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Conversations with the Inspiring Lauren Exton

Today we’d like to introduce you to Lauren Exton.

Lauren, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
By trade, I’m a primetime TV and Radio News Producer, but I gave that up – along with the stress and lack of fulfilment – back in 2015. That’s when I took my first service trip to Uganda… and then another one six months later. On these trips, it became clear to me that ‘foreign aid’, as we know it, isn’t the answer to ending poverty.

The giving of aid without systematic change doesn’t work. In fact, sometimes it does more harm than good to the local industry. Alternatives such as partnerships with programs, communities, and individuals that can provide that systematic change through an integrative and interactive approach are proven to have enduring effects. I wanted to be part of that solution.

By the beginning of 2017, I was ready to partner with a tiny Ugandan-led organization called Busubi Empowered Communities. I believed in their mission and wanted to help them empower their community. I also wanted to offer every day Americans & Australians the insight and personal growth that I had experienced on my first two trips. I wanted our volunteers to understand they can be part of the solution – no matter where they grew up, or how much money they have or their level of education.

And, so I began. I set the dates for our first nine day trip and put a shout out on social media for volunteers. I did a couple of television and radio interviews about my vision and, before I knew it, eight volunteers and I were on our first of 12 weekly video conferences, and in November, 2017, we touched down in Uganda. We’d raised enough money to construct the Community & Learning Centre where Busubi Empowered Communities (BEC) facilitates FREE skills-based training. Our second and third trips, both in 2018, raised money to provide furniture, teaching resources, 12 computers, a 30,000L water tank, an agricultural tools loan scheme, a projector and 1300 watts of solar power!

This July, I am taking our fourth team of volunteers to the village! That’s right! Four trips in just over 18 months. I couldn’t be more proud to know each and every one of our volunteers, not to mention the men and women of Busubi who have worked together to make their Community & Learning Centre a powerful source of knowledge, community spirit and change!

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
What’s that quote? Nothing worthwhile is ever easy! Haha – ain’t that the truth! Leading teams of volunteers into rural Africa, teaching them how to use latrines & mosquito nets… and before all that, spending 12 weeks supporting them in their fundraising, guiding them on the workshops they’ll lead at the Centre, preparing them for what to expect, reminding them to get their vaccinations, travel insurance, visas? That’s not too hard! I absolutely adore and admire each and every one of our volunteers. They are, what I like to call, ‘lighthouses within their community’ – guiding everyone towards making real change.

Having a partner organization in an opposite time zone? Yeah, those 5 am calls are challenging… but SO WORTH IT! As not-for-profits, we have a lot of expectations on our foreign partners – reporting, scheduling, budgeting and bookkeeping and, as you can imagine, most rural Ugandans don’t have a huge amount of experience with spreadsheets! So, you can often find me wearing my ‘business coach’ hat on those early morning calls so we can stay transparent and accountable to our donors.

In the beginning, trusting and believing in myself and my abilities is, to be honest, probably the biggest challenge I faced – and I know that is true for so many women, young and old.  In the words of the late Steve Jobs, my advice to anyone who has any kind of dream is,: “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things! They push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, I SEE GENIUS, because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do!”

Also:
If not you, then who?

And straight outta my mouth:
I believe in you SOOO HARD – and we’ve never even met!

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into Followings Foundation story. Tell us more about it.
Every six months, Followings Foundation takes a team of 8-10 volunteers to spend nine days living in rural Uganda contributing to the project we are currently involved in. Right now, we are building, resourcing and staffing a Community Learning Centre.

Each volunteer raises USD$5000 which goes directly to Busubi Empowered Communities (BEC). A small portion of the funds raised covers volunteer’s flights, transport, food, and accommodation. Our model is structured this way because I want this opportunity to be open to everyone – regardless of their socio-economic status.

We truly believe in the personal development and growth of our volunteers. We’re also proud of the effect our volunteers have on their own community as they step out of their comfort zone to set big goals, host fundraising events & stand up for changes in the way the world ‘supports’ developing nations.

We are NOT an NGO that profits off the poverty of others. In fact, Followings doesn’t have any paid staff members.

What we are is a not-for-profit organization that funds & supports projects in rural Uganda that are run by Ugandans (who are paid). We strongly believe that only Africans can save Africa and are determined to never create a culture of dependency by giving endlessly and aimlessly. Both Followings & BEC have a joint goal of moving the Centre into self-sustainability by 2021. We aim to do this through continued skills-based training, leadership programs and well-researched investments into adjacent projects designed to create a source of jobs & income for the community. We’re well on the way – a few days ago we received notice that the Centre has been accredited by the Ugandan Ministry of Education!

Of course, none of this would be possible without Followings Foundation’s incredible volunteers but when Busubi is thriving and the locals are brimming with self-belief, improved business-skills, flexible employment opportunities and they KNOW that they LED this transformation and that Followings was just the support team – that is when I will feel MOST proud of our humble work.

What do you feel are the biggest barriers today to female leadership, in your industry or generally?
There are so many, but one area often overlooked is the beautification of women – the societal narrative that unless women are immaculately put together to an almost impossible standard, they are ineffective. The daily hours of energy, thoughts & worry women spend on their appearance is not only a waste of their valuable time, but it often comes from tying self-worth to the wrong virtues, and that’s a dangerous waste of emotional energy.

Just imagine if women spent the same amount of time and thoughts on their appearance as men did.
I understand there are women who want to look fabulous every day – there’s no need to change that, but we all need to agree:

*The way we look doesn’t affect our intelligence or ability to get things done.*

Once we can all openly agree and the societal pressure is removed, women will consistently be offered opportunities based on their ability and not their appearance. Women might even feel free to recover some of the time spent doing hair & makeup in the mirror, shaving our legs and fake-tanning in the shower and sitting in the chair at the nail or hair salon.

Even more importantly, we could recover the energy spent on the daily worry about our outfit or makeup choice, the negative self-talk and the exhausting thought patterns perpetuated by the narrative that we must look perfect to be effective.

That’s more time and energy for thinking of new ideas, acting on them, reflecting on our achievements, laughing with our friends & family and all the other things we know are important to creating a balanced life, a vital part of being an extraordinary leader.

Yep, this is my reminder to all the men and women reading this: Women are most beautiful when our creative minds can run free and aren’t trapped by thoughts of what to wear to that meeting or panic that we forgot to pluck our eyebrows!

Obviously, our appearance is also tied to multiple other barriers to women’s leadership, including the culture of workplace sexual harassment, but I am inspired daily by women & men who are breaking down barriers like this, and the many other barriers we face, perhaps more quickly and more effectively than we’ve ever seen.

Pricing:

  • To volunteer with us, you are required to raise AUD$6500 (approx USD$5000) with our support.
  • Your flights, accommodation & food are all covered by Followings Foundation.

Contact Info:

Getting in touch: VoyagePhoenix is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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