The thriving metropolis of Vancouver, Canada, is a long way from the war-torn Ugandan village where Nicholas Lodiong grew up.
In Vancouver, Lodiong works as a master compounder at Lush Cosmetics' North American headquarters, making luxury soaps and shower scrubs. In Uganda, he spent his nights sleeping in the jungle, hiding from dictator Idi Amin's army, which had been killing thousands of Ugandans across the country.
Though thirty years and thousands of miles stand between Lodiong and that old life, this summer, Lush is working on a project that hits close to home for him. Six hours from home, to be exact.
For the past two years, Lush has been donating 100 percent of the retail price of its Charity Pot lotions to 57 charities worldwide. One of those charities, OA Projects, builds soccer fields for kids living in and around Uganda. When North American CEO Mark Wolverton learned that OA's next field would be built just hours from Lodiong's village, he decided to send his loyal employee back to Uganda as an ambassador for the brand, giving Lodiong a chance to see his family for only the second time in three decades. It's part of Lush's commitment to marrying their corporate responsibility to the world with their responsibility to their staff.
"It'd be nice to say, 'Oh just go back and see your family,' but I don't know that he'd accept it that way. He's representing the company in this project, so it doesn't feel like a handout," Wolverton explains. "We're constantly trying to take what we're doing publicly and internally and match it up to improve the experience for the staff."
In the past, the company has sent members of their buying team to Costa Rica, representatives from their manufacturing staff to Australia, and a few successful managers on trips to Japan – all in the name of giving back to people who give their all to Lush. For Wolverton, though, sending Lodiong on this trip does hold added meaning.
"I've spent some time talking to him about his background and what he went through," Wolverton says. "It's nice to have that dream of doing something for him actually work out. It feels good to him, and it feels good to us."
Lodiong arrived in Vancouver in 2001 after spending years in a Kenyan refugee camp with his wife and two daughters. He says he fled Uganda in 1980 when he was just ten-years-old to escape the conflict in Uganda and pursue an education in Sudan, only to be abducted by the South Sudanese rebel army and forced into a military training camp. When he finally managed to escape, it took Lodiong three long weeks of running on scarred legs through the jungle to reach the Kenyan border. He then made his way to the United Nation's High Commissioner for Refugees in Nairobi, which eventually placed him in the refugee camp.
"We ate only corn and beans every day, but it was okay with me, because at least we were able to eat something," Lodiong remembers.
After six years living in the camp, his refugee status was approved, so Lodiong, his pregnant wife, and their two daughters boarded a flight to Vancouver, where Lodiong tracked down a friend who had lived in his village back home. He set Lodiong up in a job at Lush washing and drying soap molds just before Christmas.
"After Christmas, I was laid off, because there was no work for me," Lodiong explains. "But my manager in the factory saw me when I was working. I was really focused on what I was doing…I waited for a certain time, and she gave me a call and said, 'We need you to work here again.'"
Since then, Lodiong has learned how to make all of Lush's products and has risen to the manufacturing division's highest rank. In the nearly ten years he's spent at the company, he's come to refer to Lush as his family.
Now, Lodiong, 40, is anxious to represent the brand back in Uganda this July, where he hopes to set an example for the local kids in OA's soccer program.
"There has been so much devastation," he says. "I'll tell them my own story to give them hope and tell them not to think it's the end of the world if you've lost a brother, if you've lost your family. If you're still alive, you're a seed for the next generation.'
That's something Lodiong knows a lot about. The only time he's been back to his village in 30 years was to mourn the deaths of his father, brother and two sisters. Though his family is significantly smaller now than it was when he left Uganda, Lodiong is looking forward to finally introducing his daughters, who are now 9, 12 and 16-years-old, to their grandmother for the first time.
Wolverton says Lodiong's trip won't be the last employee dream Lush fulfills. The company is currently working on implementing a program, in which every employee will submit their three wishes. Lush will then try to make at least one of those wishes come true. Wolverton says the UK headquarters has already taken the three wishes program for a test-drive.
"Everybody has a personal [dream]," he says, "and it doesn't necessarily involve going back to Uganda...It's been really nice to be able to use the business to make a difference in people's lives, and I'll be happy to keep going."