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OUT OF THE BUBBLE: TRACEY’S STORY

Maybe this one for slider?
Clothing Bank co-founder Tracey Gilmore (bottom: far right, top: in centre with scarf): ‘I don’t live in a bubble anymore. I see how women live in difficult situations but still see opportunities and choose kindness and humour. When South Africans work together, we can achieve so much.’

How and why did TRACEY GILMORE create an NPO that’s enabled unemployed single mothers all over South Africa to generate over R150 million in profits? How does it work, how has she herself grown, what makes a good leader and why is gratitude important? She told SUSAN BENTLEY

Tracey (50) is Chief Operating Officer of NPO The Clothing Bank. She was born and grew up in Cape Town, the daughter of two entrepreneurs. She attended Sweet Valley Primary School and Bergvliet High School and is now married to Terence, an oil refinery project manager. They live in Diep River and have three grown-up sons: Stephen, Matthew and James

AT SCHOOL, a teacher called John Gilmour made me aware of injustices in South Africa. When I left school, I worked as a debt collector. This opened my eyes to how innocent people could be drawn into making purchases they didn’t need, and it lit in me a passion for people and for justice.

Going to interviews for a new job, I became aware of the importance of professional clothing. I started collecting smart workwear for low-income job-seekers and then it happened! I was introduced socially to another Tracey: Tracey Chambers, a CA on sabbatical from her job as head of finance at Woolworths.

Over 3 500 women have become entrepreneurs in their own environments thanks to The Clothing Bank programme. ‘We work with resilient, resourceful South Africans who simply need support and access to opportunities,’ says Tracey

We chatted about self-employment as a solution to the jobs crisis, and the fact that there’s excess clothing in the retail supply chain.

Together, we came up with the idea of asking clothing retailers to donate surplus stock that unemployed mothers could use to create their own businesses. If you help a mother, you help a child: double the impact!

Tracey happened to be introduced socially to another Tracey, financial hotshot Tracey Chambers (left). While chatting, they came up with the idea of asking retailers to donate surplus clothing that unemployed mothers could sell to earn money

Before long, we’d approached many of South Africa’s retailers such as Woolworths, Edcon, Pick n Pay, Truworths and The Foschini Group. They responded generously, donating the surplus clothes that come from customer returns and bulk rejections that we could sell on to mothers at a reduced rate. The City of Cape Town generously gave us free space in Salt River and thus The Clothing Bank (TCB) was born!

This is how it works: we have a staff of 70 and we hold five open days per year. From these, we select a group of mothers who volunteer for us for eight days so we can get to know each other better.

Trading up a storm: graduates from The Clothing Bank ply their wares

A mother will then decide whether or not to commit to a proper learning journey, which involves a two-year programme. Every year we take on 500 new mothers and teach them a combination of theory and practical experience, involving everything from basic business and financial literacy to life and computer skills.

We pay for each mother’s transport during the programme, and give her R750’s worth of stock as an interest-free loan so she can start trading.

Participants on the two-year part-time course at The Clothing Bank are taught computer, business, financial and life skills, offered counselling when needed, and have their transport paid for during the volunteer phase. They are also mentored in small groups for emotional support

We also provide counselling where necessary and mentor our mothers in groups of seven, which is where they find emotional support. A sisterhood develops between them, independent of us, which supports them even when they’ve finished the programme.

Five TCB branches are now operating: in Cape Town, Durban, East London, Johannesburg and Paarl. We have eight retail partners and have received donations from the Jobs Fund, Department of Treasury, the European Union, the Michael and Susan Dell (MSD) Foundation and the Allan Gray Orbis Endowment Fund.

Ten years since the inception of The Clothing Bank, the women have generated over R150 million in profits. It’s been an inspiring journey. The ladies grasp the opportunities given to them, using the profits they make to invest in property and their children’s education, and showing how inequality can be tackled in the informal sector.

‘TEACH A WOMAN NOT JUST TO FISH, BUT TO SELL HER FISH!’ GET A SENSE OF THE CLOTHING BANK RIGHT HERE

Tracey [Chambers] and I have been humbled in the process. We started out with the idea of helping people, and soon realised it’s a two-way street, we too are being grown. We don’t live in a bubble anymore. We see how women live in difficult situations but still see opportunities: I don’t know if I’d be able to do this. And we see how even in difficult situations, people choose to have a sense of humour, show kindness, find ways to connect and even seek a relationship with God.

helping men generate an income too

We now have two more projects going. The Appliance Bank is for men who learn business and tech skills, and repair and sell appliances donated by the Clicks chain of stores to generate an income for themselves.

