Vibrant handmade beads and a desire to help displaced Ugandan women led five Christian college friends to launch a successful jewelry company.
After E! News television anchor Giuliana Rancic’s show featured handmade paper jewelry from a business called 31 Bits, company cofounders Kallie Dovel and Alli Swanson knew they had turned a corner.
If their alluring accessories charmed the world’s fashionistas, it would be a dream come true. The pair prayed for enough sales to support the Ugandan women who designed and made the company’s chic, sophisticated accessories. Success would allow the Africans to adequately feed, clothe, house and educate their children.
Soon after the TV exposure, hot new seasonal styles from 31 Bits began showing up on-air, in blogs, on Pinterest and in fashion magazines. Amy Grant, Jessica Alba and Crystal Lewis were among the many celebrities spotted wearing the latest creations. Design expert Dallas Shaw, who works with Chanel, DKNY, Donna Karan and other brands, partnered with 31 Bits to release a special collection.
From humble beginnings in 2008, the company has moved quickly under direction of Kallie, Alli and three other Christian women in Southern California. Today, there’s a multinational team operating on two continents. Talented fashion designers and business professionals regularly partner with Ugandan artisans to release new collections.
But the story goes beyond turning a group of African jewelry makers into 31 Bits employees. A larger goal is to teach the Ugandans the skills they need to operate their own businesses, and help them build successful lives.
Director of sales Jessie Simonson says, “It didn’t take long to realize these women didn’t need a superhero to help them out of poverty. They needed a reason to dance. At some point in their lives, their potential and skills were put on pause, but 31 Bits gave them a place to unlock their potential to find identity and to be happy.”
Inspired by The Word
The guiding wisdom for the company was taken from Proverbs 31—a chapter that has affected women for as long as it has been read. It even inspired the 31 Bits name.
A key portion reads:
“She makes linen garments and sells
them, and supplies belts to the tradesmen. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she smiles at the future. She opens her mouth in wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness … Give her the product of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates” Proverbs 31:24–27, 31 NASB.
An unlikely start
Kallie Dovel didn’t intend to pursue a fashion career or start a jewelry company. She believed God was calling her to work with orphans in distant lands.
After her junior year at Vanguard University, a Christian school in Southern California, she spent a summer in Africa. When her work at an orphanage unexpectedly fell through, she wound up in the Ugandan city of Gulu teaching crafts to children. In her free time, she became friends with women who lived
nearby. As she learned about their difficult lives, her own was being changed.
Many of her neighbors were among 2 million refugees who had lost their homes in brutality and strife in the 1990s as rebel Joseph Kony, a self-proclaimed prophet, terrorized central Africa with his infamous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). They were responsible not only for kidnapping thousands of children, who were forced to join the LRA, but also the rapes, mutilations and murders of thousands more.
Kallie would sit day-after-day on the dirt floor of a grass hut listening to women tell the emotionally wrenching stories of their lives. Despite memories of horrific atrocities, including seeing loved ones killed, their faith in Christ remained unshaken. They were determined to move forward.
Kallie longed to rescue her Ugandan friends, to help them break free of the cycle of poverty and abuse.
As she prepared to fly home to finish her senior year, she bought a box of beautifully colored bead necklaces and bracelets made from recycled paper by a few of the women. She planned to sell what she could and send the money to her Ugandan friends. It wasn’t much, but there was little else she could do.
Back at school, Kallie was stunned at how fast the jewelry sold. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this could actually work!’”
She began to envision how selling jewelry would give the women income to provide for their families. Over late-night coffee, she brainstormed ideas with Alli and college friends Anna Nelson and Brooke Hodges. The three were Vanguard juniors. A plan took shape, guided by the wisdom of Proverbs 31.
Crafting a company
Kallie says, “The four of us went to Gulu that next summer—not only to experience Uganda but also to meet the women, learn more about their culture and come up with a sustainable model. That trip made all the difference.”
At summer’s end, Alli, Anna and Brooke returned home to complete their degrees, while Kallie remained in Gulu, setting up the enterprise. It wasn’t easy. Communication was spotty and low-cost housing challenging.
“I slept on a broken-down twin mattress with a foot of space to walk in,” she says, recalling the cramped quarters. “There was a shared toilet and bathroom—an outhouse with the shower over it, so when you showered you didn’t really get clean. The only way I got through that first year was with Christ.”
Kallie spent that year getting the lay of the land, learning how to work with government officials, making contact with Christian aid organizations who were in touch with women in need, finding space to house the fledging effort and, most importantly, hiring local women who desperately needed the work.
Upon returning home, Kallie joined the team—five now with the addition of another Vanguard friend, Jessie Simonson—in trying to keep their fledging enterprise afloat.
“It was scary,” Alli says. “When we’d start going through the details, we’d get overwhelmed and have to stop and pray. It was so new to us. We were careful to make sure we all felt
100 percent before moving forward.”
