Roxanne Joyal Profile

Roxanne Joyal (Manitoba & Hertford 2001) is co-CEO of Me to We and a founding member of Free The Children.  A former parliamentary page in the Canadian House of Commons, her involvement with development work began at a young age when she spent six months in the Klong Toey slum of Bangkok, Thailand, caring for mothers and children afflicted with AIDS.  Roxanne was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Nipissing, and holds an LL.B from The University of Oxford, and a B.A. in International Relations from Stanford.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Roxanne Joyal: Two different places – one would be in Toronto in Canada, and the other is Nairobi in Kenya.

Rhodes Project: If you could meet one historical female figure who would it be and why?

Roxanne Joyal: For me it would most definitely be Margaret Thatcher.  I realise that she’s a very polarising figure, but I do think she was a woman who broke the glass ceiling, and governed with a tremendous amount of conscious intent, and truly believed in what she was doing.  One may not agree with what she was doing, but she was a very successful individual in achieving what it was she set out to do.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me a favourite memory from Oxford?

Roxanne Joyal: My favourite memory of my time at Oxford, wasn’t actually in Oxford, it was in South Africa when we had the pleasure of celebrating the Rhodes centenary.  The trust at that time was so incredibly generous to help facilitate our time there, and that experience of being able to connect with scholars from all over the world and celebrating the legacy and history of the trust was just tremendous.  There was a certain Rhodes Scholar from Canada named Arthur Kroeger who is now deceased, but I will never forget his incredible generosity when we were all in Cape Town.  He took all the Canadian Scholars on a trip to the Cape of Good Hope and showed us how to have a good time!  He is one of my mentors, and that experience with Arthur and the Scholars is truly one of my favourite memories, coupled with the sense of community and legacy.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favourite past project?

Roxanne Joyal: I would definitely say one of the projects I look back on and feel very proud about, was in 2003 I was granted permission by the Rhodes Trust and Hertford College to take off a term from my law degree and come out to Kenya and launch what is now one of our very busy volunteer centres called Bogani Cottages and Tented Camp.  What was so amazing was that with the support of the Trust and my college, I was able to complete my law degree in the same amount of time whilst undertaking this project which is actually one of the foundation pieces of the work we do at the moment.

Rhodes Project: When did you become passionate about the work you do with Me to We?

Roxanne Joyal: The turning point for me, and my work with Me to We, would’ve been because of the gap year I took back in 1997, when I had the chance to work and volunteer in Africa for about six months.  I had the chance to understand some of the opportunities and challenges that concerned a woman in the household in Africa, and it gave me a better appreciation of how difficult life can be for these women.  I left Kenya determined that I would dedicate my studies to understanding both the gender and economic dynamic.  This has really guided me through my academic journey; it’s what I set out to do when I applied for the Rhodes.  It has been a consistent thing.  The project may change but the objective does not, which is to provide a woman with the opportunity to contribute to her community and to her household, and to raise her children in a way that she feels they are receiving the education and the basics of life that they need.

Rhodes Project: What made you choose to follow the social enterprise, rather than traditional charity route for the company?

Roxanne Joyal: In Canada for example, communities are actually fairly generous when it comes to donating – they donate up to 5% of their annual salaries to charities, but I came to realise there was another opportunity to access the other 95% of what people do with their funds.  People make daily consumer choices to purchase things like groceries, or shoes, or t-shirts, or accessories – they are more likely to spend liberally in these areas than they would be to strictly donate.  So what I decided to do along with Marc and Craig Kielburger who are the founders of Free The Children (which is a charity based out of Canada), was to launch a social enterprise that would provide positive and socially responsible consumer choices into the marketplace, and by making this choice of a product that would be equal in quality, if not superior, and made in an ethical fashion, then a portion of this profit would go back to Free The Children. 

What we’ve been able to do as a company is to commit within the mandate and terms of the company, to donate half of our net profit back into the charity, and the other half is reinvested into the social enterprise.  We’re able to offer international volunteer trips, speakers who inspire, as well as socially responsible apparel and accessories.  What I find exciting about following this route is that we’re able to access a larger piece of this pie, we’re able to appeal to a different part of people’s sensibilities, and we’re able to compete in the marketplace.  We’re really the makers of our own destiny, and I really thrive on this challenge.

Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part of your job?

Roxanne Joyal: We’re on a very steep growth curve right now, which I feel very fortunate to be able to say, given the economy and the constant discussion of whether it’s up or down, so right now it’s just managing volume and deciding what our focus is.

Rhodes Project: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Roxanne Joyal: Firstly, the opportunity to work with our tremendous staff, whether that’s our staff based in Toronto, or the artisans who produce the ethically made accessories we sell in Canada both through our retail partners and our online presence.  I’m working with people who are incredibly talented and motivated to make a difference. 

Another key piece of the actual impact we make is to travel to the areas where Free The Children works and to meet the moms and the families we serve, and to see an appreciable difference in their lives over the years, and not because we’re making that difference, but because Free The Children is able to offer a hand-in partnership with these communities and offer them a hand up, and not a hand out.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you offer to a woman interested in setting up her own social enterprise?

Roxanne Joyal: My advice is that the business idea needs to be as sound as it would with any regular business, and that’s where it begins.  If you’d like to have a viable social enterprise you need to have a viable business idea.

Rhodes Project: What do you like to do in your free time?

Roxanne Joyal: Most of my free time I like to spend with my 21 month old daughter – I haven’t had the chance to even read a book in a year and a half, so honestly right now I’m either working or mothering!  Outside of that I’m very keen on keeping fit and physically sharp, so if I’m able to get in a little bit of free time I’ll head to a ballet bar class!

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