Growing up in Guinea, Africa, Mariama Mounir Camara-Petrolawicz dreamed of coming to America to be an artist. Her affluent parents, however, wanted her to become a doctor. A rebellious teen, she left anyway—and did it on her own, with just $100 in her pocket. Today, Camara-Petrolawicz is a successful women’s rights activist (through the There Is No Limit Foundation) and a textile designer (through Mariama Fashion Production). Her prints, created by African artisans, got a massive endorsement last year from Michelle Obama, who set off a tie-dye craze by donning a Tory Burch frock made of Camara-Petrolawicz’s electric blue-on-white fabric.
“This is my passion. I needed to do something I loved,” says the enlightened entrepreneur, nominated by one of her own employees to be our final Revlon Provocateur. Camara-Petrolawicz arrived in New York City in 2002 to visit her model sister but never left; six years later, the sisters founded the There Is No Limit Foundation. “We didn’t want people to pity Africans. We wanted to empower them to start their own businesses,” she says of her beneficiaries, many of whom are domestic-violence and rape survivors.
The Foundation provides interest-free loans to female artisans in Guinea specializing in tie-dye fabrics and accessories. “Guinea is extremely poor. You can’t expect to give $200 to a woman, then have her pay you back $400. She already has five to ten kids, and her husband may have more than one wife,” explains Camara-Petrolawicz, who also works with artisans in the Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Morocco. “Women are taught that they must feed their entire family.”
Initially, Camara-Petrolawicz’s nonprofit was buoyed by private donations, generous friends, grants, and fundraiser galas. (The Foundation’s most recent initiative: raising money to send Ebola-fighting medical supplies to West Africa.) But lately, Camara-Petrolawicz has groomed Mariama Fashion Productions—which sells the artisanal wares to fashion houses such as Tory Burch and Lemlem—to support the Foundation. The creative director morphs into businesswoman while triumphantly declaring, “We have a sustainable development entrepreneurship!”
As counterintuitive as it seems, aesthetics are as essential as business acumen to this humanitarian’s life. Camara-Petrolawicz previously made ends meet as a makeup artist and stylist. “I work and sign papers a lot,” she says. “So you’ll always see me painting my nails in a taxi.” But to her, beauty can take on even more profound meaning. “These African women don’t always know the value of their work,” she says. “We want them to be proud of the beautiful things they create.”