(Photo above courtesy of 31 Bits)
For OTTW's second exclusive interview, we got to chat up Alli and Anna, two of the five founding members of 31 Bits. Clearly we've been obsessed with their jewelry and so very inspired by their incredible story. We are fans for life.
Want to find out how a few college students turned their vision into a successful business?
Or learn more about social entrepreneurship done right?
Then you're not going to want to miss this interview.
Alli Swanson and Anna Nelson, both 25 years young and the lovely women we had the pleasure of interviewing.
When did 31 Bits get started?
Right before our senior year of college. (The company was founded in 2008). In the beginning we had six Ugandan women designers, and now we have 115!
How did you guys take it from idea to action?
Kallie (the founder) went to Uganda, met these ladies, brought back a ton of handmade Jewelry, and we all loved it. We started thinking about a way to make it sustainable for these Ugandan women because they didn’t have a source of income but they had dreams of sending their kids to school. We were stoked on the product and thought we could sell it well, so we went to Uganda with Kallie the next summer to meet the ladies.
After that, it was kind of an after-school hobby. We never imagined it would turn into this. We all saw our lives going in different directions, but we couldn’t not do it. So we started selling it at craft fairs, school events, house parties, anywhere we could.
What was the turning point for you?
Reef Sandals heard about us and approached us about making a sandal with our beads on it. We had a meeting with them, and they placed an order for thousands of strands of beads that they needed in a couple of months. That was the moment where it was like, wow, we can really make this something bigger. From the beginning we had prayed, “God this is yours, do with it what you will,” and the order from Reef was when it was like, “Alright, God! We’re hearing you.”
That's pretty loud and clear.
Right. So we were almost forced to grow and become a legit business. We had to hire 20 to 30 more Ugandan ladies within the first two months of being back from Uganda. We barely had a name - we didn’t even really have a website yet. And it was a huge risk because we were hiring more Ugandan women, but we didn’t know if Reef would ever place another order, and we didn’t want to leave the women hanging afterwards, so it was a lot of pressure.
But it worked out. God has continued to build the company, open doors, and grow our business.
Did any of you have any prior business experience?
No, but we have amazing people around us who do. And we have so many resources. Our photographer is a friend from church, our stylist is his sister-in-law, and we’re just blessed to have a talented community around us that supports us and believes in our cause.
Where does the paper for the beads come from?
There are recycled paper marts in the capital city in Uganda that used to have tons of paper, so that’s where we've gotten it, but we’re exploring different options right now because Uganda is in a place where they’re almost out of paper. We still want to purchase it locally so we can create more jobs.
It seems like you’re really mindful about helping the local economy.
Definitely. We get all of our products from Uganda. The varnish that’s on our beads is from a local company, and if we need to print on top of the paper we use a printer that’s Ugandan.
How long do these Ugandan women stay in your program? Is there a “graduation”?
They have four years before they graduate. When they enter we meet with them and evaluate their long-term goals because we want to make it very clear that this isn’t the end for them - this is just the beginning. Some of them are just excited to have a job and say they’ll roll beads for the rest of their lives, but that’s not what we want for them. That’s not empowerment. We don’t want them working for us forever - we want them going out and starting small businesses in that town and creating jobs for other women and building up that economy. We have 10 ladies graduating at the end of January (2013) and starting businesses of their own.
Is this the first group of graduates?
Wow, that’s so exciting!
We are so stoked. They’re all doing different things, too. Some have bought land to do farming, and one will be opening a hair salon.
So they’ve been saving the money they've earned through jewelry sales?
In our program they go through all different kinds of training from learning English to budgeting, and we really teach them the importance of saving. Now all of them have money saved up to start small businesses. And it’s a slow transition for the graduates because even though they graduate in January, they’ll still be with us part time for about six months so that they have a small source of income to help sustain them, and our managers will be meeting with them to support them.
They must be super excited.
They are, and that’s cool for us, too, because when we first told them that they would be leaving, they were so upset! Wailing and moaning. But now they’re ready, and it’s so great to see how they’ve caught that vision.
How did you decide to be an openly Christian company?
It comes up naturally when people ask about our name because we get it from Proverbs 31. If people want to research why we’re doing what we’re doing, the heart of our company is our faith, and it’s really important to our Ugandan designers. They all love the Lord and they have worship days on the compound. Everything comes back to them thanking God for changing their lives through this opportunity, so we couldn't help but to include that in our mission statement.
