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Audacious Relationships: How leaning into one another is the path to doing great things

By Syd Ryan, Co-Founder & Chief Culture Officer of cabi

I will always remember the moment Atul Tandon stood on stage at our cabi conference and told us it was possible for extreme poverty to end within our lifetime. This felt impossible. As he continued, he painted a picture of united groups of people rallied around this goal, sharing benchmarks of decade by decade decreases in those dangerously below the poverty line. My skepticism faded quickly as hope rushed in like a flood. I love an audacious goal and this one felt deeply important and meaningful to us at cabi.  

Atul illuminated how the small efforts we make in the day-to-day really could change the day-to-day for those on the other side of the world, and in doing so, turn day-to-day into years-and-years and ultimately decades-and-decades, during which incremental changes lead to whole new trajectories and worlds of possibility.

It was tempering, though, as I shared my enthusiasm for contributing to the eradication of poverty with others and their skepticism attempted to lasso me from the clouds and bring me back to earth.

Isn’t this what so often happens when we determine to go after a big, seemingly impossible goal? The naysayers are quick to speak. The skeptics seem poised with a pin to pop your proverbial balloon. I experienced this first-hand when we first concepted cabi and declared we were going to create the most sought-after shopping experience and home-based business; there were multitudes eager to list the reasons it wouldn’t work. And yet, 20 years later, we’ve done it. And I know when our Stylists decide to launch their own fashion styling boutique through cabi, they often feel the same skepticism surrounding them—and oddly, it’s usually the closest friends and family who are the most eager to poke holes.

Back to when Atul shared his bold charge, what I remember in vivid color is the faces on screen—the faces of women and men who had done the impossible with a small business loan, defying all odds by breaking cycles of poverty, who’d muscled into an idea they believed in and worked with fervor to make their dream a reality. Those faces were so beautiful; the living embodiment of going after audacious goals, of keeping at it even when the stats and people around them don’t believe, even when it felt impossible.

The women entrepreneurs we get to support through our one-for-one program, W.E. are cabi, are our daily inspiration to keep after the biggest goals in our business and our lives, turning down the volume of doubters. They are our reason to believe big, audacious dreams can become real. They’ve proven it.

How do they do it? Opportunity International loan recipients defy the odds with such consistency that it’s clear they have a formula for success. But it’s never some cookie cutter plan. I believe a huge reason Opportunity International has been so successful in helping people out of poverty is because they do so in a highly customized, relational, human way. They see each face as an individual, best supported in the context of other unique individuals traveling the path with them, in real relationship. And real relationships always breed creative, unique approaches that can’t simply be pulled off a shelf. The relational Trust Group model and localized support means they operate uniquely wherever they are, with ideas and processes that work for those they serve.

Elevating relationships runs throughout the DNA of Opportunity International; our 14-year partnership has had the same qualities of curation, based on how they’ve listened through real relationship with us. It would have been fair to assume that Opportunity would have a pre-packaged plan for how we, as a corporate entity, could contribute to their work, and yet we’ve found an astounding willingness to customize and curate a plan that works to the greatest effect within our organization (and the people within it). We began by simply offering funding through our Heart of cabi Foundation, then, with a desire to get our cabi Stylists more directly connected to the impact we were making, we came up with an idea for a one-for-one program, where cabi would donate a small business loan to a woman in a developing country (who we call “Sister Entrepreneurs”) for every new Stylist who begins her business, so they can build their businesses together, albeit on opposite sides of the globe. Manifesting this idea was not easy, but Opportunity was not only enthusiastic about the challenge, but they’ve made it work more beautifully than we’d hoped. To date, we’ve funded 18,650 small business loans for women in developing countries.

In 2016, we began a series of trips to Rwanda to meet with Sister Entrepreneurs that Opportunity International carefully curated for us, and through spending time in schools in 2019, we were compelled to contribute to the incredible momentum Opportunity had catalyzed to elevate education throughout this country.

A group shot from a Sister Entrepreneurs trip to Rwanda in 2019.
A group shot from a Sister Entrepreneurs trip to Rwanda in 2019.

We had no idea what that would look like and Opportunity devised a plan for us to contribute school loans to improve education, and school fee loans, to ease the burden of sending kids to school, with 10 different schools connected to our 10 Founder organizations. To date, we’ve given 18,150 Rwandan students hope and opportunity through education through our Make a Change round-up program, born of the ingenuity that happens through relationship.

This relational and customized approach is, I can assume, not efficient for Opportunity International. But it is effective. Every season we have more and more Stylists and their customers engaged in these Opportunity efforts, forming the united and passionate force Atul talked about, willing to work toward eradicating extreme poverty within our generation.

Cabi’s creed is “affecting lives through relationships,” so it’s no wonder we’re enamored of Opportunity International’s approach. They’ve helped us live out our values, serving as a conduit to relationships all over the world, extending our reach much farther than we ever could on our own.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been a heartbreak to hear from Atul the sobering message of how women and girls were especially vulnerable and set back by this unique inflection point. What had felt like great strides in combating extreme poverty morphed into major steps back in just a few short months. We’re more committed than ever to that big bold audacious goal.

May we all look to the Opportunity International entrepreneurs for inspiration to dig in and work fervently toward what seems impossible. Leaning into relationships is what will lead us to effective plans that actually work…and face by face, person by person, day by day, year by year, audacious goals can be achieved.

We are abundantly grateful to be a small part of the way Opportunity International is changing the world, one person at a time.

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