We had the good fortune of connecting with Lauren Keller and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Lauren, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
I started Rafiki Bracelets as a Junior in high school while taking a social entrepreneurship course called Agents of Change. Two summers prior to starting the nonprofit, my immediate family visited our friend Kitoi for the first time in his home country of Tanzania. His children attended primary school with many students who were orphaned by one or both parents due to HIV/AIDS and were unable to pay for school supplies. I loved playing with and meeting all the kids at the school, and I wanted them to be able to continue their education, but I did not want to just send money or supplies from abroad, assuming I could fix everything without understanding their backgrounds and needs. That seemed impersonal at best and potentially even harmful, perpetuating stereotypes and worse. The students deserved a better solution, but I didn’t know what that would be until I enrolled in Agents of Change. I learned that to create a successful social venture, you should combine your skills and your passions. So I blended my passions for making friends with people from around the world and ensuring the right to a good education with my skill for making friendship bracelets. It was a strange combination, but it worked. Each time a customer purchased a bracelet, a matching one was given to a student in Tanzania; the pair became pen pals for a year, exchanging letters three times (if the customers wanted to continue after a year, they could do so for a $5 donation to cover the cost of shipping). Their bracelets were a physical reminder of their connection across cultures. We chose the name “Rafiki” (Swahili for friend) because of the friendships many of our pen pals cultivated. They got to learn a lot more about one another than the “givers” and “receivers” in traditional charities, laying the foundation for relationships and educations rooted in equity and dignity. Kitoi became our first Global Coordinator, working with members of his community and the school to determine which resources the students needed the most, and we used the profits from Rafiki Bracelets to purchase those supplies.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
Our products are colorful and unique, just like the backgrounds of the people whose lives we touch. We give customers and students in Tanzania the chance to share their stories, so they can understand each other better rather than relying on assumptions. Having Global Coordinators, or partners in the communities and at the schools in Tanzania, sets us apart from many charities who come in from the US believing they have all the answers and can solve the problems of people whom they know little about. Despite the way Rafiki Bracelets took off in 2016, it has not been easy to get to where we are today. Our Pen Pal Program gets complicated when people do not submit their letters by the dates we have posted for shipping, so sometimes people from the nonprofit have to write the students letters instead. To avoid this, we started selling bracelets without matches, so people who do not want to commit to the Rafiki Pen Pal Program do not have to, but they can still help provide school supplies and other resources. We also had to change the platform for our website because the first one we had would not allow us to display more than 20 products at a time, which was not enough to showcase the beautiful variety of bracelets we have. Now, we have a great website through Wix and can display as many products as we want, and we are working on a way for customers to even order custom bracelets. Since our inception, Rafiki Bracelets has partnered with three schools in Tanzania, and we hope to partner with others around the world who believe in our mission to foster cross-cultural friendships while providing a higher-quality education. We have helped provide chalkboards and new sets of textbooks at Upendo Primary School and paid to replace the cracked concrete floors at POSA Preschool with tile, and we are currently working to provide laptops for students at Scolastica Boarding School. We have also helped provide meals for students, nourishing their bodies and their minds so they can reach their full potential.
Any great local spots you’d like to shoutout?
For food, I would take them to ChillN Nitrogen Ice Cream, The Salty Donut, Whisk, Sakura, and CVI.CHE 105. To explore different parts of the area, I’d take them to Miracle Mile and Wynwood, and we’d visit Everglades National Park and Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens and go kayaking off Virginia Key.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I’d like to shout out Carolina Garcia of Healing Crystals Art for her classes in which she shares her art and mindfulness practices, helping people connect with their creative sides and find a sense of peace.