Brittany Merrill Underwood is the Founder and CEO of the Akola Project. In 2006, Brittany, a Southern Methodist University sophomore, spent the Summer on a trip to Uganda with a few friends. After meeting a Ugandan woman named Sarah, who was caring for orphans in her home, Brittany was inspired to roll up her sleeves and help. It started with a proper home for the children and quickly grew into creating a sustainable work opportunity (The Akola Project) for other women like Sarah so that they could provide for themselves, their families and these children. Today, Akola provides training, dependable living-wage work opportunities and holistic education programs to over 500 women in Uganda and Dallas, TX, who care for approximately 4,000 dependents.
Intro: Welcome to “How She Got Here – Conversations With Everyday Extraordinary Women.” It is my belief that every woman has something inside her only she can do. The more we share the stories of other women who have already discovered their thing, the more it inspires, encourages, and empowers other women to do the same.
Susan: Hey, friends, I am more than excited to share my guest with you today. Brittany Merrill Underwood is the founder and CEO of the Akola Project. Akola is a full impact brand which means they reinvest 100% of their profits to support work opportunities, training, social programs, and the construction of training centers and water wells in impoverished communities throughout the globe. Akola has a social impact throughout its entire supply chain and offers women opportunity through the creation of their raw materials, assembly of their product, and their distribution center that acts as a second chance job program. Akola has created a new high impact model for social business that is paving the way for high impact millennial run businesses that seek to have an impact on the world. In 2017, Brittany was named among the top “The World’s Top Ten CEO’s” in Inc. Magazine, the best person in the world by Yahoo in 2014, and was honored by clothing manufacturer, Levi, as one of 50 women around the globe who have changed the political, cultural, and spiritual shape of the future. She was awarded the Emerging Leader Award from SMU in 2013, the Young Leader Award from the Dallas Women’s Foundation in 2014, and was awarded a Silver Medal from the Business and Inner Faith Peace Award given by the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation in Rio.
Brittany has been featured on the Katie Couric Show, CNN’s Young People Who Rock, Fox Business, and Modern Luxury. In 2014, she was asked to join a mentoring class for the Laura Bush Women’s Initiative, and joined the Faculty of Southern Methodist University as an adjunct professor in 2015 where she teaches a new course on social innovation. Brittany continues to devote her life to creating a brand that empowers women through economic and holistic development as CEO of the Akola Project. According to Inc. magazine, “Underwood is a clear example of a servant leader practicing conscious capitalism to transform the lives of impoverished women and families.” So without further ado, here’s Brittany.
Susan: Well good morning, Brittany. Thank you so much for joining us today. How are you?
Brittany: I’m fine, thank you.
Susan: Well, it is so good to have you here. I know I shared in the opening with my listeners kind of a little bit about Akola and your story and what you did, but I would love to hear from your mouth a little bit about yourself and where you’re from and how you got to where you are now.
Brittany: Sure. I am Brittany Merrill Underwood. I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia and went to SMU, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas for college, and spent most of my 20’s back and forth from Uganda, which I’ll talk about that a little bit more later on in the podcast. And then I married my husband – he’s a Dallas native – in 2012, and moved back to Dallas, have two little boys, a three-year-old and a one-and-a-half-year-old and so balanced that with my work as founder and CEO of Akola Jewelry. And we are a full impact brand that’s devoted to empowering women to become agents of transformation in their families and communities and grow a business. And so it’s a busy life, it’s exciting, but a lot there. In addition to that, I teach a course every spring at SMU now on social innovation and do that as well.
Susan: I did read you have started that; you just keep adding to the empowering and inspiring of women and I absolutely – that just warms my heart. You go girl! So tell us a little bit about how you got to Uganda to begin with. Tell us a little bit about that story.
Brittany: Sure. So I was a sophomore at SMU and I was not involved in any community service activities and didn’t grow up in a culture of philanthropy in Atlanta; that just wasn’t part of – yeah, wasn’t part of our lifestyle so I had really not done anything for others, which is true. And, you know, was 19 years old and had promised two of my friends in college we would have a summer adventure and I thought we would teach somewhere in Europe and I kind of tuned out of the conversation for a second and they picked the boarding school in Uganda. I didn’t know where Uganda was at a time on the map, and I just had no desire to be in East Africa or had never been to a developing country and sort of got dragged there by two of my friends.
