Sabrina Dhowre Elba’s journey to becoming confident in her own skin
July 20, 2023/Climate & Sustainability, Featured, Health & Wellbeing, Insights
Sabrina Dhowre Elba is the CEO of a skincare brand, a model, an activist, and a UN Goodwill Ambassador. She joined us at The Conduit to share her insights on a range of topics, from ethical business and climate change, to gender equality and running a business with her husband Idris Elba.
To the onlooker, it might seem odd that a model, of all people, would struggle to find confidence in their own skin, yet Sabrina Dhowre Elba has spent most of her life battling to find her place. She’s the eldest daughter of a Somali-heritage family raised in Vancouver, Canada, where she found herself being the only black girl in her high school. She endured displacement during her childhood in order to escape an abusive step-father. She’s worked hard to establish her own identity, despite being married to one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. And she’s had to find her place in the halls of power heading up a cosmetics brand in an industry where (if they’re regarded at all) Black women are seen solely as consumers and not as CEOs.
In a thought-provoking and captivating evening at The Conduit, Sabrina, who co-founded ethical skincare company S’ABLE Labs, shared her own inspiring journey and shed light on why she has become an advocate for ethical business models that benefit both the end consumer and the farmers at the start of the supply chain, who are hard-working women from the global south, much like her own mother.
Rural workers are looking for investment, not handouts
Sabrina’s mission to advocate for ethical farming that benefits rural women has led her to rub shoulders with and hold the ears of some of the most powerful people in politics on the biggest stages in the world. However, Sabrina’s journey to becoming a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the International Fund for Agricultural Development has its roots in the Horn of Africa.
Her mother, Maryam Egal, grew up in Somalia and she described her mother’s childhood as pastoral. Sabrina explained that she was raised on stories of her mother’s memories of being outdoors, herding camels, and enjoying living off their family’s land before Maryam emigrated to Canada. Her mother would recount how the family grew everything they ate and how going to farmers’ markets was an integral part of their culture and community.
“Rural people work so hard,” Sabrina reflected, referring to women that she’s met across Africa from Somalia to Sierra Leone. “You get to the rural areas and its women feeding the country, the city, and feeding us… Women are so responsible, when they make money, they send children to school and they take care of their communities… always in a way that wants to give back.”
Growing up in Canada the prevalent narrative around people from African was shaped by commercials pleading for aid to save Africans that would appear on TV from the likes of UNICEF, a narrative Sabrina said she hated as it portrayed a continent full of people desperate to receive handouts from the West. Today, she feels her childhood unease at this rhetoric has been validated by her own extensive travels to the African continent.
“They are hardworking people who are not looking for a handout; they’re looking for investment and an opportunity,” she explained. “That’s what I want to support.”
In her UN ambassadorial role, she revealed her surprise that agriculture does not appear to be on heads of states’ list of priorities, even though climate change is. Both her perplexity and passion are palpable as she explained how climate change, agriculture, and gender issues are intertwined, and that it’s rural women from the countries who have contributed the least to climate change who are suffering its gravest impacts.
“Gender has become so intertwined with climate issues that you can’t speak about one without talking about the other,” she said. “Women are genuinely suffering and Covid made it so much worse. When the informal markets closed, what were women supposed to do?”
She called on governments and institutions who are ploughing money into climate adaptation and mitigation infrastructure to not forget about people along the way, and argued that loss and damage restitution should move higher up the global political agenda.
The significance of the Black female CEO
Sabrina is a former pageant queen and has modelled in British Vogue and Elle. However, she’s had to work hard to find her place, her voice, and her confidence in the worlds she navigates.
Having grown up in a world where Black people were seen as aid recipients, beneficiaries of charity and handouts, or consumers of products, she is now turning those perceptions on their head by leading a business as a Black female co-founder that empowers other small businesses, many of which are run by African women.
Why is this important to her? Referring to her mother, she said she feels the responsibility to “give back to the woman that wanted something for me”, adding that “the most forgotten person on the planet is the Black woman.”
