“We have beautiful memories of our time in Kenya - reading to the kids by torchlight at night before bed; long dusty walks into the nearby village for our weekly shopping; slow, hot evenings drinking tea and reading books. We also got legally married at the Nairobi town hall and after a cheap red wine in town to celebrate, we arrived home to a lovely surprise party from all the kids” – Bondi mama Kaitlin Tait is recalling the time she and her now-husband Aaron moved to Kenya to help build an orphanage...
It was later, when they were living in Tanzania and running a secondary school for street kids alongside a small local team of teachers, that they realised that change in a community needs to be driven by the locals. “It was this realisation that lead us to start Spark International (now YGAP) – an organisation that was set up to find local leaders with great ideas for their communities and provide the funding and support they needed to put those ideas into action,” she says. Smart, beautiful and determined, Tait is a force to be reckoned with. She’s on a mission to create a world where we can Google ‘CEO’ and women are represented as equally as men. She’s a passionate feminist and she’s changing the world for women. “I want women to feel confident venturing into entrepreneurship and leadership knowing they don’t need to emulate the men they see around them and instead can use their ‘feminine’ strengths to their advantage. I want female founders to have the tailored support they need that addresses the unique challenges they face today, both in running their businesses and at home.” Tait now focuses her time on YHER – the business’s female-focused accelerator program, which is run specifically for female-founded social ventures that support women and girls. “We exist to build the pipeline of investable female-led social businesses, raise the profile of these women helping to create new role models for future generations, and most importantly to improve the lives of women and girls living in poverty. We currently run YHER in Bangladesh, and across Africa and the Pacific.” She’s achieved more than most people will achieve in a lifetime and changed countless lives of those living in poverty (over 402,999 to be exact) and she’s only just getting started. Has motherhood changed the way she approaches her career? “It has definitely made me re-think where my energies are best focused and how I can continue to craft a career that brings me purpose while also allowing me the flexibility and freedom to spend quality time with family and travel often,” she says. “It has brought an enriching new dimension to life and a new kind of challenge that I was eager for. Like many people, and particularly entrepreneurs, I’ve suffered from anxiety and motherhood has really grounded me and put things in perspective,” she says. This Mother’s Day will be Tait’s first and after a difficult journey to motherhood (she went through two challenging rounds of IVF to conceive her son), she’s not taking a minute of her new role as a mother to Finn for granted. “I hope he learns to be comfortable with his own vulnerability and doesn’t see it as a sign of weakness but as one of strength. I hope he grows up to truly believe that men and women are equally capable of succeeding in whatever captures their heart – be it business, raising children, engineering, technology, sport, dance, or anything else they might set their mind to,” she says. Read on to find out more about the fantastic work Tait and her husband Aaron are doing, her advice to entrepreneurs and why with women like this leading the charge, the future really is female. Photography: Julie Adams | Hair and makeup: Sarina Zoe | Videographer: Sam Hastwell | Editor: Georgie Abay | Go to www.sparkinternational.org | In association with Sportscraft
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Can you tell us about your journey to motherhood – the ups and downs?
When we turned 30, after five years of marriage, we decided we were ready to start thinking about babies. After years of being careful, we naively thought falling pregnant would be easy. Two years later, we saw a fertility specialist and after a few months of tests and uncertainty, and mentally preparing ourselves for the possibility that we may not be able to have children together, we were ecstatic to hear that with the help of IVF, it was likely that we’d conceive, that our children would be half me, and half my husband. After years of trying and having to consider donors and adoption, IVF gave us a clear path forward – we couldn’t wait to get started. After a month of medications, scans, and surgery, we were delighted to have five embryos fertilise but by day five we only had two viable. We were unsuccessful the first round and despite mentally preparing myself for things not to work straight away, that first negative blood test was devastating. We were incredibly lucky to have our second and last embryo implant and even before the positive blood test – I intuitively knew I was pregnant but it took months before it really sunk in. I had a relatively straightforward pregnancy with a bit of morning sickness early on and the usual aches and pains but the struggle to fall pregnant ended up being a blessing in disguise – I was so grateful to be pregnant that the frustrations paled in comparison to the thought that we might not be able to have children – I loved being pregnant and carrying our child. The labour, on the other hand, was a 58-hour marathon that completely floored me. The hardest thing I have ever done. But I as difficult as it was, I found it incredibly empowering and motherhood, in general, has grounded me and given me a new confidence in my own strength and ability. I think the early fertility challenges continue to put the challenges of early parenthood in perspective as well. Parenting is HARD, but we are so grateful to be on this journey.
