Entrepreneurs

Social Impact Business Keeps Employees Working Through Pandemic

In March, Akola, a jewelry brand that works with women and artisans in East Africa, had to get ready for a real shift in their business like many other companies around the world.

Jewelry was not on top of mind for people and rightly so, says Sheeba Philip, CEO of Akola.

But Akola’s supply chain and manufacturing base needs orders to keep it going: 181 women in Uganda are responsible for the brand’s jewelry. So Philip was keen to ensure that these women would not lose out on work.

Rethinking what consumers would like to do while pent up in their homes, the brand come out with a DIY bracelet kit and put it online. “It was a hit. It was just what people wanted,” Philip says.

Though they may have lost orders with major retailers and department stores as shops closed, they were able to keep sales chugging along through these DIY kits. 

This nimble attitude, Philip says, is a result of the organization’s past. Started by Brittany Underwood in 2007, Akola was centered around social impact: the aim was to pull in money through sales to support a variety of initiatives for the women they served: be it financial literacy, education, or health. Set up as a non-profit, 100 percent of proceeds from sales would go back into the communities in Uganda that Underwood was hoping to impact.

Twelve years later, in 2019, Underwood stepped down from the role of CEO, and now sits on the board as Executive Chairman. Philip who has a background working for consumer brands stepped up to lead Akola. Simultaneously, the organization pivoted from a non-profit to a for-profit (as a public benefit corporation), taking on a $5 million investment from DFC, a government entity that funds development-oriented companies and projects overseas. 

“At the time [of the transition to for-profit], Brittany had just launched in Neiman Marcus, and then Nordstrom and Saks came to her to carry the product. And that was unheard of,” explains Philip. “There is not really any large player in luxury jewelry that is impact-focused and coming out of Africa and can sit next to the best of brands at stores like these three. At that point, Brittany realized that if I’m really going to disrupt retail and create a path for more women to be employed, I’ve got to have the infrastructure, the working capital, and the leadership team to grow and win in these retail opportunities. If she didn’t see this path, it would be hard to grow — and as fast as needed by the market.”

That growth, she adds, is to deepen the company’s commitment in Uganda, which Underwood had nurtured from the age of 19 when she first arrived in the region. Now as a mother herself, her empathy for the women who made Akola’s products had only grown.

Akola’s workforce is comprised mostly of women who are sole providers for their families. Working with the jewelry brand has enabled many of them to put their kids through school (through the Akola Academy), save funds to buy land or a home, set up a bank account and plan for their financial future, and more than 50% have even forayed on their own, starting their own side ventures. 

To keep things running smoothly, Philip explains that, Akola’s Uganda director Victoria Kiggundu helped reorganize how products were made. “It’s been really helpful having a strong leader like Victoria who is from Uganda and has over 20 years of experience as a businesswoman, now leading our team in the region.”

Instead of congregating in one space, all the materials were sent to the women in their homes via motorcycle taxis. Once completed, another taxi would pick up the finished pieces. This model kept the nearly 200 Akola employees employed while they stayed home.

That keeps in line with the company’s name, which translates to “she works,” Philip says.

Because of the rejigging of their operations, the additional DIY offerings, a renewed focus on online sales, and the injection of capital from the DFC, Philip says that Akola has been able to ride out the pandemic without cutting any of their staff.

“If you invest in product and impact, not just one, I think you can stay competitive. If you’re constantly innovating your product, just like any other commercial brand does, then you create sustainable impact, or long-term growth to keep people employed.”

 

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