(L to R) Jessie Simonson, Kallie Dovel, Anna Nelson, Brooke Hodges and Alli Swanson model jewelry from 31 Bits. The five friends founded the company to help internally displaced women in Uganda rise out of poverty. Photo by Trever Hoehne

Handmade Jewelry 31 Bits Founder Alli Swanson

Bikes and Beads Lead to Business and a Better Life:
The Blessings of 31 Bits

Written by Samantha Baer

Paper can take on many forms. It can be bound and made into a book or magazine, it can be folded through origami and turned into a crane, or cut all over until it becomes a snowflake, but for the women of Uganda their paper rolled into beads for jewelry turns into a better life, a business of their own and more blessings than they could have ever imagined. The company is 31 Bits and is one hundred percent handmade jewelry by the women of Uganda. Founded by five friends, Alli Swanson (one of the owners) talked with Risen about the brand, changing African culture, and a future full of hope.

Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine in Costa Mesa, California

Risen Magazine: Tell me when 31 Bits was founded and who was involved in the process?
Alli Swanson: Well 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 up 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 desperately 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 in Xeroxed photos of the women and a tub of random beads. But, they fell in love with our story and soon after they placed 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!

Jewelry from 31 Bits. Photo by Trever Hoehne

Jewelry from 31 Bits. Photo by Trever Hoehne

Risen Magazine: Are you still working with Reef?
Alli Swanson: Actually we are not anymore. We worked with them for a couple years and did about seven different sandal designs. But we stopped because it was too hard to be sending sandals from our compound in Uganda to their factories in Brazil, back to the States. Reef also needed beads that were a specific size, which made quality control really difficult. Our products are made totally by hand and they are obviously going to be a little different and unique at times – which is our favorite part – but for Reef they couldn’t be that way so we chose to stop with sandals. A couple of Reef reps (who represented our sandals) also represented Reef jewelry and were able to get us into some stores selling just jewelry as well. So it was a huge start for us through Reef and then we grew organically.

Risen Magazine: How did the name 31 Bits come into work?
Alli Swanson: The name 31 Bits comes from the Bible in Proverbs 31 which describes the beauty of a woman that provides for her family.

Risen Magazine: Where do you buy the paper used to make the jewelry?
Alli Swanson: Everything that we use is from Uganda. It is actually pretty neat because we are in the process of filming and making a video to show people how it all works. Basically, we go with the women and travel down to Kampala [the capital of Uganda] a couple of times a month to a paper mart. The women will go and buy old recycled paper from printing shops who don’t need it anymore – like Pepsi who has a lot of old posters ready to recycle, or they buy paper from other ladies selling in a local market, which is awesome to help them out as well. So all of our paper is from old magazines or old posters. All the other supplies we get from local people, like local bead shops to provide the glass we put in between the beads, etc. Finally, we work with a little print shop around the Uganda town that prints colors on the paper and then we have a water base varnish that we purchase from the capital Kampala as well.

We could easily just purchase a bike for them but we strongly believe in empowerment and the pride that comes from earning something.

Risen Magazine: Do you have a couple designers or just one main person?
Alli Swanson: Kallie is the founder and she does most of the designing. She heads up the designing process and feels the vibe as well. She researches the theme for each season and is big into trendsetting and figuring out what is the newest and latest. We try to constantly reinvent the beads and see what we can do and what we can make different. We also have a designer in Uganda named Emily. She works alongside with Kallie and they continually Skype, talk, and try to come up with new ideas. Lastly, we have a lady that Emily works with who creates samples of the products that Emily and Kallie draw up. After that sample is made it is sent back to the States where we all talk it over and see if it is something that we like or change. They are working currently on winter of this year and spring of next year (2014,) so Kallie has to follow the fashion world closely to see what is going to be up next. It’s a fun challenge to keep it trendy and up-to-date at all times.

