Innovation Spotlight: A Conversation with Ashira Pelt (MALD '23)
Co-founder of Blesser Breakers
Ashira Pelt, MALD 23, along with co-founders Wabei Saboi, MIB 22 and Daniel Kibet, MIB 23, is building Blesser Breakers, a company whose mission is to deliver educational programming to 8th grade girls in Zambia as a way to reduce sexual exploitation by “sugar daddies”-- older men who give money and gifts in exchange for sexual favors. Following is an excerpt from a recent interview. For more information on Blesser Breakers, click here.
I understand you just returned from Zambia. What was the trip like?
While there, we applied for the Sugar Daddy Prize Challenge, which focuses on the distribution of poverty alleviation solutions in Africa. The delivery method is a 20-minute video and a one-hour curriculum for grade eight girls. It’s already been done in quite a few places in sub-Saharan Africa, but we are focusing on bringing it to Zambia.
What we're actually doing is we've started the pilot in a town called Mongu, which is 12 hours away from the capital. It's pretty remote. It’s actually the hometown of Wabei, one of our co-founders. She lived there until she was out of high school. She's seen firsthand just how pervasive the sugar daddy situation is in Zambia. In Africa, sugar daddies are called Blessers, which is where the name Blesser Breakers comes from.
We’re starting with five high schools in the Mongu and Limulunga area, and during our trip to Zambia we worked with the Ministry of Education to determine which schools had the highest need for this type of programming and would serve as the best places to test out the pilot program. And it was really cool to be able to go to Wabei’s high school, see her return to her hometown and talk to the girls. Just her being there helped show them they had other options.
What inspired you to be involved in this new venture?
Well, the problems with sugar daddies and generational relationships and predatory relationships are widespread. It's worldwide, and it's not something that I haven't experienced. I grew up in Florida, Iived in Massachusetts, and lived in New York City as a young girl. And it's really pervasive, especially for those coming from a very low-income background.
Of the friends I grew up with, I was one of the only ones to attend college. One friend had three kids by the age of 19, and my other close friend was in and out of jail constantly. So it's not the same situation as what's going on in Zambia, but I understand what it's like when you are unable to see other options and other pathways to get out of what you're currently in.
I was really lucky because a lot of programs, kind of like Blesser Breakers, were targeted to me. I was able to go to school outside of my neighborhood, and that just put me on a whole different track. I really understand the importance of education and being able to see different options and make your choice. I know what it’s like to be a young girl; we can be pretty stubborn, and once we make a decision, we stick with it.
But you can influence young girls by giving them options. If you have ten brilliant options and one bad option, then you're more likely to go for one of the nine good options. But if you only have two or three options that you can see for yourself, you're more likely to go for one of the worst. I see us providing different options for the girls. Highlighting why one option that seems like it could be a really shiny option–if I just be nice to this man, he'll give me money for school or whatever – could be much more negative than it might seem at first glance.
What has the start-up journey been like?
We've been working on the idea since September, and were notified about winning the D-Prize in April, so it has been a very quick turnaround from the time we knew we had the go-ahead to pursue this opportunity to when we left for Zambia. It's been intense, really intense. It's a lot of hard work. It's a lot of long nights and just willing yourself to get things done. Your heart has to be really connected to the mission or else you'll just completely burn out.
We have been very lucky, though, to get the amount of support that we have -- from Fletcher, the Derby Entrepreneurship Center, and the D-Prize itself. And then once we got to Zambia, we had huge community buy-in. The community support was just overwhelming. This problem is something that we know is a huge problem here, but no one is addressing it. No one wants to talk about it. But the community said, “We're happy to have you here to talk about it, and we will help you and make sure that you can stay here and take down any barriers that you need to move forward.” So that was really beautiful.
You talk about the long days and long nights. What were some of the most challenging aspects?
It's twofold. Before we went to Zambia, a lot of it was worrying about financials. How do you make this financially solvent, especially because it's a social impact venture. But there was also the visioning. What is the mission? Nailing down the pieces of what it is we’re actually doing.
And then when we got to Zambia, we had a lot of roadblocks as we tried to make headway into the Ministry of Education. But I'm actually really proud that we stuck with it and went that route because most organizations working in Zambia decided to just do after school programs or chose not to work within the schools because they didn't want to have to go through that process. But once we finally went through that process, everything was smooth sailing and we were able to operate with more power because we knew we had the Ministry of Education on our side. And I think that really gives us a competitive advantage over many of the other organizations that are in that space, even in much larger organizations. So that took a lot of time.
What has your experience at Fletcher been like, and how has it helped you prepare for this challenge?
It’s been amazing. Every day I'm humbled by my classmates. And, you know, we have people who are from every corner of the world, people who are diplomats, people who are working on some of the world's biggest problems. And everyone is just so humble and willing to work and willing to talk. Before this, I was working in a human rights and governance setting, and it was nice to be able to come out of that working experience and get back into a sphere of academia where I can just debate things and write and really delve into issues.
And what has your experience been like in the Tufts Venture Accelerator Program?
We were really lucky. We were one of the only groups allowed to do a full-time Accelerator program remotely. Now that we're back, we are doing it in person, but it’s been really great because different modules each week teach different components of building a start-up. Everything from marketing, branding, sourcing, fundraising, to creating your mission and vision and goals. And they pair you up with mentors. We have an amazing mentor whose name is Katherine Popper, and she was willing to meet with us over Zoom while we were in Zambia. And then you also just get the benefit of being in an environment with other people who are building a start-up. Our peers -- we've learned so much from them.