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Alicia Wallace: “Not to be afraid to admit when I’m wrong or make a mistake”

If I could inspire a movement, at this certain point in time in the world and in our country it would be that we listen. Like really sit down and listen. Not just listen to respond, but listen to listen with nothing else to say or fight back with. I think there are a lot […]

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If I could inspire a movement, at this certain point in time in the world and in our country it would be that we listen. Like really sit down and listen. Not just listen to respond, but listen to listen with nothing else to say or fight back with. I think there are a lot of voices that need to be heard and a lot of learning that needs to be done by just hearing each other out and listening.

The action, the learning, the movement would happen after that and would take all types of shapes and forms which I believe is the systematic change we need to affect all areas of our lives.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alicia Wallace.

Alicia is the co-founder and COO of All Across Africa (AAA). AAA is a social business working to create thousands of jobs by designing, training and exporting products from rural parts of Africa, thus using business as a change agent for poverty and in the developing world. Alicia finds solutions to challenges that arise in a start-up retail businesses located on multiple continents. She regularly travels East Africa scaling handmade production and impact, now affecting more than 21,200 people. As a constant learner, Alicia is leading the organization into new markets, product lines, and implementing the corresponding programs in new countries.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I went on a trip to Sierra Leone right after college and what I saw and experienced I couldn’t forget when I returned to the U.S. Men and women with lack of jobs and opportunities stood in line for hours to access basic medical care services. Having studied economics, I was interested and intrigued at the challenge of creating jobs and opportunities that would enable them to provide for their family’s needs — education, healthcare, nutritious food, etc. I returned to the U.S. with a passion and purpose to find a way to create jobs and income that created a lasting impact and empowered people.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Top of mind… I was chased by an elephant ?! Is that interesting enough? Working in East Africa has put me in a lot of interesting situations, some more dangerous than others and some I don’t want to share to scare off readers who might already have their prejudices about “East Africa”.

The story is pretty simple and straightforward. One weekend I was bored, went on a drive, found myself at an animal reserve a couple of hours away from home. It was evening, the sun was setting and I pulled up to the lakeside and found an elephant bathing. I snapped some shots, watched for a while and went to turn around, circle back and exit the reserve to head home before it got too late.

After I circled back and was approaching the place where I had seen the elephant, I could no longer see him.. Until I could. He had come to the roadside and was standing behind a tree. Suddenly he appeared just a few feet from the car, stomping his feet, blowing his nose and flapping his ears. I shouted “goooooo!!!” and we floored it, through the holes on the red dirt road and he charged across the road.

As we caught our breath, we exited the park and stopped to talk to the rangers at the gate. We told them what had happened and they laughed. They said “oh, you met Mutwale. He’s the naughty elephant. You should be glad, the last car he did that to, he pushed into the lake!”

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The very essence of running a business means you’re learning huge lessons at the start, in the middle and throughout the growth periods. Sometimes I would consider the lessons learned “funny” or sometimes now.

When I think back to the biggest early lessons and mistakes made, it was that I had a bullish amount of confidence and that I needed to slow down and test my theories. We had a sales partner that we were very successful with and had a history for a certain level of numbers.

When we were approached by their competitor, we worked to create a new offering for them but also projected numbers at a rate that were similar to the first successful partner, but with a new assortment and really, a brand new retailer. I made so many assumptions that it would be similar to the first, brought in a lot of inventory and went big and aggressive on the growth strategy that it was an event and time period that almost put us out of business.

I later learned about ‘lean testing’ and wished all along that I had done it for that time period — I was way too confident and fast-moving at that time.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Right now we work with 3,625 men and women across East Africa. While I’d like to say it’s the large scale impact, the 3,625 men and women and their 5.7 dependents on average that we support, it’s really the individuals I can connect with and know more deeply that keeps me inspired to keep going.

