Checking in with Payton McGriff

Mar 09, 2018



Our PR Director, Caitlin Copple Masingill, checks in with one of our favorite changemakers, Payton McGriff from SHE (Style Her Empowered). Give the video a watch, or read below. 

Caitlin Copple Masingill: we're recording.

Payton McGriff:  Awesome.

Caitlin:  Hi, everybody. Thanks so much for joining me for our inaugural Changemaker video interview, starring Payton McGriff, founder and CEO of Style Her Empowered, which is a great nonprofit organization. Payton is one of our favorite social entrepreneurs here in Boise, where Oliver Russell is based.

For those of you who don't know me, I'm Caitlin Copple Masingill. I'm the PR director here at Oliver Russell. For 2018, our company decided that we were going to start doing some of our Changemaker series on video to hopefully engage more people and to let you bask in the wonderful energy that is all of these magical Changemakers that we interview.

With that, you may notice that Payton has a very cute dog on her lap. I couldn't tell if it was a dog or a cat at first.


Caitlin:  Let's start with your dog, because everyone loves puppies, especially on the interwebs.


Payton:  This is Lionel. He's a little rescue. We've had him for a couple years.

Caitlin:  Aww, Lionel! Is he named after Lionel Richie?

Payton:  I don't think so. My sister named them. We get some odd comments about their names, but she likes little old man names, so that was what she went with. [laughs]

Caitlin:  Lionel probably doesn't get to go with you when you go to Togo, which is where your business is co‑based, I guess, Boise and Togo. [laughs]

Payton:  Right. He definitely doesn't get to come along for the ride. [laughs]

Caitlin:  For those of you that have been to and seen our Changemaker series, you probably know that Payton was interviewed, I guess it was last summer?

Payton:  Mm‑hmm.

Caitlin:  Last spring, and we talked to her a bit about her business, but since it was only not quite a year old then ‑‑ a little over a year old now ‑‑ we thought it would make good sense to check back in with you, Payton. To have you remind us a little bit about SHE, Style Her Empowered, and what you're up to and how things have changed.

Payton:  We're a nonprofit co‑based in Boise and Togo. We focus on improving access to education and empowering girls in Togo, Africa. The way we do that is by providing full tuition sponsorship, and we teach girls to sew their own school uniforms. Then we provide year‑round mentoring and afterschool programs to help build leadership and empowerment skills.

Caitlin:  For those who maybe are not as familiar with the continent of Africa as you might be, where is Togo? It's landlocked, right?

Payton:  It's actually on the West African coast.

Caitlin:  West African Coast.

Payton:  Right. It's sandwiched between Ghana and Benin. It's a tiny sliver of a country.

Caitlin:  Got it. Tell me a little bit about what's changed for you and your company in the past year.

Payton:  A lot. [laughs] We have learned a tremendous amount just having our feet on the ground in Togo. Primarily though, we have been focusing a lot on school uniforms. We've actually designed our own uniforms that grow to help meet the needs of our students, because a lot of them are... [clears throat] . Excuse me. Should I start over with that?

Caitlin:  Maybe. I think you froze up a little bit.

Payton:  Oh, OK.

Caitlin:  I don't know if it was your end or our end, but it was like, "Buffering, buffering." It was right where you started to say you're focusing on uniforms that grow?

Payton:  Over the last year we've learned a lot about school uniforms in Togo. We're learning that they're actually not meeting the needs of most of the students. They're growing out of them really quickly, or they're not durable enough to last the school year. We've designed our own. They expand three sizes and grow and move with our students.

That's something that we'll be focusing here on in the next year. We were also originally thinking about selling uniforms in the US or Europe, but we've gone back to the drawing board to see if there are more affluent schools in Togo that could really benefit from these uniforms.

Caitlin:  That's great. It seems like that's a key part of being an entrepreneur, whether you're a "social" entrepreneur or a "mainstream" or "regular" entrepreneur.


Caitlin:  You have to really anchor in and drop into that problem that you're trying to solve and not get so wed into one solution. Every time you're testing something it can take you in a different direction, or you could discover a new problem that's more important to solve in the course of solving [indecipherable 4:40] bigger problem that led you to Togo in the first place. It seems like...


Payton:  It's definitely a balancing act. It's remaining focused enough that our impact is clear, but also addressing as much of the need that we're serving these girls as best we can. It's a balancing act, for sure. [laughs]

Caitlin:  I think the entrepreneur archetype is someone's who is young, but you're super young. I always forget how young you are, because you're just so amazing I [inaudible 5:11] you're younger.


Caitlin:  I'm 34, which maybe is young in someone's mind, but not...


