Happy New Year! We hope you enjoyed your holidays and celebrated surviving a challenging year. What do you hope for in 2021 besides some sense of normalcy?
Our hope for 2021 is to transform more of our training departments into social businesses to provide additional revenue and create jobs for our graduates. As we continue to train and graduate students, more young people are led to our center to enroll. Thus the demand is high for vocational training because Liberian Youth sees it as the means for self-sufficiency.
In order to make this possible, we need to find interested partners and sponsors to help with the planning and raising the capital to buy the needed materials to make a viable business. If you know anyone interested in such a quest, please have them contact us at email@example.com. We appreciate any leads!
Throughout the year, Kelvin Fomba, Co-Founder & Director, found ways to keep things afloat by using his skills as a master mechanic. He often donates his income to support daily operations. He also uses his skills for exchange services to further our cause.
On October 30, he and another person agreed to trade deal in lieu of cash. This person wanted to help UDS but didn’t have the means. However, he had a jeep that needed major engine repairs. Kelvin had the parts needed for the job and completed the work with his mechanical students in a few days.
UDS Hair Salon
Upon completing the work, the person offered UDS his shop within a five-minute walk from our center. We moved our cosmetology department to the new location. Our team painted the exterior walls with our colors, built shelves and workstations, and purchased hair and other products. Through Kelvin’s efforts, UDS now has a hair salon as part of our social enterprise initiative. The sales from hair and products will provide an additional revenue stream.
As you can see in a cash-strapped economy, the barter system plays a pivotal role in helping people sustain themselves during a crisis. In this case, Kelvin provided $1,000 of work this equated to $1,800 in rent of the shop ($100 monthly rent).
In close, this gave us the means to start this small enterprise. And we hope to receive additional support to build more workstations, buy sinks for hair washing and hair dryers, and other material to make it a full salon.
On December 14, 2019, we held our annual board meeting and elected the new officers. We are excited to announce Philip Kaleewoun will continue as the board chair for their year; Yakasah Wehyee will assume the secretary position; and Diane Anastos will continue her role as treasurer for the fourth year. Furthermore, Beyan Gonowolo became the new fundraising team chair. Also, please click on their names to read their bios and learn more about our incredible leaders.
Finally, our leadership team will focus on executing our strategic plan to include cultivating partnerships, securing more volunteers, and building our capacity to establish social businesses in Liberia.
Please join me in congratulating our 2020 Leadership Team!
This summer we will be focusing on three amazing young leaders and what they have done to make this a better world. We are excited to start this series with one of our STAR leaders, who is Gradieh Wreh. She wears many hats with Uniting Distant Stars by serving as a founding board member, donor and volunteer along with bringing the millennial perspective to our organization. She was an instrumental member of our project team for the 2013 Youth Leadership Workshop in Liberia both as a planner and presenter, which she shared her expertise as an entrepreneur.
Gradieh–whose name means surprise–is a very focused and self-determined young women who has built her successful cosmetology business–Hair by Gradieh–from the ground up. She has unleashed her passion to promote healthy natural hair through her work as a stylist and teacher. She offers several types of styles along with her own design of “U Part” wigs. Her most recent endeavor was launching her own product line for hair and skin using natural ingredients that are abundant in her native home of Liberia. She named her product line–Bindu’s Organics–after her Mom, who has been a huge help with this venture.
Gradieh with her Mom Bindu selling Bindu’s Organics and U Part wigs at a show. Photo courtesy of Gradieh Wreh.
I met Gradieh shortly before she married her husband Elijah in August 2010. Elijah and I connected two months earlier about our shared passion in helping the young Liberian people access resources to improve their quality of education. It has been an honor to be immersed in the lives of this enterprising young couple that forged a lasting relationship that is both personal and professional.
Gradieh with Elijah. Photos courtesy of Gradieh Wreh.
During that same year in 2010, I became a client of Gradieh‘s and really appreciate the personalized service she delivers. Most importantly as I have sat in her chair the last four years, I have been able to witness how she has realized her dreams one bold initiative at a time. She has grown her thriving business by taking some risks and mixing her talents as an artist and scientist. One moment she is sculpting an UpDo that is more of a work of art than a simple hairstyle. The next moment she is sharing her next chemistry experiment on Facebook that she is conjuring up in her brother’s kitchen for her ever growing product line.
On the left is one of Gradieh’s UpDo’s and on the right is a new batch of body butter being whipped up. Photos courtesy of Gradieh Wreh.
