From Party Girl to Successful Advocate for African Girls

Chantelle Baxter may only be in her late twenties, but she is a force to be reckoned with. Just five years ago she was a self-described party girl deep into shopping and drinking. She was working as a web designer and knew a change was in order. She put herself on an intense self-development track by taking a host of courses and attending seminars. She launched her own web design company that turned $130,000 in its first year.

After a trip to Sierra Leone in West Africa to help build a primary school, her concern for women and girls led her to co-found a new non-profit organization called One Girl. Focused on helping girls in Sierra Leone attend school and empowering adult women to start their own businesses that meet important needs in their communities, it seems that every project Chantelle Baxter works on goes viral.

So how does a young woman go from self-absorbed party girl to life-changing social activist?

Read on and find out!

1.One of the blog posts on your personal website mentioned how back in 2007 you were basically a self-absorbed party girl. What was it that made you realize a change was in order?

It was actually through some personal development seminars that I came to realize how self-absorbed and in pain I really was – It’s difficult to describe, but the courses I did helped me ‘wake up’ – before then I was on autopilot, and I truly believed money was the only thing that was going to make me happy. I was very driven by making money and buying designer clothes in order to increase my self-esteem. My old boss was the first person who looked beyond the fake image I portrayed to the world, and offered to pay for my first personal development course. One of the courses asked me to create a community project. That concept made me very nervous - I had friends I got wasted with on the weekend, but had no idea what to do with THAT community.

It was just by chance that I was lying in bed one day, hungover, watching random video clips on YouTube. I came across a video about a place called Darfur, where women were being raped everyday, the government was killing it’s own people – and a light bulb went on. For the first time in my life I really wanted to do something for someone else.

2.What have been the most significant self-development courses or seminars that you would recommend to others? How did they impact you?

There have been two big game-changers for me. The first was through Landmark Education. I spent about 3 years doing heaps of their courses. Leadership courses, communication courses, community project courses. Plus I coached on programs as well. Landmark was the place where my organisation was born, and I know I couldn’t have done it without all the things I learnt in those programs.

Landmark taught me that anything is possible. I learnt how to speak in front of people (which has served me well over the last few years!), how to create projects from nothing, how to get people inspired and involved. They were really create and change my life dramatically.

I’m now currently participating in a Twelve Step fellowship program. I’m part of a group called Al-Anon which is for friends and family members of alcoholics. In the last few months I’ve recently been coming to terms with a very painful childhood and a dysfunctional family that I’ve been completely in denial about. Al-Anon has been my life-support for the last few months, and I’m slowly starting to heal and let go of my past for the first time in 28 years. It’s still early days yet, but both these programs have had a transformative impact on my life.

3.At the time you were also working for someone else as a web designer but then decided to launch your own very successful company. What went into making that decision and how did you find the courage to do it?

Actually, before I co-founded One Girl, I’d been working in my own business for about 6 months, plus freelancing for close to 2 years so I was used to ‘working for myself’.

But before I was a freelance web designer, I was in a fulltime job.
When I initially made the move from having a job to being my own boss – I was terrified. I always talked about having my own business one day, but wasn’t sure when I’d have the guts to do it. I decided that the first time my freelance income matched what I was getting at my job, I’d leave my job.

It was December 2007 that my freelance income matched my job income – a few days later I did my first personal development course too – so a combination of those two occurances gave me the courage to leave. I think I HAD to set myself a line in the sand though, and stick to it. At first it’s very hard, facing those fears and taking action anyway. But once you do the first BIG one, it becomes easier and easier.

My first business (the web design one), was a failure. We made a lot of money, but I hated doing the work – so when I found something that I was SO passionate about (One Girl), I left the web design business and created a charity instead. I was in a pretty bad place when I left the web design business though, I literally reached a point where I couldn’t continue living this double life and going against my passions. I broke up with my boyfriend, left my business and moved out of my apartment in less than 2 weeks.

It was completely terrifying, but I got through it. We always do.

4.Most of your work focuses on Sierra Leone – what turned you on to that country as opposed to the many others that need so much help?

My connection to Sierra Leone really began because I spent a month living in a community there, helping to build a primary school. I was living in a place called Kamakwie, we had no electricity, no running water and not much enjoyable food. I hated my time there for the first two weeks, but after falling in love with the kids there, I knew I wanted to come back.

Before we chose Sierra Leone, we did a research trip around East Africa through Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. We were planning initially to work there with some partner organisations.

But we headed across to West Africa again, and it was amazing to see the contrast between the developing countries. At that stage Sierra Leone was still at the bottom of the development index – and you could tell. There was just more ‘need’ there. They were still only a few years out of a devastating civil war, and we believed we could have more of an impact there.

5.Your first trip to Sierra Leone to help build a primary school clearly had a huge impact on you – can you describe your experiences there and how they affected you?

