Making a difference to the lives of others is something that drives the passionate social entrepreneur and co-founder of DreamGirls Academy, Ezlyn Olivia Barends. She believes that by harnessing the power of community and mentorship, young women can equip themselves with the knowledge and skills to fulfill their potential in life and become change-makers in their own right.
LoA learned more about this high impact social enterprise that is making a real impact on the lives of young girls and women from its founder, Ezlyn Olivia Barends.
What does your company do?
DreamGirls Academy is an empowerment organization and sisterhood for teen girls and young women. From girl to woman, DreamGirls helps girls and young women shift girls from economic dependency to self-sufficiency. The Academy was established in Johannesburg on 6 November 2011 by a group of young black female professionals determined to build a sisterhood and legacy by making a positive impact of the lives of teen girls & young women. The Academy provides a structured mentorship and empowerment programme that focuses on encouraging young women to upskill themselves, plan for the future, fulfill their potential, and become successful well-rounded trailblazers and change makers. Since its inception, over 650 young women across Johannesburg, Cape Town, Welkom and Polokwane, have been empowered through the organisation and graduated from the mentoring programme.
“DreamGirls helps girls and young women shift girls from economic dependency to self-sufficiency.”
“Today, over 650 teen girls and young women have participated and graduated from the mentorship programme across Johannesburg, Cape Town and Polokwane.”
What inspired you to start your company?
Back in 2010, I was managing the Dad Fund, my family youth education and development organization. That specific year, we ran an international internship program where university students from the States could volunteer to work in various positions on the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Two of those students were Karen Tshimanga and Shirley Diaz. They shared their story of how they started DreamGirls International Outreach and Mentoring Program at their university, an initiative to expose marginalized teen girls to higher learning and education opportunities. At the same time, I was also seeking to launch a girls education program under the Dad Fund. Given our shared passion for education and the desire to start making a difference in the lives of teen girls, together with Dad Fund founder, Lyndon Barends, my dad, we decided to launch a chapter in South Africa. In April 2011, former President Bill Clinton officially announced this during the Clinton Global Initiative Conference. On Sunday, 06 November 2011, I called together a few women in my network who shared the same passion for working with young girls and making a lasting positive impact on their lives. They shared their personal dreams with each other and then talked about how they could make dreams a reality for underprivileged teen girls using education as a vehicle. Together, we committed to starting DreamGirls South Africa. The team, well aware that the context and needs of young girls in the country was slightly different, saw this as an opportunity to develop a more holistic programme that would imprint a deeper impact on teen girls in South Africa. It was at this point that we created an eight month mentoring programme which included education and empowerment on the topics of Life Design and Goal Setting, Education, Entrepreneurship and Careers, Leadership & Service, Women Wellness and Dignity and Professional Etiquette. We now run mentoring and empowerment programmes for high school girls and young women between the ages of 18 to 29.
On 17 March 2012, we held our first workshop with 30 teen girls at United Church School, Yeoville, Johannesburg. Today, over 650 teen girls and young women have participated and graduated from the mentorship programme across Johannesburg, Cape Town and Polokwane. After three successful years, the South African board made a decision to register DreamGirls South Africa as an independent entity, moving it out of the Dad Fund banner. In 2017 it was decided that given the vast differences in the South African programme to that of the US born programme, DreamGirls South Africa would be rebranded and positioned as DreamGirls Academy: Empowered to Rise.
Why should anyone use your service or product?
Our organisation's culture is infectious! Once you've been to a DreamGirls workshop or event, you can immediately feel the warmth, strength and beauty of the sisterhood. We've built a powerful network of young women who empower, support and celebrate each other. The leadership team have strong professional backgrounds and are all change makers in their own right and thus they lead from the heart but also run DreamGirls like a business. The DreamGirls mentorship model has been widely acknowledged as the standard and benchmark for effective mentoring and many blue chip corporates have approached DreamGirls to assist them in setting up similar programmes.