Caitlin: much in mine. Tell us a little bit about how old are and what that's like. Most people in their early 20s aren't starting nonprofits or companies necessarily, especially here in Boise.

Payton:  I'm 23. It's been a challenge to find people my own age. I've connected with a lot of people who've become mentors and advisors, but finding people my own age who are out doing a lot of social benefit work or anything is pretty rare.

That is a challenge. It's hard to empathize with people my own age and communicate the challenges, because it's a totally different world that even I wasn't prepared for. Even communicating that effectively is a challenge for me.

Caitlin:  Especially women entrepreneurs are already in the minority anyway, and then you add the age thing to it. It's a great story, and it'll be inspiring to younger women even, the women in high school and even college, but it has to add to the loneliness of entrepreneurial life a little bit sometimes.


Payton:  It definitely does. I moved to Boise just before I started SHE. I [inaudible 6:38] a solid base here. Networking has been key, but it's something I have to force myself to get out of my comfort zone to do. That's the most important part.

Caitlin:  Are we in the same generation? Do you consider yourself a millennial, or you like Gen Z that I keep hearing about?

Payton:  I would say I'm a millennial.

Caitlin:  I'm like an old millennial. [laughs] Do you think our generation is more interested in social entrepreneurship than past generations? Why do you think that is?

Payton:  Definitely, we're more interested in social entrepreneurship. We see a lot of push, even in entrepreneurship classes in college. I see a lot of it focused around social benefit. That is a positive thing.

A lot of that stems from we have improved efficacy. We see a problem, and we're so connected globally that we think, "Hey, I could make a difference in that arena" or "I could, at least, go to explore it."

Having a more empowered spirit [laughs] has helped a lot of millennials and even Gen Zs see that they can make real difference in the world.

Caitlin:  I wonder, too...I'm a political person, as you know. I'm a former elected official. Try as I might, can't stay away from politics, even though sometimes it drives me crazy. Also, our generation has a lot less trust in the traditional institutions.

We've been around the block and see politicians who aren't doing anything, whether it's on climate change, or gun control, or whatever the issue. There's a sense of urgency, and frustration, and, maybe, lack of patience from our generation, because these problems are not new, but it doesn't seem like anything is changing.

That's partly what draws me to social entrepreneurship and working at a social enterprise. That, maybe, it's time to try to have business solve some of these problems, or empower nonprofits with the tools that they need to be more effective.

Payton:  Absolutely. Even in the nonprofit world, there's a lot of distrust. Billions of dollars have been poured into sustainable development, and we haven't met our goals in so many different areas. That sense of urgency comes from a lot of frustration and a lack of transparency on the part of a lot of nonprofits.

I'm excited to see that the tide has turned, that people are aiming for more effective solutions rather than efficient solutions, and walking alongside communities and not just providing as many handouts as possible. The tides are turning. It's an awesome time to be alive, but it all comes from a place of frustration.

Caitlin:  Well, you talked a little bit about how your product has changed since our last conversation with you. Talk to me a little bit about your revenue model. What other changes or learnings have you come away with since the last conversation?

Payton:  Our earned revenue model has honestly been one of the larger challenges that we've faced. It just has taken much longer than we anticipated.

We have been constantly back to the drawing board, saying, "Where might the most viable market be? What type of product do we want to invest our time into?"

That evolution has been slow, but it has changed quite a bit for the better. Now, our goal for 2018 is to at least stand up our earned revenue model. We've been talking with some other private schools in Togo who could potentially partner with us and purchase uniforms from SHE.

It's a pretty new concept, though, in Togo, even just how uniforms are produced. They're a custom uniform that you have to get made by a tailor. Having a standardized product is totally new in the market.

Slowly building the trust of the community that we're working in has been our biggest hurdle with our earned revenue model, but we're making some progress this year. We've gotten some good partnerships that will be exploring the market this summer pretty heavily.

Caitlin:  The idea of getting a tailor to make your uniform seems pretty expensive. There's got to be some sort of economy of scale there, where if it's something that's a little bit...

Even if it's not mass production the way that we might think of it in this country, but having a bit more standardization might lead to a lower cost for these girls that are probably already struggling to have enough money to go to school?

Payton:  Right. That's one of the largest value propositions, aside from a uniform that grows. It would be far more affordable if we'd be able to centralize it just a little bit more.

We do believe in a really decentralized model, but there are opportunities for economies of scale. We now have employed a chief seamstress at our office who's going to train some of our girls, who can work as part of a summer internship program.

I was pretty blown away when I was in Togo last time at just how expensive it is to get a school uniform, like you mentioned. They have to purchase the material at retail, and then go get custom sizing and custom tailor works. It'll be interesting. I'm really hopeful about introducing some standardization.