How do you keep things financially transparent for people who are skeptical of how much of the money they’re spending really goes back to the women in Uganda?
Since we’re not a non-profit, we don’t have to show our tax returns and all of that, but we are very open with where our money goes. It’s hard to explain because not a lot of people know how the Ugandan economy works, but all of our programs are funded by jewelry sales, so that goes to paying the women, but also all of the finance training and development programs they participate in. Everything we’re doing in Uganda, all of the shipping, and providing for over a hundred ladies every month is expensive. We knew it had to be sustainable for us here in the states, too. We try to cut costs as much as we can, budget things well, and make sure that we’re being very smart with our money. Roughly about 70% of our money goes back to Uganda. We don’t say that too much, because the percentage is constantly fluctuating, but that's about how much goes back.
I'm getting the feeling that you get this question a lot.
All the time. And we get a lot of people asking us why we’re a for-profit and not a non-profit, but the truth is, we’re selling a product, and we’re not operating off of donations. We want to show that business can be done right. We can be a for-profit and provide for these ladies by selling their products, and we hope that more businesses take this approach to things.
Who designs the jewelry?
We have a designer who works with Kallie. We try to do really fashion forward stuff. Kallie is very eclectic and has always had a really good sense of style. We never want it to be a “guilt buy.” We want people to buy it not even knowing that there’s a cause, but just because they love the jewelry and then hear about the story and be stoked. Because that’s what’s going to keep people coming back. We just try to be as innovative as we can with each line. We spend time researching what colors and trends will be in next season and keep reinventing our designs.
How are you working on getting recognized?
It’s really fun doing the PR and marketing now because the first two years it was hard - emails getting bounced back, people never responding. But now that we’ve created a platform and branded ourselves, we’re starting to see a response. Jessica Alba has been spotted wearing our jewelry, we’ve been in different magazines, Giuliana Rancic on E! News has worn our stuff.
And we’ve recently realized how huge fashion blogs are, so that’s been a big focus. We were just part of a big group doing fashion audience research, and we found that all these young women look at are fashion blogs - even more than magazines. Our generation is all about Pinterest and specific fashion blogs they follow, and that’s great marketing for us when we get on them.
You guys are still having fun?
Yeah we love it. And we get to work with our best friends. Anna and I (Alli) and Jessie who is our Director of Sales all live together, work together, and hang out afterwards. It’s a fun season for us. Our company has moved into a new space, and we’re growing our team.
What’s next for 31 Bits?
We’re taking it as it comes. We’re getting into a lot of new stores, but they’re mostly smaller boutiques, so one big goal is to get into a Nordstrom, or Anthropologie, or Madewell, some sort of chain that’s more consistent and where we can reach a wider audience.
I can totally see 31 Bits in any of those stores.
Yeah, it’ll happen. We’re working on it. You have to get in with the right buyers, but I think we’re now at a place where it’s more feasible than it’s ever been. And we’re at capacity at our compound in Uganda, but we can see ourselves expanding to another part of Uganda closer to the capital and starting another branch. And then there’s always the dream of starting in a different country with a new product, but right now our focus is to get better with our jewelry. And we’ll be releasing a clutch soon --
Yeah that’s really exciting. The cool thing about beads is that there’s so much we can do with them. We’re open to wherever God wants us to be, and that's worked for us.
Do you ever experience culture clash? Seeing Uganda and then coming to Costa Mesa with all the affluence and indulgence?
When we make decisions about what we’re spending money on, it's always in the back of our minds. We try to live a lifestyle based on what we need. It is hard because we sometimes hear crazy stories about what our ladies in Uganda are going through. It couldn’t be more opposite from our lives here. At the same time, we can’t live here like we did in Uganda because that’s just not possible, but we’re always reminded to be really wise with our money.
There are a lot of people that want to get into social entrepreneurship. Any advice for them?
Do a lot of research. Find a need that you want to meet, and then ask a lot of questions to the right people about what the best way to do something is, because there are a lot of companies that aren’t familiar with the culture they’re about to get involved with that end up making things worse or offending people or doing a project that’s not necessarily what that group needs. And really work on quality. It’s huge for us that we have a quality product that’s worth the money customers are paying for.
* * * * *