Q & A with Apefa Adjivon, Founder of Pearl Project.

Apefa Adjivon was born on a refugee camp in Ghana. Growing up in a low-income community in Canada, and hailing from a family in which girls traditionally do not go to school, she became aware of issues girls face both in the western world and in developing countries. Having female education and empowerment as passions of hers, Apefa has led youth groups, advocated for girl’s rights and spoken at women’s empowerment conferences. On campus, she is studying International relations and women’s studies, focusing upon the effects of international development on women in small communities. Apefa is the founder of the Pearl Project, a center that runs after-school programming for girls in low-income communities and pairs them with mentors, career counselors, and opportunities for them to reach their goals.

Please introduce yourself.

Hello! My name is Apefa Adjivon, I’m 19 years old and attend the University of Toronto. I was raised in Calgary, Alberta, but my background is Sierra Leonean and Ghanaian.

What three adjectives would people use describe you?

Motivated, ambitious, and hardworking.

What is the challenge your venture seeks to address?

There is a gap in programming for girls in low-income areas that is career- and goal-focused. Many mentorship programs exist for girls, or career-focused mentorships for girls interested in areas like STEM. However, there is a lack of goal-oriented programs for all girls, no matter the field they may be interested in—programming that works to encourage and empower young girls, and help them to accomplish their goals. Youth from low-income communities, especially girls, are faced with negative influences and messages from their peers, and because low-income communities are often “racialized”, the majority of these girls also face negative treatment based upon stereotypes. There is also an absence of positive mentors and individuals focused upon helping students to reach their full potential.

Photo courtesy of Apefa Adjivon

Have you been personally affected by this issue? If so, how?

I moved to Canada with my family as a Sierra Leonean refugee at a young age, and growing up, experienced a life that no one else in my family ever had. Women in my mother’s family traditionally were not permitted to go to school because of their gender, and as such, did not have the same amount of opportunities or authority over their lives as I do. Taking trips back to my mother’s home, Sierra Leone, I saw that many girls my age lived a very different life in comparison to my own. However, I also saw many similarities to my upbringing in a low-income community — that girls were underestimated, had fewer opportunities, and were not being encouraged to have high aspirations in life (more often than not, their success was defined by that of their partner). I was told numerous times by members of my community that my goals were not only unattainable but unrealistic, and was discouraged from taking part in a lot of activities and opportunities growing up. Many of the girls I did grow up with did not go on to university or higher education, choosing to drop out or falling victim to negative influences as a result of their environment.

How is your venture addressing these challenges?

The Pearl Project remedies these issues by providing diverse, young successful women as mentors, and programming designed to empower young women and destroy the limiting messages and stereotypes that hold them back from truly doing their best and creating a change in their communities. We also provide girls with opportunities to volunteer in other organizations, in positions that pique their interest, no matter the field. The girls are free to try their hand at any career they find interesting in a positive, supportive environment, encouraging them to reject the negative messages they receive and be inspired to move within their communities, towards their goal, as well as inspire other young women in their community.

What does your venture hope to achieve?

We want to ensure that girls in low-income communities are equipped with the opportunities, skills, and connections to succeed and make a difference in their communities and the world.

Ultimately, we want to create a generation of motivated, resourceful and confident young women who are successful in their lives and creators and leaders in both the local and global community.

Photo by Tristan Oliff, courtesy of Apefa Adjivon

What inspired you to start your venture?

I was inspired to start my venture after moving to Toronto for university. I was on the subway and listened to a group of high-school girls talking about their school. They voiced many of the same struggles I had growing up — being in a negative environment, not having many opportunities or assistance, and a lack of motivation as a result of the two.

The Pearl Project is what I would have wanted growing up, and what I see that girls still need today.

What excites you about the Resolution Fellowship?

It’s so hard not to just say “everything”. But I think what excites me most is the network. The Social Venture Challenge was the first time I’ve ever been surrounded by so many other people my age working to make the world a better place — and doing an amazing job at it! I am so excited to be connected to a network of young leaders, mentors, and opportunities around the world. I feel like I have a well of people I can go to when I need advice, a pat on the back, or some motivation.

How will the Fellowship help you achieve your goals?

The Fellowship will help me achieve my goals by allowing me to receive guidance from professionals who have already achieved what I hope to in the future. It also gives me access to resources I can use to build up my own skills and experience to contribute towards achieving my goals.

What advice would you give other college students who are looking to start their first social venture?

I think my advice would be that you don’t have to have it all figured out when you start, and that not having it all figured out shouldn’t prevent you from starting! There is a lot to be learned along the way (I’m still learning) but the fact that you’re not an expert does not mean that you can’t do anything — or that you’re unequipped. No one knows your community and its needs in the same way you do, and if there’s something you want to change, you shouldn’t be afraid to change it. You can learn as you go, and things will fall into place along the way, I promise.

What do you love most about your home community?

I love Canada’s diversity. I have been lucky enough to grow up in a place full of very different people, in a country that embraces differences, and I truly think that it’s shaped my opinions, worldview, and me as a person.

What role do young leaders play in the world today?

Young Leaders are world-shapers. We are the next class of global decision makers, and we play the role of engaging and encouraging our peers and other young people from around the world to make a difference.

Why is it important for young people to focus on social impact?

The world we live in today is more connected than it has ever been. We know the occurrences in our neighbors’ lives, people we once had a class with years ago, and people from around the world. With that connectivity, we are more informed than ever about the issues people face not only in our own backyard, but the backyards of millions of people across the globe. It is important for young people to focus on social impact because more than ever — we can see what’s happening on the planet that we all share. Young people are the next generation of CEOs, leaders of government, and those finding breakthroughs in health, tech, and various other fields. Focusing the efforts of young people on social impact leads to a world that’s more socially sustainable, more equal, and a world actively working to solve the issues in everyone’s backyard, because ultimately, they’re our issues too.

What’s your favorite quote?

“So please ask yourself, what would I do If I weren’t afraid? And then go do it” — Sheryl Sandberg

What’s your favorite book and why?

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. I read it for the first time in middle school, and it was my first time ever reading something about where my heritage is from — Sierra Leone. When I was younger, it sparked a newfound interest in my own culture that stays with me today. When I got a little older, I discovered that Lawrence Hill is a famous black Canadian author, which brought the book even closer to home for me.

What are your goals for the future?

Personally, I would love to go to law school or get my masters (I’m aiming to do both!), give a TED talk, have my writing be published, and do more public speaking.

Professionally, I would love to have Pearl Project operating internationally. Girls are at a disadvantage all over the world, and while we currently work with girls in Canada, there are so many other issues we could tackle in other countries. We are looking for support from international institutions, NGOs, and organizations looking to help girls build the skills they need to be leaders.

Please join us in welcoming Apefa to the Resolution community!