When you’re a young, black woman trying to make a change in the world, there will be people who don’t take you seriously. If you’re petite and are blessed with that strong melanin that makes you look ten years younger than you are, chances are you’ll be taken even less seriously. This is a problem Lisa Chiriseri has had to deal with often. Lisa is a Zimbabwean social entrepreneur who has run social initiatives since she was in university. Now back in Zimbabwe, she’s running several projects and a start-up.
Here, Lisa tells us about her social initiative program – Street Exit Strategies and her energy project for women. Lisa also lets us know why women need to support each other and why she returned to her country to help in the re-building process.
Most young Zimbabweans who study abroad don’t come back because of the issues at the homefront. Why did you come back?
I had so many reasons to come back home. In my first year schooling abroad, I started a social initiative in Zimbabwe which I ran from school. But I always came home during the holidays to help the team on ground manage it. Secondly, though Zimbabwe wasn’t out of the woods economically at the time I graduated, there were prospects of improvements since we had just dollarized. The economy seemed to be stabilizing and we had the GNU (Government of National Unity). I was determined to be a part of my country’s rebuilding process and I’ve stuck it out for the past 5 years since I returned.
How were you able to manage this social initiative in absentia?
I believe in the indisputable synergy of a passionate team. When you have committed team members like I had, things tend to go well.
Also, while away, with online communication, a good friend literally ran the initiative.
Tell us about this social initiative. What was it about?
It was called Street Exit Strategies, which is actually the name of my current registered trust, under which I run lots of other projects. It was basically a soup kitchen and rehabilitation centre. We focused on teens and young adults, especially those who were kicked out of homes and centres once they turned 16. So, we focused on rehabilitating them, reconciling them with their families and helping them continue with their O levels and tertiary education.
We’ve got several inspiring stories to tell of our efforts. One of the guys we took off the streets and helped through O levels just completed his secondary education. Another is concluding his Master’s program at the University of Western Cape. And oh, there’s still another who just completed his degree in Political Science at the University of Zimbabwe.
Do you still run the soup kitchen?
We run it on a case by case basis because, in 2013, organizations running soup kitchens reached a collective decision to stop supporting people on the streets. More people just kept cropping up on the streets. Struggling people who had homes starting showing up on the streets looking for support and we needed to be more accountable. It felt like we were forcing people to go to school, forcing them to attend rehab sessions and peer mentorship programs. However, we continued with referrals to drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres and also providing family planning advice.
What other projects are you currently involved with?
I’m currently working on a gas-related project called Women in Energy. It’s a known fact that for a resource that’s mainly utilized by women, the energy sector is a rather male-dominated industry. Women need heat to cook, and some walk for kilometers to get firewood. Imagine the energy and time wasted! Exposure to fumes from unsafe firewood and paraffin also have adverse health implications.
In the rural areas, you find women with gray films over their eyes, cancer of the lungs and other ailments that could have been avoided. I’m out to change that by providing clean, safe and affordable energy sources to these women.
As a young girl, did you always know this was something you’d do?
I’ve always been passionate about helping the disadvantaged. I didn’t know it was something I’ll be doing full-time. Actually, it only dawned on me recently, when I tried working a full-time consultancy job and I hated it. I realized it wasn’t for me, I simply couldn’t work at something that benefitted someone I didn’t even know, or whose objectives I knew nothing about.
I always knew I wanted to help people and I’ve always had a way of balancing several projects at a time.
What would you tell that young woman who’s involved in a career she’s not too keen on, but also afraid to venture out?
I would say reach out, it’s really surprising how useful people can be if you tell them about your passion. Ask for pointers and referrals, but be very selective on who you talk to about your ideas. When you get the opportunity, introduce yourself and exactly what it is you want to do.
Networking is also very important. Who you know is everything! The world has evolved and people are much more open to helping young women. There are organizations, groups, and activities making access to information and networking easy. Take your time, get as much information as possible then confidently step out. There’ll never be a perfect time so you’ve got to start anyway.