In sophomore Ellen Chilemba's home country—Malawi—girls are often forced to leave school and marry at about age 12 or 13. Chilemba found a different path through her studies at Mount Holyoke College, and—at age 20—she has built a business to help women in the world's poorest country become more self-sufficient.
Chilemba was motivated by the plight of one 17-year-old Malawian who was married with three children, unemployed, and living in extreme poverty. Why didn't she start a small business, Chilemba asked the woman, who replied that banks wouldn't give her a loan and local village moneylenders charged exorbitant interest.
Instead of just being sympathetic, Chilemba started Tiwale, a community-based organization that gives microloans so women can start their own businesses.
Tiwale—which means "Let's glow" in Chichewa—aims "to be the light to guide women toward realizing their purpose and goals," Chilemba explained. "Our main idea is to empower women."
So far, the group has helped 40 women start small businesses and taught entrepreneurship skills to 150 people. Tiwale's newest project shows women how to design and dye-print material that is sold to Malawi's fabric-export traders and shipped worldwide from Chilemba's MHC dorm room.
In March, she will attend the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) University conference, at which global changemakers discuss and develop innovative solutions to pressing world problems. Chilemba's action project, Tiwale, was chosen for a CGI-run crowdfunding campaign.
A businesswoman since age 12.
The idea that women could start their own businesses came early to Chilemba, who was earning her own money at age 12 by baking and selling cakes at church on Sundays.
A petite, soft-spoken woman, Chilemba says she was a shy child who had to be pushed to lead. "But it gets easier the moment you start," she said. "I've become bolder and more courageous over the years."
Formal training at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg stoked her interest in social businesses and gave her the skills to start Tiwale.
"I was looking for a place where I could explore what I wanted, and I loved both departments," she said.
The seemingly disparate majors have each helped Chilemba develop Tiwale's current fabric-design project.
"Experiencing the artistic process gave me insight into how to teach others the dye-printing process, and my econometrics and social entrepreneurship courses have helped me design a sustainable approach so Tiwale doesn't stay dependent on donations forever," she said.
In her free time, Chilemba stays in touch with Tiwale's staff in Malawi, hangs out with other international students from southern Africa—"It's nice to have a piece of home still," she says. She also plays a mix of African house and electronic music as a DJ.
A serial entrepreneur in the making.
Although she has two more years at Mount Holyoke, Chilemba is already thinking ahead to a postgraduation future in which Tiwale has grown independent of her. Again, she's thinking big, with ideas for improving the Malawian educational 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 explained. "So I want to invest myself in the tourism industry and also work with educational leaders."
"I am excited by social entrepreneurship and have many more ideas to pursue."
Find your path at Mount Holyoke. Learn more.