February 26, 2016
At six years of age, Eric Agyeman left Ghana to relocate to New Zealand and then onto Australia, but Ghana has never really left him. After returning back to Ghana in 2010 and seeing kids trying to sell goods from the side of the highway, Eric knew he had to do something to try and break the cycle of poverty.
The answer was to combine his love for fashion and swanky jackets with his desire to create change in developing countries, developing a custom School Leaver Jacket social enterprise ‘PVBS Apparel’ which provides funds to support education for children in Ghana and Cambodia.
Eric has also drawn on his difficult experiences growing up as a migrant, feeling isolated and suffering bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts as a teenager to become a passionate motivational speaker.
Eric teaches young people about finding their purpose in life and “making the most of their dash” to leave the world a better place in their lifetime.
How did your experiences in Ghana and moving to New Zealand and then onto Australia at a young age inspire you to work to support education for children in Africa and Cambodia?
I left Ghana in 1992 when I was six years of age and moved to New Zealand and then Australia with my family and I couldn’t speak or understand English because I had never gone to school while I was in Ghana.
From a very young age I had very low self-esteem, simply because people would be saying things that I just couldn’t understand and sometimes they would be laughing around me and I had no idea what they were laughing about.
Then in 2010, I went back to Ghana to see family and one day as I was heading into the city I saw kids trying to sell things on the side of a 2km stretch of highway. That sparked me into thinking about ‘how can this cycle of poverty be broken? How can we get these kids on the street access to schools?’ I knew I wanted to do something, I just didn’t know what it would be.
How did you come up with the idea for a social enterprise that creates custom school leaver jackets as the answer?
We stumbled upon the idea of social enterprise. We knew about the concept of giving and charities like World Vision, but I love fashion so I thought that if I could do something with fashion that also gives back at the same time then that would be amazing.
I finished my high school in Ghana, so when I came back to Australia I had no idea what a school leaver jacket was.
In 2010, I started doing motivational workshops in high schools and I saw some of the kids wearing these jackets. At the same time, I was starting to work on a retail line of clothing and had produced a varsity jacket.
One of the kids came up to me one day and said “Hey man, that’s a really cool jacket, could you make one for us for next year?” and that’s where it all started.
Why is the idea of the next generation making a difference to the world and leaving a lasting legacy so important to you?
Our quality of life is made possible by the dreamers of yesterday – someone like Martin Luther King Jnr. and his dream paved the way for how things are today, where Africans and Caucasians can live together. Even looking at things we take for granted like cars and aeroplanes, they were somebody’s dreams in the past.
Everybody has a purpose and dreams, and that purpose is connected to making the world a better place. That’s what I like to draw out of people, particularly the next generation, so in ten years from now they can look back on the people who created change.
Kids leaving school are also more focussed on doing something meaningful and so even in the corporate space you can see companies looking at how they can engage our generation by making their work more purposeful.
What social impact and change have you seen in Africa and Cambodia from the $22,000 in profits PVBS has made so far?
We go back to Cambodia on average every two years and back to Africa every five or six years – it’s a pretty big trip! Seeing the impact is incredible, there are so many stories.
In a place like Cambodia, when a kid is able to go to school it reduces their risk of being trafficked, being in a classroom provides protection for them. There are also kids whose parents want them to work to try and earn money, but now that we’re paying the school fees and providing the uniforms that kid is going to be educated and have the ability to make a massive difference in their world, grow up and look after their parents and their community.
In Ghana, there are two seasons – the rainy season and the summer season. In the rainy season, kids weren’t able to go to school because the rain would make the whole place muddy but we were able to fund the construction of a tin roof, so now kids can go to school all year round. It’s the little things that we take for granted that make a big difference to people living in those areas.
What’s next on the agenda for PVBS to grow and expand operations?
We’re really passionate about working to make a difference locally as well. It’s incredible to think that in Melbourne, the world’s most liveable city, one in ten families will seek food assistance every single week. Our retail arm has partnered with Foodbank Victoria and we have a campaign called ‘Hungry 4 Change’.
We’ve also started moving into the corporate space, partnering with a few corporate companies to make jackets for their employees. Every item will fund 10 meals to people in Melbourne through Foodbank Victoria which is the newest thing that we’re doing.
What’s your message to other young people looking to make a difference with their dash?
Our purpose and our dash is all within us, it’s tied to our passion, our gifts and what we’re good at, what we’ve been through that we can use to help other people navigate through it. I wrote a book about me overcoming suicide, to help others who might be in that same place.
My biggest encouragement to a young person is to sit down and think about what you’re passionate about, what you enjoy doing – even if you’re not going to get paid for it! Those are the indicators of your purpose and your dash. I don’t believe anyone would do something they don’t love – as the saying goes “If you do what you love, you never work a day in your life” – so find what you’re passionate about and align that to where you can make an impact.