Clothing brand helps give survivors of sexual violence a path forward

1 year ago 53

When Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege won a share of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018, Milain Fayulu SM ’22 was filled with pride in his home country. He eagerly set an alarm from Miami to wake up in the early hours and watch Mukwege’s speech in Norway.

In the speech, Mukwege discussed his experience caring for tens of thousands of women who survived sexual violence during the civil wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mukwege, who established the nonprofit Panzi Foundation to care for survivors and help them take back their lives, has called for an end to sexual violence in war.

“When you listen to that speech, you just shake,” Fayulu says. “I thought, ‘Is it really possible to develop a country that has this environment for women?’ It turns out there’s a clear correlation between how much freedom women have, how educated they are, and the development of the country.”

That insight was followed by another revelation about Mukwege’s message.

“The speech has relatively few views on YouTube,” Fayulu says. “It seemed like he was trapped in an echo chamber of folks passionate about international relations and politics. The reality is change doesn’t happen until your message starts permeating through the masses. I came to the conclusion that he wasn’t reaching the right audience.”

To help bring Mukwege’s message to the masses, Fayulu founded the Congo Clothing Company. The company sells Congo-inspired jackets, pants, T-shirts, and other apparel to a global customer base and donates a portion of proceeds to the Panzi Foundation’s job training efforts. The company also supports a course that teaches survivors of sexual violence how to sew.

“Nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations typically seek support through a damage-centered approach,” Fayulu explains. “We flip it by offering this cool brand with designs you might like. All we’re saying is ‘look good, do good.’ Get something you think is cool. The donation, the altruistic part, is baked into you buying something you already like. We’re inviting you to join us from a place of culture and fashion.”

Congo Clothing Company’s merchandise is shipped with a booklet that tells Congo’s history grappling with war, educating customers in the hopes they become ambassadors for the company’s mission.

“When you get the jacket or shirt, you enter the ecosystem,” Fayulu says. “When you wear it around, say, Cambridge, people will stop you — we hear about it all the time — and you’ll have no option but to tell the story of the women in Congo and how your purchase has made an impact. That way the story — and the support — scales. We don’t need The New York Times to report on it, we just need Gen Zers and Millennials around the world to take ownership of the problem and do something to help these women get back on track.”

Building a brand at MIT

Although Fayulu was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he lived throughout Africa in his youth before finishing high school in Paris. He attended the University of Miami as an undergraduate, where he began his first forays into entrepreneurship, founding an online skincare brand for people of color and then a property-tech company.

After hearing Mukwege’s moving speech, Fayulu worked for a year to meet with the doctor, eventually tracking him down in Los Angeles in 2019.

He told Mukwege about the shift to conscious consumerism in Western markets and explained his idea to help take Mukwege’s message to a wider audience.

“People want brands that align with their values,” Fayulu says. “Congo Clothing Company was really born from this idea that if we can find a way to merge his work with the mass market, people with a voice in their community, people with followers on social media,  you could democratize his work and get it to scale.”

Fayulu came to MIT in 2020 to pursue a lifelong interest in political science while also leveraging the Institute’s entrepreneurship resources to get CCC off the ground.

First, he received a fellowship from the Legatum Center at MIT, which support social entrepreneurship. Then he took courses in D-Lab, received guidance from MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service, and frequented the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, through which he entered entrepreneurship programs including the MIT Fuse bootcamp, StartMIT, and the delta v summer accelerator.

Through it all, Fayulu refined his idea for Congo Clothing Company and advanced the brand.

“Education is important,” he says. “We think of ourselves as storytellers. We’re competing for attention. We’ve chosen fashion as our medium, and our ability to amplify the message rests in our ability to give people a compelling story that they can then internalize, own, and regurgitate. That’s how we spread the message.”

Congo Clothing Company’s logo is a zigzag in between two straight lines. Fayulu says it represents the merging of an ancient Congolese Kingdom known as Kuba (the zigzag) with a Western aesthetic (the straight lines). As the brand expands its product line, Fayulu has big dreams for the company.

If you walk down the street in Boston or Cambridge, you can count the number of Patagonia jackets you see,” Fayulu says. “We want people to see that zigzag and for it to become a recognizable logo. Africa doesn’t have many ubiquitous brands, but that’s what we want Congo Clothing Company to become. We want to become a part of people’s daily lives.”

Empowering survivors

The Panzi Hospital opened in 1999. It has since expanded to provide not only medical care but also psychological treatment, legal support, and job training. To date, it has helped more than 85,000 women.

Congo Clothing Company worked with Panzi to develop part of the job training curriculum to teach women how to sew. To date the company has funded more than 7,000 training days.

“If you don’t have anything when you get out of the hospital, you’ll never recover,” Fayulu says. “Once you complete the workshop, you have a skill and you can go back into society with a toolkit. Now survivors have a way to make a living, and survivors with kids can put them through school so that they’re not subject to being recruited by rebel groups. That way the violence decreases and you create a virtuous cycle in the communities.”

Eventually CCC wants to expand the partnership to have women manufacture and design parts of its clothing. In the meantime, with the help of Enrique Avina ’22 and current MIT undergraduate Rithvik Ganesh, CCC aims to deliver more impact digitally.

In that spirit, the company is developing an app it’s calling the ‘CCC Creator Studio’ to provide a faster, more direct stream of income for the women.

“Shipping garments is a heavy lift,” Fayulu says. “Shipping designs is easier.”

All of CCC’s initiatives are distinct from the aid-based support vulnerable communities typically receive.

“There’s this savior complex, the idea is we’re going to shower these people with money and food, and we’ll feel good about ourselves, and that’s it,” Fayulu says. “Everyone welcomes aid if they need it, but what really changes things is when you teach people new skills. When you talk to these women, they want something they can run independently so they can rely on themselves. These women are not helpless — these women are very resilient. They’re some of the most resilient people out there.”

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