Philanthropist Manuela Testolini & Designer Kelsy Dominick on the Power of Giving Back
By Crystal Tate
Manuela Testolini, philanthropist and founder of nonprofit organization In A Perfect World, is focused on empowering and mentoring less fortunate children and empowering at-risk youth. Testolini, who’s currently married to singer/songwriter Eric Benét and ex-wife of the late singer Prince, and her organization are also committed to building schools in some of the poorest countries in the world and have built 26 schools to date, including two in Malawi in honor of Prince. We spoke with the philanthropist to learn more about her organization and how young women can give back. We also spoke with Kelsy Dominick, chair of In a Perfect World’s youth advisory board and founder of DiDomenico Design, about her involvement with the nonprofit and her advice to women on inspiring the youth and starting a business.
Can you tell us more about your nonprofit, In a Perfect World, and what inspired you to start it?
Mauela Testolini: In a Perfect World has evolved to be an international youth development organization and we mentor youth through the arts, through service projects and then we also have been funding schools internationally so that we can empower through education as well. And that is not where we started. It’s something we've evolved to over the last 11 years. Initially I wanted to become an attorney and I had started to become a bit disenchanted with the legal system in that process and decided to volunteer in a homeless shelter. That is really what the pivot point was for me. It changed the course of what I decided to do with my life because I enjoyed interacting with people directly and having an impact and seeing that impact immediately. So I ended up doing some consulting for other foundations and in doing that, another pivot point was “OK I really want to do this in my own way and to do this more hands-on all the time.” And that is how In a Perfect World started. I started with doing mentoring projects for little kids who were in foster care and in treatment facilities and reaching them through the arts. And that has continued to evolve into major projects now. We just came out of an Earth Day project with my daughter who's our junior ambassador. And the kids today were doing art projects that focused them on why it's important to care for the earth, and to make their mark even if they're four or five years old. So there's so much that we're doing now that we've accomplished in the last 11 years that is so meaningful. We’re working with kids who are in situations where they may not feel like they have a voice and we give them the power to make change. I really want these kids to know that they can make an impact. That also extends to the kids we work with internationally where they're disenfranchised and don’t have access to education and basic resources. If we're able to put a school in their community and change the whole cycle of their life and where their path is headed, it's really impactful work for us.
You also built a school in honor of your ex-husband Prince. Can you share more details about the school?
MT: The schools started coming about a few years ago. I was in in Mumbai and ended up being caught up in the Mumbai terrorist attacks. While I was there, I was volunteering with an organization to educate children living in the slums and I found myself standing in the middle of a slum in Mumbai and being overwhelmed with the number of issues that the people, particularly the children, were facing. In those communities, it was everything from alcoholism, domestic abuse, malnutrition, poor sanitation and lack of education. When I looked around, I realized all of those things can be impacted by education. Then, I got stuck in the terrorist attack and it just really solidified for me that people who are educated and who have other opportunities don't do things like participate in terror attacks.
We went to this community in Haiti for our 10th anniversary for In a Perfect World. We live with host families when we visit the schools or to break ground on a school. I was laying on the floor contemplating “How did I get here? Not only geographically in this remote village in the mountains of Haiti, but also how did I get here in this position to be able to help people in this way?” And I felt an immense sense of gratitude for Prince and for where we started. Prince and I shared a love of philanthropy. I used to organize and manage his charity and then eventually I decided to start my own, and he was very supportive of that. He even helped me choose my logo. He was very supportive of me having my own sort of philanthropic baby and he was around when it started.
I came off of that trip at the end of 2015 saying I really would like to do a school in honor of him to just express this gratitude and then four months later, he was gone. I'm happy that we were still able to do the school and able to go forward with it. I was there for the inauguration in October, which was amazing, and then another amazing thing that came out of it was when the fans heard about what we were doing and wanted to somehow support a second school. They sent seed money, which covered about 10 percent of the base cost for a second school, and we matched the rest of it. We stayed after the inauguration to break ground on the second school in Malawi. That school is now fully operational and the kids started classes there in January. And it's all because I was inspired and then the fans were inspired as well. We have hundreds of kids who are being educated and with him as the catalyst.