So two weeks into being in Uganda, we were working with a group that was taking us to different villages to help us understand the culture, meet Ugandans, understand more about their lives, and I just – I was sick, I was tired, I was completely disengaged. And a local pastor that we were working with kind of noticed my discomfort and he said, “I want you to meet a local woman in our village who I think will inspire you.” So I said, “Okay,” and I followed him up this dirt road to a shack outside of Uganda’s capital city Kampala, and I met a Ugandan woman named Sarah. And it’s funny, there is not a lot of stories like this, I can trace this entire journey back to that single moment and it was that powerful. And I met Sarah and sort of didn’t know what to say and she had these sort of bamboo mats rolled up in a corner so I casually asked her what they were for and she said, “Children, children sleep on these mats,” and I thought, “Children on these mats on the floor. I mean, it was the size of my closet.” And 24 children slept on her floor every night and they didn’t have anywhere to sleep; they were street children, and she had shelter so she’d roll out these mats and they would come and sleep.
The problem was they didn’t have food, they didn’t have school fees and medical care, they didn’t have any of those things. And Sarah couldn’t afford to give them many of those, she was in poverty herself. So I saw this woman who sacrificed everything she had. I mean she would go hungry to feed these kids so others could live. And here I was, a selfish college student who had never done anything for others and it just shook me out of my complacency. So, that sort of began this what has been a 15-year journey for us. I kept up with Sarah after that summer and just kind of started sending her money for food or school fees for the kids and just wanted to help and it turned into a project to build a home for the children who slept on her floor. That was the beginning of the Akola journey.
Susan: So, the orphanage that you were building, that is where Akola started, was there?
Brittany: It was. I mean, it was just a one-off project; it wasn’t anything that I was trying to start for the long haul, I just wanted the kids to have a place to sleep. Beds and a bigger room. So this initial idea was just to build a small building for Sarah and her kids so they would have a place to sleep. And around the same time I met Sarah, another woman did and started a sponsorship program for the kids who slept on her floor. So six months after I met her, the kids were eating, they were in school so what they really needed was this building. So it started out as this tiny $10,000 project, started raising money for it. I was a journalism major so I figured if someone could just see the story and see what I saw, surely they would want to help in the same way that I wanted to help. So I filmed a promotional video and edited it in the halls of SMU and started these grass roots fundraisers to raise $10,000 for the small home, and we ended up raising over the next several years a million dollars which is just incredible. It developed a three-story orphanage for every kid.
Susan: That’s awesome!
Brittany: Oh yeah, that’s just being young and idealistic you’re 20 and you’re like, “Why wouldn’t we just build a building for everyone?”
Brittany: Next thing we knew it was this massive project. And I graduated from SMU in 2006 and thought, “I’ve got to move over to Uganda to make sure this project actually happens,” you know, a lot of people just entrusted us with their money and I need to personally oversee this. And that’s what led me to Uganda. And during the construction of this building, my three friends who kind of we all thought we’d be there for 6 months to oversee the orphanage project and go on with our lives, and it took about three years longer than we expected, and we were just making construction payments but we had so much time to just listen and get to know the community and to learn. And we knew we were so young that we just didn’t know anything so we didn’t come in with any assumed knowledge. So, again, I think we listened in a way that was really special and learned in a way that was very special, and what we kept on hearing as we met more and more women like Sarah is that what they actually wanted was not an orphanage, they wanted the ability to care for orphaned and disadvantaged kids in their own home. They had the heart and the vision; they just didn’t have the resources.
So it was pretty humbling as we were building this monstrous orphanage that in the end you know it’s better than a kid sleeping on the street but it’s not what they needed or really even wanted. And so I started Akola in 2007. Akola means “she works,” and as we were building the orphanage, I wanted to create a model to where we wouldn’t have to continue to build orphanages that supported women headed households to care for up to 10 kids in their home. And so we needed a way for the women to generate an income, and that’s when we started the jewelry business because we thought if we could create a product, sell it in the US, all the money would go back to the women, then they would be able to support their kids. So Neiman’s Marcus laughed, cause our jewelry is in Neiman’s now, and when we tell them how little thought went into our initial product, it was easy to ship, I had some friends who owned boutiques and voila we had a jewelry business. And what’s funny is, you know, this is before Tom’s and before FEED, this was 2007, the social business movement didn’t exist. There really wasn’t a playbook for this, we just thought it was a better way to meet the needs of disadvantaged children, and so that’s how Akola began.
