At the point when Liya Kebede went to her first pre-birth physical checkup she had a squeezing question at the forefront of her thoughts: How likely would it say it was that she would survive labor? Astounded by her worry, the specialist consoled her that her pregnancy would be observed at each stage to stay away from any entanglements. She could even see whether she was having a kid or young lady. The news was consoling to Kebede, who experienced childhood in Ethiopia where ladies biting the dust in labor is so normal there is an overarching thought that ‘to be pregnant is to have one foot in the grave.’
Around a similar time, the World Health Organization was looking for a representative to bring issues to light for the quantity of ladies who still lose their lives because of labor and pregnancy-related inconveniences. Today, 162,000 moms bite the dust from complexities consistently in Africa alone. Kebede instantly ventured into the part and served two terms as a WHO Goodwill Ambassador. Through her on-the-preparation, she was roused to dispatch the Lemlem Foundation in 2005, which helps prepare wellbeing laborers in Ethiopia to teach and bolster moms previously, amid and after pregnancy. After two years, she made the apparel line lemlem to seek after a moment mission of engaging African craftsmans. In a couple of years, Kebede went from being one of the world’s most outstanding models strolling the runways of Balenciaga and Christian Dior and being included on about twelve Vogue covers — to turning into a not-for-profit organizer and after that starting one of the primary social-great brands, that helped prepare for an insurrection of socially determined organizations. While the dynamic performing artist, extremist, model, business visionary and giver promptly concedes that none of this was arranged, Kebede’s life is a case that when you put benefit at the epicenter of your being your labor of love can be a vehicle for social great. She sat down with us to share the beginning and development of the establishment and her apparel line, including an off camera take a gander at the cooperation in Africa, and in addition the outlook she accepts powered her to go out on a limb to dispatch and scale them.
Untangling the maternal wellbeing emergency
When Kebede was on a flight to Ethiopia to launch the lemlem Foundation’s first program, she met with the country’s then Health Minister Dr. Tedros Adhanom to discuss the nonprofit’s goals. He invited her to the opening of a maternity wing at a hospital in Durame, Ethiopia, which drew the entire city to celebrate. While touring the facility Kebede recognized that there was no equipment, which Dr.Adhanom informed her they couldn’t afford. He then asked her to address the crowd. “I told him I had no idea what to say and he said I could tell them that I would help with the equipment,” Kebede recalls, who understandably had no knowledge of how to purchase medical equipment. “He told me, ‘Just say it and you’ll figure it out.’”
Kebede followed his advice and returned to the States where she arranged for donated medical equipment to be delivered to Durame, enabling the hospital to serve mothers in their community.
The speech was representative of the way Kebede’s career as an activist, nonprofit founder and social entrepreneur has unfolded — Taking leaps of faith to support causes she believes in and determining high impact ways to do so along the way. “I listen to my heart and try to commit to things that mean something to me. When I feel something, I follow it,” she says.
Though Kebede was intimately aware of the maternal health crisis through her work with WHO, she had no experience launching a nonprofit, especially for a cause that she describes as a web of challenges that need to be individually untangled. “There is no miracle drug to cure the maternal health crisis. Solving this challenge requires a series of human efforts, education, and infrastructure,” she says. “It’s not just about building the hospital. You have to train people to work there and educate women on prenatal and maternal health. Many expecting mothers don’t see a doctor, if they do at all, until they are ready to deliver.”
According to Save the Children’s 2014 State of the World’s Mother report, 48 million women give birth without trained medical help – 2 million of whom are entirely alone – every year. The crisis spans nations revealing a fundamental flaw in maternal health education and medical care, that activists like Kebede are not only raising awareness for but fighting for greater transparency. ProPublica and NPR were recently finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for their work identifying the underpinnings of why the United States has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world and what might be done to combat it.
“Too many women lose their lives from preventable causes like infections, blood loss or needing an emergency surgery,” Kebede shares. “When you don’t have access to medical care you lose your life. Many of these women leave children behind who have to drop out of school to care for their siblings. A mother’s death dismantles the family unit.”
Through their support equipping the Durame hospital, Kebede and her team were exposed to the depth of need and lack of resources across hospitals in Ethiopia. Soon after, they began working with the Ethiopian North American Health Professionals Association to help equip and train health staff at another new facility, the Hawassa Safe Mothering Center. Over a five year period, the Center helped more than 12,000 women deliver their children safely and has a maternal mortality rate of .1%.
In 2015, the Foundation expanded their maternal health support by partnering with one of Africa’s leading international health organizations, Amref Health Africa, to help fund their efforts training midwives across East Africa. According to the lemlem Foundation, Africa needs an estimated 1.5 million more health workers to reach women and their families. Amref Health Africa is making life-changing strides filling that gap, and as of 2017, has provided health services to over 13 million people.
