Olivia Barker White

Olivia Barker White is the co-founder and CEO of Kids Club Kampala, a UK charity supporting vulnerable children in Uganda. She has a background in International Development, and is passionate about reducing global poverty and empowering others to make a difference in the world. She is also a trustee of the Small International Development Charities Network (SIDCN) and sits on the UK Small Charities Advisory Panel (SCAP). Along with KCK’s co-Founder Corrie, she won a Cosmopolitan Ultimate Women of the Year Award in 2013. She lives in Birmingham, UK and is a mum to a 4 and 1 year old. 

What were your initial years of growing up like? Tell us about your life before starting your corporate journey/venture/initiative. 

I grew up in the UK in a fairly ordinary middle-class family. Ever since I can remember I have been fascinated with the world, the environment, other countries and cultures. I also always remember having a deep sense of injustice in the world, and a desire to help those less fortunate than myself, even at a young age. I remember being in Geography class at school and crying when learning about Fair Trade, I remember reading a book about children’s lives in other parts of the world and sobbing, and I didn’t know why… looking back I know that was God preparing my heart for what I am doing today.

Was there any turning point in your life that changed your journey? If so, what was it? Please tell us the backstory behind it. 

When I was 18 I went on a gap year programme volunteering with children in Uganda for 7 months. This had a profound impact on me and my life. One day, a good Ugandan friend of mine invited me into the slum communities in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. Although I had been in Uganda for a few weeks and had seen poverty, nothing could prepare me for what I experienced being in Kampala’s slums for the first time. Children running barefoot through open sewage, children playing in a dirty and smoking rubbish tip, families of up to 10 people living in a one-roomed makeshift shack that floods with sewage when it rained. It was absolutely heart-breaking. We started by playing games, singing songs, telling stories and trying to bring a little bit of hope, a little bit of joy, a little bit of love into these children’s lives. That is how the vision of Kids Club Kampala came about, to support vulnerable children and enable them to have a safe and enjoyable childhood.

Every industry that is now a large-scale, top-notch business once started as a small idea in the minds of entrepreneurs. What was that idea that made you start this brand? How did such a unique idea strike you, and what motivated you to “YES, go for it?”

After encountering the poverty of Kampala’s slums and meeting the children who lived there, I tried to find an organization who could help so that I could refer these children to their services. Unfortunately, we found that other charities and churches were reluctant to work in such conditions and to help the people living there because of the social stigma slum dwellers face. When I found this out it made me so angry and became so determined to do something, anything to help. It was never my intention to start a charity or an organization, but faced with the injustice I encountered I felt I couldn’t walk away and continue to be part of the problem. 

Tell us something about your initiative or current role. What is it about, and what impact are you trying to make?

My current role is CEO of Kids Club Kampala. I founded the organization as a volunteer and grew the charity whilst studying and then working full time. I was able to employ myself a few years ago, and I am now the CEO. Within my role I oversee the strategic planning and management of the organisation, and work closely with the board of trustees to ensure the success of the charity. I work on income generation, fundraising and growth of the organisation, alongside overseeing strategy, organisational development, financial management, compliance, donor experience, monitoring and reporting, and external relations. I am responsible for the overall performance of the charity, and manage the staff and volunteer team to maintain high standards and achieve ambitious fundraising targets.

Everyone has their own set of challenges when starting an entrepreneurial journey. Still, the most essential part for others to learn is how you deal with those. Would you like to share with us your challenges and your coping mechanisms?

My biggest challenges are maintaining a good work life balance when I am working full time as a CEO with two small children, and I also suffer from time to time with imposter syndrome – which I feel most women do! I have a coach and a mentor and for me, being an external processor, being able to talk through how I am feeling and digest my thoughts is invaluable. I am also part of several networks of charity CEOs and women working in the international development space and having peer support around me is so helpful – being able to discuss similar challenges and learn from each other and celebrate wins with each other too. 

While the global pandemic of COVID-19 is associated primarily with adversities, it has also brought about a true boom in startups, with successful entrepreneurship in many countries. The pandemic has impacted all of us in one way or another. Would you like to share your experience on a personal and professional level? 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Uganda, we had to quickly respond as many families we were supporting lost their incomes overnight and were at real risk of starvation due to lockdown. We quickly repurposed our education classrooms, which had to close due to the lockdown, into community food banks to enable the most vulnerable families in Kampala’s slums to be fed. These food banks have not only saved thousands of people from starvation, they have also reduced pressure for families, provided social connection during a crisis and helped to build a sustained sense of community. Whilst the lockdowns have now ended, the current cost of living crisis means families continue to struggle to know where their next meal is coming from. Our food banks are still running and will continue to do so until they are no longer needed. To date these food banks have provided over 45 million meals to over 300,000 people!

Personally I started working from home during the pandemic, and after a few months we actually made the decision to not go back to our office at all and my whole team in the UK are still working from home. This has had positive impacts on staff’s wellbeing and work-life balance, and it also means when recruiting for more team members we are no longer limited by proximity to our office and we can recruit staff from anywhere in the world, diversifying and widening our team. It also meant we became more digitally literate, as did our team in Uganda, and video meetings now being the norm has actually strengthened our communication and therefore impact and programming as a result. 

Your journey and your vision are very inspiring, but are there any achievements or accomplishments you would like to mention? 

I am proud of our COVID-19 response as mentioned above, being able to be flexible, adaptable and resilient and to literally save thousands of lives as a result. Personally, a proud moment for me was winning the Global Champion Award at the Cosmopolitan magazine Ultimate Women of the Year Awards, along with my co-founder Corrie in 2013.

Would you like to share with our young budding women entrepreneurs the change you would like to see in the world if given an opportunity?

The change I would like to see in the world is for no one to be held back from achieving their dreams because of where they were born. It breaks my heart that so many women around the world have potential, vision, dreams and ideas that are never realized because of poverty. I would love to see the world becoming a fairer, more equal and just place, with poverty reduced and people, in particular women, thriving.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your personal life and professional journey? What is your personal motto in life? 

The most important thing I have learned in my personal life and in my professional journey is to play to your strengths. You cannot do everything and be everything to everyone. It is important to surround yourself with people who do things differently and better than you in many areas, you cannot do it all. Focus on what you are good at, what you are really good at and what only you can do and give that your all. Also to believe in yourself, and your vision, your cause as without belief and purpose it is hard to keep going. 

Women are a growing force in the workplaces worldwide, standing shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts. There are cracks in glass ceilings everywhere, with many women breaking through to carve out a space right at the top of the pyramid. What are your thoughts about women’s leadership today?

I think the situation for women is better than it was a few years ago but we still have so much further to go. The reality is that around the world women are being held back, discriminated against, oppressed and overlooked simply because of their gender. Yes there is progress to celebrate but there are still too few women in leadership positions around the world and this needs to change. And we can be a part of this change. 

With your grit and determination, you are making a considerable impact, breaking through, and serving as role models for many budding entrepreneurs. What would you want to say to our young women leaders/audience reading this?

I would like to encourage your young women leaders reading this to be brave and to believe in themselves. There is nothing you cannot do. As women we often shy away from opportunities or fear what others may think of us for stepping out in a certain area, but we should not let imposter syndrome hold you back. Women deserve the same voice, the same seat at the table, the same opportunities, the same pay as any man and we need to be brave, trust ourselves and go for it!