A teenager from Lusaka, Zambia, got on an elevator in Los Angeles with a Rotary club member and a college administrator. By the time she got off, she had the promise of a full-tuition scholarship and was on her way to a career in fashion.
It was a sudden turn of events, but not entirely unexpected: Rotary clubs in Altadena and Simi Valley, Calif., Washington, D.C., and Lusaka had laid the groundwork with their Youth IT Microenterprise project. At 17, Kapasa Musonda had written a plan for a fashion business through the entrepreneurship program, which the clubs launched in Zambia, and won a two-week trip to the United States. It included stops in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, where she toured the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM).
“This was the real payoff for our program,” says C. Ray Carlson, a member of the Rotary Club of Altadena and chair of the District 5300 Job Creation Through Youth Entrepreneurship Education Committee. He got on the elevator that day in 2007 with Musonda and Dena Stitt, an administrator at the institute who had heard about the promising designer through Carlson and invited her to visit the school. Perhaps not entirely by chance, its president and founder, Tonian Hohberg, stepped on and, with amazement, looked at Musonda’s portfolio. That prompted a quick meeting and an offer of free tuition if Musonda could cover her other expenses. Carlson promised to see what his Rotary club could do. Fellow club member Mike Noll recalls: “The Altadena club put its whole international budget on hold to pay for airfare, supplies, a laptop, and software, in addition to a monthly stipend to pay for a cell phone, health insurance, and transportation.”
Musonda returned to Zambia with less than a month to prepare, get a visa, and come back, she says. “I’d had no idea that my life would change direction, that I would study fashion. There is a lot of talent in Zambia, but not many have the opportunity to get training. I never would have done this if not for Rotary and FIDM. I can’t express how great a feeling it is.”
She originally got involved in the entrepreneurship project to keep busy between graduating from high school and going to the University of Zambia. When she found out about the opportunity from her sister, she says, “I immediately got excited to sign up – I don’t like to sit around.” At that point, she considered fashion and sewing a hobby. The entrepreneurial training showed her how to make that hobby into a commercial enterprise.
More than 200 young Zambians participated in the project in Lusaka, the nation’s capital. Supported by a $130,000 cultural exchange grant from the U.S. State Department and a Rotary Foundation Matching Grant of $25,000, the effort was designed to help eradicate poverty through entrepreneurship. Carlson and his team recruited American business professionals to share their knowledge about starting companies, evaluate the participants’ business plans, and help boost the odds of survival among new enterprises.
Musonda’s plan to launch a fashion house was unconventional for her practical-minded culture, she says. Her father has an agriculture degree and her mother is a retired nurse. Her three sisters are working in law, pharmaceuticals, and medicine. “In Zambia, fashion is not something someone would pursue. The fashion industry is small. We’re not a trend-setter country, which is something I hope to change,” Musonda explains.
Ideally, she will build a fashion business that will employ people in Zambia, says Noll, who served as the young designer’s surrogate dad after his wife, Wendy, invited Musonda to stay with them while she went to school. The Nolls had each lived abroad and knew that the family setting could be helpful.
“It was different at first – exciting,” Musonda says. “I was living with a wonderful family who met all my expectations. We are friends for life.”
She borrowed a 1950s sewing machine that had belonged to Noll’s mother-in-law (a Rotarian later gave her a new one) and bought herself a dress form. For the next three years, she rose to all the challenges of the institute’s curriculum, qualifying for a prestigious program in advanced fashion design that culminated in a 2010 runway show.
“She was a straight-A student,” says Stitt, adding that the advanced program is highly competitive. “She was amazing, and I loved her a lot.”
Musonda had hoped to work in the U.S. fashion industry before going home to Lusaka and starting her own business, but after she completed her studies, her visa allowed her to stay for only one year. She got involved in a number of brief projects with Disney and Scala Evening Wear, among others, but that was all she could do. “That was the heartbreak – that she was so gifted and talented and she couldn’t get work,” Noll says.
She returned to Lusaka last April and now, at 22, is putting the lessons from the entrepreneurial project to the test with the launch of her own fashion label. She updated the winning business plan she drafted at age 17, applying what she learned at the institute.
“It will be called Sondaz by Kapasa Musonda – just Sondaz for short,” she says. “I may go back to school next year in South Africa, but that gives me time to work on my label and establish the brand, and see how it works out in the Zambian fashion industry.” Last July, she managed to mount a collection, even though she was still waiting for her dress form and sewing machines to arrive from the United States. By that time, she had already shown some of her work in several fashion shows.
Musonda calls her style “feminine, sophisticated, and modern,” using a lot of silk and straddling the line between wearable and couture. She explains that she leans more toward wearable, in contrast to Zambian designers who gravitate to traditional fabrics and styles, generally worn only for weddings. Zambian people dress stylishly, she says, but their clothes often come from outside the country. “I have so much in me I need to put out there,” Musonda says. “I can’t wait to see how people receive my collection.”
And still, the idea of California lingers.
“I love the climate and In-N-Out burgers,” she says. “I like the way life moves fast, always getting on with the next thing. I miss the variety: the beach, the malls, all the great places. Malls are useful for staying up on fashion. It’s a big part of my research. Thank goodness there’s the Internet. It’s a bit of a culture shock to return to Zambia.”