Exclusive Interview: Dayle Haddon, WomenOne

Dayle Haddon

As far as life paths go, it may seem unusual that someone who’s graced over a 100 magazine covers and represented all four top beauty companies - Max Factor, Revlon, Esteé Lauder and L’Oréal – ends up in situations such as sleeping in dirt huts guarded by rebels, getting lost in the most dangerous parts of the Congo, and being held-up at gunpoint. And with a quick glance, striking former model and actress Dayle Haddon is recognizable for her many years in the fashion and beauty industry, but off-screen, her influence is far more than skin-deep.

In her 12 years as a UNICEF ambassador, Dayle travelled extensively to South America, Africa, and the Middle East where she came face-to-face with women from different cultures who shared horrific daily struggles. Empathizing with the stories she heard, Haddon realized quality education had the power to provide women with a chance to escape poverty and elevate their own voices, and in 2008, she founded WomenOne, creating an international support system for women, by women. With a focus on education and holistic programming, WomenOne partners with institutions and community-based organizations to give girls the resources necessary to push back against financial and cultural barriers.

Dayle Haddon

The foundation also advocates education reform and research that highlights the marginalized and largely ignored populations of uneducated women. Dayle has recounted their stories for publications like Huffington Post, Glamour, Redbook, and Marie Claire and is often booked as a keynote speaker. Dayle was also honoured with a humanitarian award by the UN Women for Peace Association in March of this year for her work. Here, we sit down with the humanitarian, founder, and CEO to talk about raising awareness for female education, global women-focused initiatives, and the next steps for WomenOne.

Can you tell me about what led to your decision to set up WomenOne?

I was in Angola visiting a rural clinic. Women had walked all night with babies strapped to their backs to reach the only medical facility for miles around. A doctor in the clinic pulled me aside and asked if I could help him. They needed two microscopes to do their work better. I assured him I would help, and gave his request to the head of our team. They told me the problem was too small for them. At that moment a light bulb went off, and I felt it was not too small for those women who had walked all night. I realized there was room for a smaller organization to work alongside the larger ones to make the best possible impact, and the idea for WomenOne, focused on global education for girls, was born.

Dayle with schoolgirls in Kenya

Dayle with schoolgirls in Kenya

Why do you think education is so powerful in changing the outcomes for the women you’ve worked with?

More than 65 million girls are out of school globally! When a girl is educated she earns more and gives those earnings to her family and community. With an education there are less occurrences of HIV/Aids and acts of violence go down, making the world a healthier and safer place for all of us. An educated mother will educate her children, and a mother who can read has more than a 50% chance that her child will survive beyond the age of 5. An educated girl will positively improve her life, that of her family and her community and help lift them out of the cycle of poverty forever!

You were quoted as saying ‘we are making a lot of money on women, and for women, but you must also feel strongly about giving back to women.’ Can you elaborate on your feelings about this? Does the beauty industry go too far in its attempts to make women feel like they need so many things to stay young and beautiful?

I think we owe it to women to give them a 360-degree view of living. Focusing just on the physical and maintaining it in a fixed ideal is a battle we cannot win. We need to have a fuller, more rounded and more holistic way of seeing ourselves. We need to add a spiritual component to our physical life to be complete.

"I think we owe it to women to give them a 360-degree view of living. Focusing just on the physical and maintaining it in a fixed ideal is a battle we cannot win."

You’ve been involved with women-focused projects from everywhere from NYC to Haiti to Jordan and Turkey. Which project or area would you say is closest to your heart?

It’s usually the project I am working on at the time that is the closest to my heart. Our Centre of Worth in Nanyuki, Kenya is very dear to me because the girls there are in such need and yet are so grateful! Also, with very little help they excel! We work with our partner on the ground, The Simama Project, and they are extraordinary in making sure they stay personally connected to the girls, their development and their needs. We work with them, getting proper feedback so we can create programming that suits the needs of the girls and so that they can develop skills that can help them become competitive and competent once they graduate.

Dayle Haddon

You’ve worked with and met so many different kinds of women all over the world, affected by varying levels of need. What do you find unites us as women? What are the constants? Are there any differences in terms of their perceptions of femininity?

