Hailing from Senegal, Eric Coly thought he had fulfilled his childhood ambitions by pursuing a long career in the corporate world. A long self-examination led to a strong desire to enter the world of high fashion instead. Realizing the deep impact that education had had on the women in his life, he found it to be a vital addition to his company’s mission. Le Dessein provides the opportunity of education to underprivileged young girls through donating a quarter of its profits to schools in Africa, and by featuring these girls’ art on Le Dessein fashions. Check out what Eric has learned along his journey:
How did you find your grey?
A strong sense of loss, frustration and despair preceded finding my grey. I now believe that those emotions were necessary stages without which I would not have found this blessing of a career. I like to say that: “Those who don’t get lost never find their way.” Mine started with trying to deconstruct over 30 years of a meticulously planned life. My background was in finance – 10 years spent between Private and Investment Banking, followed by bouts of depression forced me to question my entire construct and re-define the meaning of happiness. I am from a family strongly defined by matriarchy. My grandmother went to college in the 1920s in Senegal, my country of origin, and of her nine children, her last (my mother) was educated in France. My two sisters each have post-graduate degrees was also quite fortunate to have a mother who had a strong interest in fashion. My current endeavor is really a way to honor those women through the vessel of fashion. Le Dessein addresses the educational needs of underprivileged girls by featuring their designs on our fashion, and contributing 25% of our profits to their education.
How do you live in the grey? How does your work relate to other aspects of your life?
For me, living in the grey means I must be of service. It suits me best. And that really even transcends the girls we are working with overseas. It could range from humbly helping someone find their own grey (it is a difficult thing to come to terms with because it requires action, once found), to lending an ear to someone whose own grey is close and palpable enough that it just needs to be fully embraced.
Also, because I really believe that most of us have not found our own grey, I try to make it a point to surround myself with thinkers that are as “delusional” as me in order to maintain my sanity. For such energies to be kept alive, they need to be around similar sensibilities.
What is your favorite part of your work?
As the head of Le Dessein, my work consists of a number of elements ranging from designing, branding, marketing, accounting, finance, etc… But I have always been a dreamer, and a mind wanderer. So I really enjoy trying to design and strategize and build what the future of our company is going to look like. For instance, what country could we work with in the future? What additional fashion lines could we add? Which geographical markets have we yet to cover domestically and internationally, sales-wise? Is our business model working efficiently and what improvements might it need? Are we creating the desired impact that is most beneficial to the girls we are working with?
How did you become qualified enough to do what you love?
In a sense, I almost see your question as an oxymoron. If someone loves a certain field, they do not have to necessarily be qualified. It was at least the case for me. Ardent passion fueled my interest in entering a field I absolutely no business entering. Passion is that unexplainable thing that keeps you up at 3AM, learning something new – that gives you ultimate discipline, focus and energy – and makes you ultimately a pupil of the game. And that is what matters most. We as individuals will wait and wait to be “qualified.” So as to your question, I still don’t think that I have caught up to the optimal level of qualifications, although I have gotten far better at my job year after year.
How has your work helped you live a more fulfilled life?
The very nature of my existence now is built around participating, and empowering young beautiful and ambitious girls from developing countries and making them realize how much they MATTER – helping them realize that there’s another avenue different from the trajectory defined by a patriarchal society, which assigned such a dismal value to them. I now suffer from an unbridled and contagious happiness often manifesting itself through convincing strangers at a random coffee shop that that second life is worth visiting. Le Dessein has blessed me in ways I never could have imagined.
What’s one thing you do every morning to get ready for the day?
The one thing that I do every day is try to remain open to my surroundings. And that just means truly engaging with the community around me – which necessitates a good deal of vulnerability. I have derived a great amount of my inspiration from it.
What’s something you wish you had known at the outset of your career?
The thing I wish I had known at the outset of my career would have been to find a mentor much sooner. While I ended up learning a lot in a shorter amount of time, a mentor would have conspicuously eased this process.
What advice do you have for beginners in your industry specifically?
I would say PASSION behind the idea or project first. Starting a business is a rather difficult task; starting it in an uncharted field that claims to have a social benefit, an even a more arduous task. Most people have not yet bought into the benefits of a socially responsible world – so it will be during those challenging moments that a brilliant and innovative idea will demand persistence, focus, and discipline that only passion can fuel.
Next, I would say to research thoroughly the particular industry in question, also find mentors and eventually capital, were the project to need it. And last, have FAITH!
How do you support and help people on your team to live grey?
To me living in the grey is tantamount to having your own sandbox. It is a place where a certain alignment between yourself and your purpose take place. However I am also a firm believer that to find your grey, you absolutely must know yourself – which could take a long time, as it is generally a painful and emotional process… I call this process of self inquiry and introspection, “going home.” So with my team I strongly encourage discussions pertaining to shedding some layers, traveling, meditating, and even therapy. Anything likely to build a road inwards in order to “make way” for the truest part of themselves to come out – which in turn organically starts the process of the “sandbox” building.
Do you have a motto?
I have a few quotes I have come up with over the course of this journey that I generally try to live by:
“Those who don’t get lost never find their way.”
“Faith clears the path.”
“You must go home (heart) in order to grow.”
“When Pain knocked, I ran so fast out the back of the house, I could hardly see the beautiful gifts it had brought along.”