Eric Coly’s professional trajectory is not a usual one. After moving from native Senegal to the US to pursue a successful career in finance, he decided to make a radical change and thus created Le Dessein , a sustainable clothing company which supports African girls by using their drawings as embroidery. In addition to valuing their creative work, Coly helps improve the girls’ education through a foundation in Liberia. Ever-optimistic about the prospects of sustainable business, he shared with Horyou blog his views on social entrepreneurship, women empowerment and the challenge of providing education for girls from underprivileged communities.
What’s the story behind the creation of Le Dessein?
Hailing from Senegal, I thought I had fulfilled my childhood ambitions by pursuing a ten-year long career in Finance. Attending the UCLA Anderson Graduate School had the opposite effect of cementing my career in finance, and instead triggered a deep feeling of dissatisfaction and uncertainty about my professional trajectory. A year of self-examination led those feelings to be supplanted by a desire to enter the world of Fashion. Introduced to it at an early age by my mother, I felt like Fashion alone still would not suffice. I realized the deep impact that education had on the women of my family on a socio-economic, cultural and social level, starting with my grandmother’s introduction to college back in the 1920’s, passing through my mother and trickling down her four children, I found it to be a great addition to Le Dessein’s mission: providing the opportunity of an education for young girls from underprivileged communities from around the world by featuring their art onto our fashion.
Like Horyou’s CEO, you had a career in finance before launching your own company. What made you decide to quit the glamorous and profitable world of finance to that of a social entrepreneur?
It was about seeking a sense of pursuit and human validity in this world. My first sign of freedom came when I realized that money didn’t have the highest place in my hierarchal tower of needs. Second came a deep and painful, yet highly rewarding journey of self-introspection designed to figure out who I was exactly – since I believed that one should know oneself in order to know what one’s passion thus career could be. Last was mustering the courage to fully embrace what I was convinced would revive my life and give myself permission to execute it. I had always had a nurturing nature, and needed to find a way to honor that. What better way to do it but to be of service to courageous and brave girls who have the potential to be powerful leaders and create rich legacies?
Beside the drawings, the girls also design some of the clothes?
Actually not – the girls’ activities involve the drawings of the artworks which we embroider on our clothes. We will be adding the creation of jewelry into their artistic activities soon. This endeavor is about more than just the financial contribution that the girls receive. The more important beneficial attribute in my own estimation is the self-readjustment of their own value when visualizing the final product worn by the customers. This is about heightening empowerment and self esteem which are generally acquired through ownership – ownership of their art.
What is the relation between your company and educational projects for girls?
We have the pleasure of working with the More Than Me foundation, which is dedicated to educating girls in Monrovia, Liberia. They have done an excellent job after Liberia’s long war of taking young girls from the street in order to give them access to education. We work directly with them and use them as a conduit, given their expertise. Part of their duties is to adequately allocate the funds that are contributed to the girls’ education.
What is the ultimate goal of Le Dessein?
Our ultimate goal is to put 10,000 girls in school in the next ten years. The ripple effects of women and girls educated are quite far reaching. 65 million young girls are currently not in school. 40,000 girls are given away in forced marriage every day. 3 million children under the age of 5 are lost every year because their mothers are not in school. A lot of work still needs to be done in trying to educate girls and we intend to devote our full participation along with our peer partners in eradicating this issue.
What is your vision about socially responsible businesses?
Highly optimistic. There seems to have been a systematic shift in the global world community in prioritizing human, environmental, animal and a slew of equally important issues. This has been reflected in the birth of a number of socially responsible businesses. Their successes have further justified the creation of new ones and given validity to the world’s appetite for consuming socially responsible products. For instance, the presumed leader in the socially responsible industry, TOMS (known for the one for one business model – they give one shoe to a person in need for every shoe purchased) has given to date over 45 million pairs of shoes worldwide. Its current annual revenue is over $400 million – in just years of existence, in not only in the competitive world of fashion, but also in the totally uncharted territory of the socially responsible world. Our future vision for this field remains high indeed.
Horyou’s tagline is “dream, inspire, act” – what do those words represent for you and your business?
These words represent the quintessential pillars of our company’s mission statement. They do not seem to mean much when taken apart, but put together they have the power to move mountains, revive cultures, and provide restoration to humanity. We fully stand by them and do our best to uphold their intended messages.