What was the first month of motherhood like for you?
Finn was born in Sydney and the day we went into labour, we were also packing up our apartment for three months of wandering starting at home with some dedicated grandparent time in an Airbnb in Bondi. Over the next two months, we bounced from country Victoria to Melbourne, to Byron, to the US, Mexico and Cuba. Before his arrival, we had many people tell us we’d have to slow down – that the travel would stop when we had kids – and we really hoped that wouldn’t be the case. We are both lucky enough to have the flexibility to work remotely, so we decided to take advantage of the special time in the early months of Finn’s life. We started documenting our travels and reflections on www.casa-nomad.com in an attempt to give other people the confidence to continue to live a life of adventure and freedom with kids and share what we learn along the way. The variety of those first few months kept things interesting for me while I took time off work and protected me against the monotony that I know a lot of new mums can feel in those early days. I definitely worried I wasn’t giving him the stability and routine he needed but he seemed to take it all in stride and delighted in the few constants in his life – his mum and dad, his travel cot, and his little-winged sleep suit.
What feminist learnings will you pass onto your son?
I hope I can teach him to see beyond the expectations our society has for men and women. That he learns to see himself and the men and women in his life as wonderfully complex human beings – equally capable of experiencing and openly expressing the full range of emotions. I hope that he is inspired by the many good men in his life, follows their lead in treating women with respect, and has the confidence to speak up when others don’t. I hope that his father and I can provide an example of what an equal and loving partnership looks like and that he learns to cook as well as his dad… I’m hopeless!
SHOP: Kaitlin wears Sportscraft Cherry Knit, $179.99
How do you personally want to change the world for women?
I want female founders to have the tailored support they need that addresses the unique challenges they face today, both in running their businesses and at home. Of 131 corporate accelerator programs around the world designed to help support and scale startups, 87% are run by men. Female-led ventures receive only 3-5% of venture capital and less than 5% of venture capital firms are run by women. Hopefully, through the work we do at YGAP, these numbers will start to change, the founders we support will be responsible for balancing the scales for women around the world, and the next generation of young women will have many more successful female founders to aspire to than I did.
What advice would you give to a woman about to have her first child?
As someone told my husband when we were nearing Finn’s birth – get ready to meet the love of your life. I think I’d also pass on the advice my mother gave to me which was to trust your instincts. It’s great to read and learn (I’m sure as new mothers we are all glued to Google!) but at the end of the day just let go and do what feels right for you and your little one.
Any words on trying to juggle parenthood, a relationship and a career?
I’m very much still trying to work this out! It certainly is a juggle and having just recently gone back to work part-time, I am learning that I will have good days and bad. Some days I’ll feel excellent because the stars aligned (aka nap times!) and I am able to get huge amounts of work done while also spending quality time with Finn and my husband. Other days at least one of these will suffer (sometimes all of them are off!) but you go to bed knowing that tomorrow is another day.
What’s the best piece of advice you have received about motherhood?
To take time out to just look at them. I’m aware it will all go so fast and that reminder has been really powerful for me. To stop worrying about what needs to get done and really take in each stage, all the little moments. For example when I’m rocking Finn to sleep (we’re still working on the whole self-settling thing!), he slowly drifts off and I often just hold him there for a little while longer, his little cheek next to mine, trying to drink that moment up and bank it in my memory for the day he won’t be so deliciously cuddly.
What do you love most about raising your son in Sydney?
Mornings and evenings at the beach, the beautiful community of mothers I’ve met, the amazing weather, the village lifestyle we have in Bondi – I rarely need to get in the car if I don’t want to. And I love that the ocean and outdoors will be a major part of his life.
How would you describe your personal style?
It’s evolved over the years but I tend to keep things pretty simple – I love neutral colours and good quality items that go with everything – like an amazing leather jacket or a great pair of jeans. That said, I also find myself drawn lately to more colour and empire waisted or wrap dresses that work well through pregnancy, breastfeeding and beyond.
What about your wellness routine?
I do a lot of yoga and love my morning beach walks with my husband. I’ve trained in Vedic meditation which has massively helped me through bouts of anxiety and our fertility journey but I have to admit, I haven’t been as diligent about it these days… apart from that, I try to eat healthily and get outside as much as possible. The ocean does wonders for me.
