Grace Mahary during her trip in Eritrea

Fashion is not the be-all and end-all for sports ace and model Grace Mahary. Social activism helps keep Mahary, born in Canada in 1989 from Eritrean parents, grounded — and busy.

Mahary was a high school basketball champion before moving to Toronto to kick off a modeling career. Her runway debut in Paris in February 2012 on the Givenchy catwalk helped her become a fixture on the fashion scene, walking for everyone from Victoria’s Secret to Chanel, Christian Dior, Valentino and Balenciaga. However, being a model wasn’t enough for her and three years ago, she founded Project Tsehigh, a nonprofit organization focused on providing sustainable and renewable solutions for communities around the globe that lack reliable energy sources.

Mahary accomplished her first mission in Eritrea, where at the end of 2017 she provided 100 households in the town of Maaya with solar panels, which were also installed in a school, church and mosque. During her trip, she was joined by Italian fashion photographer Raoul Beltrame, who documented the mission. Previously, Beltrame, who cut his teeth with photographers Greg Gorman and David Benoliel, shot a social campaign supporting the social involvement of Indian activist Kailash Satyarthi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

Here, Mahary discusses her social activism, how fashion helped her open doors and how sports gave her the right discipline.

WWD: Why did you decide to launch this project?

Grace Mahary: I have always dreamed that the youth and citizens of Africa could have educational and career opportunities within their countries that paralleled or surpassed those internationally. After visiting Eritrea as an adult for the first time, I saw that access to electricity and energy was difficult or nonexistent for many residents. I learned that this was a common issue as I traveled to other developing nations and took that discovery as my first step toward creating Project Tsehigh. Starting with infrastructure, I believe we can foster growth, independence and economic prosperity within communities. Energy is a primary component of infrastructure and therefore, sustainable power for all became my passion. We launched PjT in Eritrea because it is my parents’ native land, and the concept was conceived there.

Grace Mahary during her trip in Eritrea

Grace Mahary during her trip to Eritrea.  Raoul Beltrame

WWD: How has your involvement in PjT influenced your work life? How do you think your popularity helped in the development of PjT?

G.M.: PjT has allowed me to realize the true meaning of “passion to purpose” and the importance of activating your network to create positive change for others. As a full-time model, my commitment to PjT means that sometimes I have to take time off from work in order to launch each project successfully. When I’m on set for a photo shoot, I research sustainability articles, e-mail possible collaborators for future projects, or communicate with my board members during breaks and downtime.

Modeling and working in the fashion industry actually gave me the confidence to launch PjT. I am grateful for the platform I’ve been given as a model, as well as my network of industry leaders, friends, family and fans, who have supported PjT and myself as we are brightening the lives of so many people.

WWD: You chose an Italian photographer to document your launch project. How did you meet Raoul Beltrame? What did he bring to the team?

G.M.: I was introduced to Raoul through one of our board members while we were searching for a photographer to capture our launch project in Eritrea. We brought him with us to the remote village to document our trip and our work donating and installing solar power units in the community. Being Raoul’s first time in Africa, we feared how he would cope with the rough conditions of the journey and stay in the village. To our surprise, he was a natural. The villagers loved him as he ate the food and drank the coffee they prepared for him. He was an incredible asset to the team as his work captured the beauty of the people and the essence of the project.

Grace Macary and Raoul Beltrame during their trip in Eritrea

Grace Mahary and Raoul Beltrame during their trip in Eritrea.  Courtesy Photo

WWD: Are you developing any specific projects? What’s in your pipeline?

G.M.: Yes, we are developing our second project in Africa, and soon we will be making an official announcement regarding the location. We are always working on developing ways to provide uninterrupted energy to communities around the world through renewable energy sources.

WWD: Sports, fashion and social responsibility play a relevant role in your life. What’s the balance among them? How can they coexist? What are you learning from these experiences?

G.M.: Personally, the balance between them lies within discipline. My athletic training has translated into the physical training of a model and commitment of an activist. The daily persistence is what will advance you. There is beauty in having a variety of interests that you can explore, that allow you to approach life in several ways. I’m learning that you owe focus and 100 percent of your energy to each interest, which means it’s OK to rotate and work harder on one than the other at certain times.