Not Your Average Gals are kickass, blazing-their-own-path, independent-minded, free-thinking, kind-hearted and all around wonderful humans beings. We learn a lot about ourselves from the people we choose to look to for inspiration or friendship. I’m excited to introduce you to some of them.
Meet Katie of Teranga Market. I know Katie because our husbands are breaking free from the perils of an Emergency Medicine residency in less than 3 weeks.
I mean, I know her because our husbands both chose Emergency Medicine as their speciality and we get to hear the gross stories when they come home.
I mean, I know her because our husbands are in the same residency class in their 4-year Emergency Medicine program.
There, fixed it.
Since doctors aren’t known for their social prowess, I didn’t get to hang out with Katie as much as I’d like in the couple years that I’ve been back in Michigan. But, that said, the times we have hung out, we’ve hit it off like two writers who are silently judging your poor communication skills.
She’s a world traveler that can effortless tell a captivating story that has you both laughing and questioning your own story telling abilities.
When I saw she owned Teranga Market, whose tagline is, “Ending the cycle of poverty one scrunchie at a time,” I knew I had to ask her more because she’s certainly Not Your Average Gal.
What’s your passion–the thing that makes you a Not Your Average Gal?
I’m passionate about how travel and engaging meaningfully in “otherness” has the power to transform our minds, hearts, and lives. Since my very first international experience, I’ve been hooked to the growth, adventure, and powerful human connections that come from putting yourself in the way of difference and discomfort. The places I’ve chosen to plant myself (for up to a year at a time) are what make people categorize me as, to use their words, “weird,” “reckless,” “crazy,” or – if you’re a member of my very polite family – “different.” Some of those places include Saudi Arabia, Senegal (in West Africa), and a mostly-ignored small town in eastern France. I’ve traveled to over 30 countries total.
When did you start this passion?
There are several crystal clear moments I can remember that kindled my curiosity about the world outside of my small (and insular) hometown. Both occurred in middle school (when many of us begin our first round of existential crises, am I right?) The first moment was when I was sitting at my desk in class with a listless energy that only a pre-teen girl can exude, resting my head in my hands and vaguely eavesdropping on the girls sitting behind me. They were talking about an upcoming school dance, what they would wear, what boys they hoped would ask them out. I remember thinking, This again? Is this all there is? Why is everybody always talking about the same things? Why does everybody DO the same things? Do we all just go through life following some checklist where we go to school, get jobs, get married, have kids, and die, regretting the shade of pink we chose for our Snowcoming outfit in 7th grade? There has GOT to be more than this.
My world was really, really small at the time, and I was suffocating in it, but I didn’t know yet what else was out there.
Fast forward a few months. A handful of students were crowded around a classmate who had just returned from a summer trip to Kenya (which, I should point out, is when I learned “Africa” was not a country). They were looking at photos of exotic-looking trees, huge mountains, and people who looked different from anyone I’d ever seen. As she described the trip, something cracked wide-open in me. I suddenly realized that I was not bound to a life that others before me had deemed “normal,” that I could choose or create my own path in life. For a 12-year-old mind, ripe and ready for learning, this was monumentally life-changing. Isn’t it incredible with just an ounce of exposure to difference can do to someone?
Over the next decade, I dove into learning about other countries, languages, and cultures. I became obsessed with Senegal when it got all of a paragraph in my French textbook freshman year. I couldn’t believe that a country in Africa was French-speaking! What else was out there that I didn’t know about? I couldn’t wait to graduate high school and get out of Dodge to start seeing and experiencing things for myself.
Little did I know then that the foundation had been set down for all that was to come over the next 20 years, including what led me to starting Teranga Market.
What lead you to your current path? (What was your previous job or background or experience that got you to where you are today?)
When I finally escaped – I mean graduated – from high school, I lived life at 100 miles per hour for the next seven years, trying to see and experience as much of life as I could. I thrived in college, away from home for the first time, where I absorbed new information and ideas like a sponge, where I met people from all over the world, and where I felt like I belonged in a way I never had up until that point in my life. I studied for a summer in France, a semester in Senegal, and I spent a year in France after graduating working as a language assistant. During that time, I traveled to every surrounding country that I could. With every experience, my mind stretched and grew and would never return to what it had been before. And I wanted more.
I knew that whatever I was going to do in the “real world” after this, I needed it to include these mind-stretching elements – travel, language, culture, diversity, growth. I was fortunate to have spent 18 months during undergrad volunteering at a local refugee development center, and it’s where I realized I could combine my interests and passions while doing something that served others, something that I knew I wanted in my work but didn’t know what that would look like until I got that hands-on experience.
In the end, I ended up getting my Master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) because it would allow me to combine my passions as well as work in a role that served others. I got my first job in Saudi Arabia after graduate school, and after that year, I came back to Michigan and have spent the last six years teaching various subjects at several universities. I even spent two years in a non-teaching role that had me traveling internationally for more than two months per year across 20 countries.
During those 10 years, I stayed in close touch with a woman I met in Senegal named Anne-Marie who had become my best friend. When I left at the end of my study abroad program, I promised her I’d come back to attend her wedding, which I ended up doing three years later. Despite being on the other side of the world, she was always there for me when I needed her over the years, even as my French began to deteriorate from disuse; she could always understand me no matter how much I mixed up my verb tenses.