Susan: You were a woman with a mission and vision.
Brittany: That’s definitely true.
Susan: So tell us about these women; they’re taking these orphaned children – some of them are probably their own but others – orphaned children into their own homes, how did you identify who would be a fit for Akola? Was it every woman in the village? Tell us a little about that.
Brittany: Yeah, we have a pretty rigorous process where we figure out women who have the most dependents and the least support. So initially, our goal was how do we kind of fund women who are starting these home orphanages, like, how do we have those women in our program? And then we quickly realized that there were other women who had just as many dependents that were related to them as the women who were taking in street kids. So we sort of created a model where if women had an average of 9 or 10 dependents and they didn’t have much support from their husband or didn’t have one, then they would qualify for our program and the support.
So we would go through an interview process with their local leaders to kind of identify these women headed households and social mapping, we worked through a church, I mean everything you can imagine to really identify the women who needed this program. And that’s how we build out our Akola woman space, and we worked with an average 4 to 500 women every year in Uganda in seven different communities now. We started with 15 women under a mango tree in front of their church and now it’s a pretty full of blown operation. And we realized in 2010 as our business began to grow and we went from 15 women to 200 women making jewelry, that we wanted the women to have a dignified place to work and they didn’t really have that in their villages. These were remote agrarian villages in Northern Uganda and Eastern Uganda along the Nile River and they didn’t really have an infrastructure so we started building these manufacturing facilities and training centers; we call them hope centers in Uganda where the women could go and work and create these products, and also realized pretty quickly that what we were doing was not effective unless we created educational programs around the women’s ability to generate income.
In 2010 we had one year I think it was I mean close to five women die in childbirth in our program in their homes, and we thought how in the world was this happening? They’re earning a living wage, why aren’t they going to the clinic? And we realized when we did a little digging that they either had superstitions around going to the clinic or they didn’t even know that there was one five miles down the road. So there was an education gap, and it was sort of this aha moment that it didn’t matter if they’re earning four times the wage in their village if they don’t know how to use it to create meaningful change in their lives to address their maternal health, to address the needs of their children, to strengthen their families, to combat domestic violence, to save and loan and start small businesses, it didn’t really create long-term change. And so that’s when we created Akola Academy which is our suite of holistic services that kind of wrap around our work opportunities at Akola. And that’s really set us apart. I mean that’s something we do. I don’t think there’s any other social brand that puts as much into that kind of programming as us. And it’s allowed our women to really find a pathway out of poverty versus just receiving, you know, living wage work opportunities, which is great, but it’s not enough to pull their families out of poverty.
So built that, went to grad school to kind of understand what model to build and how to build it in 2010/2012, and launched Akola Academy with our chief impact officer, Erica Hall, who is the sort of architect of our development programming and that really took off. And what’s interesting is that people assumed that it was our jewelry business that took off first and it was actually our development model and social services that sort of gained notoriety and through that we were presented these amazing opportunities to create product lines for very special retailers and began to grow the retail brand. So that happened in 2016, and that’s when we expanded to Dallas – which I can talk about in a second – and launched through Neiman Marcus which is really when the brand really took off.
Susan: And that’s when I heard about it. I actually heard about it in 2016 through the Dallas Women’s Foundation, and we can talk about that at some point as well and your involvement there, but I always feel like I’m never, like, on the front end of fashion or hearing about fashion and when I heard your story as it was then, I was inspired and empowered and I said I have to go buy everything that they have. Hearing what you have had added and understanding the Akola Academy and what all that new how you have transitioned even into that, how did you – you said you went back to grad school, how did you surround yourself with the right team, with the right people, like, how did you find the people in order to create this?
Brittany: A lot of it was blind luck and just grace, just God’s grace. I mean we had the right people at the right time who just kind of fell in our lap, and also a lot of it is just learning. I mean I think I just – throughout this entire process, I mean at each point in our development there is something new that we have to learn and develop and I’m a creative, and I like to do that. So when we knew we needed to develop our social service models, I knew I didn’t have the tools to do that, I didn’t have the expertise. I had the experience in Uganda but not the learning to make this sort best in class, which we strive for at everything we do at Akola.
