Young Leaders Series: Taking an ordinary career and making it extraordinary.

Young Leaders Series: Taking an ordinary career and making it extraordinary.

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.

Follow Hair by Gradieh on Facebook and Instagram

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?
  1. Follow your heart.
  2. Always be good to people.
  3. Educate yourself.
  4. Invest in yourself before
    expecting anyone else to.
  5. 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!!!

Meeting the Students at Russ Wood School in Liberia

One of our highlights during our trip to Liberia in September 2013 was to finally meet the students at Russ Wood Christian Academy in Congo Town. The staff and students organized a wonderful Welcome program for our team that completely left us awestruck by students’ enthusiasm to show us talents and knowledge. This post will summarize our visit along with sharing pictures and videos of Liberia’s rising stars.

We were greeted and welcomed with a lively song performed by all the children. Hearing the beautiful voices of the children instantly melted our hearts.

The children opened the program joyfully singing.

After a few announcements, three of the students stood up in front to read from the sampling of reading textbooks we sent last year. Each student was eager to share how well they are performing with their reading abilities. They put the whole hearts into reading their chosen stories. It instantly put smiles on our faces about how much they wanted to show us their accomplishments. Just to be hearing their stories, we felt very pleased knowing we have sent four more boxes of those textbooks as part of our annual shipment. This is schedule to be delivered at the school in December. We hope to send the remaining 24 boxes sometime soon so all the children can be strong readers.

The first up to read was Korlu, who read a story about the Japanese culture from the 5th grade textbook.

Korlu reading her story diligently from start to finish.

The next reader was Ishmeal, one of our scholarship students, reading a story about a West African family from the 6th grade textbook.

Ishmeal reading a his story with clarity while Kelvin looks on.

It is important to note that Ishmeal, who is 11 years old, attended our youth leadership workshop on September 13 and 14. He demonstrated his creativity to the much older participants of this two-day workshop by reciting a parable he wrote.

And lastly was Princess, who read a story about dog from the 2nd grade textbook. During our children’s program last December, Princess (then a first grader) read a story from one of the library books that were sent. She definitely loves to read and we will continue to encourage her with sending more books.

Young Princess doing a great job reading her story.

Next, three of the children got up in front to perform a song that they had worked on together.

More of Russ Wood’s talented singers.

Next our Executive Director Heather Cannon-Winkelman was honored by Ishmeal’s original welcoming speech and presented with flowers.

The program continued with a song by another little girl and then the welcome address to our delegation by the principal, Rev. Matthew Y Kargar.

Another of Russ Wood’s talented singers on the left, and Principal Kargar giving his welcome address on the right.

Next Kelvin Fomba, Uniting Distant Stars (UDS) Co-Founder and Country Director, gave a short talk about the relationship that has been developed by UDS and Russ Wood in the last two years. The children have come to appreciate Kelvin is in the past year, and were actively engaged in his talk. He first asked how many of the students planned to get on the honor roll this year and quite a few raised their hands. He then reiterated the importance of education and encouraged them to work hard with their studies. He ended his talk by introducing our team and given us a chance to a few words.

Elijah Wreh, UDS board member and youth workshop facilitator, got up to address the students and also encouraged them to continue their efforts with their school work.

Kelvin is to the left and Elijah to the right.

Gradieh Wreh, UDS board member and youth workshop facilitator, followed with her appreciation for their warm welcome and shared how excited she was to see them demonstrate their talents.

Finally, Heather got up to thank all the children and staff for their great welcome and talked about the direction UDS is planning to take in supporting their educational efforts.

Gradieh is to the left and Heather to the right.

She ended her talk with a challenge for the next year. She presented a book, donated by Donna Cannon (Heather’s Mom) on how to write a graphic novel, which was especially signed by the author for the Russ Wood students. She explained that they would return next year and hope to see that some of the students have created their own graphic novels. Definitely, some of the students will take on this challenge and we will be delighted to hear what they created.

Principal Kargar holding the book on how to write a graphic novel.

We were pleased that some of the teachers not only expressed their gratitude but also invited us to come back next year. They gave us their prayers for a safe journey home and that we would continue to get the support needed for their students to learn and develop their skills along their educational path.

Some of the teachers giving their vote of thanks and a prayer for our team.

After the program, we were given a tour of the school. This building is also the church, so the space is reconfigured Monday through Friday create classrooms. This school has an average enrollment of 250 students, which adds some difficulty in providing an environment conducive learning .

Heather checking out the office on the left. Principal Kargar, Gradieh and Heather in the center. The world map that was part of 2012 shipment of supplies on the right.

We had hoped to have a picture taken with the children outside the building, but the rain changed our plans. So, after moving the benches and desks out of the center of the room, we were able to take a few group pictures.

Meet the students of Russ Wood Christian Academy.

Here is a more candid photo of the Russ Wood students.

We enjoyed our few hours with the students and staff of Russ Wood. The students clearly demonstrated their hunger to learn and it inspired us to continue to do more. The principal and his wife invited us to their small apartment at the back of the school for a snack and soft drinks after the group photos were taken. They shared how all the students had not started yet, because they were still trying to find sponsors to cover their school fees.

Russ Wood was founded to provide lower cost education to the children within its community, whose families struggle to meet their daily needs and find it difficult to pay their children’s school fees. This information gave Heather, who is currently the sole sponsor of the six students on scholarship, reason to add two more applicants to this program for the next school year that will be dedicated to Russ Wood students. Kelvin will be awarding these two scholarships in April 2014 at Russ Wood’s annual gala. Uniting Distant Star co-sponsored the gala in April 2013 with Russ Wood.

We are also pleased to announce that this year’s shipment should be cleared at the Monrovia’s Free Pport by end of November. We plan our annual children’s party for the last day of school before their holiday break in mid-December, and provides each student a hot meal and a gift packet complements of our generous Distant Stars donors. Our supporters helped reach our 2013 goal of shipping four 14-cubic-foot boxes of school supplies, combs, toothbrushes, toys, and other educational materials. We will post updates and pictures of this day-long event later this year.

Again, we greatly appreciate all our sponsors who have supported the education of these amazing students! We will continue reporting on their activities and achievements throughout the year. Thank you!

If you readers would like to increase the number of scholarships awarded
to these worthy students, please contact us at
[email protected] The scholarships vary by grade level but average about $200 for
the year. It covers tuition, uniform and basic supplies. Also, this
program provides incentives for academic achievement that are awarded at
the first and last semesters of the school year. Please go to our
project page to learn more about our Bright Stars Scholarship program and review the student application form for more details.