Real Leaders

Wear the Change You Want to See


  • Using a simple string of beads made and sold through a uniquely sustainable business model, Cape Town-based Relate makes “cause” bracelets that create opportunities that change lives.
  • The organization has raised more than $1.2 million for causes and social upliftment.
  • The bracelets are made by the elderly, refugees and unemployed township youth, allowing them to earn an income and gain on-the-job training.
  • Formed in 2004 by Lauren Gillis to help reduce poverty, she explains the wider thinking behind her social impact.

A strong commitment to humanity and social justice was instilled in me from an early age. After studying social work at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, my 30-year career evolved into forming businesses and philanthropic organizations committed to supporting individuals reach their greatest potential. It’s amazing how something as small as a bead can do something so big.

I believe that we are all connected, and that each of us has the responsibility and privilege to be an agent of social change. I am passionate that a small handmade connector, a simple string of beads, has the remarkable power to restore dignity, hope and resilience to humanity.

I want to share a story, a process, a model, a philosophy, and a tool that I am unbelievably excited to be involved with. It’s a story that is practical but has abstract implications. It’s a story that starts with a small bead and ends with impact across a continent. It’s a story about the power of connectivity and how creativity can find elegant solutions to lessen the divide between the haves and the have nots. It’s a story that deals with donor fatigue and the negative energy associated with NGOs begging for survival. It addresses corporate and NGO needs in a manner that benefits both. It’s a story about sustainability, leadership and bringing people together.

I was originally inspired by Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong rubber band that clearly showed us that humanity has a desire to be connected. I thought how cool it would have been if that machine-made band had rather been handmade, and how many lives could have benefited from it. I thought how awesome it would be if there was a beaded string that could connect people to a cause or a brand – and ultimately to each other. This might be an idea that went beyond job creation.

Let me take you through the life of one of our handmade beaded bracelets.

The United Against Malaria Bracelet is not made in a factory. It’s made in communities where it uplifts, up-skills and offers dignity and hope. A string of beads that bridges the gap between food on the table for pensioners and orphaned grandchildren, and also addresses bigger issues on the African continent.

Packs of beads and elastic are sent to senior clubs in the townships where the elderly thread the beads. Many are old and frail and taking care of orphaned children and grandchildren, sometimes from the consequence of HIV. These amazing people have taught me about the meaning of productivity at any age and the true meaning of the South African phrase Ubuntu. Ubuntu can be translated as “humanity to others.” Everything they earn, however little, is shared between family, neighbors and friends.

These seniors have been given a focus and purpose and they sing as they work in the knowledge that their hard work will result in the protection of moms and children from the deadly disease of malaria. Their dementia and arthritis improves and many health and social benefits have also been noted. They don’t want a handout. They are proud to have an opportunity to work, to earn and have a sense of purpose.

The beaded balls are then sent to younger groups in the townships, who complete the bracelets. These are predominantly single mothers who have a very low level of education, many of whom are illiterate. There is little chance of them ever getting a job.

Because we believe that the ability to communicate is a basic requirement for employment, we have made it compulsory that part of their earnings goes towards English classes. They are then assessed for potential new areas of interest and ability. Some are now learning how to use a computer, learning to drive, or doing different technician or trade courses. Every part of what we do is built into the cost of the bracelet.


The packers, who are refugees from war-torn African countries are up-skilled in the same way. One packer, who is passionate about soccer, has funded soccer coaching courses, and another is working toward becoming a truck driver.

The beads are all mixed up when they come back from the townships, and we then give them to the mentally challenged, who are paid to sort them into different colors.

So what happens to our bracelets then? They are sold to corporates and retailers.

More than a third of the cost is donated to the Global Fund, who in turn supply us with mosquito nets that the amazing humanitarian explorer Kingsley Holgate distributes throughout Africa to mothers and children below the age of five.

Malaria still kills a child every 60 seconds. In the past we have raised $500,000 to buy nets – A great example of where Africa is not asking the rest of the world for a handout. A simple hand-made bracelet was the catalyst that enabled us to take care of our own continent. The proceeds from one bracelet can protect a child for up to five years.

Our business model creates an opportunity for corporates to combine CSR with marketing and brand building too. Let me give you an example.

Hyundai Germany identified the need for a new school hall at an impoverished townships school and saw our bracelets as a great way to fundraise. They placed an order for branded Hyundai bracelets which they sold through their dealerships. In addition to the $0.50 that Relate paid per bracelet to a non-profit cause, Hyundai raised a further $2 from the sale of each bracelet. In under a year $50,000 was raised for the building of the school hall and more than $11,000 had been invested in skills development programs. Not forgetting, of course, how many people were now wearing cool and fashionable Hyundai bracelets.

I hope my story will serve as a reminder of the power of connectivity; that something small can have a big impact and that we all have the potential to become agents of social change.

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