This week’s Her:Stories is one for the books. Before you read on, I’d suggest you grab a couple of tissues because you’ll probably need them! I had the opportunity to interview Dre Thomas, CEO and Founder of Smile On Me. She’s a friend, a world-changer and such an inspiration to me.
…and seriously, grab those tissues.
Karen Cecilia: Tell me a bit about yourself. Where do you come from? What brought you to New York?
Dre: I’m originally from Los Angeles, California (s/o Inglewood!) I came to New York in 2011 because it’s always been my dream to live here! I fell in love with the idea of New York in high school, because of the movies and tv shows like Sex and The City, I wanted to live like Carrie Bradshaw! Until I moved here and realized how unrealistic that dream was. I came here for a year-long program I was doing with Americorps and after that was up, I decided to stay longer.
KC: You recently began an organization called Smile On Me that aims to empower and encourage young inner city girls. First, what’s the idea behind the name? Would you share how this came about and what your goal is for it?
D: Smile On Me actually started 13 years ago when I was a junior in high school. I remember my mom and I were having a conversation about girls in our community and I wanted to provide underwear and bras for girls. I grew up in low-income neighborhoods my whole life, was raised by a single mom and had 3 other siblings, two of which were girls. I never had my OWN things, everything was hand me downs, even my underwear! So, initially, I wanted to provide “gift baskets” for girls with new underwear and bras, and little something extra like chapstick or their favorite body spray. After a few years past, and I moved to New York, I was motivated to actually start this! I launched last year on my birthday, encouraged friends, family, and co-workers to bring a feminine hygiene product to donate instead of a gift. That day, I collected 500 products! That’s when I knew I had something here. Since then, I’ve donated those products to girls throughout NYC and have facilitated workshops on self-esteem and hygiene. It’s really funny to think that this dream started when I was 16 and now, at 28, I’m actually able to see it come to fruition! The name Smile On Me actually came from a Frank Ocean song called Lens and was later confirmed by a bible verse:
The Lord will smile on you and be kind to you. Numbers 6:25 (GW)
KC: Starting any type of business or organization is really hard work. It involves a lot of determination. I know that first hand. What have you found to be the greatest challenge so far? What motivates you to keep pressing forward in the face of setbacks?
D: God, honestly! I recently closed out a fundraiser and it has truly been the most stressful thing I’ve done in a long while. I was actually becoming bitter when people wouldn’t donate, it was really affecting my whole attitude towards Smile On Me. Like when I saw people on Instagram going out to eat or whatever but said they couldn’t donate to Smile On Me because money was tight, that really made me bitter. I even told myself that I would cut off everyone who didn’t donate. That’s honestly what made it so stressful, I was just becoming such a bitter person and not celebrating the fact that I get to do this. I was losing sight of the vision. So, I believe it was about a month in when God told me to relax, literally (he knows what I respond to, ha) So I prayed and asked God to help me be grateful. And so, he did! Every time I started to feel that bitterness come up, I’d just pray and thank God. I realized that this was a moment of growth for me as a new business owner and I no longer wanted to complain through it. Although the fundraiser was only 60 days, I feel like I’ve grown so much since we launched on April 9. I learned that God was building my character through this. I mean, what kind of CEO would I be if I cut everyone off who didn’t support me head on? Who wants a bitter CEO? Who wants to follow someone who is fickle? So, God came through as always, and it was truly an incredible experience. There have been so many times since I launched last year where I wanted to quit and give up, but I just couldn’t. Because even if the summit doesn’t happen, even if no one donated, Smile On Me is my heart. I can’t get away from it. And that’s given me so much peace because I don’t feel like I have to rush this. I believe I’ll be celebrating girls for the rest of my life, whether it’s through Smile On Me or not, this is who I am, this is what God has called me to do and it’s such an honor.
KC: What’s been a favorite experience with Smile On Me so far?
D: My favorite part has been hanging out with the girls! We did a photo shoot in March for the campaign and that was so exciting. Not only because the images came up perfectly (s/o to Sylvie Rosokoff) but hearing the girls share their expectations of summit and what they’d like to see, was gold! Also, it’s been really refreshing speaking to other entrepreneurs and hearing them share the same frustrations or struggles. I was joking around with a friend of mine back home in LA who started her own cooking channel on YouTube about how we should start an Entrepreneur Support Group, and I quickly realized that we actually should!
(Photo by: Sylvie Rosokoff — Instagram: @sylviethecamera)
KC: As a Christian woman and churchgoer, what place, if any, do you feel feminism has in church?
