This piece originally appeared in Badger Vibes, a partnership between Madison365 and the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association.
When Dorothy Nairne left UW–Madison with a bachelor of arts in Afro-American studies and journalism in 1988, she had no clue where life would lead her.
“I was a proud Badger. I had a ball in school from ’84 to ’88. I was very involved in the Black Student Union, and I worked for the Daily Cardinal,” she says.
Recognized as an entrepreneur both internationally and domestically, she founded a company, Africa Loves Babies, that partnered with Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network to provide school uniforms to students in South Africa during Oprah’s Christmas Kindness in 2002. Nairne currently lives in New Orleans, where she works to transform wasted glass into sand through her new venture, Delta Builds. She’s lived in six cities on two continents and visited many more.
“My father was from Jamaica, so I think that helped my interest in travel,” she says.
Though she grew up in Wisconsin, having a West Indian father opened her mind to the rest of the world. Nairne also had sisters who were involved in AFS Intercultural Programs, and her family hosted exchange students. After graduating from Waukesha North High School, she would embark on her first big journey: college.
“Back then, all you needed to do was be in the top 10 percent of your class, and you were admitted to Madison,” she recalls.
As a student, Nairne was part of a delegation sent to Atlanta for Martin Luther King Day. She gave a speech in a place she refers to fondly as “Chocolate City.” This moment ignited something in her. She knew she wanted to live there one day, and she relocated there shortly after college. Nairne loved the warmth of the city and felt surrounded by blackness. Nairne loved her environment but not her job, a position at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she felt lost, underpaid, and overworked.
“I quit and left after five months to get back to school,” Nairne says.
While she did not quite know what she wanted to do with the rest of her life, she knew what she wanted to accomplish: Nairne had a mission to improve the quality of life for others.
“I’ve always seen that economic development was a part of the equation because people are always happy on payday,” she says.
People often feel fulfilled when they do not have stress over money, food, and resources, and Nairne believes the key to improving the quality of others’ lives is giving them room to enjoy life. In 1989, Nairne enrolled at Clark Atlanta University to pursue her master’s, and in 1996, she left the university with a PhD in international affairs and development. Throughout her time at Clark Atlanta University, she investigated issues plaguing communities across the globe — black communities in particular.
“I wanted to know how we are going to go forward and improve the lives of black people,” Nairne says.
In the early 2000s, she moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, and accepted a position as a senior technical adviser with Africare.
“I had the best job ever. I dealt with behavioral issues and behavioral change, so I got to talk about sex all the time,” Nairne says with a laugh.
Though she missed her friends in Atlanta, South Africa embraced her. T he people were kind and filled with joy. Nairne did not feel like she had to adjust as much as she needed to let go.
“In South Africa, it was just on a honeymoon. It was right after Freedom Day, so people were all about improving the country,” Nairne says.
By the time she lived in South Africa, she had two little boys, and she wanted them to be raised in a place where they could see black faces on the currency. South Africa was a wonderful place to raise her sons. The children were polite, and she loved the way people treated one another. The country made Nairne feel joyful. It also made her into an entrepreneur. In January 2006, Nairne founded Africa Loves Babies to help foster opportunities for South African communities as well as communities back home.
“I thought, wow, if I could be that portal to the United States that would be great,” she says.
The mission of Africa Loves Babies was to create jobs within communities throughout South Africa and the U.S. Nairne thought that once people knew where their next meal was coming from, the organization could then address issues surrounding HIV, education, economic literacy, life skills, and other social challenges. In 2017, she decided to return to the States to focus on a different issue. In January, she cofounded Delta Builds, which collects glass waste to be processed into aggregate and sold by the ton for construction to create jobs for ex-offenders. Based in New Orleans and established by Nairne and Anna Finch, Delta Builds is 100 percent owned, managed, and operated by women.
“If my products could be a part of [a sustainable future] and create some jobs, that would be amazing,” Nairne says.