat of our lives and share our dreams and voices with the world. I found my voice when I stood up for myself, when I took what I considered to be the best decisions for my life and fought against the odds for what I believed in.”
Finding her voice shaped and continues to shape her journey as a woman becoming, as she continues to grow, learn from the world around her and intentionally work and create spaces with sisters to ensure that young women can find their voice. This understanding eventually led her to start her own initiative, that would help women in similar situations live out their full potentials. “At the start of my career, I worked with an incredible woman, a mentor, who had held several senior posts throughout her career. She walked into meeting rooms with confidence while exuding a sense of belonging. As a young black woman, starting in the professional field, it can be difficult to own your presence and voice in rooms where no one looks or sounds like you, from content to form. I would shy away from speaking or from sharing ideas that could have advanced the conversations. I never dared taking a seat at the table. I would stand by the wall or sit in the far corner on a chair, still by the wall.”
Upon sharing her doubts and fears with her mentor, she received a life-changing tip. “She told me to put on a jacket that would make me feel comfortable and confident. I saved money and waited for sales to purchase my first piece of attire that I felt gave me the confidence I had witnessed in Jessica Pearson from the show Suits, whom I admired: a two-piece suit with, what I considered to be, a power jacket.”
Later, in Verlaine-Diane’s professional journey, she met a young woman, Zahara from Mali, who was in the process of wrapping up her internship in New York to return home. “I was inspired by her resilience and creativity, which very much reminded me of my younger self. I wanted to share with her a present she could use to continue her career. I offered her the very Jessica Pearson suit I had purchased with the hope it would give her the same strength and meaning it gave me. Months later, she sent me a photo from Bamako wearing the suit with grace at a regional meeting. She shared how positively our solidarity had impacted her life. I was inspired and extremely proud of her continued resilience and pro-activity in search for work.”
The concept of the #PowerJacket was born in this solidarity. Their shared experience had planted a seed in Verlaine-Diane’s heart, on the need and beauty to show up for each other as women and to support each other’s journeys in life, notably through clothes. Fast-forward a few years later, and she fully grasped that, beyond access to clothes, young women also need access to opportunities and to a strong community of support where they can be themselves without restrictions and unapologetically chase their dreams: this is how Zahara’s Dream was born.
“Zahara’s Dream is a universal dream we share as young women, to have access, support and opportunities to thrive and not only survive. And as I stirred through the first steps of my career, I understood that opportunities and access were jealously kept by some, driving them to exclude young women (and men) who did not tick all their narrow boxes. With this in mind, I wanted to contribute to changing this reality and keep the door open so that young women who have the drive and dreams to positively contribute to the world have the opportunity and access to do so. Building from my own experience and knowing how challenging – if not close to impossible – it is for young women rising from economically suppressed backgrounds to have fulfilling careers, I decided to be intentional in ensuring that marginalized young women are at the center of Zahara’s Dream vision and efforts. As young women, we do not have to go through many of the struggles we experience, particularly alone. I founded Zahara’s Dream with the specific purpose of bringing what I saw as the missing piece for young women – whoever and wherever they are in the world – to fully tap into their potential and rise powerfully as positive contributors to humanity.”
Community and sisterhood are key for success – community success. Verlaine-Diane’s father always told her and her siblings that, to go far, they had to go together. “In a world where being a woman with dreams can resonate as a crime for too many, it is vital for us as young women to rally around each other with sisterhood at the center in order to thrive. Alone or divided, we simply cannot do it. Zahara’s Dream provides this open community of support and sisterhood based on the core virtues of purpose, love and generosity. Together, we breathe life into our dreams and support the dreams of other young women around us. We also encourage each other to be the truest version of ourselves and not what others expect us to be, notably with the “Be You, Powerfully” weekly online Talks. With #BeYouPowerfully we encourage young women to build their superpowers by connecting with experts in various professional fields and by connecting with other young women allies who are breathing life into their dreams.”
Young women are answering positively to the opportunities Zahara’s Dream offers, particularly when they are learning about new industries or tools, they were not aware of before. One concrete example was the recent #BeYouPowerfully talk on Building a Career in Private Equity. “Most of our young women had never heard of private equity and women’s wealth. We received a lot of positive feedback from Zahara’s Dreamers, including that this session had “opened a new window of opportunity in life” for our dreamers.” Zahara’s Dream is set to support and help marginalized young women, empower themselves by tapping into their full potential and to donate 100,000 “Power Jackets” as part of clothing support by 2030.
“That is a big dream and, as we say, it takes a village to raise a child. We are focusing on direct connections and ensuring meaning in the donations of professional attire. Both the donor and recipient of the Power Jacket share a dream. This builds stronger connections. However, I must say that the current crisis of COVID-19 has recalibrated our donation strategy. We are working on a system to ensure that individuals can safely donate professional attire to young women. More details will be shared on Zahara’s Dream website in the coming weeks. Interested #PowerJackets donor partners can contact our team to donate via the website as well.”
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Verlaine-Diane has been taking the time to reflect on her personal journey, the challenges and hopes she shares with her sisters, and which drive Zahara’s Dream. “In other words, let go of anything that does not serve a higher purpose and turn the negative into a positive,” she told us. She is also working on Zahara’s Dream hosting online in additional languages to ensure that young women who need the trainings and the community of support have access, regardless of the language they speak or their geographic location. And, most importantly, she is continuing to do the conscious work as she grows, into the woman she dreams of becoming, determined to keep the doors and opportunities open for the young women who are rising. Follow the Zahara’s Dream journey on our website (www.zaharasdream.com) Instagram and Twitter.
Originally published by Fashionomics Africa, Investing in Africa's Creative Industries, African Development Bank Group on 24th June 2020: https://fashionomicsafrica.org/en/blog/post/1234_zaharas-dream-founder-verlaine-diane-soobroydoo-on-the-importance-of-sisterhood-powerjackets