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Brittany Underwood’s first visit to Uganda as a college student completely changed the course of her life. “I had never witnessed extreme poverty,” she says, and she just wanted to help. Fifteen years later, her nonprofit Akola Project helps hundreds of women through the creation, distribution and sale of handmade jewelry. The nonprofit puts 100 percent of earnings back into programs that support its mission: To become the leading global retail brand that creates economic opportunity and transforms communities by empowering at-risk women.
In this episode of Retail Gets Real, Underwood, honored this year as “A Giver” on NRF Foundation’s List of People Shaping Retail’s Future, describes Akola’s unique retail model and the impact it makes through strategic partnerships with established retailers like Neiman Marcus.
During her first trip to Africa in 2004, Underwood met Sarah, a young Ugandan woman who had taken in and cared for 24 street children. “I was totally shaken out of my complacency,” she says, “and started working with Sarah to help empower her to care for the children.” Underwood spent the next five years talking to women in villages, trying to understand their real needs. “We learned from them that all they wanted was opportunity,” she says. “They just wanted a way to do it themselves. Not for us to do it for them.”
Making jewelry was easy to teach and transport across continents. As the business grew, Akola women learned to handle everything from making the beads to designing and assembling the jewelry, working in distribution centers and managing the international supply chain. “It’s the joy of my life,” Underwood says, “seeing these women recognize they’re so much more than they ever believed or knew.”
“The decision to do something is what makes all the difference in the world."Brittany Merrill Underwood
With many obstacles to overcome along the way, perseverance was the key to success. “The decision to do something is what makes all the difference in the world,” Underwood says. “There were so many times we could’ve given up.” In 2016, Akola opened in Dallas as a second-chance job program for formerly incarcerated and sexually trafficked women. Through the exclusive partnership with Neiman Marcus, the nonprofit distributed over half a million dollars among participants of the program this year.
Listen to the episode for the complete story. Discover more stories from inspiring retail leaders on The List of People Shaping Retail’s Future and subscribe to Retail Gets Real for a new episode each week.
Nadee Bandaranayake is an assistant producer on NRF’s Retail Gets Real podcast. Meet all the co-hosts and learn more about the show.