“As a woman, it’s almost as if you need to pick a box and stay there. I’m trying to challenge that. I’m not picking a box,” says Cindy Ross, an attorney and founder of Imani Consult.
Ross, who sits on various boards and is doing her MBA, says she has had to work twice as hard to earn respect in the legal field. “I think especially as a coloured woman, you’re not just given respect,” she reflects.
She has spent years in the field, working her way up to founding her own consulting firm and says that she has learnt to “show up differently” by being more assertive in the male-dominated industry.
Ross is passionate about social justice and in 2012, she, her brother and some friends started the Jala Peo Foundation, a sports for development organisation that uses mountain biking to uplift and up-skill children in Diepsloot. Although she had no intention of starting an NGO, the organisation grew to be highly successful.
Her brother and friends started cycling and children in the area would come and watch them. Ross read to the children who came to watch, but after asking friends to donate bicycles, water bottles and their time, the foundation evolved to become a space where children felt safe.
“We were corporates. We weren’t skilled at what we were doing, but we just gave our time and that is what grew the organisation,” remembers Ross.
The initial pushback they received from the mountain biking community — including a meeting that was held to try to exclude the Diepsloot children from the sport — inspired the foundation to persevere.
“It got to the point where we told them, ‘we will sue you for racism if you kick us out’,” says Ross.
The foundation also teaches the children comprehension, arithmetic and culinary skills. The safe space that Jala Peo has created allows children to excel.
Ross has had the privilege of watching children who participated in the programme graduate and win mountain biking rider’s titles, with one even opening up a restaurant.
The foundation has been publicly acknowledged and supported by various corporate funders, as well as through the Absa Cape Epic, where they were an official NGO.
Surprisingly, Ross describes the biggest success of the organisation to be that it’s splitting up, as many of the children who started with the foundation have grown up and are mentoring on their own.
“They need to be independent; we can’t perpetuate the cycle of them consistently getting funding through us,” she adds. The foundation has also inspired the start-up of other mountain biking NGOs in the community.
Ross feels that the earlier you are able to make a positive impact on children’s lives, the better. “[You can] change the trajectory of where they’re going.”
She believes that making a difference in society starts with helping those around you and she has demonstrated that social impact starts with something as simple as donating your time.
“Through the years, I’ve realised that I can’t fix things for everybody, but what I can do is inform a space that becomes fair, where everyone has the same starting point. That’s effectively the basis for everything that I do — creating spaces that are fair.”