So I studied under some of the top development practitioners in the country, the vice president of programming for World Vision, who is one of my mentors and professors [inaudible 12:11] and worked with him to develop this very unique model for our women. So a lot went into it. And then had just the luck honestly of having our chief impact officer apply to work at Akola, and she had worked for Jane Goodall for a while and sort of established her women’s empowerment program. And she was looking for something new, she stumbled across Akola, reached out to us and came on in 2012 and she’s still with us today and she was able to really build out on the ground what I helped sort of create the lines for in grad school. So it just was a great partnership, and it’s something that we’re so proud of today just everything we built in Uganda and what that model looks like. And what’s fun is when we had a chance to bring it to Dallas.
So that happened in 2016 actually through a partnership with the Dallas Women’s Foundation. Roslyn Dawson Thompson, the president, I was lucky enough to meet her through some work we were doing at the Bush women’s initiative at the George and Laura Bush Presidential Center, and we met and she learned about our model and said, “Why in the world is this not in Dallas?” You know and I said, “Well, because this is an agrarian community in Uganda, I don’t know if this is something that can work,” and she said, “Well, we’ve got women in Dallas who are falling through the cracks, you know prostitution, poverty, incarceration sort of women who are in crisis and they come out of those situations and they’re growing through these non-profit programs where they’re being rehabilitate but they can’t get a job because they’re not stable enough yet to even go through a Workforce Development Program. So the door is kind of swinging in their face and then they end up going back to what they know and go back to prostitution, poverty, jail, you name it.
And there really wasn’t anything in Dallas that offered women like that, women in crisis a living wage flexible work opportunity, and she knew that our model could probably do that. So she said, “Why don’t we figure this out?” So we began to kind of do some diligence and try to build what a model would look like here. And what we realized is if we were going to do manufacturing for our jewelry, we needed a more elevated product line to pay women an average of $15 an hour which is our goal. We really stand for a living wage. And so we pitched this product line – or I pitched it to the CEO of Neiman Marcus kind of through a series of events, got a connection to her, she gave me a 10-minute meeting at Neiman’s, and I just as quickly as possible just told her what we were doing, what we had done and that we really wanted to help women in poverty in our own community and we needed a partnership with a major retailer like Neiman’s to sell an elevated jewelry line to ensure we could offer these women work. And she was amazing I mean, she said, “This is intriguing, design a product line at that price point, come back in a couple of months and we’ll see what we can do.” And so, you know, we didn’t have any retail infrastructure at that point, we were selling to boutiques around the country, we had no one on our entire team with any design expertise or any retail backgrounds, and I was six or seven months pregnant at the time and had friends come over who were jewelry designers to help me put together this line for Neiman Marcus and had beads all over my house and had a one-year-old who was stepping around in a diaper and it was just total chaos, and came back and presented this line to Karen and her team at Neiman’s, and she was so impressed, she said, “We’re going to launch you in every single store nationwide and in our catalog and online and by the way, you’re our fantasy gift. Oh my gosh, we have a national roll out from Neiman Marcus and no retail infrastructure to support it. And we had not really started a program in Dallas.
We’d run a pilot with about 15 different women but we hadn’t really built the program yet. So in a span of – I will never forget this time – it was in 2016, the summer of 2016 and in span of two months we produced a product line for every single store nationwide over, you know, a million dollars worth of product, we gave over a hundred women in Dallas work opportunity and partnership with, like, 13 different nonprofits who referred women to us in their program who went through a hard time and couldn’t get a job. We popped up in the Dallas Housing Authority for production, we popped up in Buckner Salvation Army, their domestic violence unit sent us women to work in the back of our store.
Susan: That’s awesome.
Brittany: Full out community effort to get these women work opportunities and make sure we could deliver this product in time, and we did. Even the financing end of it, we had Northern Trust, one of the most wonderful banks in the world take a huge risk on us and financed our entire product line and pour money into the infrastructure of our business with just incredible terms, and without them taking risk on us we wouldn’t have had the money to pull this off. I mean the banks came together and the community came together and nonprofits and it sort of took a village to work, but we launched our product line in Neiman’s and in our first season became a top 10 jewelry brand at Neiman Marcus.
Susan: Wow, that’s the craziest story I think I’ve ever heard.
