Tracey Chambers, a co-founder and chief executive of The Clothing Bank. Photo: Supplied

Cape Town - Tracey Chambers is an “I can” person endeavouring to transform the "I can't" narrative pervasive in South Africa, not giving handouts but instead instilling a mantra of self-belief that "I can do it myself".

Her role in helping to set up four successful projects – The Clothing Bank, The Appliance Bank, Trade Up Youth and Grow Educare Centres – bears testament to her misson to inspire, skill and support unemployed South Africans. 

They not only provide income-generating business skills, but, acknowledging the country’s history, also develop life skills, build resilience and do deep healing work to ensure “holistic” progress is made.

“We impact about close to 1 000 women, who last year made R39 million worth of profit from their businesses. We impact about 150 men and they would've made about R4 to 5 million from their businesses and then we have 30 Grow Educare centres, which are educating on any given day 1 200 children,” says Chambers, 50, who is a co-founder and chief executive of The Clothing Bank.

This came to fruition only because Chambers, a qualified chartered accountant, and her Clothing Bank co-founder Tracey Gilmore, believed they could – and had to – uplift South Africans mired in poverty for decades, especially women. Because, as Chambers says, “if you help a woman, you help a child."

“If you believe you can’t, you can’t and if you believe you can, you can. When we realised this in our work, we recreated our entire programmes, we rewrote all of our training so that everybody left the classroom stimulated enough, so that they all leave having achieved a positive outcome, leaving like a ‘genius’.

“Our whole philosophy is now grounded in what I call ‘from dependency to dignity’. And the dependency mindset is deeply entrenched in this country and it's fed essentially by the givers. It really takes three handouts for individuals who are receiving the handout to have it deeply entrenched that they can't do it for themselves.

“We need more South Africans to be successful. We don't need more South Africans to try something and fail. Because self-esteem levels are so low anyway because there's been so much failure in their lives that it's entrenched and basically creating a dependency by saying ‘I can't, I cannot do this. I've tried, I can't, you see I'm supposed to be poor’.”

An "I can" mindset can't be taught, it can only be experienced, she says. "So the theory is 'I can' comes through in anything where there is a challenge posed at you, whether it's a maths challenge, a drawing challenge or a life challenge. 

"And the challenge needs to be what they call a 'just right challenge', so that you have enough anxiety to move towards the challenge, but not an anxiety that invokes the primitive brain – the fight, flight, freeze reflex. Where you end up saying, 'Wow, I did that', and now you want do more."

It can all go horribly wrong in Grade R, she says. Due to a 60-1 pupil to teacher ratio and a lack of support, the mindset that “I'm bad at school” can already become entrenched. Many of the youth already suffer from what she calls “intergenerational dependency”.

"It's almost impossible to make up those early years. If a child goes further up the system and she is not coping, she is getting an 'I can't' every single day. Set her up for success at the beginning, and you continue with good quality throughout, she is getting 'I cans' every day. She is going to believe she can do anything.

“Because the more failure that you’ve had, when the next opportunity presents itself and it's even a great opportunity, you won't even reach for it because you've already said in your mind, ‘you know what, I can't’. Unless we get to the crux of this failure mindset and we shift this mindset as a country we are we are not going to solve the challenges of this country.”

Video: Louis Neethling / The Clothing Bank / Grow Educare Centres

Mother-of-three Chambers isn’t one for taking the conventional route. “I did my articles but never really became an accountant for many years. I tried to stay out of that box.” She joined Woolworths “by accident” and began a nine-year journey there, moving from the supply chain to the foods division and eventually ended up as head of financial planning after five years.

In 2008, however, she made a “very conscious decision to jump off the corporate ladder”, to get off the “fast-moving train"" consuming her life to seek balance and "no longer outsourcing my children to be raised by wonderful people”.

With the “express purpose to have unemployed mothers become financially and socially independent", Chambers and Gilmore launched The Clothing Bank in 2010. 

“To join the programme, you had to be a mother with at least one dependent child. The theory was that if you help a mother, you help a child, which included helping with education. So we know in South Africa the statistics are frightening: more than 60% of South African mothers are single and less than 50% of fathers provide any emotional or financial support.

“And we know that mothers will spend the money they earn on housing, nutrition and education. So that was the theory of change. So essentially the principle of The Clothing Bank is that less than 50% of South Africans finish school. So if you don't have matric in this country, basically it's a life sentence. 

“And 49% of black women live below the poverty line and 99% of that will be single mothers. So what is the alternative to informal employment, because these women are knocking on doors, and that's where Tracey and I connected. 

“She was helping women prepare for interviews, doing practical things like CV development, providing them with clothes so that they looked professional for the interview. But there were no interviews to go to.

“So everything we now do is to create self-employment opportunities for South Africans. And we specifically don't use the word entrepreneurship because we generally have formularised what we offer to individuals who choose to join our programmes. We're saying that the women we work with now are very underdeveloped both from an educational point of view and from an emotional point of view, and are very under-resourced.

“Entrepreneurship is the hardest job in the world, you have to be multi-skilled and you have to have multi-networks and multiple, different resources that you can pull on. We think there are far too many programmes that are teaching entrepreneurship and congratulating themselves by giving everybody a lovely certificate and nobody is translating that into running a business.