You spent two years as a humanitarian worker in East Africa – what are some vivid memories from that time?
My husband Aaron and I spent just under two years between Kenya and Tanzania. In Kenya, we worked with an orphanage that was being run by a Kenyan man who was orphaned himself. It was a small operation when we arrived, accommodating around 12 kids and a handful of volunteers. During our time there, we fundraised and helped to double the size of the orphanage – building new dormitories, a learning centre, and a biogas plant to provide clean cooking gas to cook the food. We also set up a micro-finance program for the older women in the village and ran a sanitary pad program for the young women. In Tanzania, we were running a secondary school for street kids alongside a small local team of teachers. We arrived, naive young white kids thinking we could make a difference. We left a year and five bouts of malaria later, having realised that change in this community (or any community) really had to be driven by the locals, not by outside organisations imposing solutions, or visiting white kids like us. It had to be driven by people who wanted change there far more than we could ever want it. It was this realisation that leads us to start Spark International (now YGAP), an organisation that was set up to find local leaders with great ideas for their communities and provide the funding and support they needed to put those ideas into action.
Can you talk us through how you came to co-found Spark International? Can you also describe what Spark International does?
After completing our studies, my husband Aaron and I were both passionate about trying to help people move out of poverty and wanted to work in the NGO sector but knew that to have any credibility, we’d need on the ground experience. So we booked a one-way flight to Kenya and after almost two years in the region, left with an idea for an organisation that we thought could make a really powerful difference in a new way. We spent a year in the UK after our time in East Africa. Aaron was studying at Cambridge and I was teaching a grade one class. In our free time, we began building the strategy for Spark. We moved back to Australia in 2010 and launched Spark in early 2011 running social enterprise accelerator programs in countries like Kenya and South Africa. We identified early-stage social businesses that were improving the lives of people living in poverty – by improving access to quality education, healthcare, jobs, or better homes – and provided training, funding and ongoing support to help them scale their ventures and grow their impact. In 2015 we merged with YGAP – a Melbourne-based non-profit also focused on poverty alleviation. Since 2011, we’ve worked with over 350 entrepreneurs across Africa, Asia and the Pacific who have collectively improved the lives of more than 500,000 people living in poverty.
SHOP: Kaitlin wears Sportscraft Geri Oxford Shirt, $129.99
What excites you most about working on start-up businesses?
The incredible people I meet and the exciting ideas they are working on. I am lucky enough to work alongside companies like these: -An SMS service for expectant mothers in Kenya reducing infant and maternal mortality. -A low cost, high-quality school in the South African townships getting results that rival students in the UK. -An education company establishing a low cost, solar-run multi-media classrooms in rural Bangladesh. -A micro-insurance company providing emergency loans to Kenyan families. -A cooking class and catering company employing newly arrived migrants and refugees in Australia. -A mobile ultrasound service for rural Ugandan women, providing early identification of pregnancy complications.
What’s the most challenging part about working on start-up businesses?
It really all comes down to the entrepreneur. While we can throw a huge amount of time, support and even money at startups, the number one ingredient for success is the entrepreneur (or entrepreneurs) in the team. We have high hopes for all of the startups we back, but it is tough to watch some of them fail to adapt, stay small or just give up. When it works though, it is pretty amazing to watch.
Can you tell us about how YGAP has helped individuals – we’d love you to share a memorable story…
We have helped hundreds of startups over the years and are proud of so many of them, but if I have to pick one, it would probably be Noni Masina. Noni grew up in Tsakane, a tough township near Johannesburg, and was the child of a domestic worker. She is incredibly intelligent and worked really hard in school to be the only student to go to university in her year. After graduating with honours she ended up returning to Tsakane to start a summer tutoring program. Her real dream was to start a school though, and in the early days of the school, when they were working out of temporary buildings, she came through our accelerator. With a lot of grit and smarts and a little bit of support from us, she and her husband Jay have now created the African School for Excellence, a school that is now a third of the cost of a public school to run, and getting better academic results than most schools in the country. We just helped them to raise a pre-Series A investment round to grow the model before we help them to raise a much bigger amount and take it to scale. If they get this right, they can be part of changing Africa, and I don’t say that lightly! You can check out her school here.