I was completely clueless when I arrived in Sierra Leone. I had this ‘white superhero’ visions of myself coming into Sierra Leone and single handedly transforming the country in the four weeks while I was there. I’d been heavily influenced by the western media’s portrayal of Africa, and completely unprepared for what I experienced.

I remember the first day we arrived at the orphanage in Kamakwie, and I expected to be greeted by sad looking children with flies on their faces. Instead I was swamped by 40 screaming girls and boys, singing songs, dancing, all wanting to hold me hand and tell me their names. There was so much JOY in this place, and was nothing like the helpless situations I’d imagined.

I struggled doing manual labour for the first 2 weeks, I wasn’t used to living with no electricity, no running water and I couldn’t stomach Sierra Leoneon food so I lived on bread and bananas. I had to learn how to get water using a well, and for those first two weeks I felt completely helpless and out of place. It was re-learning how to live without all my creature comforts.

By the time I left though, I’d fallen in love with the children and the country. I knew I’d come back – for the first time ever I felt like my heart was open.

When I got back home, I couldn’t go back to the way I was. I couldn’t spend $400 on a dress without thinking of all the children that $400 could send to school. I was very angry about the astoundly different living standards and how ungrateful we all seemed. I must have been a nightmare to be around the first 6 months I was back.

Finally I let go of the anger, and decided to channel it into something that would make a difference instead. Then One Girl was born!

6.When did the idea for One Girl first occur to you and how did it take shape?

Funnily enough, when Dave and I started One Girl, we had a different name and different mission. We wanted to do EVERYTHING! We had no clear focus and wanted to do scholarships and microfinance and leadership programs and whatever else we could get our hands on.
It wasn’t until we had an experience in Uganda with a young girl called Brenda that One Girl really began to take shape. Whilst Dave and I were watching a movie in our hostel, we heard a knock at our door.

This young girl walked in, she didn’t say a word, and she just handed us a piece of paper. On the piece of paper it said “I certify that this girl Brenda is an orphan, and she is looking for $40 to pay her school fees for this year”. It was signed and stamped by her school principal.

Dave and I decided to pay the $40 and send her on her way. After Brenda had left, we felt like we could’ve done more. Lucky for us, Brenda thought so too – and she came back to our room. We ended up getting to know her over two weeks, met her younger sister Sophia, helped her collect school supplies and then we began supporting her younger sister too.

And it all just seemed easy – just $40 would get her to school for a year, and give her a completely different future. So that’s where we decided to begin.

7.What was the learning curve like in establishing your own non-profit organization?

It has been an insanely steep learning curve. In fact, we couldn’t have done it without our very experienced Board of Directors who know much more than we do about setting up a charity.

That’s how we got started, we found an amazing woman called Julie Mundy who had set up 9 non-profits in the last 6 years, plus she was the former CEO of one of Australia’s biggest non-profits. Julie agreed to be the first person to come on our board of directors, and she has been very patient with both Dave and I over the last 3 years.
It’s been a tough road – we’ve made lots of mistakes and learnt many things the hard way, but I don’t think there is really any other way we could’ve done it!

8.Co-founding or co-directing an organization can often bring a whole set of challenges that are different from a “solo” operation. What has been your experience in this regard?

Ha! Co-founding and co-directing an organisation is VERY challenging. Dave and I were in a relationship for 2 of the 3 years we’ve been in operation, so that added an extra challenging element as well. Can you imagine breaking up with someone but then having to work with them everyday? Yep, it’s been rough.

Both Dave and I are very controlling – so in the past we had issues with boundary setting. We had no clear accountabilities so we were always trying to control what the other person was doing. Early last year, we set some clear accountabilities, and that reduced the conflict because each of us had final say over specific areas of the organisation. That made a big difference.

It’s also challenging because in most cases of co-founders, one person will get more attention and praise from outsiders than the other one will. That can be a cause of conflict too, as the person in the shadows can feel unappreciated. At the moment our PR person tries to ensure we both get the same level of media coverage so neither of us feels left out.

Communication really is key. Both Dave and I are constantly working on communicating with each other. We still argue quite a lot, and it usually gets worse when we’re both really stressed. We’re getting much better at recognizing those things though. We’ve been taught how to communicate using SBI (Situation, Behaviour, Impact) – and that means rather than blaming the other person, we talk about the impact on us. That works too.

At the end of the day, I’m very grateful to have a co-founder. Many of my friends that have done the non-profit thing solo find it VERY heavy. It’s a huge task, and I don’t think One Girl could exist without both Dave and I. It’s simply asks too much of a single person.

9.How do you define success in relation to One girl? How will you know if you’ve succeeded?

If you’d asked me six months ago, my answer would have been – “We will have succeeded when we raise $300,000 through Do It In A Dress and ensured all of our girls have their entire schooling paid for.”
But after what I’ve learnt over the last few months, success is so much broader than that.