You're passionate about empowering the next generation and have a youth ambassador program. Can you share more about the program? Also what would you say it means to be a philanthropist?
MT: We started the youth ambassador program and our focus is really on kids who are 14 to 18 and mentoring them and teaching them how to be change agents and be of service to the community whether they come from an advantaged background or disadvantaged background. We want them to know that they can have an impact. We’re teaching them how to be of service, what it's like to put a proposal together, how to put a budget together, how to choose your area of focus so that you're pinpointing what you want to do to have the greatest impact, how to recruit mentors to help, how to get people on your team and also how to get the rest of the community involved. And all of those things teach such great life skills in general and they also have this amazing impact with whatever project they choose to do. It's great for us to see. Whether we have kids who are passionate about the environment or somebody who wants to do something with seniors in nursing homes, the inspiration for the project comes from them and then we really just guide them to completion. And that’s what we've done, we’ve taken someone like Kelsy Dominick who's been involved with us since she was 14, and now she’s the chair of our youth advisory board. So we have the kids who have graduated the from the program who are now coming back to mentor the next round of the kids that are coming up in it. That, to me, is the ultimate end of the pay it forward mentality.
What initially interested you about In a Perfect World and made you want to be a part of it?
Kelsy Dominick: When I was younger, I wanted to do service projects in the community but did not have an outlet do it. I think I would have been involved more in my church or trying to figure out different ways to give back that way. But with partnering with In a Perfect World, it really gave me that outlet not only to give back to the community but also learn really valuable leadership skills. And I think that's a huge reason why I feel compelled to give back now because those things attributed to some of my major successes today come from being able to learn that acumen at a young age, because you can't learn that in school. So when I was younger, it was something I felt like I wanted to do but it definitely empowered me and made me feel like I could advocate for change and have the ability to stand on my own stage and say people my age can make a difference and they continue to do it today.
What's the biggest life lesson that you've learned being a part of In A Perfect world?
KD: I think the biggest thing that Manuela always teaches is to pay it forward and it doesn't matter where you come from or what your background is but you can do something to make change. You know if it's not money, it's time and if it's not time, it's education. Education is one of the things that when people have it, you can't take it away. It really empowers them to give more to the next generation and that was my most valuable lesson too. It's really valuing the education process like being in school and making sure that what I learned, I applied to real life. So my biggest thing that I learned was paying it forward. And now that's why I feel I'm so passionate about having these youth ambassadors. They have these ideas that most adults don't even challenge themselves because they feel it's beyond their reach and just giving them that platform to do it is so important. It's so important because it'll escalate into something even bigger beyond that as they get older.
What advice would you share with young women about giving back? How can they give back to their local communities and find a cause that they care about?
KD: If they're doing something that really kind of invokes some type of feeling in them or change like it's connected to their purpose, then I think it's their duty and responsibility to continue to do that and the more they work on it, the more they can give back to it. Anything that you work on is like what you also put out into the world. It's like anything that you are. So my biggest thing to women is to continue to work at that and to feed into that. Even if it's not something you preach every single day, when people see that you practice it, they follow it.
MT: To add to that, I would say that I think as women we forget that it's OK to ask for help. You should create or cultivate your tribe of like-minded individuals that will support what you're doing and bring something to the table so that you're not a one-woman show. I feel like women tend to do that because they feel like they're out to prove something. But there is something to be said about letting yourself be the inspiration for something and then accepting a group of people to help you and really talk that out. It makes what you're doing bigger and better and that much more impactful when you can have other people involved as well.
KD: To piggyback off of that, a lot of the things I learned when I was young, like being challenged to have a project In A Perfect World, is the reason why I can run a business today and those small things really add up. I haven't accomplished anything without anybody else that was in that tribe. They say it takes a village to raise a child. All the people that were surrounded by me that really encouraged me to do those things are the reason why I can do more today and it's important to recognize it.