It is her strong faith in God as a Christian that has guided her in taking this “ordinary career and making it extraordinary”–something coined by my own Mom in describing her entrepreneurship. It is exciting to watch her excel in her passion-aligned-profession along with being one of the first to try out her products.
Bindu’s Organics Body Butter. Photo courtesy of Gradieh Wreh.
Gradieh follows in the footsteps of many in her generation that have created businesses that value both profit and people which is often referred as a social enterprise. In providing a social benefit, she started offering free workshops this year to both her clients and general public about understanding the science of hair and how to protect it from the harsh elements. In attending two of her workshops, I can say she is a subject matter expert on hair from the inside out.
While building her brand in Minnesota, she is also introducing it in the New Jersey and New York markets. She and Elijah moved out east in 2013 when he landed a job in his field of regulatory science. While establishing herself at a salon in Newark, New Jersey, she returns to Minnesota about every six weeks to serve her long-term clients. As one of them, I’m grateful for her making this possible.
In addition to her a role has an entrepreneur, she is a student completing her bachelor’s on entrepreneurship and a writer for various publications for black women. She is definitely dedicated in changing the paradigm for businesses owned by women and people of color.
Gradieh is an example of someone that pushed past the expectations of others to follow her own ideals in living her purpose. Though she has been challenged by her age and race, she does not let either one hinder her from achieving her goals. Much of this could be attributed to moving to Minnesota from Liberia at age 9 while it was embroiled in a civil war. This caused her to be separated from her parents, but she was fortunate to have relatives in Minnesota to live with during this transition. This was not easy juncture in her life, because she went through her formative years trying to preserve one cultural while adapting to another. I believe this experience helped her gain wisdom and strength to persevere through many trying times thus leading to her success today.
Uniting Distant Stars is honored to have Gradieh on our team. She is a role model for the young people we are serving in Liberia and elsewhere in the world. We wanted to ask her four questions that would encourage young people to pursue their dreams by sharing her experience and insight that has shaped her own.
1) When did you first discover your talents and knew this was a path you wanted to take and why?
I discovered my talent of doing hair when I was in the eighth grade. I needed my hair done and a friend of mine stood me up. I took on the task and I kept on going from there. I would practice on myself, friends and family members. I started helping my cousin’s wife in her salon during her pregnancy when I was in the ninth grade. I loved the salon experience and I never stop going; it became my after school job.
I love interacting, educating and touching people’s lives. These are the three things that pushed me to continue my path of doing hair and so much more.
2) What were the top three influences that supported your can-do spirit and why?
First is My faith: Understanding that I can do all things through Him (God) who strengthens me.
Second is Helping people: There is always a way to help someone and there are so many rewards you get from doing so. From what I experienced, I can say the disappointment caused by not helping others is far greater. I love being among people who are realizing their potential while they are watching me do the same. That is why I love to share my journey, because I just never know who I’m influencing.
Third is Modesty: I can be painfully modest at times about what I do and how far I have come, but that pushes me to always want to do more. I have many little notebooks and planners lying around that have goals and financial records in them. They go back as far as 2007 (when I was in cosmetology school) and every time I come across one of them, its an opportunity to see how far I have come and this is followed with a few minutes of celebration. After that, I realize how much more I have to do and how “far behind” I am.Bottom line is that there is more to do and regardless of how much I accomplished, I have committed my life to continue with the work that has been driven by my passion and desire to pursue my dreams.
3) In dealing with the barriers of age and race, what are some strategies you have applied to overcome them?
Number 1 is Educate myself: Education brings on a whole new level of confidence. I don’t believe in hanging a degree on my wall and calling it an education. That was the example of education that I saw growing up, so the idea of going to college was never attractive to me until 2011. Education to me is not just formal education, but seeking new experiences and new and innovative ways to do things.It’s finding how many different ways I can part your hair and how many different styles I can create and why. By educating yourself, you are equipping yourself with something that can never be taken away.
Number 2 is Humble yourself: It allows you to grow, gain trust and build strong relationships.
4) As someone who has found success as a young entrepreneur, what would be your five top recommendations that you would give a rising star that may feel hindered by any social biases?
Follow your heart.
Always be good to people.
Invest in yourself before expecting anyone else to.
Be confident/cautious: Take time out to understand each step you take and why. Take time out to understand where you are and why you’re there. What decisions or circumstances are responsible for where you are and just because you come across a good opportunity doesn’t mean you have to take advantage of it.
We want to Thank Gradieh for allowing us to share her story to inspire others to discover and embrace their authentic self. Also, we wish her all the best as she continues to expand her brand as one of the top haircare specialists in the nation!!!