The necklaces and bracelets strung together by women from some of the poorest neighborhoods in Dallas are more than just baubles.
For Valerie Brown, they are a milestone. After years of exhausting work and a period of unemployment, she finally has a job with meaning.
“I love being a part of this, I like to make the jewelry, I love the women I work with. … And I like working for someone that stands for something, just doing something positive,” she said.
The work of Brown and dozens of her colleagues is part of a unique company created by entrepreneur Brittany Merrill Underwood. Akola started as a social enterprise program halfway around the globe to give low-income mothers and women with HIV/AIDS in Uganda the chance to get back on their feet.
Bringing the model to Dallas opened doors that Underwood had never dreamed of.
Akola’s work will soon go on display at Neiman Marcus stores across the country. The necklaces and bracelets it makes will be sold in the designer jewelry department and showcased as one of the coveted gifts in the luxury department store’s Christmas catalog.
The line launches next week with an invitation-only party at the downtown store.
The business partnership between a local nonprofit and a Dallas-based luxury retailer was a result of a series of fortuitous meetings. Underwood says the support she received from local philanthropists, business executives and the George W. Bush Institute’s Women’s Initiative makes it a uniquely Dallas story.
“I don’t know if this could have happened in any other city,” she said.
Falling through the cracks
There are women falling through the cracks in Dallas — women who have been used in sexual trafficking, who have been recently incarcerated, or who are fighting their way out of poverty.
Those women need another economic alternative to create a sustainable livelihood or else they will return to what they know, Underwood said.
To team up with luxury brand Neiman Marcus, Akola has brought on about 100 women.
Each necklace and bracelet, strung together with silk thread and semi-precious stones, is made by a woman in Dallas with a history of incarceration, abusive relationships, sex trafficking or poverty.
Akola’s jewelry is sold online, at boutiques across the country and at its own store, which is in Deep Ellum. A new flagship store will soon open in Snider Plaza, a shopping center in University Park and across the street from SMU.
But all the jewelry sold at Neiman Marcus will be exclusive to the department store and each season, a new collection will debut.
The elevated jewelry line has a hint of Akola’s origins — a paper bead made by women in Uganda is part of each necklace and bracelet.
Underwood started Akola after teaching at a Ugandan boarding school during her summer break from SMU. Underwood’s friend had found the teaching opportunity and Underwood, somewhat reluctantly, tagged along.
A local minister noticed the young college student’s lack of enthusiasm and invited her to meet a woman named Sarah, who changed the course of Underwood’s future. Sarah had taken in 24 street children. They slept on mats on the dirt floor. Underwood remembers the moment as a vivid turning point, realizing the woman had virtually nothing to give — yet had decided to give what she could anyway.
At the end of college, Underwood raised millions of dollars to build a Ugandan orphanage as a home for children who lost their parents to HIV/AIDS or had been abandoned by parents who couldn’t feed them. She moved to Uganda in 2006 to oversee construction.
But while living there, she realized the limited reach of the orphanage. Instead of sheltering abandoned children, she wanted to give jobs to women that allowed them to buy food and clothes for their children.
She started the company in 2007 with 15 women in a rural part of Uganda. She named it Akola — a word that means “she works” in the local language. By 2010, 270 women were working for Akola at three job centers in rural villages.
Akola was an early leader in social enterprise, a term used to describe a company that gives some of its money to a charitable cause.
Akola reinvests all of its profits back into its job centers. It is registered as a nonprofit, and about 20 percent of its operating budget comes from charitable donations, Underwood said.
Planting the seed
The idea of bringing her successful project to Dallas was sparked from a meeting through the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
In 2014, Underwood met Roslyn Dawson Thompson, president and CEO of the Dallas Women’s Foundation. Both women had served as mentors through the Bush Center’s Women’s Initiative Fellowship.
Thompson shared how the women’s foundation was supporting several local nonprofits that were trying to help women who had been sexually trafficked, were making their way out of prostitution, were struggling in poverty or had recently been incarcerated.
