A message from the Founder, Laurie DeJong
The Evolution of The Paper Fig Foundation
Growing up in the DeJong house, holidays were always filled with an assortment of random people. We had everyone from football players to nuns to runaway teenagers. The “strays” as my mother called them, had nowhere else to go for various reasons and were always considered family at our home. There was a lot of laughter, singing and more than a few awkward moments. Our doors were always open, as my mom would often say. Being one of five kids, we did not have a lot of money, but my parents believed in helping others so somehow always found the time, space and love in their hearts to help those who were less fortunate.
The experiences of my youth led me to believe that helping those in need was part of who I am. So, when LDJ began to rapidly grow, choosing to include an element of corporate social philanthropy happened organically. I had always wanted a foundation but never fully realized the power of the right group of people coming together to support a common cause. The Paper Fig Foundation is named after a seashell found on the Eastern Seashore. The name is also reflective of the sacred fig tree under which Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, is said to have been sitting when he became enlightened. As a yogi and a seashell collector for many years, the name is special to me.
Our work with the fashion industry in Africa began in 2010 when I was honored to receive an award from Enterprising Women for the rapid growth of LDJ Productions. It was there that I listened to Terry Neese speak about the program PEACE THROUGH BUSINESS, which connects entrepreneurs in the US with entrepreneurs in Rwanda and Afghanistan. I was inspired by the work of this great organization and instantly knew that I wanted to get involved. It was through this chance meeting that I began to mentor Rwanda fashion designer, Colombe Ituze Ndutiye, and that was the beginning of a long lasting relationship with the East African Fashion Industry.
After travelling to Africa for the first Fashion Week, I was inspired and committed. We began coming up with ideas of how LDJ could mobilize and take this to the next level. As of this year we have assisted in the growth of the fashion and related industries in both Rwanda and Uganda and worked with aspiring entrepreneurs in five East African countries through mentorship, technical training and sharing of best practices.
As we continued to develop our relationships in Africa, we learned the needs of the local community went much deeper than the work we were doing in the city and did not want to limit our work to only fashion related projects. As we visited some of the more rural areas, we were shocked at the drastic difference in the living conditions between these areas and the city.
It was then that we began the "Adopt A Community Program” and decided to focus on the town of Kasese as our first beneficiary. Kasese is a town with over 500,000 people and is located in the southwestern region of Uganda, near the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. We established a geographical boundary for our "Adopt A Community Program" as we knew it would take months to develop sustainable community development projects to achieve the kind of impact that was needed.
The lack of resources and sustainable programs was alarming but what struck me the most was the blatant gender inequality, abuse, and the lack of opportunity for women and girls.
I truly believe that the best thing we can do to affect sustainable economic growth is support entrepreneurial ventures with special attention paid to encouraging and empowering women. Women form the backbone of the community and by educating and empowering we can affect change by engaging one woman at a time.
We began to focus on what we could do to intervene and assist women with sustainable options to make a living. We decided to pilot a business skills and training class that trained hundreds of women to launch or grow existing businesses ranging from wholesale buying and retail selling of beans, fruits, vegetables, charcoal, and goat sales to farming, beading and tailoring. Out of the 190 women we trained in the first half of 2016, 50 were chosen to receive seed loans from PFF to assist in developing their businesses. We hope to rollout this program in some of our other neighborhoods and continue to monitor their progress.
We also learned during our research that there were almost 50,000 people living in the Kihara section of Kasese that had no access to maternity or health care at all. The region is located in the remote Rwenzori Mountain district and not easily accessible by car or foot. In 2014, we decided to embark on a large project to build a level II Health Care center for the community. After many people told us we were crazy for trying to build in the middle of a remote mountainous area, one year later we opened the Marietta Steinberg Health Care Center, named after the late mother of one of our employees who had recently passed away. I’m proud to say that our little health center has a staff of four and has treated thousands of people suffering from malaria, dysentery, tuberculosis and other illnesses that are treatable if a person has access to immediate health care.
While I’m proud of the work we have done, what brings me the most joy is getting to know the hearts and souls of the people we are working with. We’ve met hundreds of inspiring people along the way and I have found greater purpose in my work and believe that the many people working with the PFF team feel the same.
My personal hope is that we may change perceptions by connecting the stories of love, perseverance and resilience through our common humanity. We’ve seen humanity shine in one of the poorest nations in the world and have established close personal connections through our common goals, respect and commitment to one another.
David McIntyre, Founding Board Member
David McIntyre is a New York-based photographer, filmmaker and writer. An accomplished fashion photographer, his work has appeared in many of the world’s top fashion magazines, including Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire. His portfolio of portraits includes an eclectic group of musicians including: Björk, U2 and Biggie Smalls. He has directed music videos for Giovanni James, Carney and Dan Black. He has also made short documentary features for Macy’s, L.A.M.B., L’Oreal and The Martha Graham Dance Company. His photographs have been displayed in London’s V & A Museum and in the books: U2 by U2, Blitz – As Seen in Blitz, The Color of Fashion and his own monograph Sexy Happy Cool. His short film, A Band Apart, was featured in the 2012 American Dance Film Festival. He was the Founder and Publisher of the two-time Webby Award-winning fashion magazine ZOOZOOM. His first children’s book ‘The Cyber Claus’ was published in 2013.
