October 18, 2017
In 2015, I had a life-changing experience when I went to Kenya with WE Villages and saw firsthand how the charity transforms lives in the Masai Mara. That trip inspired me to form a partnership with WE, so employees at O2E Brands could have the same experience and become inspired to make social change at home. We sent our first delegation to Kenya this summer.
With WE Day launching today in Vancouver, I thought I’d check in with WE’s co-founder, entrepreneur and social activist Marc Kielburger. He has been working with his brother Craig on this mission for the last 20 years, giving young people tools to take action in their communities, while working to build self-sufficient communities around the world, including in Kenya, Ecuador, and India.
He shared his thoughts on being mentored by Nelson Mandela, advice he’d give his younger self, and how WE empowers kids to be leaders. Our interview is below.
The best piece of advice I’ve received is always to be aware and recognize that everyone has an innate potential to be a leader. Craig and I started WE when we were 12 and 17, respectively, and had no idea that it would turn into the global movement that it has today. We were brought up by two strong leaders, our parents, and they always believed in our leadership potential.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a young person, a millennial, or heading into the sunset of your career, everyone has the opportunity to find meaning in their world and become stewards for this in their work life and be a leader of change.
We changed the name of the organization in 2016 from Free The Children to WE because, over the course of two decades, we found we had evolved to encompass much more than our original mission. The concept of WE has always been a part of who we are and part of our culture, and we make it our mission to make doing good doable for everyone.
Changing the brand name helped to open more doors for us and reach more audiences. Previously, our core audience was young people, but now we are able to reach parents, families, companies and individuals who are able to see themselves more clearly within the WE movement. We make it easy to create positive social change.
For our staff, it’s had a huge effect on our people and the culture, unifying everyone under one brand, and making it easy for our staff to see how we all work together as one team, reaching towards the same goal.
WE started when my brother Craig was 12, and 11 of his friends raised their hands to say they wanted to learn more about child labour and take action. Back then, when we went to existing charities and asked if we could help, we faced a lot of roadblocks. So many people told us we couldn’t make a difference because we were just kids.
I was only 17 at the time, and those moments had a huge impact that changed the course of both our lives. Both Craig and I have learned so much and have had the opportunity to be mentored by some of the world’s best CEOs, leading humanitarians and Nobel Laureates. It’s spurred us on to this incredible journey of making doing good doable for other people and helping others find a way to take action on causes they care about – no matter their age.
Always innovate. I don’t know if WE would have grown into the global movement that it has today without innovative thinking and creativity.
Today, I’m proud to say that we have been able to lift one million people out of poverty through our development model, WE Villages and have empowered a generation of young people to be powerful leaders.
We have come to understand that it is not just important to engage in the charitable sector, but the business sector as well.
One of our mentors is Jeff Skoll. Jeff is a great friend and supporter of the organization, and he was keen to invest in something that creates social good. He asked us to find a solution to sustaining our charity so we wouldn’t always need to rely on donations. With that challenge, we created ME to WE, a social enterprise that donates half of its profits to WE Charity while the other half is reinvested to grow the business. Now, ME to WE is lauded for its culturally immersive travel, employs thousands of women in Kenya and Ecuador in its artisans’ program, and is active in over 14,000 stores around the world.
I stay positive during challenging times by remembering that through innovation, you are motivated. The idea of breaking the status quo is what gets me up and excited to work in the morning.
I think about the thousands of young people that we work with on a daily basis who have been empowered through WE Schools, how it’s changed their lives, and how they are changing the lives of others through a positive ripple effect. I think about the children who now have the opportunity to go to school when they didn’t before and the families that have been impacted by our international development programming.
All of this was done by changing the way people think about the power of youth, and by challenging the standard practices of international development to create a model that gives a hand up — not a hand out.
Many thanks to Marc for this inspiring interview!