1 November 2021

Microlearnings from CAs(SA) over 40 - Tracey Chambers

This is the philosophy that 52-year-old Tracey Chambers lives by. In 2009, at the age of 40, she made an informed decision to leave the corporate world to pursue her passion for teaching and empowering women, and co-founded the Clothing Bank, an NPO with a vision to inspire, skill and support unemployed mothers and fathers to eradicate poverty in their families.

The Clothing Bank and its four projects are considered one of the best-practice examples in SA of an ethical holistic Enterprise Development (ED) system that successfully engages mothers, fathers and their children living in poverty to chart their path out of poverty. It is therefore not surprising that Tracey was invited to talk in 2015 on TedX Cape Town on why micro-franchising is a solution to South Africa’s unemployed mothers and in 2020 on ENCA News on how to provide quality education for these mothers’ children and help the mothers build sustainable businesses.

Tracey makes it very clear that the last 11 years were not always easy for her as a chartered accountant and that any CA(SA) who wants to make a difference and consider starting an NPO need to read her five lessons learnt from starting an NPO (page 38).

Today, 11 years old, the Clothing Bank has a countrywide supply chain operating from five branches in Cape Town, Paarl, Johannesburg, East London and Durban. During 2020, with the COVID-19 challenges, Tracey, her team and funders impacted close to 1 000 mothers and 110 fathers who made R57 million worth of profit from their businesses through the Clothing Bank and the Appliance Bank, 96 women in the TradeUp Sewing project, and 2 136 children through their 45 GROW Educare centres, which are educating the children of the mothers and fathers – a holistic approach indeed!

So why is the Clothing Bank, an NPO that focuses on ED, so successful? From my conversation with Tracey, I believe it is because of a solid business model that is built on a solid philosophical model.

Solid business model

Because of Tracey’s experience in the retail industry, she knew that every year there were millions of items of clothing that retailers didn’t know what to do with, and that a solution was needed. She also knew that there were millions of under-educated, poor mothers who needed alternatives to formal employment.

‘My career experiences as a chartered accountant working in the retail industry, specifically Woolworths, helped me build networks in this industry and I first-hand saw the financial impact on the profits of our excess product in the supply chain that had to be written down and that we didn’t have an effective solution to deal with this waste. I saw an opportunity to, on the one hand, sell triple bottom-line benefits to a retail company funder − thereby increasing profits and reduce risk and help the planet (no dumping in landfill) − and on the other hand, help people (empower women) to create small businesses for unemployed mothers, because if you help a woman, you help a child,’ explains Tracey.

And so their business model began. They had a strong vision and enormous passion. With hard work and significant support from personal friends and families, big corporate and government agencies, the doors of the Clothing Bank (a garage at the back of an orphanage in Salt River) were opened in February 2010 and the first group of 10 mothers joined the initial programme.

Solid philosophical model

In the early years of their first project, they could not understand why an unemployed mother, with dependent children, was not maximising this great opportunity to start her own business.

‘We provided her with business skills training, the start-up products at a discount, and a start-up loan. However, what we learned over the first three years was that because many of these mothers experienced trauma, abuse, academic and social failure over years, their brains were hardwired with a failure mindset. We realised that unless we get to the crux of this failure mindset and worked on a much deeper level with her to develop new neural pathways (“I can” experiences), we were not going to solve the complex challenges that unemployed mothers face,’ she explains.

Their whole philosophy changed and is now grounded in what Vivienne Schultz calls ‘from dependence to dignity/independence’. The dependency mindset is deeply wired in the brains of many mothers, fathers and children in our country because of our history and aid versus trade culture, often creating a victim narrative. Changing mindsets takes time and they now have a two-year Enterprise Development programme of 500 hours of coaching and training that focuses on the development of the heart (creating experiences to change the mindset from ‘I can’t be successful ’to ‘I can and want to be successful’), the head (business, finance, life skills to be successful) and the hand (running a small business because you only learn business by doing business).

As Tracey explains: ‘The clothing that we provide through a loan is just a tool that the mothers can use to sell during the training programme. Many of our graduates have become unstoppable role models and started to sell alternative products, as well as an Uber business, a property business, and importing products and re-selling it.’

Contributing to ethically building and sustaining micro-enterprises in our country for the future of our children is no longer just an option − it should be integral to our personal and professional conduct and CAs(SA), the way we lead responsible businesses. Tracey makes it very clear that you do not need to start an NPO to make a difference: ‘You can make a difference in your role, because if we don’t have a country, you don’t have a company. Think out of the box on how you can have an impact in your business that can solve the many challenges South Africa faces.’

Tracey’s five lessons learnt from starting an NPO

Do not underestimate the challenges of starting an NPO‘I had 20 years experience in the corporate environment, but starting an NPO required that I had to roll up my sleeves and fulfill various roles from doing secretarial and bookkeeping work to drawing up government proposals’
Starting an NPO has a cost to pay, and you need to be financially stable‘I had the luxury to take a risk because I was 40 years old and I had a stable job and income in commerce for 20 years and therefore my family and I were financially stable.’
Do NOT start an NPO if you are not willing to put your own money where your mouth is‘You first need to back yourself before funders will back you, thus how much are you prepared to invest in your cause?’
Get and keep the best team of people in your NPO‘In the beginning we were a team of overqualified executives who were willing to freely give our time and support for the cause. Today, most of us are still part of the team’
Growing an NPO is not a one-day game‘Any growth only comes with time, and you will be faced with many obstacles. This is where your CA(SA) and corporate experience becomes invaluable’

Adel du Plessis CA(SA), MHEd (cum laude)