“As a photographer I’ve been lucky enough to travel extensively and to view much of the world’s natural beauty through my camera lens. I’ve also seen the suffering brought about by poverty, discrimination, war, famine, disease and other problems. It’s heartbreaking, especially considering the fact that many of the world’s problems are solvable. I am excited, through my association with The Paper Fig Foundation, to put my talents to good use and tell the stories of those who suffer in silence, to be their voice and raise awareness of their plight. Alerting others and appealing to the limitless capacity of the human spirit to do good and act unselfishly towards those in need is a cause in which I am happy to take part.”
Tamera Restuccia, Founding Board Member
Tamera is an experienced corporate communications professional with a proven track record of producing high impact special events and corporate programs. She has worked across a broad variety of industry segments including: radio, publishing, live entertainment, sports, and non-profit.
She has a keen ability to understand brand strategy and to create events that effectively achieve business goals. She has produced elaborate parties, award shows, corporate incentive programs, radio broadcasts, panel discussions, global conferences, trade shows, and new product launches.
Her background includes holding leadership positions at The New York Times, various magazines including: Family Circle, Fitness and Rosie Magazines, as well as in radio for WOR and WFAN in New York. She has also consulted with various corporate, and non-profit organizations.
Tamera, has always been a strong advocate for the rights of women and girls and was excited to learn about the great work Laurie DeJong and team have put in motion thus far. She feels a deep connection to the mission of the Paper Fig Foundation, and is thrilled to give back through service as a founding board member. Tamera looks forward to helping advance the organization as it evolves and grows during this exciting time.
Andrew Musoke, Board Member
Andrew is a passionate global citizen that has lived on five continents and spends his time working professionally and personally to change the global landscape and dialogue with the hope of providing a better future for the advancement of people everywhere. He is currently a Vice President at JPMorgan Chase. Before joining JPMorgan Chase, Andrew received his MBA from Harvard Business School (HBS). Prior to that, he worked at Travelers Indemnity Co. in their International Strategy team and in their Personal Insurance Direct-to-Consumer Business. Prior to that, Andrew worked at United Technologies Corporation (UTC) graduating top of his class in the 2 year Financial Leadership Program.
In tandem, Andrew received numerous professional and academic awards, but also continued to serve his global community and country by graduating from the Hartford Citizens Police Academy and then graduating from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Citizens Leadership Academy. Additionally, Andrew served as the Co-President of the HBS Africa Business Club and co-founded truIT Uganda Ltd, which provides cost effective, high-speed, wide-reaching and reliable satellite broadband services to consumer and enterprise markets in Uganda. Lastly, during the summer of 2013, Andrew worked as a special advisor to the Ugandan Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development (MoFPED).
He currently resides in New York City and sits on the boards of truIT, Uganda Ltd., DIFFvelopment, and the Paper Fig Foundation.
Laurie DeJong, Founder
Laurie is the founder and CEO of LDJ Productions, a full service production and event management based in New York. LDJ Productions is the Executive Producer of New York Fashion Week, and has been involved in the fashion industry for over 25 years.
Laurie has always had a passion for helping others. In 2009, Laurie was fortunate to receive an Enterprising Women of the Year Award, honoring LDJ Production’s rapid growth throughout the years. During the ceremony, guests were introduced to the institute for Economic Empowerment of Women’s Peace Through Business program. Little did she know that it would be a life-changing moment in her career. Through the PTB program, she began her journey as a mentor to a Rwandan designer named Colombe Ituze Nduilye.
She soon met Madame Rose Kabuye, former Rwanda Army leader, first mayor of Kigali and former Chief of Staff to Rwandan President, Paul Kagame. Rose shared her love for fashion and they became fast friends and discussed everything from politics to fashion trends. It was during one of their conversations that Rose stated her dream was to have a fashion week in her country. It was then that she realized how simple a concept it would be to take her skills and knowledge learned through years of producing New York Fashion Week to the ground and assist with the production of Fashion Week in Kigali. With little research, they realized that fashion has a great potential to jump-start an economy by providing jobs in both city and rural areas and is one of the few entrepreneurial options for women in developing nations. Conversations turned into planning sessions and before they knew it they were on their way to producing the first event.
PFF’s work in Africa does not end in the cities. In their travels, they met a gentleman named Robert Centenary who is from a small town in a region of South West Uganda called Kasese. The region had recently endured serious flooding that caused death and destruction throughout the region. Robert uses some of the proceeds from his business to assist with the rebuilding of his community beginning with the restoration of a health center from women and children.
The health center provides a safe location for women to give birth and care for their babies once born. They asked how they could help and they eagerly got involved by spending time at the clinic distributing baby supplies and clothing we had collected from our family and friends and, most importantly, greeting patients with smiles and assurance that they were not forgotten by the world.
Adam Cook, Executive Director / Board Secretary & Treasurer
As Secretary and Treasurer for the Foundation, Adam works with Robert and the rest of the team to ensure projects are on time, and that proper reporting is being done to ensure funding guidelines are met.
Centenary Robert Franco, Area Director-Uganda
Robert is the primary contact person for all Paper Fig operations in Uganda. He is a key member of our team, planning projects and assessing their area impact within the community. Robert has been a ardent community leader and has affected real change on the areas of Kasese and Kihara within Uganda.
Ron is primarily focused on infrastructure and health projects for Paper Fig Foundation. With a large background in carpentry and structural support, Ron adds technical knowledge and experience.
Sara is primarily focused on Empowerment and Fashion initiatives.
Rachel is primarily focused on Empowerment and Fashion initiatives.