By Keely Savoie
Ellen Chilemba ’17 is the Glamour Magazine College Woman of the Year’s grand-prize winner for her work and founding of her organization Tiwale. Chilemba’s community-based social enterprise gives microloans to women in Malawi, where girls are often forced to leave school and marry at age 12 or 13.
“I was so honored when I learned that I had been chosen,” said Chilemba. “All of the finalists were doing incredible work.”
Glamour’s 60-year-old contest spotlights “dynamos and glass-ceiling breakers” at colleges around the country. Chilemba joins the ranks of entrepreneurs, politicians, scientists, athletes and poets who have gone forth and made the world a better place.
Chilemba, an economics and studio art double major, was moved to start Tiwale by the plight of a Malawian woman who was married, raising three children, unemployed and living in extreme poverty — at the age of 17. Chilemba suggested she start a small business to improve her economic circumstances, but the woman replied that banks wouldn't give her a loan and local village moneylenders charged exorbitant interest.
Out of that exchange came Chilemba’s vision for Tiwale: an organization that gives women the means to lift themselves from poverty. Tiwale, which means “let’s glow” in Chichewa, aims “to be the light to guide women toward realizing their purpose and goals,” Chilemba said. “Our main idea is to empower women.”
From a simple idea, Tiwale has grown into a burgeoning social enterprise with a staff of 12. To date, Tiwale has helped 40 women start their own businesses, and more than 60 others have learned to tie-dye and sew the signature cloth that sustains the operation.
“Today our tapestries and totes sell around the world,” said Chilemba, who has won numerous other accolades for her work, including being named to the 2015 Forbes’ “Africa’s 30 under 30” list and receiving Bono’s 2016 We Are Family Foundation Humanitarian Award.
She intends to use the $20,000 in Glamour prize money to finish building an education and entrepreneurship center for women in the Malawian community of Mtsiliza.
“Mtsiliza is very under-resourced, so we will be providing women with secondary school education classes and workshops in the center as well as building the first library in the community,” she said. “We will use the proceeds from sales of our cloth to maintain the space.”
Not content to rest on the success of her first venture, Chilemba is thinking ahead to a future in which Tiwale has grown independent of her and she can begin to implement her ideas for improving the Malawian education system, and for drawing tourist dollars to her country.
“Growing up in Malawi, I was struck by the beauty of my own country, but we don't have all the facilities required for people to access it,” she said. “So I want to invest myself in the tourism industry and also work with education leaders. I am excited by social entrepreneurship and have many more ideas to pursue.”
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