A six-year- old girl with untamed hair and an even wilder spirit runs through the streets of the Bajan countryside, her pint-sized arm vibrating, shaking at passers-by, attracting neighbourhood children in a Pippi Longstocking-esque congaline of childlike ambition. Everyone is her friend. The world is her oyster; in her magical mind, her options are infinite and there is nothing to fear. This is a typical day for little Toni Thorne.
Her parents, a teacher and a lawyer, both activists and politically inclined, are jointly invested in their daughter’s development despite the fact that they are no longer a couple. Toni lives with her single mother, Jennifer Sealy in one of the only wall houses in a rural east coast community. She is one of the only children in her neighbourhood whose parents had the means to provide her with childhood luxuries.
“I was one of a handful of kids in my community that had a bike and rollerblades. I was one of the only ones who lived in a wall house. Growing up in St. John was very impactful — I learned that giving and taking are both gifts,” reveals Toni.
Toni’s mother, a teacher, would open her humble home to those who were less fortunate, encouraging her daughter to play with everyone and to share whatever she had with whomever was in need. Toni’s father, prolific lawyer and public persona, Ralph Thorne, would pick her up to go to school every morning and as they made their way through the winding hills, he would openly discuss important world issues with her, pontificating and encouraging his daughter to aspire for greatness; reminding her that no goal was beyond her grasp.
Both Thorne and Sealy would remind Toni that “if you can dream it, you can do it” and “that one should always seek to help and enhance the lives of others, regardless of their means or status — not as charity, but as a way of life.”
This would be later expressed via the cultural dance troupe, Dancin’ Africa that her parents jointly formed during her early childhood and through which she would later achieve a great deal of recognition as a dancer and as a philanthropist, utilising her talent to empower youth and to help raise funds for the Jamaican charity, Martha’s Smile, as well as by training young Barbadian girls in the art of African dance.
Dancing aside, Toni is a quintessential creative and has always used her vivid imagination and sharp instincts as the nucleus of all of her trailblazing projects. The Toni Thorne Show is a fitting example — the combination of impactful colours, settings and issues discussed views like an impactful work of art. Central to her ingenuity is her infatuation with fashion, which is evident in her show and in her business pursuits, the fashion lifestyle company BoUik and more recently, her own shoe line, Sweathearts.
Philanthropy is also central to every pursuit in which Toni embarks. She recalls her pivotal first experience experimenting with the overlap between creativity and social entrepreneurship when she was just seven years old, during the days when vacation camps were not as popular as they are today. She told her parents about her intention to organise a summer programme, the Planet Club, which she planned to operate out of her grandmother’s home.
“That was the age at which I idolised Captain Planet,” Toni explains, “all I wanted to do was to change the world. It was natural for me to round up my crew, the Planet Club, and start a camp.”
She phoned parents, many of whom mistakenly thought that she was an adult, marketing the various activities that she had organised and offering optional meals for the young campers. This was her very first entrepreneurial venture, and unlike most first time entrepreneurs, seven-year-old Toni earned a profit.
Toni’s personality and confidence always ensured that she was popular. “I wasn’t the prettiest girl in the school, but I was talented and involved and I wasn’t afraid to be outspoken.”
2017. Almost two and a half decades have passed since the era of this colourful flashback and the quietly self-assured “Oprah of the Caribbean” comfortably and candidly itemises a chronology of achievements and challenges that she has experienced as a designer, philanthropist, activist, producer, publisher and business maven. This exercise produces an eye-bulging and almost unfathomable resume of business successes, awards and achievements (that have been outlined in the attached infographic), but Toni has been in this chair many times before, and her narrative is somewhat lackluster. Journalists are clamouring for a piece of her, but in her impassioned soul she is nowhere near where she wants to be, so to brag or gush about all that she has achieved to date, though undeniably awe inspiring, somehow would overlook the central point — how she got here. To make sense of the enigma, one must locate the human being, and truth be told — there is so much humanity to be found.
As a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, Toni was recognised for her exceptional achievements and potential, her strong principles as well as her drive to make a contribution to her community. She was also the first person of African or Caribbean descent to sit on the Global Youth Leaders’ Summit in Prague, Budapest and Vienna. This did not happen by accident; Toni’s creativity and empathy are both central tenets of her identity.
“The key principles in life to which I chose to adhere are honesty, authenticity, integrity and don’t be an asshole,” schools Toni, without even so much as a flinch or a smile. I suppose she knew I’d do the smiling for her.
It is almost absurd that she should say this, as Toni is the furthest thing from an asshole. Constantly seeking to help, uplift and connect, one wonders how she has the energy to carve herself into so many parts.
My first impression of Toni is in keeping with her outward-reaching public persona, her need to relate with others and her inquisitive spirit. I was the writer, and yet she greeted me with an interview question. “Why?” she asked curiously squinting as she awaited my reply, “why are you a writer?”
This was one of the many ways in which our interview was different and special. Toni is one of the most quotable subjects I have ever had the privilege to interview, not afraid to be silly or imperfect and frequently taking breaks to find out more about me.
“I feel like the Bajan Ally McBeal,” says Toni. “I’ve always felt a little bit different from everyone else.”
And different she is. Not many 18-year-olds have had their own fashion and lifestyle company (BoUik), or are Global Youth Leaders; not many 23-year-olds have their own festival (The West Coast Experience) or their own charity; not many 30-year-olds have their own magazine or popular show; not many 30-year-olds have won a plethora of awards, including JCI Barbados’ Top Outstanding Person of the Year or the Barbados Ministry of Youth’s National Youth Awards for Arts and Culture, HIV Awareness and Entrepreneurship, or a slew of business competitions and awards.
When asked what is next for her, Toni responds candidly, “For as long as I am able, I’d like to continue doing my show. I’d like for it to make as great an impact as possible.”
Having recently contractually agreed to bring her show to several TV stations across the region, she seems well on her way towards that objective.
But yet, it has never been enough. Says Toni, with a child-like humility, “I am only at 5% of where I need to be.”