Alicia Wallace is the Co-founder and COO of All Across Africa, a mission-driven business that connects consumers directly with artisans in Africa. Operating as both a certified B Corp and a member of the Fair Trade Federation, the company sells an assortment of products - from beautiful baskets to jewelry - made by women in places like Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda to break the cycle of poverty in those countries. We had the chance to speak with this pioneering Millennial about her inspiration for starting the business and forging her own path.
What can you tell us about the start of this business and your journey to becoming the COO?
Alicia Wallace: I studied economics in college and began to travel the world. My first trip to Africa was in 2009, to Sierra Leone. My heart was stirred and I knew the corporate path I had planned for my future would be directed toward making an impact and changing the face of poverty. I did not, however, know how I would do that - I spun my wheels looking for a real, tangible way to do this and ran into a lot of roadblocks.
I met Greg Stone, my current business partner, when he was leading a nonprofit that helped genocide survivors. We both had a heart for business and together, with his experience and my passion for operations, we made a great match and have grown All Across Africa into a social business now employing 3,000 people.
You have taken on a very important role at a relatively young age. What advice do you have for other young people who have big dreams?
AW: I have worked really hard, and not all of it was gratifying or made the world a better place. I put in a lot of time and energy that I didn’t get a tangible return or immediate good feeling from. Something that is challenging Millennials is their desire for meaning, purpose, and joy in each job they have. However, we have to be willing to not only do what we think are “fun” or “worthwhile” things, but also put time into hard, challenging, and unrewarding tasks. It breeds perseverance, which I believe is one of the most important characteristics of business leaders. We have to find a way to work with a good attitude and willingness to learn and master anything, whether it’s fun, a passion, or not.
I worked at a law firm for five years in college to get out of debt quickly. Did I love it? No. Did I have fulfillment and purpose there? Not in a tangible sense, but I worked hard to create purpose and a reason for why I was there. I had a goal and knew that if I wanted to be an entrepreneur or work to change the world, neither would pay well initially. A good paying job mattered; the experience of helping run the business gave me insight and opportunities for growth. The pay provided me with financial stability, and it never once took me away from my dream and vision of doing something big. I was even able to foster a culture of volunteerism, and got the staff out of their offices once a month to serve food at a shelter. I focused on my personal purpose and being intentional while I was there.
Lastly, listen to your experts, but don’t always trust them. I had a lot of people tell me I needed corporate experience, field experience, and an MBA in order to be a program manager. I listened to my experts and created a life plan around those needs, but along the way, a door opened and I learned I could be a decision-maker without all of those requirements. I listened to my experts, but also still sought more information for myself; I’m so glad I did. I didn’t have to wait 20 years to get my dream job!
What are you most proud of at All Across Africa?
AW: I’m most proud of our team’s ability to sustainably scale - we work extremely hard to keep thousands of artisans busy year-round and we operate sensitively within their cultural contexts.
We’ve heard some in Rwanda say the basket business is dying or dead - I love that we see so many ways to expand and grow markets for these artisans. For some of the artisans we work with, it’s the only thing they know how to do to generate income for their family. It’s a cultural and traditional craft that shares a message of unity, hope, and friendship with the world. Coming from a country that has been devastated by genocide, it’s a strong and true testament of strength and perseverance and of the human condition - for love and hope.
I’m also proud our scale has reached Burundi and Uganda to expand into underserved populations there. We’re training and creating opportunities for the craft to be revitalized in Burundi, since it had been lost after years of civil war and destruction. Hundreds will be trained and employed in the artisan sector.
Has incorporating sustainable business practices benefited the company’s bottom line? If so, how?
AW: Building a sustainable business has both short- and long-term benefits. For us, we’ve seen how consumers are willing to respond to honest, transparent companies looking to do business in a better way. Connecting with a similar population that wants to see business as a force for good has directly related to increased sales.
"We’ve seen how consumers are willing to respond to honest, transparent companies looking to do business in a better way."
Building a sustainable business reduces turnover and expenses that accrue during recruitment, training, and hiring. Training people right and having your values at the core of each decision makes people want to stay with you and your company longer.
What advice do you have for other mission-driven business leaders?
AW: Find others along the way to partner with, encourage, and help lead with you. So often we think only we know our space or that we are the only ones faced with certain challenges. It takes a humble leader reach out and ask for help.
The great thing about bringing others into the fold is that you have people alongside you when you succeed and when you fail. As a businessperson, it’s likely that both are going to happen. My business partner and our team of friends and advisors create more value, more jobs, and navigate the unknown waters ahead together. It’s so much better together.
Where would you like to see All Across Africa go in the future?
AW: Our goal is to see All Across Africa employing thousands more across the continent of Africa by connecting each American home to handmade products that provide dignity and purpose to their creators.
We want to change the perception of Africa from being one big scary continent to being a place of diverse countries, cultures, and people that bring value and tradition to our busy everyday lives. In return, we want to see consumers change the face of poverty - when we begin to buy from them, they have money to purchase goods in their local markets, which creates more income, jobs, and demand. It circles back around, stimulating their economy and creating a larger need for local businesses.