Brittany Underwood is the founder of Akola Project, a luxury jewelry brand that sells in Neiman Marcus stores nationwide. While the necklaces and bracelets are gorgeous (full disclosure: one of our favorites is on our holiday gift guide), the well designed products are only the beginning of the beauty of Akola Project.
Akola, which means “she works” in the local dialect of Uganda was started after Underwood went on a trip to the African country in her sophomore year of college. There, she met a Ugandan woman named Sarah who helped orphaned children with just the little she had. Sarah, who was only a few years old than Underwood at the time inspired her to find a way to help the children and women of Uganda. After a brief endeavor into founding an orphanage and few trial and errors later, she began Akola Project which employs women in both Uganda and formerly incarcerated women in Underwood’s hometown of Dallas.
The project is truly one of a kind as it is a nonprofit that gives back 100 percent of profits to the women — several hundred women — whom it employs at every step of the supply chain.
Furthermore, it not only supports the women and their families by providing economic opportunity and education on how to turn that income into meaningful change, but it also supports local communities by building water wells, training centers and more.
Underwood spoke to Remake about Akola Project — it’s challenging beginning and lessons learned, it’s success and growth, and the women who make it all that it is.
How did you start Akola Project and where did your interest come from in helping women like Sarah who you met in Uganda?
I was 19 and it was the summer after my sophomore year of college and I had promised two friends that we would have a summer adventure and at the point, no one knew where Uganda was on the map. Randomly, I ended up there teaching in a boarding school. The first two weeks I was there, I was super uncomfortable. I had gotten really sick and I had never witnessed extreme poverty and I was in college and it was just really overwhelming.
So I had one of our local leaders say I would love for you to meet this woman who I think will inspire you, so she introduced me to Sarah. She was a Ugandan woman who was I guess three years older than me at the time but had sacrificed everything she had to care for 24 street children who were sleeping on a floor. It was kind of an amazing story where her story and her sacrifice inspired me to help. I thought gosh if someone is 23 years old and has no resources and they’re sharing their food so other people can live, clearly I can help. It all kind of started with that one encounter with Sarah who sort of changed my perspective on everything.
Why did you choose the name Akola Project — akola meaning “she works” in the local dialect of Uganda? Going off the name, how do you avoid a cycle of dependency?
The women named their own project and that’s part of our approach; our women participate in every part of our programming. Not only did they name the project, but they design their own programming. So we every year on the social side of what we do, [we run] educational programs that teach women how to use their income well to create change and that’s everything from learning to invest in their maternal health, to knowing to go to the clinic when they have a child, to ways that they can strengthen their families, to counseling, to investing in their farms and local businesses, to the microlending program.
What’s great about [the social programs] is that the women learn how to participate in them so once we launch these programs, we help the women create a strategic plan for their year end set goals. And based on their goals, that’s how we design our social programming, so it’s based on what they voiced that they need and want to learn about that year. And we actually create the curriculum ourselves with our development practitioners that we have on the ground and then they train the woman to teach the programming. They participate in really everything we do. So naming the project was kind of the first step in having them kind of own it.
On your website you feature photos of beautiful smiling women and invite shoppers to meet the women who make and distribute Akola Project’s jewelry. Can you speak about how these women have impacted the brand and why you want your shoppers to learn about them?
So in our case, the women are the brand. We’re a nonprofit so the women actually own the brand, which is really cool. It’s 100% socially reinvested and they’re our shareholders. They’re the whole benefactors of what we do. It’s not just kind of a side part of our project that they make a fair wage or we’re able to throw in a financial literacy program or we’re helping an artisan community, the only reason we do is to meet offical need and that’s the primary goal of our entire organization.
So we’re really a business that’s created to give back versus a business that gives back if that makes sense.
So they’re really the pinnacle of everything we do and so what’s neat about meeting the women who created the product is that we can transparently do that. I know every woman in our program, I know their kids, I know where their houses are, I worked alongside them in Uganda for five years. Our team of 25 in Uganda works with seven different villages. What’s neat is we can connect the customer to the women in a unique way because we’re not working with an artisan group that we don’t really know, we are working with women who are not artisans who’ve we trained to make beautiful products to support their families. So when you connect with a Akola woman, it’s a completely unique experience, you get to really know her because we really know her.