So, when life handed her a rough hand in 2018, I racked my brain for ways I could help. Long story short, despite having zero “qualifications,” I proposed that we start a business together that would allow her to work from home so she could watch her children, earn more than her current job at $7 for a grueling ten-hour day, and have things like medical benefits, maternity leave, retirement savings, professional development, and education benefits for her kids.
She enthusiastically agreed.
Many years before, Anne-Marie had wanted to become a seamstress. So, we revived that dream, set her up with a professional-grade sewing machine, and she set to teaching herself how to make all sorts of things (headbands, purses, skirts – you name it, and she’ll figure out how to make it). While I was still working full-time, I’d spend what time I could discussing ideas with her, receiving small shipments and trying my hand at weekend craft shows or farmer’s markets to sell her items. There, I quickly learned that I might have a place in all of this that I hadn’t previously expected. I found that I not only loved being able to help my friend, but also teaching people about Senegal, sharing about the languages and culture there, and about the meaning of “Teranga,” which is Wolof for “hospitality,” something the Senegalese are famous for, and a word that also represents the human warmth they are equally known for.
I soon knew that I wanted to grow Teranga Market to not only include tangible goods that provided work and a better life for my friend, but I also wanted it to be a marketplace of ideas and cultural exchange. I realized that it had the potential to become a space where I could combine and explore all my passions through language lessons, educational programming, writing, photography, and – dream big – small group travel to Senegal one day, as people began asking me about that right from the beginning.
Two years have passed since then, and I am just wrapping up my first month of getting to work (almost) full-time on Teranga Market, having just finished my last semester of teaching, and it’s been a wild ride. Literally overnight, I went from being an expert in my field to an absolute novice the next day, figuring out how to create a website, ship items, engage people on social media, and learn business jargon in my second language.
It’s been humbling, it’s been scary, it’s been the adventure of a lifetime – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Do you make any income with your business?
Right now, 100% of Teranga Market profits go back to Anne-Marie. Those earnings from her handmade items are life-changing for her and will always go to her. As for me and my place in all of this and potential for future earnings, my goal is to continue building our platform and audience and ultimately publish a memoir about my semester in Senegal within the next 6 months. I’m also working on a series of children’s books that I hope will help plant the seeds of curiosity and difference in young minds that I didn’t get until I was much older. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!
Do you have a “day job” that is different from your passion or business?
I just finished my last semester teaching at the University of Michigan, which was about the best ending I could hope for to this past decade of teaching and working in higher education. I am still teaching some private classes online and might experiment with creating some content in the future (English for Comedy Purposes, anyone?), but for now, I want to give Teranga Market and writing my full attention since it’s the first opportunity I’ve had to do so, and I won’t be wasting it!
In pursuing something less than conventional, did you face any pushback from family, friends or even strangers? If so, how did you deal?
Yes. From the beginning, up until now, and all along the way. But here’s what I would say to the many people who called me “weird” for wanting to study in Senegal or “crazy” for wanting to live in Saudi Arabia or “reckless” for going on a self-created 8-city work tour in Nigeria:
Thank you. Thank you for doubting me and judging me because it only made me want to prove you wrong all the more. It only made me stronger and more determined, and it fueled my passion like wildfire over the years. Now, I’m better for it, and I’m in a position to support and cheer on those who want to have similar experiences but who might not react the same way to your doubts and judgement. Cheers!
What are 3 things that you’ve gained from doing what you love and perhaps going against the norms?
- I’ve learned that when people judge your decisions, it is a reflection of themselves, their fears, and their limitations – not yours.
- I’ve learned that it’s never too late to start something new, or to start over as a novice after a decade of doing something else. You’ll be surprised at how your previous experiences and skill sets will serve you in unexpected ways and allow you a unique perspective that others in the industry might not have and could set you apart.
- I’ve learned that authenticity requires vulnerability, which can suck. Yet at the same time, I’ve come to realize that I’m my own worst critic and many of the things I fear never come to fruition when I do end up putting myself out there. And perhaps most importantly, if my fear does come true – I’ve learned that I’m not only strong enough to handle it, but also to learn from it and be better because of it.
Tell us something about yourself people would be surprised to hear!
Let’s see… I’m a pretty decent rock climber! I’ve been climbing for over 10 years and once had a full-page photo feature in the UK magazine “Climber” that a friend took when we spent the weekend climbing in the Saudi desert.
I also love making bookmarks and writing letters by hand.
Are there any words of advice you can offer readers who struggle creating their own path?
I would tell them not to wait for permission from anyone or anything to start doing what they want to do. In a world full of degrees and credentials and certificates, it can feel like we have to “earn” the right to do something. You being alive is all the permission you need. So start creating, follow your curiosity, and fail forward. Learn as you go, find your tribe, and let go of the perfect “arrival” moment for that book or business or side hustle because there isn’t one. The journey is the reward.
Any favorite mottos or quotes that you live by? (You can list several!)
I’ve had a notebook of inspirational quotes for years that I flip through when I find myself in a “stuck” moment. My most recent addition is:
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do that. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.” -Howard Thurman
Finally, these two quotes remind me to lean into the discomfort when times get tough and remember that that’s where the good stuff happens (they’re from the documentary 180 Degrees South, which I highly recommend):
“A friend once told me, ‘the best journeys answer questions that, in the beginning, you didn’t even think to ask.’”
“…for me, adventure is when everything goes wrong. That’s when the adventure starts.”
Be sure to follow all of Katie’s adventures here:
Bolding throughout article is my own emphasis.