“Once you've been to a DreamGirls workshop or event, you can immediately feel the warmth, strength and beauty of the sisterhood.”
Tell us a little about your team
When we started out, we were 12 ladies, however with time and life changes some had to move on. We are now three remaining founding directors (Ezlyn Barends, Mmabatho Mokiti & Marise Mackay) who manage the organization and focus on its strategic development and growth. We've recently appointed a fourth person to our board, Michelle Pillay, who's been with DreamGirls since 2015. She started out as a mentor on the programme, then became a part of the Johannesburg executive committee, and then Chairlady of the Johannesburg Committee, to now board member. Similarly, we also have Tarryn Fortuin, who's been with DreamGirls since 2015. She served as a mentor in Cape Town, then became a Cape Town executive committee member before moving up to Johannesburg and taking up the position as our program manager. We have executive teams in Cape Town and Johannesburg as well as an advisory board.
Share a little about your entrepreneurial journey. And, do you come from an entrepreneurial background?
I started out my entrepreneurial journey back in 2010 when I left the events management industry to establish and run my family's non-profit organization, the Dad Fund. Up until then, my dad was personally sponsoring bursaries for some young people in Cape Town. Given my passion for working with youth, I then took the reins, and formalized the organization and further grew and developed it into a few other programs. As such, we offered bursaries, internship opportunities, entrepreneurship training and development and community-based work. Amongst the other programs we were running, we then also launched DreamGirls. In 2013, I got the opportunity to do my MBA in the UK so while I was away for that year, the rest of the team held the fort and continued running DreamGirls. When I came back to South Africa, I thought my MBA would be most valued in corporate so joined the corporate world whilst I running DreamGirls with the team on a part-time basis. However, just four months after, I made the decision to jump ship to follow my passion and purpose full time. The entrepreneurial journey has not been easy but it's definitely been exciting and worthwhile.
“The DreamGirls mentorship model has been widely acknowledged as the standard and benchmark for effective mentoring and many blue chip corporates have approached DreamGirls to assist them in setting up similar programmes.”
What are your future plans and aspirations for your company?
We currently have two flagship mentoring programs; one for girls in Grade 11 and 12 and one for young women between the ages of 18-29. For both programmes, there is an application process which we typically open up in January every year. The programme then runs for 8 months. We are in the process of developing the DreamBox, which contains all training, tools and materials to set up a DreamGirls branch as we do have expansion plans. We also facilitate outreach programs. This is where we have a weekend or week long version of the program which we take to rural areas outside of our traditional branches in Johannesburg and Cape Town. In 2019, we'll host our first DreamGirls outreach program in another African country and have further plans to grow and collaborate across the continent. For corporates, we facilitate and manage a DreamGirls mentoring program internally within their organization as an employee volunteer program offering. Lastly, we aim to use a technology platform to impact more girls. We have many exciting plans. Ultimately, we are a young female empowerment house and individuals and corporates can contact us for all of their young female talent development needs.
What gives you the most satisfaction being an entrepreneur?
As an entrepreneur, I love that I am able to do what I am most passionate about. I do what I love and get to manage my own time. I meet inspiring people and talk about big world changing ideas on a daily basis.
What's the biggest piece of advice you can give to other women looking to start-up?
Take risks, back yourself and don't be afraid to fail. If you apply a learning mindset, those very same failures will lead to the most epic work that you'll put out into the world.
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Why LoA loves it….
The world needs passionate change-makers who have the vision, the energy and the drive to make the lives of others better and more fulfilled. Ezlyn Olivia Barends is one such change-maker. Together with her partners and co-founders, Ezlyn is demonstrating the huge impact that can be made when you have a focus and a vision for making a difference. Today, her organisation Dream Girls Academy is helping to turn the dreams and aspirations of a new generation of young girls and women into reality. Her passion and drive is to be applauded and is an inspiration to so many others to follow. --- Melanie Hawken, founder and ceo of Lionesses of Africa