Brittany: It sounds crazy [inaudible 22:48] I mean at the time we had five people on staff in Dallas, we had 30 in Uganda, but I mean Dallas was just the support office for the work that we did in Uganda. We didn’t do manufacturing here, we didn’t do anything until suddenly we went from five people on our team to having to build out a retail infrastructure that could support our brand that was three months later competing against Oscar De la Renta. I mean our earrings sit right next to Oscar De La Renta’s in every Neiman Marcus store, and we had to do that in a span of about three months. I mean we kind of emerged from the fog, the spring of 2017. And what’s so funny too to add to the craziness of that story is I was pregnant with my second son. I had a one-year-old and I was pregnant again and I was due at the end of October and we launched through Neiman’s at the end of September. So I was literally I mean going to – up until I had my second son, going to these launch events in different cities. I had him and two weeks later I was flying for day trips to kind of launch Akola Jewelry at Neiman’s in Palm Beach and in Atlanta, you know, pumping on the plane under my sweater, like, saving the milk for my child in a little storage case that I bring on the plane. I mean the whole thing couldn’t have been crazier, and it just aligned with the birth of my second child who was only 16 months apart from my first so it just was like complete chaos .
But yeah, so we emerged from sort of the fog of it all in the spring of 2017. And that’s when we decided we had to get real serious and build a real team around this product line at Neiman Marcus and an infrastructure to support it. So we had incredible banks like Triumph Bank in Dallas, through their Community Reinvestment Act, and the money they could deploy from that as an impact investment along with Northern Trust who continue to invest in Akola in partnership with the Dallas Development Fund through their emerging tax credit program was able to get us the financing we need to build this infrastructure to compete. And so we did that in the spring and just staffed up our team and sort of just wanted to take it to the next level so we could ensure that we actually stayed in Neiman Marcus. Because it’s one thing to, you know, to be a top brand in your first season but you’ve got to put in a lot of work in to stay in the game and competing and just wanted to be around for the long haul.
So we did that, and at the same time we were still growing our social services and having donors fund those activities, and so it was just like another crazy season of building. And what we wanted to do was to build enough of an infrastructure where we could grow through other accounts as well, because once you set up a business that support an every store account at Neiman Marcus, that same business infrastructure can take on at least five times that business with the same team which is pretty expensive to build but we’ve got to grow really fast. And so that’s really fun to tell you over the past year what we’ve done to do that.
Susan: Wow, you were birthing a child and a part of a business at the same time.
Brittany: I know. It’s so funny. I don’t remember anything, like, there’s no [laughs] don’t remember what happened during that time but I [laughs]
Susan: Yeah, you would block out, I mean there’s no way you could remember all of that.
Brittany: Yeah, and actually just to add to that, my husband and I moved twice that year. We bought a house and then his grandfather passed away and he wanted to buy that house so we also moved twice during that year as well. You know it’s one of those things where you’re just going so fast and your life is just so out of control and so crazy that you don’t even know how crazy it is until you come out of that and then you look back and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, how did I do that. I don’t know.” So, I mean it was insane. I’m still apologizing to friends because I just didn’t return text messages for a year, I didn’t return calls, I missed my families birthday parties, like, I just couldn’t, I had no margin. And you can’t go like that forever but I think there are seasons that kind of require your full focus and that was one of those where it was just crazy.
Susan: Oh, absolutely, there are seasons that require your full focus but you had full focus plus.
Brittany: Oh yeah, I mean I got pulled in all different directions absolutely, yeah, I mean it was nuts.
Susan: So there had to have been – and maybe this is just me – but there had to have been a moment in that season where you were like I can’t do this, like, totally lacking self-confidence.
Brittany: Oh, I mean I was so burnt out that I literally, I mean I think there was a point I was just laying on my floor sobbing, I was so hormonal breastfeeding, you know, just coming off of the hormones of having two kids in a row, I mean I got pregnant when my first son was only 7 months old and so I don’t even think the hormones from that pregnancy had left my body, and I just was out of my mind and I had no time, I wasn’t sleeping because I had a newborn and with launching that I knew how much succeeding in Neiman Marcus, I knew how that would build our business in the future and I knew that it was imperative that that happened because that would set us up to grow the way we wanted to grow to make or mission come alive in a way that it hadn’t before, and so I knew how significant it was and we were moving and it just…
Yeah, I was so burned out, and I think I had – again, my friends gave me and my family gave me so much grace during that season but I didn’t have margin, I couldn’t work out, I couldn’t see friends – all the things that make you a person besides having children and building a business, like, I just didn’t have the bandwidth for, and so I just…Yeah, I remember laying on my bathroom floor and had a couple of key relationships as well within Akola that just got so burned during that time because I just didn’t have the bandwidth to give them what they needed during that time. And so there were consequences to growth as well, and it all hit at the same time really late in the Spring in 2017. And again, I was laying on my bathroom floor sobbing and my husband came in and he was like, “What is going on? What’s wrong? Like, are you okay?” And I just was like, “I can’t do this anymore, like, I’m dying, like, I literally… I can’t do this anymore,” and I just hit a wall, and I needed to hit that wall because my life was so out of control. But from that point, probably to this point where we are now in 2018 that next year was okay, how do I do this but also figure out a pace that’s manageable where I can have a full life and also grow this business and be there for my kids and my friends and my family. And so that was sort of the past year trying to figuring out how do we grow because we knew we had to grow really fast it just because again it was so expensive to build what it took to even pull off Neiman Marcus that we knew we had to grow. So I had to figure out how to grow Akola as fast as possible to keep up with our spend as well as kind of dial back and create balance in my life so that’s kind of in the past year. I’m excited to share with you how I’ve done some of that. I’m still kind of in the middle of it but we’re in a really good spot.
