What Poverty, Earthquakes, and Haitian art have in common: Meet Christine Souffrant

 Christine Souffrant

Christine Souffrant

When a friend of mine told me about Christine Souffrant I immediately Google stalked her (who doesn’t Google stalk folks these days?), and discovered 1) she has great hair 2) she’s a second generation Haitian immigrant who’s traveled to 26 countries 3) she’s become a serial entrepreneur by the age of 25.

Christine stays busy, holding various titles including Managing Director of Startup Grind Dubai, a global startup platform of 35,000 entrepreneurs across 75 cities, Founder of 2 city wide initiatives with DP World- Smart City Weekend and A CSR Women Empowerment platform called She Dares Group, and CEO & Founder of Vended International, a social enterprise focused on global street vendors that is now a 2014 Poverty Alleviation Commitment to Action under the Clinton Global Initiative network (yes, an impressive mouthful).

I knew I had to chat with this girl. I discovered she was in Brazil, doing #bawse like things, so we organized a chat to connect, laugh, and share stories about her amazing journey. Cramped at my kitchen table in my (cute) Astoria, NY studio apartment, I had the pleasure of meeting Christine over Skype for the first time:

You were raised in both New York City and Port-Au-Prince Haiti. What was your early childhood like?

My grandmother and aunt raised me. My mother couldn’t afford to take care of me because it was very difficult for them to find jobs. She was inspired to start a small business after walking through Haiti and seeing Haitian artwork being sold in the street. She took a lot of items back to New York, laid it out on a blanket on the street in Columbus Circle in Manhattan, and that’s how it started.

By 1998 she opened a small shop in our local mall in Queens, NY and the rest is history. Entrepreneurship was a big part of my childhood. My grandmother used to cook and sell food from her home. My aunt was a street vendor who sold services and did hair in Haiti.

I helped my mom with her shop as I grew older, but getting an education was huge in my household to get my family out of poverty. I researched the hell out of everything I could about going to college because no one in my family had. I applied to 37 scholarships and 20+ colleges and ended up receiving seven grants and the Bill Gates Millennium scholarship which totaled $300,000 worth of funding for school. I got into Dartmouth, and wanted to get away so I decided to go there.

I can understand you wanting to get away from the stresses of seeing your family struggle to stay afloat.

Yeah, Dartmouth was very different from anything I’d experienced so I went for it. During the middle of the academic year in 2010, the earthquake happened in Haiti. It took a quarter of a million lives and impacted everyone, especially my mother’s business.

Remember, my mom’s business was based on importing street work from Haiti, so a) we couldn’t get into the country b) we couldn’t get art out and c) a recession hit and people didn’t have the funds to buy art - so my mom lost the business. On top of that, my dad was sick and couldn’t work anymore. I worked a total of 11 jobs during my four years at Dartmouth to help support my family. It wasn’t enough to deal with the living conditions for New York City, so my family had to go back to Haiti.

Wow, that’s a LOT to balance.

Yeah, honestly, I was close to suicide. I was at my limit. Hustling working double jobs while going to school, and running different organizations. I was stressed about if I would call home and no one would pick up. Living in Haiti was dangerous at that time.

How did things turn around for you?

In 2011, I was invited to share my story on a Women of Dartmouth panel, which selects 6 phenomenal women on campus. No one knew what I was going through. I was life of the party. I was on leadership boards. I had traveled to 22 countries through various school programs (and studying abroad) by that time.  I didn’t want anyone to see that image. At first I said no, but at the last minute I accepted the invitation.

When you retell your story you have a chance to reflect, which turned things around for me. People in the audience were in tears, and it really helped people going through similar issues.

That’s incredible. Sharing personal shit can be tough because we’re expected to have not show weakness through adversity, especially as women of color.

Yesss, that is true.

So how did your career start once you left Dartmouth?

I got into retail banking and started working at M&T Bank. I moved up fast and was promoted 3 times from Relationship Manager, to Assistant Branch Manager, and finally Commercial Relationship Manager. It was a guaranteed way to support my family but I wasn’t happy. Around the spring of 2013, I realized my vision boards about my life were about street vendors, and I wanted to do something to break out of the typical corporate path. I decided to apply to Hult University to study social entrepreneurship. They had a campus location in Dubai.  They have something called the Hult Prize, which is the biggest Million-dollar seed accelerator in the world for social issues. I’m really big with following my gut, and my gut was pushing me towards Dubai.

In the past 6-9 months, not only did I launch three different enterprises, I also launched Vended International.

That’s amazing. So seeing resilient strong women was your inspiration for focusing on street vendors and launching Vended International?

When I was studying at Hult I realized there's 2 billion street vendors (mostly women) globally contributing to a 10 trillion dollar economy, but these people live in extreme poverty. If we don't alleviate this mass poverty, we're going to have global civil war and unrest for the next couple of decades to the detriment of humanity. I know that sounds really gloomy and crazy and what not, but from traveling, I'm realizing that it's obvious.

