Big Ideas: “A fashion label that gives 100% of proceeds to help the needy” with Treana Peake, Founder of the Obakki Foundation

During one of my many visits, I spoke with some of the women about how the Foundation could help. But they wanted to help themselves. One woman told me, “See these two hands? These two hands are strong. I will use these hands to rebuild my life. We will all use our hands.” As a part […]

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During one of my many visits, I spoke with some of the women about how the Foundation could help. But they wanted to help themselves. One woman told me, “See these two hands? These two hands are strong. I will use these hands to rebuild my life. We will all use our hands.”

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Treana Peake, a fashion designer, entrepreneur and philanthropist and founder of Obakki and Obakki Foundation.

On any given day, Treana could be designing her newest apparel collection in Obakki’s Gastown-based office (the fashion district of Vancouver), or she’s in Africa (one of the 50+ trips she’s taken over the past 25+ years) working in places like Bidi Bidi, the world’s largest refugee camp, located in Uganda. There, she works hand-in-hand with women and children to empower them through agricultural, educational and livelihood initiatives.

Treana and the Obakki Foundation team have drilled over 2,000 water wells — giving clean drinking water to over 2.5 million people in S. Sudan, Uganda, and Cameroon. They’ve also given over 2,000 kids access to education, planting more than 3 million seeds for agricultural growth in these poverty-stricken parts of Africa. And the numbers keep growing.

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

I’ve always known I wanted to help make a difference for those less fortunate because I was the recipient of unexpected kindness growing up — this made an impact on me. I’ve always wanted to use fashion as a platform for good, and the Obakki Foundation allows me to do that on a global scale. The fashion label, Obakki, absorbs all of the Obakki Foundation’s administrative costs, which allows 100% of donations to go directly to our philanthropic projects.

Treana with Noela

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

That’s a tough one because we meet so many inspiring people in the work we do — it’s hard to narrow it down. I’ll share one of the most recent stories about a little girl named Noela. Her story is not only moving but also a fascinating example of how a chance encounter can change a life.

In the country of Cameroon, a father living in poverty struggled to provide the necessary care for his young daughter, Noela, who was born deaf. In Cameroon, especially more remote regions, these children are often ignored and shunned by their communities, and at times, by their own families. Noela lived in constant silence with no way of communicating with her family or her community. Even worse, to her village, being deaf meant a secluded life so that she couldn’t attend school — she was completely cut off from other kids.

One day, Noela’s father was walking through his village and noticed a stranger wearing a device in his ear. He courageously reached out to this stranger with a curiosity that would ultimately change his daughter’s life. The Obakki Foundation’s photographer, Brian, was that stranger. And he was wearing a hearing aid.
When Noela’s father asked about it, Brian inquired as to why he was so curious, but the father ran away. When I learned about his questions, I ran after the father, with Brian by my side. And that’s when we met Noela. She was the sweetest little girl and very bright, but it was clear she had no way of interacting or engaging with her community. I immediately contacted the Buea School for the Deaf and was able to secure a spot for Noela at the school, which would ultimately be a life-changing opportunity for her. 
The school is a 10-hour drive from Noela’s home, which is an insurmountable distance due to transportation challenges. But it would be the perfect place for her to learn how to communicate and live fully in the world. Noela would be living at the school and rarely see her family, but this was her one chance for a better life. 
We created this video to share more of Noela’s story. Check it out here.

Today, Noela is thriving at the school. We love visiting with her, and she has a special place in our hearts. 
About Buea School for the Deaf 
Based in Cameroon, Africa, the Buea School for the Deaf offers a proper education to over 150 hearing impaired students. School founders Aloysius and Margaret Bibum are both deaf, and after earning their Masters degrees in the United States, they moved back to Aloysius’s home to empower deaf people in Cameroon.
In a community where deaf children are often isolated from an education, the Buea School for the Deaf has been thriving, thanks to organizations like the Obakki Foundation.
Obakki Foundation founder, Treana Peake, first met the Bibums when they were leading one of the only schools for the deaf in Cameroon. Teaching in a sparse room by day, and pushing aside the desks to sleep on the floor at night, the Bibums made due with what they could to give these children an education.
Fast-forward more than 15 years, and the Bibums are still leading the school, where children are thriving socially and academically, routinely earning 100% on national exams. Boys and girls study to be doctors, computer engineers, and scientists.
The cost of food, housing and education for one student is only $1,000 per year, but this can be very unaffordable for families in Cameroon. Although many parents are unable to pay the school fees in part or in full, the Bibums have never turned away a deaf child, leading them to operate under a constant deficit for years. 
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

In 2009, the Obakki Foundation was launched as a counterpart to the Obakki fashion brand, which fused my passion for philanthropy with my creativity in the fashion space. To make the biggest impact on our products, it was clear to me that 100% of net profits from Obakki Foundation product sales must go back into the non-profit — an idea and concept that’s greatly improved living conditions and lives in S. Sudan, Uganda and Cameroon.