Even beyond that, our whole program is designed to impact every part of her life and her whole community. So something unique in addition to meeting the women that we’re doing is that we’re starting this impact where when you buy an Akola product, in the next 6 months you’ll be able to know exactly where the money goes and we can talk about that because we can be completely transparent because it all goes back. It’s fun, it will allow customers to engage with each product like this product is a three hour labor necklace and it’s made in Dallas by a woman who gets $15 an hour pay so it’s $45 in her hand when I buy this necklace, here’s how she uses it and the rest of the money is reinvested in our business to provide opportunities for more women.
You do so much at every level of the supply chain. How do you manage and balance it all? What obstacles have you faced and how did you overcome them?
It’s been a journey. Again it’s been 13 years but we started as an orphanage so clearly we learned a lot. We basically pursued an entire development model that wasn’t effective, built a million dollar orphanage project that I would probably call at this point not a success, it’s just not self-sustaining. I mean we have learned some really hard lessons. We had to pivot and recreate an entire model based on learning the hard way what worked and what didn’t work to care for disadvantaged kids. Along the way, building our entire supply chain, building our training centers from scratch, I mean you can imagine we put so much work and thought at every part of our project but it’s really paid off and I’m really glad we didn’t get the Neimans opportunity until we had come this far because we wouldn’t have had the infrastructure to support it and meet our social goals. Luckily it had happened at a time where we had already built our training centers, we had our manufacturing facilities, we trained women for 10 years in Uganda to do this work and had a way to do this in Dallas and I think that’s why it really grew.
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to young designers who want to help others and be social innovators, like your younger self?
We talk to a lot of young people who are just starting out and then realize wow this is a more sustainable and effective way to solve a problem. My advice for them always is back up, first you have to have a product. You can’t be successful even if you have a heart for the women, if you don’t have a product that will sell you can’t support them and the whole thing’s not going to work. So forget about the social programs, forget about the women, forget about the jewelry, forget about everything else. First, find what materials are indigenous to where you are and a product that can be unique that you can make out of those.
Design it well, make sure you have a market, and then give women opportunities.
The worst thing I’ve seen is people with such great intentions kind of switch to this model and start employing women without having a market and so suddenly they can’t pay the women and suddenly the women are a little disillusioned because they thought they had opportunity and this really well-meaning social enterprise came in and they don’t have opportunities and they can’t employ you to work and that’s very disheartening for those women who are finally getting out of a hard situation and back on their feet or the artisan community that’s depending on those orders that they don’t have.
Then, as the product works, the big advice I have is don’t forget about the social side.
If you’re a social business that should be the primary reason you’re doing this and if you get caught up in everything else around it and forget to have a real meaningful impact, I truly believe that economic empowerment without education to women living in extreme poverty is actually irresponsible. To help women who never had capital earn it, but not know how to use it to actually make meaningful change in their lives and families’ lives, I mean that’s just half of the puzzle. Maybe you start that way but if you don’t start incorporating real programs not just like throwing in we do have financial literacy courses twice a year, we do a health seminar, like that’s not helpful, like meaningfully tying that in and that has to be part of your business plan or I don’t think you’re helping in the way that you can. So it’s twofold; first don’t forget about the product in the beginning since you’re so excited about the social side as a model, but then don’t forget about the social side when your product is successful and it’s not really going to help the women unless you build that in right.
What motivates you to get up and go to work everyday?
I mean these women. I had my wedding in Uganda when I got married in 2012 after I got married in Atlanta. There were 300 women in their little mud hut church that I had gone to for years and I had a traditional dress. I have a home that I built on a river half a mile away from the women we work with and I plan to spend my summers there once my boys get a little older.
I mean they’re the reason. I would never do if it wasn’t for them. It’s so hard — I mean it’s my whole life, it’s my weekends, it’s my nights, it’s my conversations, it’s my friendships, it’s at the expense of my time with my boys, it’s fully consuming if you do it right, especially if you’re growing.
If it was for any other reason, I wouldn’t do it. They’re the ones, everyday, their stories, they way they’ve overcome, their children, their families, how they’re changing their communities, that is what gets me going and all of the reason why I’m doing any of this.
