I Am Because We Are: Zane Wilemon, Founder of Ubuntu Made

BY K. BINKOWSKI | DECEMBER 2016

Meet Zane Wilemon, Founder of Ubuntu Made

This is the story of a one-way plane ticket and the meaning of a very simple word. These two things changed the trajectory of Zane Wilemon’s life. The founder of Ubuntu Made, Zane’s spiritual journey as an Episcopal priest gave way to a social enterprise that is now changing the lives of Kenyan artisans and global consumers alike. Having built a global community far greater than any congregation, Zane is constantly living out his belief that our lives are deeply connected and we are each a product of the relationships we invest in. This is Zane’s story. 

This particular adventure started with a one way ticket to Kenya when you were just 23. Tell us the story behind the brand.

Ubuntu’s literal translation is “I am because we are.” It speaks to our interconnectedness to one another and to the world around us. I learned about this word after working in Africa for a few years.  I was reading an article written by an Irish pastor and professor, Steve Stockman and he was sharing about how important of a word this had been for Archbishop Desmond Tutu during apartheid in South Africa - when a white South African oppresses a black South African they are oppressing themselves and when a white South African loves a black South African they are loving themselves. We cannot reach our full potential until we are helping others reach theirs. When I read that, it immediately struck a chord within me about my relationship with my co-founder, Jeremiah Kuria and a few other key people that had been so instrumental in shaping my life since traveling to Kenya. Their lives loving my life had changed me and my life loving their lives had changed them. We were living Ubuntu.

Ubuntu’s literal translation is “I am because we are.”
It speaks to our interconnectedness to one another and to the world around us.

This is essentially the foundational story of our brand. We are constantly going back to this fundamental principal of, “I am because we are.” It drives our best partnerships, it influences how we work as a team and it is seen in each product we make by having our makers write their “I am : we are” statement on each tag. 

What inspired you about the Kenya’s culture in particular and why did you settle on a line of accessories through which to make change?

The culture also played a significant role in leading the brand into our identity of Ubuntu. Africa is a very raw place, what you see is what you get. There is typically little pretense. This authenticity inspired me to live an authentic life, to be true to those relationships in Kenya that transformed my life and to live in such a way that it was a manifestation of that transformation. Even our choice to go into a line of accessories is a reflection of that authenticity. We didn’t set out to become a lifestyle brand making accessories, we were merely responding to the requests of the relationships we had formed. We started with a school for children with special needs. Once we started the school it created a positive problem for the original nine mothers of those initial students, they were bored and needed something to do Monday through Friday now that we were taking care of their children at the school. After asking them what they wanted to do, they responded, “We want to sew!” Two years later we were making handmade products that had global distribution in every Whole Foods Market globally. In a sense, by responding to the need the opportunity found us and we’ve been learning every year since how to be responsible and successful with that opportunity by growing the Ubuntu Made brand and product line.

Working in regions where life is raw and poverty pervasive takes a combination of grace and grit. Tell us more about the role of spirituality in your life and how that steered you down a path of social entrepreneurship? 

This whole journey has been a spiritual journey for me. When I first went to Africa I bought a one-way ticket because I was hungry to learn more about God, about myself and to discover what it felt like to help others with no particular end in mind. One of the books I read when in Africa for the first time was the Alchemist. In the book Paulo Coelho describes the main character in search of his “personal legend.” The idea is that we all have a personal legend to discover or as Joseph Campbell describes it as finding your bliss. That initial journey to Africa was essentially my first step in discovering my bliss.

When I hear people talking about social entrepreneurship I laugh because I never intended to become a social entrepreneur. The term didn’t even exist the first 5 to 7 years of my doing this work. It honestly just turned out that what I was passionate about doing - my bliss - was social enterprise. The reason I’m so passionate about it now is because it goes back to the basic principle that we all need something productive to do with our time, that gets us up each day so that we have a sense of accomplishment and are able to pay our bills and provide for our families. The old non-profit model of giving people things does not do this. Providing people jobs does. That is why Ubuntu is so committed to creating meaningful jobs that provide our communities with opportunities to live dignified lives.