D: God is obviously a feminist! I strongly and wholeheartedly believe that. God is FOR women, he favors women, he blesses women, he makes space for women, he celebrates, elevates, inspires, and impacts women every day! Just like every other word, including Christianity, feminism has so many negative connotations. In fact, I refused to even call myself a feminist for a long while because of how it was portrayed, or what I thought it meant. But just like Christianity, I decided to create my own meaning of feminism. I think if you were to describe a feminist as someone who celebrated, inspired, made space for women, everyone would be on board. And that’s how I define feminism. And I believe the church is the same, or at least it should be. The church, boardrooms, offices, operate better when women are at the table. I’m glad people are becoming more aware of intersectionality and inclusivity when it comes to discussing women’s rights & equality, and I am hopeful that the church will lead by example.
KC: How, if in any way, does your faith impact the message and meaning behind Smile On Me?
D: The number one thing that women and girls tend to lose or forget is their worth. Growing up I never thought I was worthy of anything good because I believed all the negative things the world told me. I bought into the narrative of being a poor black girl who would never measure up to anything, that became my identity. A major part of my restoration with God was him reminding me who I was and who he called me to be. It took me a long while to believe what he said about me, and even now, I still struggle with believing that truth. I know girls around the world have the same doubts and negative thoughts that I had growing up and I believe God has put me in a position to remind girls that they matter. I’ve found 12 verses in the bible that say Smile On Me (or shine your face on me in other translations) and in each verse the ask is for God to smile on them and bring kindness, strength, restoration, and peace. A smile can bring a lot of healing, and so the message behind Smile On Me is to awaken every girl to her inner greatness. Every time I hear a girl share her story, or I get to empower her to stand up for herself, I feel like God is smiling on me, and it brings me so much joy and peace — there’s no greater feeling!
KC: You have a summit coming up, can you share about that and what you plan to do?
D: This July, we’re hosting our very first summit! It’s something I thought of doing last year after Teen Vogue launched their first summit. The thing with Teen Vogue, however, is that the tickets range between $300-$400, I can’t even afford that! When I was younger, there were so many cool events I wanted to go to but was unable to because of the price. My mom had four kids, so if one of us was going, we all were going! I couldn’t imagine my mom sending us all to an event with ticket prices at $30 let alone $300! So, I decided to host my own summit, where girls could come for free! At summit, we’ll be facilitating workshops based on mental health, self-esteem, and puberty. We’re even going to have a girl lead panel where panelists will share their story of overcoming adversity and learning to be confident in their own skin. My dream is to host this summit every year, growing in size and even expanding to different cities and states! We’re looking to host 50 middle-school age girls throughout the 5 boroughs and, of course, each girl will leave with a bag filled with feminine hygiene products, and an extra special little something!
KC: For someone looking to partner with you and/or get involved, how could they do that?
D: We’re always looking for partnerships, especially with organizations who work with young girls. We’ve been lucky enough to attain partnerships with a few organizations where we facilitate workshops and provide product and we’d love to reach more girls. If an organization wants to partner with Smile On Me, they can email firstname.lastname@example.org
KC: What’s been your greatest source of inspiration?
D: My niece. I honestly do all this for her so that when she grows up she’ll have a strong community to be part of. Last fall she helped me pack bags to give to girls and she was so excited to count all the products. She even made a list of what she thought we should add to the bags and also suggested that I get prettier bags next time. I remember one time she asked me why I was doing all this and as I was explaining it to her, I could see her eyes light up and that gave me goosebumps.
KC: Ha! I literally wrote this question with your niece in mind! I remember you saying once that she’s your best friend and I totally understand because my nieces and nephews are my most favorite people on the planet!
KC: If you could meet and have dinner with any historical figure, who would it be and why?
D: This is always a hard question for me to answer because it seems to change throughout the different seasons of my life. However, at the moment, I’d say Harriet Tubman. Last year I did an in-depth study of her life and found out she was so much more than what the history books portrayed her to be. She was so brave, and bold, and selfless, our American Moses! She gained her own freedom and went back for others. She made space for others and that’s what I’m trying to do, that’s what I want my life to be about, simply making space for others. She challenged stereotypes of race, gender, and class and helped free 70 slaves, by herself! I remember reading a story about how when she was invited to an event in her honor that she was still so poor that she had to sell a cow just to buy a train ticket! I think that’s so reflective of how much she gave, she gave everything to save a few and that’s so incredibly inspiring. I truly hope they put her face on that $20 bill!
KC: What do you want to be remembered for?
D: That I snort when I laugh! You know at funerals when they typically have a giant picture of the person on the easel? Well, I want one of me with my mouth wide open laughing, like seriously. Yea, that’s what I want to be remembered for, that I laugh hard and I laugh loud.
For more about Smile on Me you can visit: SmileOnMe.org or follow them on Instagram: @smileonmehq