Can you share some of the stories of the women who you work with?
Sure, I’ll give you one from Uganda and one from Dallas. So in Uganda, there’s a woman named Charity, she’s one of the first woman in our program when we started Akola after we had done the orphanage for a couple years and she came to us, couldn’t provide for her kids, her husband didn’t have work which is generally the case, most of our women don’t even have husbands that are around, so she was lucky enough to have that. She had three boys and she not only wanted to send them to school, she had a dream that someday they could go to university and that’s a pretty big dream. If you live in an agrarian village, you’re lucky enough to get to primary school at that point. She rose up from working in assembly, to doing the jewelry to becoming a wellness officer to then becoming a site supervisor for us and now she’s actually on our executive team. I was just in Uganda two weeks ago and in the car with her, and I was sitting next to her and she grabbed my hand and she had tears in her eyes and she goes, have you heard? And I said no Charity, what tell me. She goes I just got my third kid to university. He got his accounting degree and just got a job in Doha and I’m sitting there thinking this is a woman who didn’t even know there was a world outside of her village when we met her and grew up in an agrarian community, zero opportunity, couldn’t even put food on the table much less send a kid to university and she sent three boys to university, not through sponsorship programs, not even a loan, not through a handout, through her own efforts and hard work. And she did that through our village savings and loans association over the past 10 years and she sent three kids to university much less provided for medical care, food, shelter, basic needs. And she had achieved her dream.
And there was another woman Irene when I was there two weeks ago and she was showing her home she had built through her Akola income and she had tears in her eyes and she said since I was a little girl my dream was to have glass on my windows and she had put in glass windows. It was just a tiny house with glass windows and a tin roof which is a really big deal over there and she had saved up for years, she had saved up all of her money and had built this house with glass windows. And it was raining that day and you could hear it on the roof and she was just so proud, she did it. It wasn’t a hand out, it wasn’t a habitat for humanity service project that someone gave her. She did it for her family and she was so proud and that was that moment when I was like oh my gosh, it’s really working.
We had three women run for local office last year in our program and when I first started working with them last year, they couldn’t look me in the eye they were so marginalized. They looked at their feet when they talked to you and three of them ran for local office. So that’s when education plus economic empowerment, that’s what happens when you combine those, things like that happen.
In Dallas, Annette was one of our first Dallas women. Three years ago, she had been formerly incarcerated 17 years, shared a jail cell with Stephanie who runs our supply chain quality control now and that’s how they met. We found out three months after they had came to us that they had met in jail, she had been a former prostitute, sexually trafficked, addicted to god knows how many drugs and she celebrated her fourth year of sobriety and she just bought her first car which was her dream through her Akola earned income. And she started at our distribution center as one of the formerly incarcerated women who learned that on the job training to kind of get to her next opportunity, and she just rose up and up. And now she runs our entire distribution center, she runs and manages all of our boutique relationships and she had our whole team go out and see her new car and it was the exact car she had dreamed of and it had the seats she had wanted and I’ve never seen anyone more proud and I was more excited to see her car than I was when I was 16 and got my first car. It was the most rewarding, like this is a woman who couldn’t even think past her addiction and now she’s providing for her grandkids and her family and she has risen up in leadership through akola and she just got her dream car and that’s what she had hoped for and prayed for and she did it. Again, it wasn’t a hand out, no one gave it to her, she earned it and worked hard for it and her potential was unlocked and her dreams were coming true. And there’s so many stories like that.
The big thing for us is we really feel like we are pioneering a new model and we want more and more social enterprises to give 100% back and have that full impact through their entire supply chain and I know everyone can’t do that, a lot of people have started a for profit business and they’re trying to figure out how to care for other people through that process and I get that. Not everyone can have every layer of impact, but we’re trying to set the bar because there really hasn’t been a bar in that sense. There’s so many shortcut social businesses, there’s so many different levels of impact and we just show everything that’s possible so if someone could adopt even just a couple of the things that we’re doing through their model, whether it’s a for profit, a nonprofit or whatever, than that makes a huge impact. I think it’s really important to me that this stage continues to grow and people think about the need for not only economic opportunity but again the education to use that income well to actually make meaningful change.