The success of the Ubuntu brand depends on the talent and tradition of the artisans within the Maai Mahiu community. What is your relationship with these producers and what impact can customers expect to have when they purchase UBUNTU Made products?

I have known many of our makers for over a decade. I have spent time in many of their homes, sharing tea and conversation. I typically call them our “mums”, because in many ways they are the mothers of the Ubuntu family. We are very close and we have the utmost respect for one another and the unique roles we play for the company. An example of this was my last trip to Kenya this past June, Ubuntu was going through some major operational restructuring. This put many of our staff on edge, including the mums. Rather than having someone else tell them what’s going on, I had morning coffee with them in the Ubuntu Made factory. We sat with one another, I explained why the changes were being made and they were free to share their concerns openly. These are the kind of open, authentic relationships we are about at Ubuntu where we take time to connect, recognize our need for one another and that we are in this together.

The Ubuntu Made customers are directly connected to the other side of this relationship. When you purchase one of our products you are helping Ubuntu Made grow our makers to full time employment. This is extremely rare in the social enterprise space. Most social impact companies, like Ubuntu Made, purchase products piecemeal which means they will purchase goods from a wide range of artisans from all over the world. Those artisans typically only earn money when they are making product. At Ubuntu Made we are committed to giving our makers full time employment which means they receive employee benefits like health insurance and dependable income for them and their families. This type of employment is what we all seek so we can budget, apply for loans, protect us from unforeseen life disasters and plan for our families futures. This is the kind of impact our customers are helping create. 

There are complex social and environmental costs associated with a traditional supply chain. What do you see as the greatest impacts of the fashion industry to date and how is UBUNTU Made innovating on this system?

The supply chains social and environmental costs are extremely complex. I’ve actually thought that if I really wanted to ensure that I’m protecting the environment I wouldn’t make anything because every time you manufacture you are depleting the earths resources. This is a reality that I take seriously. Our Ubuntu Kenya and US teams recently read Yvon Chouinards, Let My People Go Surfing. It’s the story of Yvon’s founding the company Patagonia.  Throughout the book he shares the dilemma he and his team are constantly facing, how to manufacture responsibly and in a way that cares for the earth and its population.  I think Ubuntu Made is innovating on the fashion industry by learning from leaders like Chouinard and developing intentional relationships with our suppliers that are sourcing responsibly. We are most powerfully innovating socially through our commitment to providing meaningful, full time employment to our Ubuntu Made Makers which affords them the opportunity to plan for their lives, provide healthcare for themselves and their families and send all of their children to school.

Your compassion for the Maai Mahiu community and ethical entrepreneurship is palpable. How have the values you’ve built into your business influenced other aspects of your life?

One of the core values Ubuntu established early on is, “How we work is a reflection of how we live and how we live is a reflection of how we work.”  Our leadership team knew early on that when your five day - and often times seven day - work week is so purpose driven we cannot help but have it influence other aspects of our lives.  We also knew early on that the people in our personal lives would consciously or unconsciously influence our work.  As a result the weaving of personal and professional has become quite fluid over the past decade.

I think the main influence that the business has had is the realization of Ubuntu and it’s meaning in the world - that it’s all connected.  How I work, how I treat my team, how I relate to the finances of the company, how I rest or choose not to get enough rest. - all of this directly influences all other aspects of my life and how I end up treating my family, how I relate to finances in my personal life and how I am able to disconnect and enjoy life outside of work.  I recently realized a very simple truth, “You can only give others what you have given to yourself.” That is a gift I received when thinking about empowerment for our Ubuntu Made Makers and the opportunities we were creating around financial freedom in their lives. I realized that I had not given that power of financial freedom to myself.  As a result this past year has been an intense restructure on my personal finances so that I can begin to live out what I want us to give to our Ubuntu team and the communities we serve. Again - it’s all connected!