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Empowering women and girls

Ruvimbo Chimutsa, MMIE’20

When Ruvimbo Chimutsa, MMIE’20, was 19 years old, she left her home in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, to come to Canada. She went to university, became a lawyer and settled into a law career in Winnipeg. But deep down, she wanted to give back to her homeland.

In 2016, she began to do exactly that. She founded The Grace & Nelly Project, a non-profit that aims to reduce poverty in Zimbabwe by empowering women and girls. Specifically, it provides menstrual pads to women in rural communities in Zimbabwe, where an estimated five per cent of girls drop out of school because they have inadequate supplies to manage menstruation.

Named for Ruvimbo’s grandmothers, The Grace & Nelly Project proved a worthy idea. But to build it, Ruvimbo wondered if she should develop her business skills. “We had reached the point where we knew we needed to do something to propel that growth,” she says. So, in 2019, she enrolled in a graduate program at Smith designed for entrepreneurial leaders like her: the Master of Management Innovation & Entrepreneurship (MMIE).

Today, she credits the 12-month program for giving her the business acumen and connections to move The Grace & Nelly Project forward with confidence. In particular, Ruvimbo appreciates the support of faculty, staff, fellow students and, of course, Smith alumni.

For example, Ruvimbo says Smith’s Centre for Entrepreneurship, Innovation & Social Impact provided expertise on running a social enterprise—a type of company founded with a social mission in mind, just like The Grace & Nelly Project. She also appreciates the help she received in 2021 when The Grace & Nelly Project was one of four winners of Smith’s Dare to Dream program.

Dare to Dream, led by Smith’s Centre for Entrepreneurship, Innovation & Social Impact, provides funding and additional support to graduate-led startups. A key element is a financial award from alumni and corporate donors. In the case of The Grace & Nelly Project, that donor was Valerie Mann, BCom’86.

Meanwhile, in the MMIE program, Ruvimbo immediately found the foundational skills she needed—from marketing and financial planning to innovation and design thinking. “The courses were absolutely fantastic for me,” she says. Equally, Ruvimbo appreciates the people she met in the program. When she needed a website, two classmates helped build it. Another pitched in with marketing expertise. And Smith professors helped strengthen her business plan and advised her on writing funding applications.

The MMIE program even got her to think creatively about her business. At first, Ruvimbo intended to build a factory in Zimbabwe to manufacture menstrual pads. But then a fellow student encouraged her to look at other options—such as having the women in the local community make the pads in their own homes. That’s the route she and her team plan to implement.

Ruvimbo set up The Grace & Nelly Project in the Zimbabwean community of Mukombami. It’s Ruvimbo’s ancestral home and where her grandparents lived and her father grew up. From the start, she knew she wanted to involve people in that community in her project. “It wasn’t about giving handouts but rather empowering,” she says. So she asked the women in the community what support they needed. Many wanted to start a business to become self-sufficient. So offering skills-based training became part of The Grace & Nelly Project’s plan, too. It offers women a business-101 basket of skills, including training on financial literacy, management and marketing.

From Winnipeg, where she still lives and works, Ruvimbo is in constant contact with community leaders in Mukombami and the local school where The Grace & Nelly Project distributes menstrual pads. “They are involved in all the decisions—the headmaster, the women in the community and the councillors,” she says. The Grace & Nelly Project distributes pads mainly through a primary school so that it can catch girls early. But Ruvimbo is also in touch with the local health clinic. She doesn’t want to miss any older girls or women who might already have dropped out of school.

She’s also thinking big. Her long-term goal is to distribute menstrual pads across Africa to underserved populations. She notes that some 500 million women around the world still have trouble accessing menstrual supplies. “We as a society can mobilize by just being open about it. Then we can address the situation better,” she says, adding that one of her wishes is to have a menstruation exhibit in the Canadian Museum For Human Rights in Winnipeg.

Thanks to Smith and the MMIE program, Ruvimbo feels she is better able to connect with both her community back home and supportive colleagues in Canada. “I can be literally thousands of miles away, but I can still do what I want to do back home. Being able to do that and having the right people on the ground, we can do the work we need to do.”

  November 2022

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