Entrepreneur inspires girls to pursue education

By Keri Ferguson

Lindal Tn

Roberta Lindal’s start-up began with a ‘happily ever after’.

Lindal, BA’14, credits an early mentor for sparking her idea to create clothing that inspires girls to pursue their education, and help others who face incredible obstacles in their learning.

“This amazing boss of mine used to tell her 5-year-old daughter fairy tales, but would change the ending from, ‘… and they both lived happily ever after’ to ‘… and they both went and got their engineering degrees,’” Lindal explained.

“It’s brilliant – and she’s right. We need to encourage girls to pick up books, not Barbies, starting at those tender ages.”

With that as her focus, she started La Petite Écolière, a girlswear line without the ubiquitous princesses, fairies and unicorns. Instead, Lindal’s designs underscore what she asserts Pink Floyd got wrong – we do need education.

“Especially girls in communities across Africa, Asia and the Americas who are kept out of school due to things that are completely unimaginable to us here in Canada,” she said, “such as having their period or because they have been forced into an early marriage.”

According to the UN, an estimated 65 million girls are not in school. Lindal wants to do her part to change that, by donating proceeds from every purchase to Plan International.

“I liked their ‘Because I’m a Girl’ campaign, which maintains that when a girl is empowered, she can lift herself and others out of poverty. They work in countries where help’s needed most.”

At the same time, she said she couldn’t ignore other statistics that affect her own country.

“In Canada, our really big conversation is about the lack of women at the board level, at the C-suite level, and in the STEM undergraduate programs, so we need to get girls interested in their education at a much earlier age, in order to build that pipeline of STEM women executives and entrepreneurs.”

Lindal “got the entrepreneurial bug” herself by working at NEXT Canada, a non-profit agency that fast tracks the development of Canada’s young innovators, and where she saw significantly fewer female applicants to the program.

Her passion for cause-marketing started at an even earlier age.

“When I was 14, my aunt was very sick with breast cancer and I founded a charity that made really high-end bracelets. We called it Beading for Hope and we would go to different events and sell these pink bracelets and donate all the money to charities.”

And it was her Western Experience, she said, “that helped shape my worldview on the gaps in education for women in other countries.”

“I was really lucky to participate in two international exchanges, going to Cuba with the Spanish department, where we visited and volunteered in schools, and to Nice, France through the French department, where I volunteered for AFEV, the French equivalent of Big Brothers/Sisters. Now, France is obviously a first-world country with a really strong public education system, but I was able to see the gaps that hold back families on the lower end of the income scale.”

“I mentored a 10-year-old girl who was two years behind in school. Her family had moved to France, and did not speak the French language. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment with five other people and her work space, a dimly-lit kitchen table, shared with three younger siblings eating or running around, was not at all conducive to studying. It was no surprise she was so far behind.”

Working full-time at The Ontario Science Centre as a Development Associate by day, Lindal works on her business at night. For now, she funds the project on her own, thankful for parents who let her move back home in order to save enough money to launch her company, build her own website, and pay her graphic designer, a friend she met at Western.

She makes it her goal to sketch one concept per day, “Just on a scratch pad, because you know, for every one good idea you have, you have ten that are terrible, or aren’t going to sell,” she laughed.

She feels fortunate for the mentorship of Eli Brown, a former Western student and founder of Shine the Light On, a clothing line for men and women that ‘shines the light on’ mental health.

“I had been toying with my idea for probably two years and he’s the one that really pushed me. He said, ‘Why don’t you just start? I started with nothing; you can do it too.’ I’ve been lucky in what I’ve learned from him. His biggest piece of advice was to start small and see what works, to use my first run as a test run, to see which designs sell better in certain colours or in certain sizes, before making more.”

Lindal’s shirts, sold through her website, are “imagined, designed and made in Canada” from organic cotton and bamboo.

“It was important to me to be really careful in my sourcing for the shirts, and that they not be made by young girls in a sweat shop. I’ve visited the factory here in Toronto and I’ve met the unionized workers. They have great working conditions, which was important to me as well.”

Her applications for clothing models for her photo shoots focus more on learning than looks, asking parents questions that include, ‘What is your daughter learning today?’ or ‘What’s her favourite subject?’ and ‘What does she want to be when she grows up?’

“It’s been honestly so cool to connect with moms who want to drive their children to succeed, and to have that incredible network of peers I met at Western. They’ve all been really supportive of me on this journey whether it be an introduction to a new role model for my website, or giving feedback on the products.”

“Western also helped me get really comfortable and confident – I wasn’t the most confident person before, and now I’m confident enough to raise my voice on issues that matter to me. This is definitely one of those issues.”