I find no matter where I go, whether in the US or Europe or Africa, that they want the same things for their children. That their children be healthy, safe and educated. In Africa, they really value education and understand that it is the way out of poverty. A highly impoverished Kenyan mother of five once told me that her 15-year-old daughter Mary, “will change the history of this family”, when she understood that Mary had the prospect of an education.

Even in refugee camps, among women everywhere, there is a recognition of the need for balance, beauty and normality. I have seen how simple things such as beauty rituals can have a calming effect – it gives the girls something that they can have control over. For example, a doctor has told me that that patients in hospital will heal faster if they do things as simple as wash their face or put lipstick on. 

In Kenya, a group of girls that knew I was coming to see them decided to greet me by preparing a fashion show. At first I thought, is this really the “right” thing to encourage? But then I said of course - this is imagination. This is healthy. They are imagining - playing at being grown-ups. If you can’t indulge your imagination, you live a much smaller life.

I think there is always a difference in the perception of femininity in different cultures. We have to respect that. For example, in India, you can’t show the upper arm but you can show the midriff. In China my book Ageless Beauty: A Woman's Guide to Lifelong Beauty and Well-Being was a best-seller, as the spiritual aspect of beauty, the merging of the inner and outer, is very well understood there. In any case, we have to give room and space for each other and our differences. With women, I think one of the biggest things we have in common is that we prioritize seeking connection, so we should leverage that. 

"In Kenya, a group of girls that knew I was coming to see them decided to greet me by preparing a fashion show. At first I thought, is this really the “right” thing to encourage? But then I said of course - this is imagination. This is healthy."

Are you currently involved with helping Syria? Can you tell us about that?

I am and was helping Syria early on, when there was more about the crisis on Twitter than in the news. I was asked to tour Turkey and Jordan to review education for girls and met Syrian refugees aged between 6 and 13 years old, all being taught in one room. We had a media and leadership workshop in partnership with Duke University that we led in the Zaatari Refugee camp in Jordan (the second largest camp in the world) with the Syrian refugee girls. We gave the girls cameras and asked them to film and photograph what they couldn’t speak about. The end result was stunning, and we were in tears by the end of it. That was really a turning point for me. The girls have won many international awards, including being accepted at the Sundance Film Festival. I would like to do more with these girls. They are so bright, funny and deep. They are so inspiring. They have lost so much and yet they just want to share their voice and their views. We are also currently in discussions with Sciences Po in Paris to help those in the Calais camp, which has since has been disbanded.

In Kenya

In Kenya

What has been your proudest moment to date, with regard to your humanitarian work?

When you can give hope to people who have been through so much. When you can hold their hands, when you can wipe away their tears. When you have an answer for them. When you can simply say “I can help you with this”. I am also very proud of the girls themselves. No matter what they have been through, fleeing countries, some seeing their girlfriends shot, suicide, they know that with an education, they will have a voice. Working with them, you realize everything you do is worth it.

What is WomenOne focusing on for 2017?

To get more girls off the streets, and set up more programs - especially literacy programs and more competitive STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] programs. To reach out to more organizations, and bring more people on board. We currently partner with LVMH, the Canadian government, Apple, and L’Oreal, as well as a few smaller companies, but a big part of our mission is to bring new people in the arena, particularly those in the beauty industry, in aims of reducing the number of girls out of school globally. We really are one - this planet is getting smaller and smaller. We are united and connected, and we have to do this together. 

From all your experiences, can you tell me one story that stands out in your head?

The story of a girl, the 14-year old Waala. In Syria, she was walking to school with her two best girlfriends, always in the middle, she said, because she was the tallest. They heard bombs falling and worried about where they would land, but they didn't want to be late for an exam and rushed on to school. Suddenly, she said a sound like PHSSST went by her ear, and her friend on her left dropped to the ground. They were snipers shooting! Then she heard another Phsst and her friend on her right dropped. As her friend lay there, dying she looked up at Waala and said, “Walaa, please, I don’t want to die. I’m too young. I have so much life to live!”

To learn more about the work of WomenOne and how you can help, visit the official website.

You can also follow Dayle on Instagram here, and WomenOne here