Paola on building Self-Confidence

Hello everyone! We had the opportunity to display our work at SXSW last Friday, and I had the opportunity to deliver a speech about my journey with self-confidence. I thought I’d share it with you!

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About five years ago, I went back to Haiti to visit a friend. I was documenting my stay online, and a wealthy, white American lady who owned a fashion company came across my pictures, and invited me for a drink. We met at a trendy rooftop bar in Petion-Ville. I spotted her immediately and walked up to her to introduce myself. Without any hesitation, before I had a chance to sit down to get to know her, she responded: “Wow. You’re so confident!”

To me, it wasn’t just the words. It was the timing. And her tone. What exactly did she mean by that?

I grew up as a shy, reserved catholic school girl who didn’t know how to stand straight or make eye contact with people. One day, I laughed a little (too) loud and someone told me that I didn’t have the privilege to laugh like that. In order to be accepted by society, I should be soft spoken, kind, and obedient.  “The world didn’t need another little girl who looks like me causing a scene,” they said.

My hair was chemically relaxed when I was just four years old, leaving scabs and scars behind. I had a feeling that everything about my being was wrong ever since. My nose- we had an older family friend who was always pinching my nose or giving my mother tips on how to make it smaller. My lips- Starting in my early childhood, I received the worst (sexual) comments about them. My skin- I was often told to stay out of the sun because I didn’t want to be darker than I already was. I was taught that so many things were wrong with me. And so, I created a cozy shell to live in. Where I read and created stories. I felt safe there because I was invisible to the world.

But there I was, seventeen years later, a confident version of this little girl was standing on this rooftop bar,  wearing an orange lipstick, a bright green tall headwrap, and a coral top. I was standing tall, and I was feeling good. I was being authentically myself. Colorful. Passionate. And I might have laughed a little too loud.  

It was then that I realized that most likely this woman might have never met a person who had earned her confidence before. Who had fought for it. And who is constantly working on it despite what society tells her. She had been used to people who had inherited their confidence through their privilege.


The first act toward gaining my self confidence was stepping outside of my comfort zone. To push myself to do something that mattered to me regardless of how scary it was. I accomplished this was when I ran for student council president in High School. There were changes I wanted, and I knew they would not have happened unless I did something. I walked from classroom to classroom to talk to my peers about things that mattered. I pitched my ideas. I met with school authorities to voice those ideas. And finally, I walked on  stage in front of hundreds of students to deliver my speech. I was terrified. My knees were shaking. Everything was a blur. Nonetheless I got up in front of a giant crowd with a bright light shining on me, and I delivered that speech. And then it was over. I had survived. Not only had I survived, I had also WON.


This experience made me realize that little girls who look like me could get what they wanted as long as they showed up for it no matter how terrifying it felt. And that pushed me to apply to college. To move to New York City on my own with only a few hundred dollars and big dreams. To start a blog about a girl from a small town in Haiti LIVING HER DREAMS in New York City. And to then start a headwrap collection turned lifestyle brand and global movement, FANM DJANM.


I’ve been running Fanm Djanm for five years now. It started with the headwrap, a product that was not yet a product, but which existed and was used for centuries around the world. A headwrap is essentially a piece of cloth you wrap around your head. But what makes it special? There is so much culture and history and pride associated with it. It’s beautiful. We love it. But we are also somehow intimidated by it. Many young, black women weren’t thrilled by the idea of wearing it. Many told me that they just didn’t even know where to start. Six years ago, you couldn’t walk into a shop and ask for a headwrap. The headwraps I used before Fanm Djanm came from scarves I’ve purchased from thrift stores or scraps of fabrics. I had to teach myself how to use them. Because they came in so many different sizes and shapes, sometimes it took me a long time to get the style I wanted. The headwrap was often used with traditional ensembles for special events, so younger African women felt that they could only be used as such.  Many people were not wearing them was because they needed to find the inspiration. And that’s where Fanm Djanm came in.


Fanm Djanm which means STRONG WOMAN in Haitian Kreyol, has never been just about selling the headwrap. I want to tell stories about women who look like me in a world that loves us. A world that belongs to us. I want to celebrate these women and to put them in charge. I also want to celebrate sisterhood. Because we can be strong alone, but we are even more powerful together.

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Being prepared is another big part of being confident. With Fanm Djanm, I plan my campaigns months ahead of time. What story am I trying to tell? Who do I want to tell that story? Why is that person important in this story? For my last campaign, FEELING GOOD, I flew in four ladies from different parts of the country. One of them is on the quest of becoming the first black woman to travel every country in the world. Another is an international world music star who makes time to have tea with her fans and gives them free industry advice before her shows. These women are all so incredible, and they each inspire me greatly. Their personal stories matter so much. And having them all in the room, or even finding the courage to ask them to participate in a campaign for my small company took a lot of confidence and preparation. Creating a shot list, a mood board and a budget. Letting them know what they were getting into ahead of time. And making sure that they’re having fun and feel special throughout the entire project. When everything is set and done, and they leave FEELING GOOD, I know I did my job.


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I recently noticed that many mainstream brands are now using black models wearing headwraps in their campaigns. That’s such a huge step! But it also made me realize that NO bigger brand can tell the story of a black woman wearing the headwrap better than I can. THAT takes confidence to say.

Before any big project, I ask myself why that project is important. And after every project, I go over what went right, and I also think about ways to improve. Every failure or mistake is a learning opportunity. It’s important for me to not just own my story, but to take accountability, and to be highly critical of my actions and decisions. When i publish my work, I am confident it has seen its toughest criticism -- from me.

The more you work on the things that matter to you, the more confident you become. My confidence doesn’t have much to do with where I came from. Or where I am currently standing. It comes from all the things I have to offer myself, my community, and the world.

No matter where you're from, what people tell you, or what you were raised to believe about yourself, your story is entirely up to you. Challenge yourselves. Embrace your true colors. Find your confidence.

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PAOLA MATHE7 Comments