Meet the Match

A Boxing Trainer and Entrepreneur Spreads Power

For Caroline Lembe, sport always meant more than athletic performance. As the daughter of Congolese immigrants in Antwerp, Belgium, she grew up watching videos of Muhammad Ali on television. She came to admire him for the way he moved in the boxing ring and the way he spoke of a more equal world outside of it.

But, Caroline never would have predicted that one day she’d find her own way into boxing.

Growing up, Caroline struggled with being overweight. She and two of her close friends began swimming and running to lose weight. As she became healthier, she noticed the benefits carrying over into her daily life and her academics. Two years into her bachelor’s degree in socio-educational care work at Artesis Plantijn University College, Caroline first tried a boxing class with a friend. She had been inspired to give the sport a try after learning the story of two-time Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields, who overcame abuse and poverty in Flint, Michigan and transformed herself into a living boxing legend.

“When I began boxing, my body physically changed, and mentally I received this power and energy” Caroline says. “It was like one of my great escapes from stress and pressure. It made me conscious to different capacities in myself: persistence, self-esteem. I’d say when I took my exams, ‘It’s just like boxing class, I can do this.’”

Caroline is now an assistant boxing trainer at N’Wicha Boxing School, founded by Muay Thai kickboxing world champion and pro boxer Najat Hasnouni. She trains around 50 women and offers private lessons to men. The school works with people from diverse backgrounds including disadvantaged children, teenagers with self-esteem and other social issues, single mothers, and immigrants in civic integration programs.

“When I see that the girls are insecure about their bodies, I feel the need to motivate them,” Caroline says. “It’s important to let girls know through sports they can develop themselves and realize their potential and talents. It’s important for girls to realize there’s not only a physical component.”

Outside of boxing, Caroline runs her own company, Siki-Lab, which recreates hospital rooms and medical environments for medical students to practice their techniques. She started the company with her sister with the vision of raising the quality of the healthcare system in Belgium.

For many years, Belgium has been among the most gender equal in Europe and much of the world, with strong economic participation and educational attainment statistics for women. In Antwerp and throughout the Flanders, however, Caroline sees clear disparities for girls and women from underprivileged backgrounds, especially those from immigrant communities. According to OECD statistics, non-native Belgians or those from immigrant households are likely to have lower educational attainment, and household income that is 30 percent less than native Belgians.

“People coming from disadvantaged communities tend to have less opportunities in the job market and the education system,” Caroline says. “There are still people that tend to see it very black and white—either you’re going to make it or you’re not going to achieve anything. There are stereotypes people from different backgrounds and origins face.”

By growing up with a generation of empowered girls who, like herself, have discovered their strength through boxing, Caroline hopes to break down these stereotypes and inject new energy in girls and women. She is passionate about working with those who have suffered physical and emotional violence, the elderly, and people with disabilities. Lina Shields, senior director of consumer marketing for Eli Lilly & Company, served as Caroline’s mentor for the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program. Eli Lilly is a global leader in the pharmaceutical industry with a decorated history of community service that dates back to the late nineteenth century. During the mentorship, Lina and her team shared important business, networking, and communications skills with Caroline that directly translate over to both her boxing and medical work, as she seeks to spark more opportunities for Belgium’s women to experience the empowering potential of sports.

Mentor Match