“She said, ‘Would you ever consider bringing your model here?’ So it just kind of planted that seed,” Underwood said.
They launched a pilot program for 15 women last year. Everything was moving forward, but they hit a roadblock when they wanted to pay them a living wage in the U.S. with the same price point as the jewelry made in Uganda.
“That’s core to what we do … we didn’t want women to earn $7 or $8, we wanted them to earn $15 [an hour],” Underwood said. “For them to really pull themselves out of poverty, especially if they were just working while their kids were at school, they have to earn that to really get back on their feet.”
The only way for Akola to pay women the money Underwood wanted, and to continue growing their workforce, was to find a retailer to sell the higher-priced product.
“There was this cloud of, ‘Gosh this model works, it translates, we have everything here, the nonprofit community is behind it, we have a list of people to work and we don’t have a retailer,’ ” Underwood said.
Enter Hedda Gioia Dowd. The restaurateur behind Rise No. 1, a soufflé restaurant frequented by President George W. Bush, saw Underwood speak about Akola at an event last fall at the Bush Center.
She asked if she could introduce Underwood to Neiman Marcus CEO Karen Katz.
Underwood met with Katz in January. Katz told her to elevate the jewelry line and return in three months. Underwood says she left the meeting, hopeful that Neiman’s might showcase some Akola jewelry in a trunk show. Instead, the retailer asked to launch the jewelry nationally.
The designer jewelry department will sell high-end necklaces and bracelets made in Dallas that range in price from $100 to $495. The contemporary department at Neiman Marcus, called Cusp, will sell jewelry that’s made with less expensive materials by women in Uganda. Jewelry in the Cusp department will also have unique designs, but will cost less than $100.
Making a change
On weekdays, Brown, 37, and a dozen other women who work for Akola gather in a large room in southern Dallas with silk thread and a palette of beads. One by one, they put the beads onto the thread and use tweezers to make tiny knots. Akola has another production center in West Dallas.
Brown, 37, began working for Akola in June. Before working for Akola, Brown had worked as a truck driver, a fast food worker and for Blue Cross Blue Shield. At her last job, she worked as a home health aide when one day she went to work and found one of her patients had died. That was when Brown said she felt she needed to take a step back and “get myself together.”
“It was really hard to go back and do that job. There was always that fear that I would come in and something would be wrong,” she said
Brown was unemployed for about a year.
She got a referral to Akola through Buckner Children and Family Services, a Dallas nonprofit that offers resources to parents.
“I was praying, ‘Lord I want to be able to get a job, but I don’t know which way to go,’ and that’s when the opportunity presented itself,” she said.
Her first week making the necklaces was so difficult that she thought about giving up. But after some practice, she learned how to use clear nail polish to turn the end of the silk thread into a needle, clear dust from the bead’s hole with a safety pin and tie tiny knots to keep the beads and gemstones in place.
She’s made more than 50 necklaces.
Brown has never been to a Neiman Marcus store, but she and other women who work for Akola plan to visit soon on a field trip to see their necklaces in a store filled with coveted luxury items.
‘Cycle of empowerment’
Before she found work at Akola, Brown said, every back-to-school season brought anxiety as she wondered how she and her husband would pay the bills — and buy notebooks, backpacks and uniforms for their three children.
Now, she wonders how she can help others beyond her family.
Brown said she has been inspired by hearing about the women in Uganda who are saving up money to get a tin roof on their homes or buy a chicken. She and the other women who work for Akola in Dallas would like to raise money to buy baby chickens for them.
Underwood said it’s been amazing to watch how the Dallas women have supported each other and the women working for Akola in Uganda.
“We have this woman in urban poverty in Dallas who hasn’t been able to provide for their family and is already thinking about women in Uganda, and the women couldn’t believe that is her wish list,” she said. “That really is the cycle of empowerment.”