If you talk to any two people about their experiences in the workforce, you’ll get two entirely different answers. We’re in an age of nonlinear career paths — of early starts, late blooms, extreme pivots, and, more often than not, an accumulation of wildly different roles — and there is something to be learned from everyone’s unique path. That’s why we partnered with Clear Eyes, the #1 selling eye drop brand whose latest campaign is all about celebrating the moments in life when we truly shine. Together, we spoke to women whose trajectories have been anything but traditional — and landed them right where they were meant to be.
Grace Mahary arrived on set for her first modeling shoot dressed in her high school basketball uniform, still sweating from the game she’d left midway through. That was back in the early aughts, before her face began to appear on national billboards.
At that time, Grace had cultivated a local reputation as a promising high school basketball player. But her potential athletic career tapered off when a modeling agent whisked her from her hometown in Alberta, Canada to Toronto, where she cut her teeth as a high-fashion model, both on runways and in print shoots.
“At first I said I would model if I could still play basketball and go to school, and I tried to juggle them all at the same time,” she explains. “But you can’t expect full reward if you half-ass everything, so I decided if I was going to model, I was going to 100% commit to it.”
Just a few years later, in 2012, Grace walked in her first international runway show. In 2014, she landed the campaign that clinched her status as a name to know in the industry. And by 2016, she had also managed to power an entire city in the African country of Eritrea — her parents’ birthplace — using renewable energy sources.
As she climbed the runway ranks, Grace became acutely aware that, for the most part, she was the only model of Eritrean descent featured in any of the campaigns she booked. In fact, she was often times the first Eritrean model most designers had ever worked with. “I felt like it was my job to carry that representation,” she says.
In 2015, while shooting in Paris, Grace noted that she was just a two-hour flight from Asmara, the Eritrean city in Eastern Africa where both of her parents had been raised. “My parents hadn’t been back in my lifetime and neither had I. But there I was, so I went alone,” she says. “The first thing I thought when I arrived was that it was so exciting to be in a country where everyone looked like me and spoke like me — something I never felt growing up in a small homogenous town in Canada. But also, the initial act of stepping onto that soil made all these things come together: My parents always did all these things I never understood, and all of a sudden, I got it — I understood the plastic on the couch and the coffee ceremonies and the little turns of phrase.”
Cultural comforts aside, Grace quickly realized that she couldn’t charge her cell phone or use her laptop — or even read at night. Around 70% of the houses in Eritrea fall off the electrical grid altogether.
“Occasionally, the lights would turn on all of a sudden at 3 a.m. and you would sprint to plug in all your things that need charging,” Grace says. “But it was clear there was sort of an energy crisis happening.”
Unlike the rosters of celebrities known for taking cushier approaches to philanthropy, Grace wanted to involve herself — to find a way of interacting with her parents’ homeland that was more intimate than a baseline charity. At first, she considered donating sports equipment, citing her own athletic career as the foundation on which she built the rest of her professional success — but as the paucity of electrical power became clearer to her, she knew this would have to be the focus of her efforts.
Upon her return home to Canada, Grace began talking to family and friends about funding her project in Eritrea. “I had to tell a lot of people. Once you say you’re gonna do something out loud, it sort of lights the fire under your butt,” she laughs. Knee deep in her research, she determined that a nonprofit would be the most practical way to get resources over to Eastern Africa — and the best approach would be clean, renewable energy. And thus, Project Tsehigh (pronounced like say-hi) was born — Grace’s own initiative, providing solar power to the entirety of the Maaya community, just two hours by car from Asmara: 101 homes, a church, a mosque, and a school.
“We fundraised with events and ads and concerts, and we looked for sponsors,” Grace explains. “Then we used that money to donate solar panels and batteries to families in Eritrea.” Once they’d aggregated the funds they needed, Grace and her team partnered with a local renewable energy company to implement the solar panels in homes and public spaces throughout Maaya — and to provide the ground support they needed when it came to educating locals about how to actually operate and maintain the technology without assistance.
“It’s not very practical for someone in the modeling industry to go into the solar power industry,” Grace laughs. “If you talk to my modeling clients, they’ll tell you I’m always on set with my laptop — in the hair and makeup chair, between shoots, taking calls during lunch breaks.”
Grace did not study clean energy in school (though recently, she’s been enrolling in online environmental science classes). For much of her young life, she thought basketball would be her defining endeavor. But as far as career pivots go, Grace’s is the shining example of a star-crossed, knotted trajectory, all the more impressive for its lack of adherence to tradition.
“Basketball taught me what it’s really like to train — to put in work,” Grace says. “But it also taught me to look at the bigger picture. How to play with a team. How to work hard for yourself while looking out for other people. In modeling, I’m so anti being catty. I love adopting that team mentality — especially with women of color when it feels like we all might be competing for the same roles.”
Grace’s diverging vocations as a model and the founder of a nonprofit operate in tandem more often than one might assume. Not only does the former offer Grace a platform to speak, to network, to seek investors, and to champion her cause, but the success of her nonprofit gives her a renewed sense of pride as an Eritrean representative each time she’s photographed — each time she walks a runway. She says that sometimes, it’s visible in her pictures.
“For me, growing up in Canada, I wasn’t Canadian enough because I was a person of color. And then when I got to Africa, I wasn’t Eritrean enough,” Grace explains. “But modeling gave me this platform, this reason to travel, and this reason to represent my home.” To some degree, a roving career in high fashion felt more like home than both the place where her roots lay and the city where she’d grown up. It allowed her to wield all those pieces of her identity at once, rather than choosing among them.
The details surrounding her next shoot are embargoed, but within the scope of Project Tsehigh, her current fixation is a solar-powered primary school in Tanzania for 815 children. The project is already underway.
“It’s a lot to manage,” Grace says. “But I’m totally focused on the task ahead of me: to get and give people light — literally.”