All Girls Can: Global Chief Executive’s Mission To Eradicate Gender Inequality

Growing up in South Africa during apartheid shaped the deep feelings Charlotte (Lotte) Davis, founder of One Girl Can and a 2019 YPO Global Impact honoree, has about racial discrimination and injustice.

She witnessed “some pretty horrific things” she says before her family left that volatile environment, immigrating to Canada in the late 1960s. But there she discovered discrimination and injustice in another arena — gender.

“I realized how undervalued and underutilized women were,” Davis says.  Those two realizations — that race and gender are used to discriminate —  she says, fueled who she has become today: a non-profit leader tackling inequality from both fronts.

Davis, Co-founder of AG Hair, built her career the same way she builds schools: With determination, speed and long-term commitment. A graphic designer, she became skilled in marketing and package design, which came in handy when, as parents of two young girls, she and her husband, John, a hair dresser, decided to combine their talents and launch the company in their Vancouver basement.

She had wanted to be a success in business since she was a teen. “Fortunately, she says, “that came to fruition and gave me the resources and confidence to go back to Africa and figure out how to impact gender inequality.”

Investing in girls

Once she was certain their business was on solid footing, Davis decided she could focus on  helping other African girls succeed.

As soon as she toured the Kibera slums of Nairobi, Davis recalls, she knew this would be her starting place.  At first she gave money to charitable organizations already on the ground, but she did not find many groups reliable enough, nor was she making a big enough impact.

She needed to launch her own organization.

“We can’t just fight for gender equality in Western countries. We need to bring everybody along on that journey.” — Charlotte (Lotte) Davis, Founder One Girl Can and Co-Founder AG Hair

A focus on secondary education

One Girl Can launched soon thereafter to help girls break out of poverty through education, supporting them from the time they exit elementary school until they are fully educated and gainfully employed.

Founded in 2014, the organization has built or fully renovated 106 buildings at nine all-girl schools in Kenya and Uganda and mentored more than 20,000 students. One Girl Can has awarded high school scholarships to 442 girls plus 212 for those going on to university.

“Five years ago when I started One Girl Can, two girls had the marks to go to university,” Davis says. “There was no motivation for them to do well in high school because they were never going to university.”

Now they are driven to make high marks, she says. In 2019, 78 girls earned scholarships.


The learning flowed both ways

One Girl Can keeps a low profile, Davis says, replacing dilapidated classrooms and horrendous living conditions with modern facilities that include dormitories with indoor sanitation, well-equipped classrooms, science labs, dining halls and libraries.

When parents in that first school, in the Kibera slums, saw their school transforming, they came forward quickly to enroll their daughters, but not in the way Davis had expected. And this led to an epiphany.

“Parents sent their girls to school on a month-by-month basis because they could not afford the tuition, and when they can’t afford it girls have to go home,” Davis explains. “So that really gave birth to our scholarship program because really bright, determined girls might have had to leave right in the middle of the trigonometry examination. They cannot get ahead in life unless they have continuity.”

With their first set of graduates came another learning curve: Despite a good education, women would struggle to find well-paid, visible jobs in the struggling economy.

Successfully launching a career

One Girl Can university students study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses with an eye to high profile careers in business, medicine and law, Davis says.  But in a nation with 40 percent unemployment, finding those jobs can be difficult, so the organization is launching a social enterprise training program as well.

“We’re going to teach these girls to assess their skills and figure out what they can do to start earning money right after university,” Davis said.

Replicating the model globally

The success of One Girl Can gives Davis confidence to replicate the model elsewhere, such as in Tanzania, Rwanda, Malawi, South Africa and Asia.

“I think this program can work everywhere. You can literally watch the confidence growing in these girls.

“We don’t change them. We just provide the foundation for them to change themselves; they’ve got all the determination and smarts themselves. And it’s really rewarding to just put the platform in place and let them get to where they naturally would.”

Davis hopes the global nature of YPO can help. It is, in fact, why she has become active again in the organization. When she first joined the organization, she says, “it was more about me and growing my business. “Now it’s about the world and making it a better place.”

“Gender equality is so important to me,” she says. “We haven’t achieved it in North America on the level that we want to, but we can’t just fight for gender equality in Western countries. We need to bring everybody along on that journey with us if we’re ever going to have a more robust economic world.”

YPO is the global leadership community of more than 29,000 chief executives in 130 countries who are driven by the belief that the world needs better leaders. Each of our members have achieved significant leadership success at a young age. Combined, they lead businesses and organizations contributing USD9 trillion in annual revenue. YPO members become better leaders and better people through peer learning and exceptional experiences in an inclusive community of open sharing and trust.