Susan: Sure. So, how are you doing that?
Brittany: Yeah, so I hit the wall, I’m on the floor crying realizing, like, this is not sustainable and I can’t, you know, I’ve got to slow down but also Akola has to speed up so how do I do that? And so what it was was just having a great team and getting the right talent. So at that point, I knew, you know, I’ve got to get some people in our business that can start taking stuff off my plate. And you know I’m a huge visionary, I’m a very big picture person, I’m very right brained. So the good news about that is I’ve never put myself in a position where I’m managing more than two people or I’m in our finances figuring out and crunching the numbers or I’m doing our manufacturing, like, that’s just not my skill set, and anytime I’ve ever been in that position, I’ve messed everything up.
So the good news is I’m really gifted and in one area and really not in other areas so it’s pretty easy for me to figure out, “Okay I need to not be spending my time in these three buckets, but I need to be spending all of my time in this one bucket because that’s where I create the most of value.” I read this book called Present Over Perfect.
Susan: Shauna Niequist.
Brittany: Yeah, she’s amazing and there was certain antidote in the book where there was a pastor and he had this church that was growing so fast and he was in a conversation and he was like, “I’m so overwhelmed, it’s crazy.” He’s like, “The growth is out of control.” And someone said like, “You have control over that,” and he’s like, “No, I don’t, “and they’re like, “Well you’re putting up the chairs,” and he’s like, “Shoot, I do have the control.” So in our case, it’s a little bit different because we knew if we didn’t grow we weren’t going to make it. We built this business that needed to grow to survive and we had this window where we were a top brand at Neiman’s and we needed to grow the retail business. And so we didn’t have the luxury to not put up chairs because we probably wouldn’t have been around a year later, so we had to grow. But the question was how do I do that while taking care of myself and my family? And something else in that book that was so helpful, saying yes to something is a no to something else, like, it’s not just a lot of yeses. Like anytime you say yes to anything you’re saying no to something else; you only have amount of time and bandwidth and resources, like, that’s just the deal.
And so I started realizing anything I was saying yes to at Akola was a no my kids, my two baby infant children. And my husband runs a company so it’s not like he is able to fill in the gaps, so just to make it even more complicated. So I started getting laser focused and said I’m only going to say yes to things that that brings value to Akola and I’m going to delegate everything else. So I just got really good at that and had an incredible luck and just God’s grace and having some exceptional team members fall in our lap during that time. Brennan Lowery who is our COO now, she sort of built Kate Spade’s On Purpose program in Rwanda. She has been working for Kate Spade and they wanted to set up some sort of manufacturing facility for bags in Rwanda, and they’re one of the only groups like ours that actually built those facilities and built sort of this vertical operation. And they don’t own that, did it under another entity but they really built it. And they sent Brennan who had been working for Kate Spade, they send her over there and basically said figure it out. So she built that over two years and had just kind of come back from Rwanda and met with one of our board members who said, “Wait a minute, this is exactly what we need.”
