Tererai Trent on Women as “Secret Weapons” for Changing the World

Aug 10, 2016 | Uncategorized

Growing up in Zimbabwe, Africa, Tererai did not have the opportunity to go to school. Undeterred, she still dreamed of an education and determinedly taught herself to read and write from her brother’s schoolbooks. Despite being married young and having three children by the time she was 18, she never lost sight of her dreams. She wrote down her dreams of going to America for higher education, sealed them in a tin can and buried them under a rock, ultimately redesigning the blueprint of her life. A two-time guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Tererai was named by Oprah as her “All-Time Favorite Guest.” She founded Tererai Trent International with the firm belief that education is the pathway out of poverty and a desire to give back to her community. And her mission is being realized: 11 schools are being built in Zimbabwe and education has been improved for more than 5,000 children so far. The Girl Who Buried Her Dreams in a Can, her latest book, was published in 2015.

We recently spoke with Tererai about her work, how she sees women leading the way and what she hopes you will take away from her keynote address at this year’s National Women’s Business Conference.


Q: Tell us a little bit about you.

My life was shaped by poverty, misogyny, back-breaking labor and the horrors of a raging war for the independence of my country, Zimbabwe. Watching my grandmother, mother and other women work in the fields, birth children and tell stories of hardships in a patriarchal and also colonized country, I realized that though these women were silenced, they were not broken. These women were the backbone of my community, and they had an innate and ancient wisdom. By age 18, I was a mother of three in an abusive relationship without a high school diploma. My mother and a chance encounter with Jo Luck of Heifer International encouraged me to write down my dreams. I wrote down five dreams for an education, sealed them in a tin can, and buried them under a rock, thus redesigning the blueprint of my life. Against all odds, I achieved my dreams.

Thanks to Oprah Winfrey’s remarkable donation, I founded Tererai Trent International (TTI) (aka Tinogona) in September 2012, an organization that provides universal access to quality education while empowering women and girls in rural communities in Zimbabwe. To date, the Foundation has made significant progress, and not only did TTI rebuild one of the largest rural schools in the region with 1,900 children, but also improved quality education for more than 5,000 children from 10 other schools in surrounding communities. In almost 58 years since the establishment of Matau School in the region, no child had attended university until TTI was on board in 2012. Now the Foundation has several students in different colleges and one attending one of the best universities in the country, University of Zimbabwe.

Q: What’s next for you and your organization, and how will you get there? 

While the primary concerns lie firmly within the educational sphere, my Foundation soon realized that social and economic issues, such as lack of employment opportunities and family income, malnutrition, lack of access to healthcare and culturally entrenched gender disparities will always threaten any progress made in improving schools unless these issues are tackled simultaneously. An education system that solely depends on external funding was not sustainable. Thus, TTI’s next step is to embark on a strategy that focuses on the development and growth of an improved education system supported by socially engaged business models that boost local economies while improving community livelihoods. It’s important to create employment and help to break the cycle of poverty among women.

Q: What are some areas today where you see women entrepreneurs leading the way?

Social businesses—mission-driven, led and focused on creating positive social change and real jobs that benefit many—as well as technology that solves real issues that have an impact on community. Women entrepreneurs are leading in these areas because women are natural leaders, intelligent, creative and socially conscious about creating wealth that has an impact on the social good. Women in business are leading in these areas because they see results that support a synergistic growth of a company and its communities.


Q: In what areas do you hope to see women leading the way next?

First, in creating business models where profit and impact live in harmony, and concurrently believing that such business models do not necessarily diminish revenues or profit and vice versa. I know many women who own businesses that are both profitable and purposeful, and have shown business models that perform well while positively impacting the social good.


Q: Why is a conference like this one for women entrepreneurs critical?

Women need platforms that inspire women business owners to be faithful to their dreams while providing a collective voice that translates into a formidable economic force that enables and impacts a thriving business environment for all—this is exactly what NAWBO conferences do.

Q: If women walk away from your presentation with one thing, what do you want it to be? 

Women are an untapped resource; we are our “secret weapons” for changing the world. Weaving my own life story with stories from businesswomen around the world, women will walk away with tools that inspire them to create, and to transform and invoke the sacred dream within. 


Q: How will you lead the way this year for your business and all women entrepreneurs? 

Just from my work with TTI, here are some areas I think are critical for my Foundation: Empowering emerging businesswomen, creating real jobs translating to equitable sharing of resources, closing the gender and employment opportunity gap and investing in and boosting solar energy to enable access to education in rural communities.


Q: Who is one woman from the past or present who inspires you when you think about leading the way, and why?

While there are too many women to mention, however, my mother stands out; she is a woman who gave me so much in life, my steadfast compass, always guiding me toward something greater than I was at the time.

You won’t want to miss Tererai and all the other amazing speakers who will be at the National Women’s Business Conference, September 18-20 (Annual Membership Meeting on the 18th and the Conference on the 19th-20th), in Columbus, Ohio.


View complete conference agenda here.

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