Strong mentors helped the inexperienced entrepreneurs with the logistics of launching an international business. Invaluable advice was offered by Vanguard professors.
A local businessman believed in the women enough to give them an office. But Tim Taber, president of Transparent Productions, wasn’t convinced they could make the company work—at least not at first.
“Then God just completely blessed what they were doing and amazing things happened. I’ve been in Gulu. I’ve talked to the women and seen their smiles. This is what the kingdom of God looks like. Leading people toward Christ and the ways He transforms lives,” Tim says.
God-sized surprises kept 31 Bits moving forward. Even before most of the team graduated college a designer from Reef, a trendy West Coast sandal and apparel company, saw Alli’s mother in a 31 Bits necklace. Reef’s staff immediately embraced the mission and incorporated the colorful beads into a new sandal design they call Ugandals. Their customers loved the look and the story that went with it, and the two companies continue to work together.
Interest continues to grow as Kallie constantly studies fashion trends to keep the line current and on-trend. She travels to Uganda twice a year, collaborating with staff there on designs. Together they create new color schemes and pieces for each season’s new collection. A high-fashion photo shoot introduces the collection to the image-conscious fashion world. Later, the goods can be seen online at the 31 Bits website. They have recently introduced a wedding line, which includes beads in ivory and soft colors.
In 2012, 31 Bits sales more than doubled what had been projected for the year. Currently, 200 small shops sell the jewelry. The company also markets aggressively through social media and sells through its website and house parties.
In the secular fashion realm, the young women have learned not to flaunt their belief in Christ, but people sense a difference and often comment. “It doesn’t always make sense to be outspoken and evangelize, but it does make sense to live a life that’s an example and different, and that speaks volumes,” Kallie says.
At the 31 Bits center in Gulu, Uganda, it takes three to five years for women to get the experience and education they need for self-sufficiency. They learn to design and make jewelry, while also participating in multifaceted programs addressing entrepreneurial skills, illiteracy, HIV/AIDS prevention, domestic violence and more.
Eleven will graduate in January, using their jewelry-making earnings to start businesses, which so far include raising livestock and running a store. The fashion enterprise employs 110 Ugandan women, enabling them to take care of themselves and their families.
Atto Betty Monicha, an employee in Gulu, is one of the Ugandans whose life has been touched by the Lord through her association with 31 Bits.
Captured by the LRA while in her twenties, Betty was held in the bush for almost a decade. After escaping to Gulu, World Vision met her immediate needs, but Betty still couldn’t earn a living until she heard about 31 Bits.
Now Betty makes beads as she sings, laughs and works to improve her English with the other women. As soon as she started work, she received a personal bank account. She is going through financial training and learning how to escape the grip of poverty.
A life in Christ is also cultivated among employees. The group worships and prays together almost every day before lunch. They learn to show people Jesus through their lives—just like the five company cofounders.
“Their mindsets about their capabilities and futures have shifted,” says 31 Bits partner Jessie. “They have confidence in their skills, a fresh outlook on their lives and goals for themselves and their children.”
Modeling the Way
The 31 Bits team is learning to express their faith through their business. Here’s their advice for other Christians building businesses.
• Listen to those you want to serve.
• See life through the other person’s lens.
• Stay teachable and eager to learn.
• A business model must be sustainable.
• Choose quality over quantity.
• Find good mentors.
• Never become too comfortable or confident but stay dependent on God.
• Play and have fun together.
• Share your joy.
• Be flexible. God’s plan may be bigger than your thinking!
A Vibrant Transformation
With God at the center, programs at 31 Bits empower women to rise out of poverty. Now they can provide homes, an education for their children and learn the business skills that will sustain them. Meet a few of these African women.
Amono Margrate was ashamed of her living conditions and couldn’t pay her children’s medical bills. After receiving training in hygiene and sanitation, she now has a model home. The four goats she bought are multiplying. “Two years from now I will be having 21 goats,” she says.
Lakot Rose lost all hope after seeing her husband killed by the Lord’s Resistance Army. “Through support and training in stress management, the life skills I got from 31 Bits have made my life very meaningful and valuable,” she says. “I love myself, my environment and appreciate who I am now.”
Akulu Rose Ocaya struggled with poverty’s great stress. Her family didn’t have enough food or money for rent. Now, she says, “I strengthened my relationship with my husband, and I have now learnt to manage conflict in my household. I am so happy!”
Ladur Beatrice and her family struggled just to survive. They didn’t have cooking utensils, chairs or any household basics. Now, with her job, Ladur says, “My family and I now eat a balanced diet, and that is why you see my children, my husband and I look good. We now look like educated people.”
Onen Rose used to sell old fruit in Gulu Town for basic survival. Now she can speak and comprehend English. Onen says, “It’s like a miracle because I didn’t go to school.”
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