The Clothing Bank is ‘a river that rages’, says Tracey. It has now started The Appliance Bank to teach men business and tech skills, enabling them to earn an income by repairing and selling appliances donated by the Clicks chain of stores

The other project is a franchise of 42 educare centres (www.growecd.org.za). These are early-learning centres that are viable businesses and have the potential to change the future of South Africa by providing quality early learning.

This project is a river that rages! There’s always much to be done, and fortunately I work with purpose-driven, power partners. Tracey and I call this the God-project because we’ve seen so many changes that we can’t explain except through the intervention of God. I believe in God even in this day and age because I see miracles happening daily. People surviving, doors opening. This eternal perspective protects and energises us.

There’s a wonderful atmosphere in our building. We aren’t about handouts. Instead we encourage responsiveness, building an independent mindset of ‘Together we can do this. We’re two pieces of the puzzle.’ This promotes growth in the ability of all to respond to life challenges and opportunities in a conscious, mature way.

The Clothing Bank’s third project is Grow Educare, consisting of 42 centres that aim to combat South Africa’s huge lack of early childhood development facilities

Tracey and I both earn a salary from The Clothing Bank. We’re not a charity, we’re a social enterprise, and we all need an income to survive! We have no shareholders, our profits go back into our programmes. I believe that businesses like The Clothing Bank are well positioned to change the world. I oversee daily operations which involves juggling, problem-solving and making sure we follow procedures. If all involved are able to earn a living, social enterprises become sustainable.

The hard work never lets up and I relax by taking walks and having meals with family and friends. Life isn’t easy and you have to overcome obstacles. Gratitude for life, and your attitude towards it, changes everything. I believe that those who can must help others. It’s important to trust what you’ve been given to do. Don’t wait: persevere and climb the hill one step at a time!

Covid could have had a huge impact on The Clothing Bank. Fortunately, we were able to repurpose some of our funds planned for 2023 to make cash transfers to our beneficiaries, providing them with much relief. When we opened again in May 2020 after lockdown, we also gave our mothers a R450 loan to get restarted. Two factors in our favour were our branch managers, who kept consistent communication with the beneficiaries, and the fact that people were buying local: in fact, we made record sales!

we’ve learnt to make ourselves vulnerable

The Clothing Bank has relationship at its core. We’ve learnt to make ourselves vulnerable, and acknowledge the strengths we have and don’t have. I’ve come to see that you create a sustainable business by being courageous and combining diverse strengths.

I’ve also learnt that to be a good leader, you need to really listen and stay connected. As you grow, you need to make sure you can be agile and constantly adaptable. You’ve got to understand your values and stick by them, to be strong, and come from a place of love. Being loving doesn’t mean you are a walkover. Love can also make you strong!

There’s so much generosity around us, it’s amazing. The Clothing Bank has become a place where people’s lives change. They arrive broken and leave healed. When South Africans work together, we achieve so much.’

SNAPSHOT OF A WOMAN PUSHING BACK AT LIFE: SIVENATHI (WO)MANS HER STALL 

Single mother of two Sivenathi Mtuzula (25) is originally from the Eastern Cape and lives in Ruyterwacht. Challenged with depression through unemployment, she heard from her aunt about The Clothing Bank: ‘Volunteering at the beginning was challenging but I knew I had to make the effort needed. The rewards soon outweighed the challenges: I learnt how to plan, maintain and sustain a business, and how to present myself. I started selling my clothes at a pop-up stall in the Goodwood Mall parking lot. At the beginning it was hard to stand there and have days without sales. But The Clothing Bank offered pick-me-up mentorship that encouraged me. Everyone in our programme gives back by working one day a week, processing stock, entailing unpacking boxes and unbranding clothes, which I enjoy very much.
During the strictest Covid lockdown, we couldn’t always make as much, but The Clothing Bank gave us shopping credit loans which helped sustain us. I earn on average between R8 000 and R15 000 per month, which makes me financially independent. I can buy food, pay rent and school fees for my children as well as pay off some of my debt. I’m happy not to rely on anyone. I’ve also gained a sisterhood with women from different backgrounds and dynamics, and am very grateful for my incredible personal journey.’
Sivenathi and her children, Linamandla and Lisemi. ‘Thanks to The Clothing Bank, I can buy food and pay for school fees and rent. I’m happy not to rely on anyone’  |  Close-up photo and video: Annette Davis

HOW CAN I HELP?

If you’d like to connect with Tracey to contribute in any way to The Clothing Bank programmes, please send her an email

Consider donating appliances in need of repair for The Appliance Bank or clothing fabric and trims to transform clothing stock for sale via the company’s TradeUP programme

To support The Clothing Bank’s Educare programme, contribute financially by donating online

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