Kebede regularly travels to Ethiopia to spend time with the Foundation’s partners, as well as the midwives and doctors. Many of the medical professionals she sees are the only ones in their roles, which elicits a strong sense of personal responsibility to serve their communities. One doctor, Dr. Mulualem Gessesse, was the only neonatal doctor in Kebede’s hometown when they met in 2011. “She believes this is her mission but it’s a lot of pressure. She never took time off because she knew they wouldn’t have any help without her.”
Another, gynecologist Dr. Fisseha in Debre Berhan, Ethiopia, works with Amref Health Africa to organize monthly forums to connect and educate women on the health issues they should be aware from the early stages of pregnancy through delivery and recovery. “He does it with such humor and tender care so they feel comfortable asking him questions,” Kebede shares. “He’s like a king there. The women love him, trust him and most importantly listen to him. His pure intentions and commitment reinforce that individual acts make a life-changing difference.”
The Foundation is also helping educate the next generation of girls about reproductive and maternal health. Through their partnership with the International Leadership Academy of Ethiopia, they helped support their peer-to-peer maternal health campaign which equips high school girls with resources to educate girls at neighboring schools about safe motherhood. Projects like these are helping increase the number of women seeking care before, during and after pregnancy in Ethiopia.
Uplifting African artisans with sustainable income.
On a trip to see her family in Ethiopia, Kebede visited a market where artisans who had been earning a living selling their handwoven clothing were losing their livelihood as people traded their traditional attire for jeans and t-shirts. Witnessing the sellers’ predicament, compelled Kebede to find a way to help revive their craft. She launched lemlem nearly a year later as a clothing line made entirely in Africa. The brand features collections that are handwoven by artisans in Ethiopia and recently expanded its production across Africa to work with local manufacturers in Kenya and Madagascar.
Despite the company’s strong presence today, launching a fashion brand was another significant risk for Kebede, who didn’t have a background in business or design. “Launching lemlem was a huge gamble. I had no idea what I was doing and never created a business plan,” she says. “I felt like I needed to help so I started it and knew we’d figure it out along the way.”
In 2008, Kebede was among a small group of social entrepreneurs who designed their business models with social good at the center, which meant she had few examples to reference building the brand. “There was no playbook. I didn’t know how to start a business or how to navigate the logistics of working with so many overseas partners,” she shares. “We’ve come a long way but we needed to solve a lot of issues ourselves.”
lemlem began as a children’s line based on the hypothesis that parents would be inspired to purchase their kids handwoven clothing. Kebede, who serves as creative director, and her team quickly recognized an opportunity to expand to women’s wear and launched a collection in 2008. They added a men’s line in 2015. Today, the brand is sold at leading retailers like Barneys and Net-a-Porter, with 5% of their direct sales on lemlem.com helping fund the foundation.
The company name, lemlem, means to bloom and flourish, which is an acute representation of the difference the brand continues to make for their artisans. After working in the nonprofit sector, Kebede was adamant about designing lemlem in a way that provides artisans financial independence. “For me, sustainability is when you employ someone so they can earn their own money and support their families. Our artisans have regular salaries which empower them to send their kids to school, get healthcare and build better lives for their families,” she says. “The company’s entire purpose is to uplift artisans. It’s why we do what we do.” The brand’s growth has allowed it to scale from supporting 30 artisans to over 250. They aim to further their impact by launching a lifestyle arm which will enable them to employ more artisans and partner with new organizations.
Though Kebede is more deliberate crafting lemlem’s business plans than when they launched, she continues to leave space for the brand to evolve on its own, trusting that it will grow in the right direction. “Leading a business is like birthing a child. It’s yours for a moment but you don’t know what it will become. The company has developed its own identity and is flourishing on its own. It’s special to see.”
Kebede’s intentionality living her values makes it easy to perceive that her life was thoughtfully designed. And, while she has become more conscious of tying her life’s work to a higher purpose, she still operates from her gut, she shares. “I want my life to have meaning so I try to seek it out in everything I do. The attitude has opened me up to organic situations that continue to form and evolve in my life.”
Though her courage to take risks has manifested unexpected opportunities to create change, the attitude doesn’t mitigate challenges. From early designers who dismissed her as a young model through learning how to found and lead two organizations, Kebede spent the last two decades developing her grit and strengthening her mindset to default to action. “Everything meaningful comes with daunting questions and obstacles, but deep down I believe we can always arrive at answers if we just keep trying. Don’t let the fear of the unknown stop you from pursuing something you believe in. The answers you’re looking for will reveal themselves. You just have to get started.”
By Jenna Abdou