Caitlin:  Talking a little bit more about your nonprofit status, are you pretty settled on that? Do you think that you're going to have more of an earned income revenue stream in the future to help generate operating expenses? How is the fundraising or grant writing going to help support...?


Payton:  Deciding whether or not to go nonprofit was one of the biggest decisions I had to make, because like you said, I really believe in the power of business to create some really effective and sustainable change.

We did settle on nonprofit status, because each of our girls is sponsored by a donor. That was pretty essential to our model right out of the gates.

We do plan and intend fully to operate as a business with an earned revenue model with these school uniforms. There are opportunities for us to have a much more sustainable and consistent impact, rather than just a flash in the pan when we can gain funding.

Caitlin:  Are you pursuing foundation funding at all?

Payton:  Not currently. We haven't received our full 501(c)(3) status. We're just in the waiving process of that application. Once we do get approved, that will be something that we pursue pretty heavily.

Caitlin:  You mentioned there's going to be a lot of work happening this summer. Tell me when you plan to go back to Togo next and how you keep up with your life on the ground there as well as here, while you're helping operate ‑‑ really, leading ‑‑ this company.

Payton:  I'll be in Togo for the month of July. I'm taking a fashion design major from Paris to come help us train some of our seamstresses and really stand up our uniform model. I was supposed to actually be in Togo right now, but I had some unexpected jaw surgery. I had to delay...

Caitlin:  Oh, no!

Payton: trip until July. I try to get back. My goal is at least three times a year, just because it is a big challenge to not be on the ground and not see what's happening.

We have a great chief seamstress, who communicates with me. The girls all have my phone number. I get a lot of text messages [laughs] from them, just checking in to see how the program's going, how school is going, if there's anything they want me to know.

I try to keep a really open communication line with all of our members, but it is challenging being on a totally different continent.

Caitlin:  You have a partner in the nonprofit who's in Moscow, Idaho, right?

Payton:  Right.

Caitlin:  From the University of Idaho, from the diaspora of Togo?

Payton:  Yeah. He's actually from Togo, originally. He grew up there with 21 of his brothers and sisters.

Caitlin:  21? Holy cow!

Payton:  Yeah. [laughs] His story is actually incredible. All of his family was educated, including his 12 sisters, which is incredibly rare.

He has quite a big heart for women's issues and especially girl's education. Getting him as a partner early on was pretty much the reason why we're able to do this right now.

Caitlin:  Switching gears a little bit, I always think it's fun to know what anyone that I think is interesting is reading, because I like to [inaudible 16:05] . What are you reading right now?

Payton:  I'm actually reading a book called "From Outrage to Courage." It's pretty similar to the "Half the Sky" book that inspired our organization, just going into more detail about the plight of women around the world and what really effective things have been done to help address those issues.

Caitlin:  You're also getting married soon. Your life's not boring, that's for sure.


Payton:  It's been interesting.

Caitlin:  In case there's anyone else watching, who's maybe getting married soon...The stress of running an organization and planning a wedding, what keeps you from becoming Bridezilla?

Payton:  That is a great question. [laughs] I can't say that I have been a perfectly non‑Bridezilla bride the whole time.

We're getting married in Italy this June. Trying to coordinate the wedding on that continent while also running a business in Africa has been a huge challenge.

Luckily, if I'm feeling really frustrated with one, I have plenty to do with the other, so I can [laughs] divert my attention. It's been a heck of a year, really trying to manage all these things. I don't have a great answer to that question.

Caitlin:  You're going to get married, and then be like, "See you! I'm going to Togo for [inaudible 17:36] July. See you in a month."

Payton:  Yeah. [laughs]

Caitlin:  Not a honeymoon, I take it. It's just a work [inaudible 17:41] for you.

Payton:  It is, definitely.


Caitlin:  What advice do you have for either the spouses or spouses‑to‑be, partners of entrepreneurs? What keeps you and your partner connected through all of the stress of building an organization half a world away?

Payton:  Yeah. I think I'm really fortunate because my fiancé really understood why I was doing this, even better than I could articulate it at times. When I'm feeling really down in the dumps, and we've experienced a failure, I look to him, and he's like, "Remember, you're doing this for all of these reasons."

He helps me regain focus on the long‑term vision. My best advice to spouses of entrepreneurs is understand why your partner is doing what they're doing and why they believe in it. They probably will rely on you from time to time to remind them of that, and really believe in their vision, I guess.

Caitlin:  What's your big vision, and how has it changed since last time?

Payton:  We say that we believe in a world where every girl is empowered with the resources, skill set, and confidence to obtain an education and determine her own future. Defining empowerment has been a huge evolution for me over the last year.

