It all begins with water, and the act of giving with no expectations of receiving in return. It was a poignant lesson, delivered by Obakki founder Treana Peake to an audience of 2,500 in Vancouver last month for TEDxVancouver, an independently organized TED event. TED’s mandate is sharing “ideas worth spreading”, and her message is certainly one to pass on.
It’s a modus operandi that Peake follows every day. She founded her clothing company Obakki in 2005; her designs are refined, body-conscious staples, effortless and elegant for any occasion in a busy woman’s life. It’s a reality she relates to, as a designer, CEO, avid traveller, humanitarian, wife (to Nickelback guitarist Ryan Peake), and mother of two.
In her TEDx talk, Peake shared her story of a mysterious white envelope, slipped anonymously under her front door every December for years when she was a child. It kept her and her single mother afloat, and taught her early on the effects of a simple gesture and selfless philanthropy, someone caring enough to give just because someone else needs it. “That’s really where it all came from for me,” she says. “It’s astonishing to think that I don’t even know who this person is today.” With this mentality, she created the Obakki Foundation in 2009, which has provided approximately 700 water wells to drought-plagued South Sudan since its inception, among various other philanthropic initiatives. The foundation’s administrative costs are absorbed by the Obakki clothing brand, which allows the charity to send 100 per cent of public donations directly to its humanitarian projects.
“I started fundraising when I was young. I don’t know why I thought this was the easiest way to do it, but I would write plays and audition kids and promote it around town. I put it on and produced it, I think I raised 300 bucks,” Peake says, laughing. Eventually, in adulthood, water access caught her attention.
In South Sudan, where Peake focuses her efforts and spends ample time, the region’s multi-faceted challenges are exacerbated by the constant search for clean drinking water. Schools sit abandoned, as children are out fetching water for their villages. Even when school infrastructure exists, it isn’t sustainable without water for children who often walk for many hours in extreme heat to reach it. Feuds over water access for livestock also fuel violence in the area. “I had been involved in philanthropy in other areas, working in orphanages and on women’s programs, dealing with gender- and violence-based issues, but these seemed to be more programs than projects,” she says. “Now, I’m focusing on these quick impact projects with water, where you can literally have water brought to a village in two to three days and see the change that water brings to a community … I’ve been in villages where there is dry, cracked earth and people are constantly roaming, and then fighting over water. When you give them a water well, in six months you come back and it has turned into a thriving agricultural village, it is amazing. It’s key for development, in my opinion.”
The duality of Peake’s two worlds—development and fashion design—seem at odds, but this is a source of constant inspiration and motivation for her. “I saw fashion as a great influential platform,” she says. “It was a creative outlet for me. There are no rules, there are no boundaries, there’s no ceiling to where the creativity can go.” She’s self-taught, and produces four collections per year (pre-fall, fall, spring, and a special holiday collection), as well as other special projects to raise money for the foundation. “Whenever I design, I try to make it as wearable as possible. It’s not going to help bring water to people [if it isn’t]. The more wearable the collections can be, the better.”
In her new Scarves for Water campaign, every batch of 500 limited-edition scarves sold funds a well in South Sudan, bringing clean water to over 1,000 people. It’s just one of numerous initiatives spearheaded by the focused entrepreneur and her determined team.