“So we are saying to women, 'we have a business we have formulated and we are going to teach you how to run this business. You are taking a formula and if you follow the recipe, you are highly likely to be successful'.

“We always talk about that the first handout says ‘shame you can't, I can, let me help’, and most South Africans come to giving like that. The second handout, the person knocks on your door and says, ‘I can't, remember you can, you must give’. The third handout the person knocks on your door and says, ‘I can't, you can, you must give, and if you don't give, I will take’.

“We provide a formula that is appropriate for the target market that we are working with, that we know has a high likelihood of success. It's not a charity, we are giving someone a real opportunity to earn and learn and a real sense of deep satisfaction when they get there, so that it's an opportunity to shift the I can't to I can.

“So we enrol women in our Clothing Bank in a two-year programme, but within two weeks they are running a business buying and selling the clothing that we sourced from our retail partners at a discounted price, but it's not so discounted that she's questioning whether she's running a real business. 

“It's a very subtle pricing strategy that you're going to have, because the minute you're too cheap, she's going to say yes but I can only run a business if I'm in the Clothing Bank.

"A recipe has been created for running an outstanding early learning centre in which absolutely everything that a woman needs to achieve the educational outcomes is provided in recipe format," says Tracey Chambers.

“What we are trying to teach is that she can run any business. That the principles she is learning here are not applicable to just this business.”

A more holistic approach to training evolved when they discovered over a period of two to three years that “what the women we were working with really needed, was the opportunity to do a lot of inner healing work”.

“They are very traumatised by the lives that they had lived and were living. Just the trauma of walking from your home to the station is a daily traumatic process; that you don't know if you're going to get robbed or stabbed or raped on the way because it's dark, it's cold getting up at 5 o'clock in the morning, etc; or just the fact that you are letting your child walk that route.

“With so many traumas, intergenerational dependency, intergenerational poverty-related mindset issues, we needed to go much deeper to really get deep change happening and that's essentially what's happened. So we now have this really deep two-year programme that includes business skills, but everyone gets a life coach. It includes counsellors, parenting skills, trauma management, it includes nutrition, everything you can think of holistically.

When the Clothing Bank was about four to five years old, they started thinking what other self-employment opportunities they could create. 

“We came up with a formula called micro franchising, which amounts to, don't expect a woman to invent a business, let us who have resources, who have networks, experience, let us invent a business based on information and an understanding of the market.

“Two models came out of that. Grow Educare was one of the most interesting. When we engaged with women in The Clothing Bank and she was progressing out of poverty, and in many cases starting to create wealth in her family, she had two problems: one was to improve her home, and we saw dramatic transformation in homes; and the second one she definitely knew that the ticket out of poverty was education for her children.

“So she was determined to get her children a better education and she didn't find that in her community, so she was spending and inordinate amount of money, on average R700 a month, transporting her child to a school closer to the mountain.

"So the idea was to set up absolutely outstanding early learning centres in the communities in which our women live, which is basically most of the townships around the country in the major centres that we operate. It had to be so fundamentally different and better than what was available because her mindset is it can't be good if it's in my neighbourhood. We had to knock her socks off.

“So then we had to convince her that the around R700 she was spending on transport fees could be used to help her run a sustainable business. South Africans are very brand conscious and if you can build a reputable, aspirational brand, they will prioritise spend on education.

“So we started that in 2014, opening our first school in Langa, and we now have 30 centres that are franchises and will add another 14 this year and we will continue to grow as fast as we can. 

“We've had a fantastic team and created a recipe for running an outstanding early learning centre and a sustainable business. We call it our education in a box and our business in a box, and absolutely everything that a woman needs to achieve the educational outcomes is provided in recipe format.

“We're busy developing, we’re lucky we have lots of great funders who have allowed us to really put in place what you would expect from a franchise. We are busy developing an app where teachers will be able to manage their school from the palm of their hand.

“Our goal is to be the largest chain of 5-star ECDs in SA. To make this quality of ECD the norm in disadvantaged communities so that parents won’t pay for the rubbish that's out there.

“I believe as a country we need to give everybody an equal start in life, particularly around education, which is complex because it's not just education, nutrition has to go with that.

“Our fourth project was really trying to solve the problem that we had in that one of our retail partners was the Clicks group and they started donating tons of toasters, kettles, irons, etcetera and it was piling up in our warehouse and our women weren't really buying it.

“So that's where we came up with the idea of The Appliance Bank. So we started recruiting unemployed men. We taught them the technical skills to repair the appliances and then they started exactly the same business as The Clothing Bank buying and selling those appliances.

“We offered them exactly the same very deep life and business skills programme. The men responded incredibly well and we realised that, wow, in South Africa there are so many bad statistics around men and we spend our lives working with women, saying we are going to fix this country by working with women, but the reality is we are not going to solve violence and abuse against women by working with women. We are going to solve that by working with men. Because that woman still has to go back to that community where that man lives.

“What we found with the men is that many had a life of crime. They had this  pent-up anger and a ‘I am useless to the world, I can't contribute’ mindset. Once we started engaging on those issues it was amazing how they were able to tap into those emotions and start the healing process, coming full circle. It is a healing process that we need to go through as a nation.”

Cape Times