How can young women inspire the youth themselves?
MT: My daughter Lucia is only five and she really wanted to go to Haiti a couple of years ago when she was just about to turn four. I said, “I can't take you to Haiti because I am staying in a remote village and there's no water and no electricity.” But basically she wanted to come because she saw on a daily basis what we're working on with In a Perfect World. Whether it's what I'm doing or what Kelsy's doing, she wanted to be involved which is why I Invited her to be our Junior Ambassador so she could have local projects that make her feel impactful. Because she couldn't go to Haiti, I had her do a school supply drive and I took a bunch of backpacks to an orphanage that we are working with in Haiti so that she could see that she's still having an impact there even though she can't personally go there herself. So I think that kids, younger siblings, and in particular girls, should be encouraged to participate. It might not be the way they would like to participate because they're still young, but there's always some kind of way to find out an impact point for them as well.
KD: For me, I have a younger sister who's two years younger than me but as we're growing up, I think the two most important ways women can empower each other is listening to each other and holding each other accountable. If you can't move mountains for each other or make connections in certain areas, you can at least hold them accountable and be that person that says, “I know you have this dream or aspiration or the desire to help people. Where are you on track with that?”
MT: I also ask people what are you doing to move yourself forward? If that's your goal, whatever your goal is, what is it that you are doing today to move yourself forward? I think if we can all help each other move forward, then we are getting closer to what we should be doing right now.
As a young female designer and entrepreneur, what advice would you share with aspiring entrepreneurs?
KD: I started my business at the age of 22, made it an LLC at 23 and now I’m 25. People often discredit younger people and believe they do not have valuable input and we need to break those perceptions. Age means nothing when hard work, passion and a desire to learn are included in the mix. Young females especially face a lot of obstacles in building their dreams but were made for it and have to fight for it. If there was anything I would want to tell my younger self, it would be to start earlier. I feel like I got a later start on what I wanted to do just because of my age and my feeling that I wasn't mature enough to build anything of value. I have literally known what I wanted to do since the age of nine. I always ask myself, why was I so scared to just start? Two years after starting my company, I have showcased in New York Fashion Week, was the first American designer in sixty years to show in Cuba since the embargo, have crowdfunded $40,000 and now will be on the runways of Cannes Film Festival in one month. It has been absolutely amazing, but it all would have never happened unless I first believed in myself and relied on others to learn what I needed.
Anything else you'd like to share with The Life Currency audience?
MT: I think you should understand the value of a mentor whether it's through an organization or through an individual. If you can find yourself a mentor, it will serve you very well but you have to be very specific about what you want from your mentorship. What are you trying to get, what do you need help with or where do you need guidance? The other thing I would say is that Kelsy's very humble. She doesn't really speak to all of the things that she's accomplished so far. Kelsy was the first American designer to show her collection in Cuba since the embargo, which is a huge accomplishment for someone, in particular someone her age. But I think to look to those examples like Kelsy, where someone this young has accomplished something so incredibly huge. I think finding a mentor and finding inspiration in other people are two great paths to follow.
KD: Mentorship is very important because it's all about the people that are before you and the people that are there right alongside you. You have to be willing to talk to them and communicate because if you don't put something out into the universe, nobody's going to ever know that you have a dream or an aspiration to do something. You have to continually work at it and let it become part of who you are because who you are today is not who we are tomorrow and not the person that you ultimately want to become. So you have to be open to change, and open to continually learning because you should never be the smartest person in the room. You should always want to learn through somebody else and build on what you know.
Crystal Tate is the editorial manager of The Life Currency, and a freelance editor, writer and stylist based in New York City. When she isn't sitting behind her laptop, she enjoys spending time with family and friends, traveling and inspiring young women to shatter glass ceilings. Follow her on Twitter at @CrystalDenise and see more of her work at Crystal-Tate.com.