Faces of Prague: Swazi podcaster launches a purposeful community for women

We spoke to Ashley Nkambule-Hola on her life as an expat mother and an entrepreneur.

Melis Karabulut

Written by Melis Karabulut Published on 15.05.2023 17:00:00 (updated on 16.05.2023) Reading time: 8 minutes

Melis Karabulut's series whispers the kindred stories of ordinary and extraordinary people of Prague, highlighting how they contribute to making the city a better place with arts, storytelling, and healing communities. In this article, we introduce Ashley Nkambule-Hola, an entrepreneur from Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland).

Ashley is the founder of Dear Ladies Network, a community for expat women to inspire and support each other in business, career and personal development through informative events and gatherings. The concept arose from the Dear Ladies Podcast, which elaborates on topics that matter to expat women – from solo traveling and dating to tackling the housing crisis and managing finances as a foreigner. 

I have a theory: Expats are the "different children" in their families – those with never-ending curiosity and unorthodox interests or hobbies. What kind of a child were you? What were your ambitions? 

I was indeed a curious child! My energy had no limits. I spent hours and hours playing outside with the kids from the neighborhood, always doing little mischief and ending up in an emergency. Though I was also a nerd, sitting in the front row with big glasses, getting good grades – which helped me get a great scholarship at university, and a kick-off in my career in accounting. In my early 20s, I had three major goals: Buying a piece of land in the city, a nice SUV, and a well-paying job. I had achieved all of those when I was 25 or 26. Then I realized that I wasn't really growing where I was, and I wanted to see something different in the world. 

As opposed to the Czech Republic, or Europe in general, Eswatini has a culture of people spending beyond their means by taking bank loans to buy expensive cars and other materialistic things that make you appear rich even though you are drowning in loans. People tend to even judge you based on what you wear, who you wear, and how you are dressed. We call it the "what will people say syndrome."

After I traveled to Scandinavia, I had a whole shift in how I see the world. I saw how people there lived such simple lives, yet they lived in the richest countries in the world. No fancy cars, but bicycles. This changed my mentality completely, and eventually my life. I got a scholarship to study a master's program in Taiwan, and a Ph.D. program followed it. That's how I became an expat first. Later, I met my husband in Taiwan, who is Czech and moved to Prague a year and a half ago. I was seven months pregnant with my daughter back then.

What drove you to leave home in the first place? Was there any specific event or reason? 

The child or teenage Ashley would never think that I end up being an expat. I never dreamed of being an expat either. There is not much of a "travel culture" in Eswatini, the furthest most people go is Mozambique or South Africa. Though people around me, colleagues or friends would always tell me that I would end up somewhere else than Eswatini. They saw something in me that I didn't see. I grew up in a poor area, it was not very inspiring to live there. That was also a motivator to try new things in life. 

You can't control where you're born, but I believe that you can have some control over where you end up. This doesn't have to mean that you should leave your country. You can change your environment within certain limits – maybe it is moving to a different city or even a different neighborhood. In different locations around the world, our limitations differ, right? Some of us can pack things up and start a new life somewhere else because we don't have any visa requirements, and some of us drive change by taking evening classes to get a new skill or getting a side hustle to save money for our dreams. 

Dear Ladies meeting

The whole concept of living the expat life – we often see it getting overromanticized by society. What parts of being an expat have been challenging for you? 

I think people who are not expats see only the best parts of it from the Instagram photos we share from our travels. Oftentimes being an expat means being very lonely, to a level that people can't imagine. If you have an institution behind you to help you through the many processes, then you're lucky. 

In Taiwan, it was so much easier to make friends even though the culture is so different, and the language barriers are huge. You often hang out with your classmates, the university supports you with paperwork, accommodation, and so on. Or, if your company relocates you to a different country and when they handle things on your behalf, it is definitely not the same as going through every single new step alone. 

Once you're out of school, it gets so hard to make friends as an expat. You go to a coffee shop, it is just you. You go shopping, it is just you. You don't speak the local language, which makes things ten times harder. You occasionally have drinks with colleagues or go to networking events, and in that case, you gain acquaintances, not friends that you can call in life-and-death situations. Things get even harder once you are a mother, as your social circle gets smaller and smaller. 