Despite being galvanised by her mission and by her ability to adapt to new circumstances time and time again throughout her life, she admits that it’s not always been easy to undo some of the conditioning that society subjected her to and feel confident in spaces where there are not many people like her.
“[As CEO of S’ABLE Labs], I have to constantly ‘prove’ myself in rooms of white men. I hate walking into those rooms, but I have to remember to walk in with my head held high. This is my business and I founded it… and I’m a black woman.”
Indeed, the origins of S’ABLE Labs came from her feeling that there wasn’t enough representation in the content she was exposed to in the nascent wellness and wellbeing industry and community during lockdown. Given the importance of community in her mother’s stories about growing up in Somalia, and given the splintering of communities during enforced Covid lockdowns, Sabrina realised that what her own wellness was based on was notions of friendships, family, and community.
Doing good is hard, but community helps
If you were to visit SABLE Labs’ office, you’ll be greeted by a neon sign that shouts ‘Transparent’. The importance of both transparency and community is something that Sabrina refers to often during her conversation, which was hosted in partnership with The Trouble Club.
S’ABLE Labs prides itself on being fully transparent about what’s in their products. A glossary of ingredients is even listed on its website. Sabrina explained that she had often struggled to understand what was in the cosmetics she was buying and where they came from. She chose the path of transparency so no one who buys their products has to go through the same wall of information and misinformation that she has experienced.
Her commitment to ensuring that there is also transparency in her supply chain and that she can vouch for where the ingredients that go into her products come from has often meant having to turn down opportunities and having to slow down the timeframe to launch products.
“It’s not the easy route… It took us an extra two years to figure out the [supply chain] problem,” she revealed before saying that she could now say that she is proud of how they’re sourcing their products, working in partnership with Farm Africa.
“If you’re going to get into any business and you want to do it in a way that is ethical and speaks to your values it’s going to be hard. You’re going to have to say no so much more than you can say yes.”
Fundamentally, Sabrina believes that we as consumers don’t do enough to question where ingredients come from, and companies and intermediaries, in a race to appear ethical and sustainable to consumers, often bend the truth or flat-out lie – something Sabrina has experienced herself. This has ultimately affected her trust and has forced her to be even more hands on across the supply chain.
“I have so much mistrust, I don’t trust anyone to do it. Either I’m going, my mum’s going, one of our partner’s going, or Farm Africa’s guiding us…”
However, she has found that community recommendations and validation has been a blessing for them and their partners on the ground.
More than Idris’ wife
Sabrina met her now husband, British actor Idris Elba, in 2017. They married in 2019, a year after People magazine named him the “sexiest man alive”. Living in the light of so high-profile a star can cast long shadows, and Sabrina candidly shared how she had to adapt to his life whilst asserting a need to carve out a lifestyle that also worked for her.
“There was a point in time, I’ll be honest, when I was only doing Idris things and I had a little bit of self-doubt,” she confessed. “Can I do things alone? Why do I feel like I’m [living] in his universe?”
She revealed that pursing her own interests helped her find her own identity within their marriage. Sabrina is in charge of much of the day-to-day running of S’ABLE (which is ‘Elbas’ spelt backwards), but credits her co-founder Idris’ curiosity, creativity, vision, and his occasional Chief Guinea Pig role, for a lot of the brand’s progress and success.
“Idris is such a dreamer; he made feel like I can dream,” she said, bursting with an adoration that was clear for all to see.
Sabrina’s radiance, affability, meticulousness, and intellect come through strongly, but it’s also apparent that these traits haven’t always surfaced easily for her. Reflecting on what she’s learned since the start of the pandemic, she astutely concluded that: “If you don’t have a sense of self, you’re never going to have a successful relationship.”
This seems to strike true in the context of maintaining ethical business relationships, sustaining fruitful romantic relationships, and, critically, deepening one’s relationship with one’s own self.
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