This year, I’ll know if One Girl has succeeded by

a.How happy I am working for One Girl, and how inspired I am by the work we do
b.How engaged and excited our volunteers are to support this cause
c.How engaged and happy our scholars and staff are in Sierra Leone
d.The number of girls and women we’ve helped

I spent so much time last year stressing about meeting monetary targets, that I complete lost sight of the reason we we do the work we do. This year my success factors will be harder to measure, but for me, much more rewarding.

10. You’ve been very open on your blog about abuse you experienced as a young girl. How do you think that has affected the course of your life and how do you put it into perspective now?

Funnily enough, the things I’ve mentioned on my blog are just the tip of the iceberg. As I mentioned earlier, it’s only been in the last few months that I’ve really began to have a look at all of the situations I experienced as a child.

I reached a point where I HAD to look at them – My anxiety levels were through the roof, and not even a 2 week detox in Bali could shift them.

I believe that I started One Girl because I felt so helpless in my own life, and I couldn’t look after myself, so I found a way to look after others. It took the focus off me, and I didn’t have to deal with my own crap. But, crap has a way of catching up with us, so now is my time to work through it.

11.What advice do you have for other women who are haunted by similar demons from their past?

Firstly, I’d say that I’m sorry. I’m sorry that you had to experience those things, and that there was no one to help you at that time. We all experience things that are unjust, unfair and sometimes just downright horrific.

I can’t give advice as to what will work for you, I can only share what as worked for me. Recently I’ve found Twelve Step Fellowship programs (like Al-Anon), the most amazing thing. I sit in a room where it is completely safe for me to share my deepest darkest secrets. I’m never judged, I can simply share my experiences. And if I don’t feel like sharing, I’m free to just listen. And I hear so much of myself in other people’s stories. And don’t FORCE yourself to deal with things if you aren’t ready – I truly believe that everything happens as it’s meant too. You can dip your toe in the water, and if you get scared, then that’s okay. I’ve been on the run for my demons for years, when you’re ready to deal with them, you will.

Find help that works for you. Psychologists, twelve step programs, personal development courses, Hoffman processes, whatever will work. Find YOUR thing.

12.What made you want to start your own blog and what’s your experience been with blogging on a regular basis?

I wanted to start my own personal blog because I was inspired by people like Everett Bogue, Nina Yau and Tammy Strodel. I wanted to be like them.

When I went to the World Domination Summit, I met awesome bloggers like Dave Ursillo, Jacob Sokol and Dave Dean. They all had blogs, so I figured I could have one too!

I found blogging a good way to get my thoughts out, and I really enjoyed sharing lessons that I’d learnt.

Sometimes I start beating myself up because I haven’t posted in a while, but I’ve realised that it is my blog, I can post when I want!

13.Where did the idea for the Do It In a Dress campaign come from and how did you take from the idea stage to a successful fundraising campaign?

Do It In A Dress came out of my attendance at the World Domination Summit (WDS).

Every year, One Girl would run a lame fundraising campaign where we asked people to run the Melbourne Marathon and raise cash for us. It was SUCH a struggle. We always set big goals like raising $20,000 – but when it was all said and done we’d only ever make about $7,000. Most people just didn’t want to run!

I met Dave Dean, at WDS, and he mentioned he was running in the Melbourne Marathon. I asked if he’d run in a school dress to get some more attention. Initially he said no, but after a few beers he decided it was a great idea!

Dave posted his new challenge up on his facebook page – and all of a sudden all of his friends were issuing dares. Asking him if he’d shave his legs, wear knee high socks – and lots of people wanted to know where to donate.

I saw the interest, and thought, what if we expanded it out so you could do ANYTHING in a dress? So Do It In A Dress was born.
I met some guys in New York the next week who had a great and very affordable fundraising platform called Causevox. We used that platform and off we went!

14.Do you put your own web design skills to work for One Girl and the Do It In a Dress campaign? They all seem to share some common design themes.

Yep – my web design skills have certainly come in handy. Most charities (especially startups), have dodgy websites, horrible logos and they never portray the amazing work that they’re doing. My design skills have been SO useful because even when we were so small, only raising $14,000 in a year, we still looked slick. I think that’s helped us grow.

15. If you had to switch from women and girls to some other activist concern, what would be next on your list?

Ooooh, that’s a tricky one. I’d like to say the environment, and something to do with climate change, but to be honest I wouldn’t know where to start. I really think it’s the most pressing issue of our time, but I wouldn’t know what to do about it.

I absolutely LOVE animals, so I think I’d start some kind of rescue organisation for dogs like Hope for Paws. They do amazing work, tell great stories and recooperate so many beautiful neglected dogs. I love dogs, so that would probably be my next thing. Animal rights!

Thank You!

Check Chantelle's inspiring work: Changing the world, one sanitary pad at a time..

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Chantelle Baxter is an entrepreneur and social activist with a passion to change the world for women and girls. She is also the co-founder of One Girl and the inspiring Do it in a dress initiative. You can follow her on Twitter at @chantellebaxter

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