Right now it's kind of like a hand out culture that we have [to address this issue] - a system of Non - Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and charities. Don't get me wrong, we still do need some of them to exist, but I realized poverty doesn't erase talent. Like I told you about that street vendor my mom started back with in Haiti, even though he was poor, he was talented. When she marketed his goods in New York City, it changed everything for him in terms of his income streams. If we give other street vendors the platform to do this, we won't even need the same charities we've had in the past because those individuals will alleviate themselves out of poverty with their talents.

Word. I think the most successful entrepreneurs have a personal driving purpose for their ideas, outside of the money. Being successful, getting accolades, and even making enough money to have some champagne every once in a while is nice, but it’s not enough to push you through hard times, and it looks like you’ve found that personal drive.

Definitely

You have your hats in a trillion places and you're in different time zones every other week. Before you were on the brink of suicide when you became overloaded. How are you managing being involved in so many things this time around?

I work hard and I play hard. I'm here in Brazil during the World Cup for example, and I'm having a great time partying and going to beaches, but I spend probably 14 hours a day on the computer doing research and getting this information off the ground. I get up at 5:00am don't get to sleep around 11:20pm or so. I have a passion for this. It's something that's driving me beyond the income, so I can do it. But again, you gotta be able to work hard and play hard at the same time because I'm a human being at the end of the day.

Ha, yeah, we're not all Beyoncé. We're not all robots. How do you finance everything? Are you seeking funding or is it all self financed at this point?

I've been getting a lot of scholarships, grants, fellowship support, and donations to get me by. I sent out emails within my network and in two weeks I got $7,000 in funding for a project I’m working on in Brazil. I am Google’s best friend. I research the hell out of things in advance, and then research the funding opportunity to get me there. There's capital all around the world, it's how you find it.

I was actually talking to a friend the other day, about the concept of having a safety net while you’re building something. A lot of people do not have that. You're pretty much looking up every single resource possible, hustling to make sure that it happens. I think that's so much more impressive to be able to do that.

Exactly. You gotta do what you gotta do.

As an entrepreneur, what has been your funniest moment while building these awesome organizations?

Ha! Well, sometimes when I'm soliciting partners or companies or funders, I contact them via email or Skype...and we have all these formalities via email. They're gung-ho and love the idea, and when I finally set up a meeting to meet them their [reaction] is kind of like - "You?? You're just a...you look like a kid!" Those reactions, those faces, they definitely keep me grounded to continue doing something different and to keep on my momentum. It seriously is hilarious, I should start taking pictures of it.

They're like wait a minute, this girl with these Havana twists...who IS she?? This is not who we were expecting. Laughter is a good way to look at that reaction from people, because most people in your position would get mad.

So burning question of the hour that I love to ask folks - do you believe in the idea of purpose and passion within a career? Should purpose and passion be something pursued outside of work and paying your bills?

So many people focus 99% of their time on their realistic parallel, and 1% on their spiritual parallel, and I think people should find a balance

Ooo I love this question! At the end of the day, I feel like we live in two parallels. The first parallel is survivor mode - what society expects for you in terms of career and income, and you have to operate in that vein. Which is why we go to school, get our degrees, and get jobs the way we do. That's the only way we can operate and be accepted within society. The second parallel is the spiritual one - your passions and pursuits and what you really want to do in the world.

So many people focus 99% of their time on their realistic parallel, and 1% on their spiritual parallel, and I think people should find a balance. Cause I can say what I want, but in order for me to have gotten to the point of pursuing my passions today, I spent the past 25 years, going to school, getting the education degrees, and working in corporate America, so I can be able to compare and contrast and say ok, this is not what I want, this is what I want. I just think it needs to be a balance.

That's the best use of math I've seen in a while. I was reading this book called the $100 Start Up by Chris Guillebeau, and it's all about commercializing your passions. The author in the book is straight up like, you can love knitting sweaters all day long, but if no one wants to buy that damn sweater you're not gonna be able to live. You have to find a middle ground by fulfilling a market need with something that you're talented at and are interested in.

Haha exactly!

What other advice would you give to people, who are taking their own path, or starting their own business, especially young people or women of color?

I've noticed that people say they can't do something because they didn't have experience, or didn't get educated in it. A lot of things I did this past year, I've done them for the first time just by trying it out, and repeated the process over and over and got better at it. Why wait for a company or organization to give you experience when you can do it yourself? I think the biggest thing that people need to understand is that experience is based on your choice to make the first step.

I wish people could be bolder. I think there's so many capabilities out there that just die because people just don't take the initiative to be bold. People make excuses for themselves, their circumstances, and their upbringing, whatever. You can't choose the circumstances you were born into, but you CAN choose the circumstances that you live in. It's all a matter of how you leverage what's around you and your intellectual capabilities. I've seen crazy success stories, from people who had nothing AND from people who have privilege. Whether you are coming from a point of privilege or pain, there's ways to make it in the world.

Proven models of success are broken all the time. We see that consistently, everyday. These new crazy success stories. And who knows, maybe you might be the next paradigm shift for the world to see.