By Allie Maltese
When you first look at 27-year-old, Alicia Wallace, you wouldn’t picture her at the helm of a company that currently works with over 3,000 artisans throughout East Africa, has 35 staff members across five continents and pulled in $2 million in revenue last year. She overcame the typical blonde hair, blue-eyed California-girl stereotype to create All Across Africa, a multi-million dollar corporation that creates global markets and sustainable income for the rural poor in Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and Rwanda.
For Alicia, it hasn’t been easy being a young woman attempting to make a difference in one of the poorest regions in the world. As the Chief Operating Officer for All Across Africa, she has found herself face to face with a charging elephant, climbed one of the world’s most active volcanoes with a United Nations Director and been stuck in the middle of a Ugandan riot, all for the sake of the company. I wanted to find out more about this extraordinary young woman, how she has overcome obstacles and stereotypes and find out what she would say to other young women who want to make a difference in this world.
BN: Tell me a little bit about All Across Africa?
AW: All Across Africa is a fair trade certified Benefit Corporation. Benefit corporations combine the best of the non-profit and business worlds. The benefit corporation structure allows All Across Africa to focus on its mission of fighting poverty and restoring hope to the poor and marginalized in East Africa by providing economic opportunity through growing and expanding markets in the West. We focus on training and equipping the rural poor with the capabilities necessary to benefit from the opportunity of participating in local and global markets. Our efforts go beyond simple vocational training and extend into personal finance, health and reconciliation. The artisans we work with are widows, rural weavers, genocide perpetrators and survivors, orphans, street children, and rural farmers. We currently work with more than 3000 weavers on a regular basis. Each basket made and sold means food and medicine, education, community, and security for our weavers— and each basket means new life.
BN: Have you ever received prejudice in the business world because of your age? Your looks?
AW: This is an almost daily encounter. Most recently, I was in a meeting with the directors of a UN program in one of the countries we work in. I was pitching them on a new product line and development program aiming at employing hundreds of returning refugees in Burundi. Half way through my pitch, I’m stopped. “Sorry – how old are you?” The blonde hair, the fact that I’m a woman and that I look five years younger than I really am doesn’t earn me a lot of respect in the countries we work in Africa, or quite frankly, at home in the U.S. When I tell people I’m the Chief Operating Officer of an entrepreneurial social business its, “Wow, that sounds like a really great project.” It’s hard not to reply, “It’s not a project. It’s a multi-million dollar, tax-paying corporation.” Also, because of my age people assume I work for someone else. Again it’s hard to not reply, “I’m a half owner. I created the business and the model and I work for myself and employ 35 staff and 3,200 full-time artisans.”
BN: What inspired you to get involved in entrepreneurship at such a young age?
AW: Growing up in the U.S., we’re empowered at a young age to be critical thinkers and innovators. Since I was in junior high school, I would see social issues and want to find a resolution.
I went to Mexico when I was 14 and built a house for a family. It was a great experience, the first experience that opened my eyes to global poverty. The purpose was an honorable mission to build a house for a family, but was one that created a dependency. It was as if we moved this able, workingman out of his old house and said, ‘here, the white people have built you a new, better one’. When I saw this, something shifted in me. I started saying, ‘how can I help this man help his own family?’ So often we want to solve the surface level issue, but really, the bigger issue of not having income and a job for this man to support his family in other ways was much greater.
BN: What advice would you give other young women who are set out to start their own business or succeed in a sometimes male-dominated business world?
AW: I advise women to try something, anything. If you encounter a problem, think outside of the box of what a normal solution will be and give it a try. In my experience women aren’t always as bold with their ideas and innovations. We need to not be afraid to fail. I believe a successful business is a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck. Step out and see who is there and interested. I also recommend women find a partner or mentor. In my personal professional development career it’s taken special, bold people around me to push me forward, to encourage me not to fail. I wouldn’t have stepped out as big and bold as I did without the mentors and partners in my life.
BN: What are some of the biggest challenges in business that you’ve had to overcome?
AW: The biggest challenge in business that we’ve had to overcome is supply meeting demand on two different continents, and working in five different countries. It is hard enough running a business in the U.S., let alone operating in four additional cultures with different languages, currencies, customs, etc. We work with thousands of rural producers to create strong and sustainable income, which means that we need to have year round orders, planning ahead for future seasons and managing the demand for the current season. Managing the supply chain so we have control of the raw materials that our products are made out of and managing the flow of products from the far-reaching rural areas of the underdeveloped countries we work in are constant issues we always have to overcome.
BN: We know that working in Africa can’t always be easy. What are some of the craziest stories you’ve encountered in your time in there?
AW: The continent of Africa isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a place for the wild at heart where the wild, unruly frontier can become the land of possibilities. Being a wild frontier, I’ve found myself on the most active volcano in the world, climbing to the top with a United Nations Director that introduced us to a partnership that is serving hundreds of disenfranchised youth in the vulnerable country of Burundi. I’ve found myself in a car, driving through a game park, and in one sharp turn of the car was face to face with a large elephant that tried to charge the car and chased us out of the park. I’ve also found myself in the back of a taxi, on open road in the center of Kampala, Uganda, unknowingly in the middle of a riot and a chase after the mayor, who is in opposition to the President. Tear gas, police and hundreds of people rush around the car.
BN: Where can people buy these goods and help those artisans you’ve talked about?
AW: We have a variety of bright-colored baskets, paper bead jewelry and traditional bags for sale at http://www.allacrossafrica.org.