So we’ve had these positions, and it’s so funny how just like the world works and God works in this way, but we’ve had incredible recruiters like to find the perfect talent for Akola and we’ve gotten it wrong. And then we’ve had someone just meet with a board member, kind of fall out the sky and they’re exactly who we needed, and that’s fine. So Brennan came on in January and what she needed to do and what we needed to do really quickly was to take sort of all of our production processes and calendars and manufacturing processes. That we sort of just organically built, like. We basically made them up. We just created them. They were not best in class. But it didn’t matter, we just retailed to boutiques, like, we were on our own time schedule and it didn’t need to be best in class. But suddenly, you know, we’re retailing in one of the most prominent retailers in the country where we have to, you know, we needed an upgrade in our system the process that we just didn’t know how to do it. So she came in and because she had built this On Purpose program for Kate Spade in Rwanda, she built what we built but with a major company backing her with all the best processes and procedures kind of behind her. So she came in in January and started kind of transitioning us from sort of our mom and pop we figure it out on our own operation to actually building a supply chain that could support growth. So she came in and did that.
Around the same time we knew, like I told you we’ve got to grow fast, right? Because we’ve just spent all this money building a retail infrastructure to support Neiman’s Marcus but it’s really expensive and we’ve got to have, you know, probably 3 or 4 more account at least over the next year to make that spend make sense. And so we started looking for new business and to make everything more complicated, we had a verbal exclusive with Neiman Marcus through the end of this year so we couldn’t go into any other retailer at that price point and really any other retailers through the Akola brand at that level. We could do boutique but not other big stores, so we thought how in the world are we going to grow if we can’t compete with Neiman’s? But we wanted to honor that because they really built our business. What was so cool about Neiman’s too you know, their whole team came around us, their CEO, Karen Katz, their GM, their department manager, they all helped us figure out how to build this which is so cool. I mean they basically created our brand for us in partnership with us.
Susan: That’s really neat.
Brittany: Which was really cool and Neiman’s never gets the credit for that and people don’t understand kind of all they put into any of their brands, but especially one like ours that give back so they were helping us build it, but we wanted to honor that verbal exclusive with them but we needed to build the business so we created this idea of sort of a sub brand called One Bead One Hope. And our thought process was we could kind of create inexpensive jewelry at a low price point that anyone could afford that has our same impact made in Uganda but sell it through a different brand. And so we created this One Bead One Hope brand and they have these beautiful cards that have a picture of one of our women on it and you write down your hope for someone that you care about and you get to give them the product and kind of think about it as you where it and support a hope for women in Uganda through our program. And it was really successful and so we started testing these products and we thought, “Gosh, I mean we’ve got to get this quickly into some volume retailers,” so I met the CEO of Walmart through the National Retail Federation – we won one of their awards as one of 25 groups kind of reshaping the future of retail and Walmart was a part of that and met Doug McMillon and went up to him and said,”Hey, we’ve got this great product line and we’re in Neman’s with our Akola brand and we really want to create volume product at a lower price point that anyone can afford but through another brand to support our women and he did the same thing that Karen did at that meeting and he said, “Okay, shoot me an email and explain a little bit more,” and I did, and the next thing I know his entire team is coming to Dallas to learn about and what we do at Akola. And we’re test launching through Walmart this holiday which is really exciting so we’ll start in 30 stores and see how they do and 30 road shows and go from there. So that happened and then we secured another account with a volume retailer that I can’t reveal because it’s coming out in two months, and then another one with a major department store which also comes out in a couple of months.
So we’re able to build the business that we needed through this sub brand without having to compete with Neiman’s and we’ve done that, and that’s all launching this Fall which is really exciting and now we’re talking to some other retailers about the Akola brand as well. So it’s been an exciting season of figuring out with no playbook ever how to do this and how to be successful, knowing that what’s on the line it’s or women’s lives and their livelihoods and their ability to provide for their kids which gives anyone on our team the momentum to figure out whatever we need to to make this work. So it has been an exciting time and we’re looking at a lot of different structures that would allow us to grow like we want to grow in the future to support more women so we’re going through a lot of corporate planning and structural planning to even understand how we can do this kind of moving in the future. So yeah, busy, crazy season but I think I’ve learned in the past year to allow it to be busy but not to take over my entire life. And so that’s something that’s been fun is realizing you know I can make my family a priority and rely on other amazing members of our team to pick up some slack and we can still grow but grow in a way that’s sustainable for my life as well.
Susan: Brittany, I am so excited for you. One of my questions was going to be like where are you guys headed next and you’re on this whole crazy train to all these other different amazing places and I am so excited to hear what is to come, I am so excited what you guys are doing for these woman and for the brand in general and just for awareness, you know, what women are going through around the world and providing jobs. To me, that is something that if you can provide a job for a woman, you can change a whole family, and I think that’s one thing you even talked about before. I could ask you a million more questions, we could be here all day, I am not kidding, but I want to respect your time and I really appreciate you coming on.