I've sat with it for so many hours and tried to really define how I define it, personally, and also how our organization sees it. I just recently wrote a piece about how frustrated I am with some of the disempowering ways empowerment is practiced.

We have tried to maintain a really humble approach to empowerment and show that it's not defined by its outcomes. It's not strength, it's not courage, it's not all of those things that we typically think it is.

It's really more of the grit and the vulnerability and the not‑there‑yet feeling that you have constantly on your journey. I'm of the opinion that if we're constantly defining things by their outcome, we're placing ourselves further and further away from achieving that or really embodying it.

We've tried to flip a 180 on how empowerment is perceived. That's been really critical to our learning approach in everything that we're doing.

Caitlin:  It seems like that resiliency is a big theme and, probably, value. Both of something you see in the girls that you work with and something that you have as an entrepreneur.

Payton:  Yeah, I think resiliency is a really great word, because it is just complete persistence. It's challenging. It's not like you're in a state of perma‑empowerment [laughs] all the time. It's constantly checking in with yourself to make sure you're practicing the things you're doing for the right reasons.

Caitlin:  The piece that you mentioned where you expand on this further, is that something we can find on your website or where is that?

Payton:  It should be. [laughs] I actually wrote it for a local artist magazine called "Rue," but they don't have a web presence or anything. I should upload that as a blog or something to our...


Caitlin:  Maybe we can add it to your Changemaker interview on our website too, if that would help.

Payton:  OK, that's a good idea.

Caitlin:  Cool. We'll figure that out. All right, remind us of the website for SHE, Payton. Remind us a little bit about how people can get involved and what you need right now, what would be most helpful to you.

Payton:  Our website is We're actually exploring a lot of fun ways to get involved with SHE. We've talked to a lot of people and seen the power of getting positive and uplifting people in the same room.

We're actually starting an initiative in a couple months called Sip for SHE, where you can gather with some of your friends in your home over a glass of wine or your favorite beverage of choice and talk about women's issues around the world, and how we can really walk alongside each other and become better allies for change.

We are seeking donations for our upcoming year. We are aiming to double our impact. Last year, we had 65 girls in the program. This year, we're aiming for at least 130. That is something that would be tremendously helpful for our organization moving forward. There'll be some exciting new ways to get involved, so just stay tuned on our website, I guess. [laughs]

Caitlin:  What's the cost to basically sponsor a girl for a year?

Payton:  That's something that's evolving a little bit. For the first year, it was a $50 sponsorship. That covered a school uniform and a full year of tuition, but we really built out our after‑school program and seen that that's where a significant portion of the impact is happening.

A lot of the girls we serve have been orphaned for the majority of their lives, have suffered different forms of violence and abuse, and come to us when nobody else will listen to them.

It's really important that we build this program to be a great opportunity for girls to be heard and to also be supported and not judged. It's still a very taboo thing in Togolese culture, so we're trying to break through some of those barriers. Just be a safe place for all of these girls.

That has contributed to our second year of fundraising. A new sponsorship for the 2018‑2019 school year will be $150 for a girl. That'll be a school uniform, full tuition sponsorship, and then all‑year entrance into our after‑school program, where she'll learn other leadership skills and do all of the skills training.

Caitlin:  Amazing. Thank you so much for all of the great work that you're doing. It's amazing and inspiring. We feel lucky that we get to share a city with you. [laughs]

Payton:  Likewise. Holy cow. That's been such an amazing part of the journey is meeting all the people in Boise who care so much about people around the world. That has kept me going, so thank you.

Caitlin:  It's always cool to see people who are really making global change and don't live on the coast. I think that's always a bit surprising to the wider world to see that this sort of thing happens, even in states like Idaho and cities like Boise.

Payton:  You mean Iowa? [laughs]

Caitlin:  Yeah, Ohio?


Caitlin:  Anyway, if you want to read more about Payton, you can find her full interview with our founder and president, Russ Stoddard at Her website, again...Payton, you want to give that to us one more time?


Caitlin:  We'll be sharing this on our Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Hope you'll stay involved. Our next Changemaker interview's going to come up next quarter, so stay tuned for more information about that. Thanks for watching. All right.

Man 1:  [inaudible 25:26]

Payton:  We made it. [laughs]

Man 1:  [inaudible 25:29] .

Caitlin:  I said, "How was it?"

Man 1:  That was great. [inaudible 25:30] . We all feel really inspired now.

Caitlin:  OK. I hope it really works.

Connect with Payton

She's LinkedIn, and you can learn more about SHE on their website, or follow along on Facebook, or connect on LinkedIn.