Risen Magazine: Tell me about the program that you have for the women that make the beads and how you choose who enters?
Alli Swanson: Kallie goes out to Uganda a couple times a year to check in on how things are running. We pretty much get women that come to the compound every day looking for a job. Currently, we are at maximum capacity with 112 women. Any more than that will be too big and we will lose the family atmosphere that we like. So what we are going to do is start a new compound in the capital city – Kampala. When someone comes to the compound looking for work, we take their name and information and when a position becomes available we go through an application process. Our Uganda managers will then interview them and assess their need by going to their village and honestly looking at who needs a job the most.
After a lady enters our program we start them off with a bike loan. We could easily just purchase a bike for them but we strongly believe in empowerment and the pride that comes from earning something. The women feel so proud to know they own the bike and bought it themselves. We then open bank accounts and put them through finance training, how to save, how to invest, and how to use their money wisely. Business training courses also follow the finance training. This, accompanied by long business field trips, helps them learn about small business opportunities and how to run a business. They also regularly meet with a mentor that helps to guide them toward achieving their dreams. Our programs are usually four to five years, depending on what the lady’s dream is and where she is trying to go. Our entire goal is to help each one start a small business of her own and prosper. Our goal is not to have them stay in 31 Bits and roll beads their entire life; we want them to graduate and go out and start a small business themselves.
This year is the first year that we have 11 women graduating and ready to start small businesses of their own. One lady is opening a piggery, a couple have bought land to grow crops and sell them in the local market, one is opening a tailoring business. We have all sorts of small businesses opening soon.
Risen Magazine: What is their family life like? Do the men work as well?
Alli Swanson: Actually it is the women that are providing for their families. And a lot of times the men are not around – it is just such a different culture. We are showing these women that they can provide and that they have a voice as well. We also put them through health training courses because they don’t understand medicine or hygiene. We have to teach them basic hygienic care and how to use medicine when they are sick so it’s really starting them off with some basics to help keep them and their family healthy.

Uganda photo by Kristin Arnesen

Uganda photo by Kristin Arnesen

Risen Magazine: How open are you about 31 Bits being a faith-based operation?
Alli Swanson: It is known that we are a faith-based operation. All the ladies are in small groups, get counseling, and come together weekly for worship and church. 31 Bits really is a family community as well as a place to grow in faith. The moment that the ladies step into our compound, they are stepping into a family. We have a big open room where they can roll out their mats and talk with other ladies, and we have a nice outside area where they can watch their kids run around while working. Some have lost their family members to the war so talking with others who have gone through the same things is essential. But from the start, it is known and mandatory that if they are going to be a part of 31Bits, all ladies have to go to counseling, attend workshop events, and workshops to strengthen their faith, education and finances.

Risen Magazine: Is there a certain size or amount of beads that each lady has to make everyday?
Alli Swanson: Yes, each lady has a different assignment. We also have some project managers that help work with them on that. It also depends on their skills because if they have been in the program for a couple years and they are really good at making beads, those typically are the women that make the small beads, or the more intricate designs. Whereas the ones that are relatively new to the program are usually going to make a standard single strand bracelet. One lady for instance can produce a couple hundred strands of a single strand bracelet where someone who has been in the program for a couple years is making something more complex and is only able to make about 15 necklaces per month. So it depends on the skill of each lady. We also mix it up every month to try and keep it interesting for them. They are paid by how many they make.

Risen Magazine: What has been the biggest hurdle that has come your way since 31 Bits was started?
Alli Swanson: There are always hurdles that come and go. Starting fresh from college where none of us had business experience or degrees was hard in itself! So whether it was quality control and the beads weren’t able to sell, or bad varnish and a month of the beads were ruined, or even running out of paper – all have been challenging. I would say there are those little logistics that go into running a business in a third world country. Even getting us into a big store or account is a lot harder that we ever imagined. But it’s really made us lean into God and we have had to each grow daily.

Risen Magazine: Where do you see the company heading in the future and where can people buy 31Bits?
Alli Swanson: From starting in 2008 with six women to now having 112 women working for us in Uganda, is such a blessing from God. We have a full staff here [U.S.], and in Uganda, and God has put us in over 300 stores internationally. They are mostly small boutiques and small chains –but we have a partnership with Quiksilver, Michael Stars, and we are in a big store chain in the south called Altar’d State. We also just finished a commercial, and we are coming out with a new summer line that we are really excited about. It includes a new clutch and we are finally coming out with earrings! Our wholesale line for instance has been growing so fast and we are really getting into more stores and boutiques. We hired a director of sales who is helping us get out there better and partner with other organizations as well. Of course we have been catching 31 Bits on random celebrities like Candace Cameron, Kathie Lee Gifford, Giuliana Rancic from E! News, and teen Nickelodeon stars which is great!

Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Summer 2013

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