This is exactly what drove me to launch the Dear Ladies Podcast, and then the Network. I wanted to talk about the unpretty sides of being an expat woman and mother, bring professionals on board to address some of the common issues to many of us, make lasting connections, and help women feel a sense of togetherness. 

How did you find out what topics were commonly troubling expat women? 

That's the power of social media, I believe. A quick look at Facebook groups where expat women ask suggestions from each other can tell you so much. Some topics come up again and again – not getting your deposit back from your landlord, divorcing a local while you're an expat (and who's going to get custody of the child?!), various problems with visas, navigating social life regardless of certain barriers – you name it. 

There are professionals that give consultancy in all of these areas, but not everyone can afford that. My aim is to host these professionals on my podcast or networking events, so people learn from them free of charge. The speakers in my podcast don't charge anything for their speaking time, so it is all about people supporting people. Once I got some traction with the podcast and saw that people also needed in-person gatherings to uplift each other in whatever they wanted to achieve, the idea of building this women's network in Prague came alive. 

What are the main benefits of the Dear Ladies Network to its members? 

For expat women who want to establish their own businesses, the Network resonates so much, as it is definitely hard to launch a business idea from scratch as a foreigner! The Network offers an open space for women to learn from each other. It brings a support system – especially in the absence of our family and friends from back home – to exchange ideas and life tips. They all come from different educational and cultural backgrounds, so they inspire each other on many different levels. Plus, they build actual friendships, as they get together twice a month. It is optional to attend the bi-monthly events but usually, the turnout is very high, as people really want to be a part of this community; build trust in it, and commit to it. 

Dear Ladies meeting

Sometimes we all need some advice, be it about where our career is going, or about a certain problem that we're facing in our relationships. Maybe something bad happened to you, but you are in a foreign country and you don't know who to talk to. Talking to your family or friends back home can help only up to some point because they won't have a full perspective of your life abroad, and how things work here. In such times you need people who can give you the support that you need. That is what Dear Ladies Network is about – a sense of sisterhood. 

One of our members recently launched her own business (a travel agency) thanks to the motivation she got from the meetings, and it deeply fulfills me and everyone to see great business ideas, friendships, and connections flourishing as an outcome of these meetings. We all have our own battles in life as expats, but seeing such great things happening drives us to go forward with life with higher motivation, and at the end of the day that's what matters. We launched this community at the end of January 2023, and now we have more than 50 members. 

Have you been able to find your own sisters with the help of the Network? 

Yes! And it happens when you stick to it. We are all human, and sometimes we feel too lazy to socialize, but it is important to keep on coming to the events and nurture those connections. When you're committed to it, you will definitely find your circle and a sense of refreshed motivation. 

The Network helped me have something to hold on to in some very difficult times. Going through postpartum, losing two of my siblings… We don't talk enough about how difficult it is to be an expat mother – the isolation it brings, simple things like going to a doctor always being a hassle, being far away from family… the list goes on. It can really cause you to lose direction in life. That is how I felt when I first came to the Czech Republic, but the Network helped me find myself again. 

Dear Ladies meeting

What is your vision for the Dear Ladies? Would you like to make it grow and become an international brand, or rather keep it a Prague-based network? 

My current vision is to make it grow locally and expand the variety of activities. We will be organizing monthly retreats, which is something that many members appreciate. Meditations, workshops, light exercises… and sleeping, especially for mothers! 

We will keep on having our bi-monthly meetings in Prague, having workshops on various topics. Though I have the idea of having one (or more!) Dear Ladies' Cafe someday, where people meet only for purposeful, meaningful conversations. The Network can definitely become something bigger and more international, let's see where the journey takes us. 

How can people join the Dear Ladies Network? 

They can sign up directly from our website, with a one-time commitment fee of CZK 500. Everyone is also invited to get a sense of how the gatherings work on our Instagram page and listen to the Dear Ladies Podcast on Spotify or Apple Podcast.

All photos courtesy of Ashley Nkambule-Hola

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