Additionally, Obakki absorbs all administrative fees for the Obakki Foundation, allowing 100% of Obakki Foundation donations to go directly to our programs. The triple-bottom-line business between Obakki and the Obakki Foundation directly benefits these families and communities in Africa.

The Obakki Foundation has leveraged ways to raise money and awareness that have resulted in clean water for over 2.5 million in Africa, created women’s economic initiatives and mental health programs for refugees, and so much more.

A more recent project has been working with women at the Bidi Bidi refugee camp — the largest refugee camp in the world, located in Uganda. The population is about 90% women and children who have lost their families and experienced absolutely horrifying events we can’t even conceive. Many are refugees from S. Sudan who have fled horrific violence and sought refuge in Uganda. These women are incredibly strong and resilient; they’re looking for a way to lead a new life despite their hardship and loss. They want independence and opportunities to develop skills; they’re ready and willing to work hard and build something of their own.

During one of my many visits, I spoke with some of the women about how the Foundation could help. But they wanted to help themselves. One woman told me, “See these two hands? These two hands are strong. I will use these hands to rebuild my life. We will all use our hands.”

So, I immediately had an idea, and I worked with the ladies in a hot, dusty tent to create artwork with basic finger paint as a way to illustrate who they are, where they come from, and where they want to go. This artwork inspired the design of our Bidi Bidi Scarf, with 100% of the net proceeds from sales going toward helping these women rebuild their lives through the funding of their own business initiatives. Whether in agriculture, textiles or trade, we will help fund business initiatives that will empower these women to determine their future. This is just one way we fuse fashion and philanthropy.

How do you think this will change the world?

The idea of giving back is simple, yet so profound. I’ve created a triple-bottom-line business with the idea that the Obakki fashion label — along with donations, angel investors and proceeds from our Foundation products — will directly benefit and fund the Obakki Foundation, helping millions of people in the process. The backbone of Obakki and the Obakki Foundation thrives from the idea of giving back. Each would be nothing without its counterpart — all in the name of giving back to those less fortunate. If each business model globally flourished on the idea of giving back, imagine the global change we could make.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

I think proper planning and preparation are essential. People must be properly educated and do extensive research on giveback and philanthropy, rather than diving headfirst into a new venture. If you’re going to use a similar model, either you need a strong development background or someone on your team will need a comprehensive giveback background. Sometimes a charity can do more harm than good, so I really have to emphasize the need for thoughtful, measured and intentional planning.

Treana at the Bidi Bidi Camp

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

I would come home from these incredible trips to Africa, and people would only want to talk about the next Obakki fashion collection or color trends for the upcoming season. I needed to do something that aligned with my values and fed my passion for design, so that’s when I decided to create the Foundation — as a way to build on this momentum from the fashion brand and do some global good.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

I think it’s important that consumers do their homework, or at least that they pay attention to where their products are coming from or whom their purchase might benefit. It’s becoming more highly regarded to invest in brands that are sustainable or have a humanitarian/giveback element, which I think is fantastic.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

That’s easy — I’d invest it in our programs. I would invest in more water wells. I would look for people in pockets of the world who are leading innovative projects, and I would find ways to bring those projects to a broader audience of consumers. Whether it’s five dollars or five thousand dollars, every penny goes to the programs we’ve developed and helps people create a better future for themselves.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

Growing up in a low-income, single-parent household with limited resources, I learned from an early age how to fend for myself. However, an anonymous donor, who’s never come forward, would leave an unmarked white envelope of money under our door each December. This was something that our family much appreciated, but I could never tell the anonymous giver “thank you.”

Since my early childhood, I’ve known what it means to give back, and the power that can have on a person’s life. And since then, I’ve made it my mission to do that for others.

I’ve learned over the years that the pay-it-forward philosophy doesn’t have to be strictly monetary. The ripple effect of time, energy, connections and so much more, are inclusive of that pay-it-forward movement. And through those life lessons, I’ve dedicated myself to giving back and paying-it-forward however I can.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets?”

I think it’s important to be courageous. Don’t be afraid to set a big, lofty goal and then just START. Put one foot in front of the other — don’t worry about the logistics that consume other people and paralyze them. Identify your goal and get started; the rest will come.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?

The Obakki Foundation partners with motivated communities in Africa, empowering them with programs focused on water, food, education, healthcare, and livelihood initiatives. We’re educated, innovative and resourceful, and we tailor our projects to the communities where we work. We measure our success by the lives that are transformed. We eliminate the middleman, ensuring that 100% of profits go directly to making an impact that lasts for generations. So far, we’ve helped more than 2.5 million people, and we’re just getting started.

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