Like most college juniors, the founders of 31 Bits, Kallie Dovel, Alli Swanson, Anna Toy, Brooke Hodges, and Jessie Simonson were trying to decide what to do after they graduated. What they didn’t anticipate was how a trip to Uganda would change their career trajectory. Dovel met women in Uganda that were the same age as her, who had no job, no education and were often single moms. These women were very resourceful. They were making beads out of old posters. Dovel brought the beads back with her and the group decided to make a business out of it. They initially started selling their jewelry line at school events, craft fairs and home parties. In the five years of their company, they are now in over 300 stores and they have shared their story with hundreds of thousands of people.
31 Bits has implemented a five-year holistic development program in Uganda. In addition to receiving health education, business and finance training, and counseling, each woman belongs to a community where she has the opportunity to earn an income, receive an education, and dream for her future. After five years in the 31 Bits program, the women graduate, leaving with an education, a career, social equity, confidence, and a voice. As a result of 31 Bits’ program, 120 women lives have been changed. What is even more exciting is that their children’s lives and community have been changed.
We sat down with Swanson and talked about how the company started and how they help woman in Uganda.
“I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” Isaiah 61:10
Swanson reflected what it was like when they started the company.
“We started in 2008 and there were five of us girls. Kallie Dovel, one of the girls, went out to Uganda the summer between her junior and senior year [of college] and her boyfriend at the time was starting another company called Krochet Kids. Kallie joined the Krochet Kids team and went out to Uganda to work in an orphanage. Things fell through with her working at the orphanage and she decided to travel around on her own and met some women that were making paper jewelry. She ended up spending the rest of her summer working with them, serving and really living life there to understand more. She returned to the States with a big box of jewelry and sold it to anyone and everyone she could on campus. While selling the beads she approached some of us [girls] with an idea and explained how the beads were a great product and that these women desparately needed a job. We all loved the product and there did seem to be quite a bit of promise to help this country. So we all ended up going out with Kallie to Uganda the following summer to meet with the women, other organizations, all with the hope of developing a strong business model. Towards the end of the summer in 2008, Kallie stayed in Uganda to run things and we came back to the States to start things here. We started small and hired six women from Uganda to make jewelry where in turn we provided them with incomes. What changed everything was after just a couple months, Reef sandals heard about our jewelry and what we were doing and called me on the phone one day saying, ‘We love your jewelry; we love your beads; we love your story…and we want to make a special sandal design with what you do.” After that we were invited to their headquarters and you can only imagine what we looked like. We were still getting things started so we brought Xeroexed photos of the women and a tub of random beads. But, they fell in love with our story and soon after they place an order for thousands of strands of beads to go with their ‘Ugandal’ sandal! This is when we realized that something had started for 31 Bits and that God was doing something much bigger than we had anticipated. We hired more women, created a website, made a trademark, and shaped our business better. It was exciting, but also a really scary time for us. We knew hiring more women was a risk and there was a possibility that we wouldn’t be able to provide for them later on. So we took a step of faith and when Reef sandals ordered those original strands, we hired 20 more ladies!”
Help others. Whether you are a business owner or a college student, each of us in a position to help another person. It might be just one person to start or it might be an entire village. Pray and ask God what He wants you to do! Think of all the people that have helped you throughout your life-coaches, mentors, bosses, pastors, and small group leaders. Reflect on how you can be an influence to someone else just like others helped you.
Take a detour. It could be a closed door, diverted opportunity, or trial, rather than get frustrated, pray and ask God how He wants you to view the situation. If God is directing you to another career, ministry, be willing to be obedient to the Holy Spirit. Take time this week to look for examples in the Bible of people who had to have faith amongst life’s detours.
Support businesses that help others. Shoes, water, candy, and clothing, there are lots of great companies that are committed to helping others. Research how the company uses the funds or profits. If it is a cause that inspires you, consider donating to a non-profit that works directly with the cause or even go on a trip to help the cause.
To read our entire interview with Alli Swanson, click here.