It’s Jean Marie, my old guard, who made very very little money in Rwanda as a house guard. He was uneducated with a very simple job who smiled a lot, was honest and loyal. I gave him an opportunity at our office and over time he’s taken English courses, computer courses and now is a Center Manager, managing a location and operation for our business. Giving him a job and opportunity is a proud moment for me.

It’s Seraphine, a mother of 7 who was a weaver prior to meeting her, her husband a rural farmer. Their kids were in and out of school since he didn’t have a stable income, but after meeting her (I can still see her sweet and eager face and gorgeous skin the first time I met her) she earned enough to send her kids to school full time, get her daughter a scholarship to go to university and take out a loan to build a new house. Her daughter went on to graduate school through a scholarship and is now studying in Brussels to be a doctor.

For me, it’s the real people, their real stories and THEIR perseverance that drives me to continue to build this business.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Two years into launching our business, Ebola hit West Africa. Thousands of miles away, this really shouldn’t have been an issue for our business. However, our one sales channel was direct to the consumer in person, with a big sign above that said “All Across Africa, from their hands to yours” Ouch. The news headline at the time was “Ebola All Across Africa” as it was spreading from country to country in West Africa.

This crisis almost killed us. It totally decimated what we thought would be our holiday sales and our morale. We had to find a retail consultant to help us through that time. We were introduced to a previous SVP of Merchandising who had a lot of retail experience and was in a crossroads in his life and had some capacity and interest in helping us. He was pivotal in our survival throughout that period. He coached us on how to create a brand and offering that brought us out of that time of just one channel and customer.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. shop social-environmental products, handmade, socially good, local businesses — shop with a conscious that is intentional and casting your vote to the kind of world you want to live in
  2. travel and meet people — relationships and experiences are some of the most important, shaping and educational opportunities, I find these experiences make us more empathetic individuals looking for real ways to support and make a change for men and women in poverty
  3. share with others — sharing the story of how fair trade or social businesses are helping the planet and people is still a new message to some — share with family and friends and give gifts that help educate and excite them to learn more and play a part as well

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership to me is being a place of responsibility, where a group of people believes a set of ideas and it’s your job to make sure they are motivated on that path personally and actions are being achieved to get that goal.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Go slow — you don’t have to move fast every time or when you don’t have the answers. This happened to me when I moved too quickly with a customer with too many assumptions.
  2. Build a strong network — my business has been so much more successful than when I first started because when I’ve failed I’ve looked to learn from others and find a way around it which has led me to so many smart people I wished I would have known and connected with prior to.
  3. Not to be afraid to admit when I’m wrong or make a mistake — my business partner had to teach this to me, I was very confident and didn’t like to admit I didn’t have an answer or did something wrong. This was a huge learning curve for me that was very critical to becoming a good leader.
  4. Find people who are smarter than you to join — I’ve learned how critical diversity on the team is and to find people who are much much smarter than me in similar and other areas.
  5. Embrace failure — my biggest mistakes have been the opportunities that have shifted the company into new territories and helped us learn more and grow bigger. Learning them faster or at a smaller cost would have been great, but regardless, learning from them and making the best of them has made us the company we are today.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could inspire a movement, at this certain point in time in the world and in our country it would be that we listen. Like really sit down and listen. Not just listen to respond, but listen to listen with nothing else to say or fight back with. I think there are a lot of voices that need to be heard and a lot of learning that needs to be done by just hearing each other out and listening.

The action, the learning, the movement would happen after that and would take all types of shapes and forms which I believe is the systematic change we need to affect all areas of our lives.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines! Sail away from safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover!”

I’ve lived by this since college, when I learned that taking risks, traveling and moving away from safety has provided me with the biggest opportunities and lessons for growth.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Oh my, I’ve been stuck on this one for a while. Can I not list a name and just say “someone super cool and interesting?” Some of my best meals have been with not a person of “status” or that everyone knows, but a rural village woman, a staff member, a fellow traveler. I love meeting people of power and status, but I also know that there is so much value and insight in so many others, set me up on a blind breakfast meeting! I’m down.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@kazigoods @aliciamwallace

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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