I do have one question that I like to ask every guest before they leave, and that’s this, your story to me is just so amazing overwhelming, ambitious, and I really am a person who believes that there is something inside every woman that she is supposed to do before she leaves this planet, and I think you were really lucky and you found it at a really early age and you went from zero to like 900 miles an hour and I don’t even know if that’s possible but you seem to have made it possible. Tell us, if you could give a woman listening today just the one actions step – she’s had this thing in the back of her brain, maybe even since college that she knows that she needs to do one day before she leaves this planet, what is one action step that you can leave her with to take today so that she can take another step down the road?
Brittany: I think the advice would be take the step because here’s the thing, I think we all, you know, I totally agree with you, I think every person and this is something we believe at Akola and is fundamental in or mission, you know, every woman is created, any person, for so much more than they can imagine or dream, and unlocking that is the whole point, like, what is that? Why are we here, and what can we do with the one kind of precious life that we have? And our goal is the kind unlock that for our women and we have been able to do that, but what’s funny is through the journey I’ve unlocked that in myself. I mean I’m so much more than I ever thought. I never thought I could do any of this, like, I wasn’t a great student, I wasn’t involved in community service, like, there was nothing about me that was above average in any way, and it started out with one step of faith, you know, taking the next step and staying yes to something which at the time was very small, it was this little tiny home for these kids and then I took another step and another step. And I think sometimes people get so overwhelmed when they hear stories like this because especially if they do want to know the whole story because they’re like, “Well I could never do that,” and that’s not true at all, like, no one starts out, I think very few people, thinking they’re going to do these big great things, it just starts with one step of faithfulness and you continue to take those steps and fight against the disillusionment and failure and the fear and you keep on going and keep on taking those steps and you don’t give up and something amazing happens. So my advice is take that first step, and if you’ve already taken that first step, don’t give up, keep on taking those steps because eventually it will end up being what it’s supposed to be and you’ll end up being who you were created to be which is even more of the point, I think.
Susan: Well, Brittany, that was the perfect answer. That was flawless, I really appreciate that. There were a few times I kind of teared up a little bit myself. Thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you for sharing a little bit of your story. Thank you for sharing the Akola story. And I just really, really wish you luck. We’re coming up on the holidays quickly and I know that you are getting stuff in there because I’m sure September, October is really when you guys are really pushing that stuff out so good luck with that and thank you so much for sharing the story with us today and keep us posted on who you’re launching with through the holidays because I’m excited, I want to share that on our website and on our Facebook page.
Brittany: We’d love that. Yeah, we’re so excited about the One Bead One Hope line. And again, for anyone here who wants to buy more elevated jewelry they could do that through our Neiman Marcus account and we have a mass market line at akolaproject.org so that price point is really under $100 but the One Bead One Hope line that is launching in the three retailers this Fall, products will start at $7.99 so it will be a special brand, an incredibly affordable product where you can have an impact at a very low price point and be able to give great gifts through that. So maybe you go and buy the Neiman Marcus necklace for yourself and maybe for a very special friend or for a teacher’s gift or stocking stuffers you could buy from our One Hope line at these retailers. So I will definitely pass that information along when we’re launching and hope that everyone comes to see what we have in store.
Susan: Yes, and I will make sure to link all of this on our show notes and the Facebook and the Twitter and the Instagram and all of it so nobody fear that they’ve missed anything, it will all be there in the show notes. Thank you again, I really, really appreciate it, and I will talk to you soon.
Brittany: Thank you so much.
Susan: Isn’t she great. I just love Brittany and how she took an opportunity and literally ran with it. Through Akola, she is changing the lives of women around the world. I am a huge fan of Akola, the brand and the mission. Thanks so much for joining me today. I will have all the links Brittany and I discussed over on the transcript page on our website. So check that out for a link to their website as well as links to their Neiman Marcus line. As more retailers come online, I will try to remember to link them there as well. Thanks again for listening and for sharing this podcast with your friends. This show is truly a great love of mine and I appreciate the opportunity to bring it to you. Thank you for your feedback. Thank you for subscribing and thank you for rating and reviewing it.Y’all are my people and y’all are just the best. I’ll see you soon.