JOHANNESBURG - I qualified as a chartered accountant in 1993 and set out to build a career in the private sector. After 15 years on the corporate treadmill, I had it all; the corner office with my name on the door and a very respectable income.

I couldn’t have achieved my career milestones without having a solid support structure in place at home. To this end, I am very grateful to Beauty, my nanny, as the surrogate mother to my children, as well as my supportive husband for his patience and encouragement.

While I should have been happy with all my corporate success, I started feeling numb over the years. I felt empty and unfulfilled, asking myself daily: “Is this it? Is this what life is all about?”

I was addicted to my work, but it was no longer making me happy.

In 2008, I jumped off the corporate ladder. I had no plan. I just knew I wanted to live a more meaningful life where I could make a difference in the world. Inspired by Beauty in learning about the challenges she faced as a single parent, I knew I wanted to help poor women become financially secure.

Fast forward a couple of years and I’m now doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing; living my life’s purpose and making a difference through a successful social enterprise called The Clothing Bank, which I co-founded with my business partner, Tracey Gilmore.

At The Clothing Bank we aim to inspire, skill and support unemployed mothers (and now men as well) to eradicate poverty by assisting them in starting small retail businesses as a path to financial independence.

As a social enterprise, we believe in restoring dignity by teaching women and men to create wealth for themselves. In the past year we supported 760 women who generated R30million in profits for themselves. They went on to invest this money in improving their homes and (providing) better education for their children.

A social entrepreneur can be defined as “an individual who recognises, launches and leads new business opportunities, but is motivated by social goals rather than increasing their personal wealth”.

Initially, I believed my social entrepreneurship journey would entail providing women access to quality products at reasonable prices with the right amount of start-up capital and basic business skills.

I realise now that I was naive at best. Getting out of poverty isn’t a linear issue. It is deeply entrenched in the psyche and if you don’t understand that, your attempt to make a difference will fail.

So often social entrepreneurs who establish an organisation with the aim to solve poverty-related problems have never been poor themselves. I was one of them.

In the beginning, my business partner and I made a lot of assumptions. We thought it would be easy. It was only once we really understood what poor women in South Africa were facing that we could design a holistic programme that could make a real and sustainable impact. In essence, you need to truly understand the problem you are trying to solve as that is your “why”; the core reason behind starting your organisation.

Social entrepreneurship is tough. My journey has re-awakened and amplified the humanity in me and for that I am thankful.

Tracey Chambers is the chief executive and co-founder of The Clothing Bank.

- PERSONAL FINANCE