Alli Swanson, Marketing Director, 31 Bits
Costa Mesa, California
Interview by Laura Piety
A Rverie Conversation with Alli Swanson, Marketing Director of 31 Bits, a socially conscious jewelry company that gives displaced women in Northern Uganda an opportunity to combat poverty through fashion.
When and how did 31 Bits start?
Five girls, myself included, founded 31 Bits in 2008. We all went to Vanguard University together. During our junior year our friend Kallie traveled to Uganda, met some amazing women and was introduced to the jewelry they were making. She fell in love not only with the products, but the ladies’ stories as well. The fact that the jewelry was all handmade with recycled paper was also incredible. However, they had no real way of selling it in a profitable fashion.
Kallie offered to bring some of the jewelry back to the US, sell it to her friends and family, and send the money back to Uganda. When she came back we freaked out. The jewelry was amazing, it was an incredible cause, the women needed an income and we wanted to make it sustainable for them.
People loved the jewelry, we sold out of the boxes Kallie brought over and we realized there was a market for it! The next summer we all went to Uganda and spent a month with the ladies, working with them and learning how the products were made. We also spent time with other organizations based there to understand how to do good, sustainable development work and what the needs of these women were. Some of us were anthropology majors who could take what we were learning and apply it to reality. The business was born, we hired six women and it went from there.
We came back to the US to finish our last year of school, but Kallie stayed out there as she had already graduated. She continued to live and work with the ladies, running things in Uganda. Meanwhile, we all continued to sell the jewelry as best we could. And that’s how Bits was birthed.
We then had some cool opportunities with Reef sandals who placed an order for thousands of strands of beads… and they needed them within a couple of months! We hired on about 20 more women in Uganda for the job. It was a risk because we weren’t sure how long the order would continue for, and depending on sales, we were worried we might not be able to provide for them in the long term.
From that experience we learnt a lot about forming a business, getting trademarked, running a company, building a website and all that. It’s been a learning experience ever since. That’s one great thing about the Founders of Bits: we’re all learners.
We have about 170 women in Uganda now and awesome development programs too. It’s grown into much more than jewelry-making. They’re getting English lessons, finance training and learning the ins-and-outs of starting a small business. They’re dreaming for their future. After 5 years the women start their own small business. We have our first class of women graduating this summer! It’s just so awesome to see these women getting it, being empowered and doing it on their own. It’s so cool. The best thing ever.
Can you tell us about a couple of your success stories in Uganda?
Since she was hired nearly 5 years ago, Oyella Rose has not only been making beautiful jewelry, but she has been training to create and manage her own business. As one of the 7 beneficiaries in the 31 Bits program who are graduating in June, she transitioned from full time to part time to focus on her charcoal business. Rose has charcoal for various reasons: charcoal is the primary form of energy used for every day tasks such as cooking, and unlike farming, seasonal changes have no effect on its availability. She recently acquired a license from the National Forest Authority so is able to transport her charcoal from her home 25 kilometers outside of Gulu to sell in the main market at a higher price. Ray Otti, our Finance Manager in Uganda, visited her and returned with nothing but praise saying how well she was doing and that she was ready to leave the Bits program.
Like many of the women in our program, Lilly never thought it would be possible for her to own land and her own home. Most of the women in our program were displaced from the villages they grew up in because of the war. With the little money they had, some women were able to rent a hut for their families, but owning a home felt like an impossible dream. When Lilly joined the 31 Bits Family, she began to dream for her future. She was making an income and learning how to set goals for the first time in her life. Lilly saved money every month until one day, she was able to make her dreams a reality. She is now the proud owner of three acres of land, giving plenty of room for her eleven new goats and two new sheep to roam around. She has a massive garden filled with corn, nuts, and sweet potatoes. Her land is surrounded by sky-high sunflowers and crisp smelling pine trees. Lilly and her six children are truly living a dream on their beautiful land.
Do you have any plans to expand beyond Uganda?
We are actually researching other locations… but we can’t disclose any details yet! The great thing about the beads is that the ladies already had the skills and taught us. We want to do that again, in another part of the world where people already have a skill.
Let’s move onto operations in the US. When you first started how did you approach doing things that you had never done before? Getting wholesale orders for example?
We really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into! When we started our collaboration with Reef it was the first time we realized we could have our jewelry in stores! They were awesome and helped us connect with reps. But there were so many new things, like line sheets to even understanding what wholesale meant! It was a whole new world to explore.
The fact that we were based in Costa Mesa, in Southern California, and went to Vanguard University, meant we had great community of supporters. A lot of people here work in the fashion industry, or for social good, and they really helped train us.
What is it like working so closely with your friends?
Great question! It’s funny because when we started we really had no idea what we were getting into! We didn't know it would become our life! Our first trip to Uganda was a special, monumental experience, but coming back we still had to graduate, and each had our different things going on. We thought Bits might be a little like an ‘after school hobby,’ a way of giving back, while we did other jobs. But when it picked up we realized it could be full time and we could work together.
There’s a lot of growing that comes with that, and we definitely had to learn how to work well together. We learned early to assign roles for each of us to play within the company and that really helped. We’ve travelled and been through so much together that we are so close now, just like family. We can intuitively tell when someone’s having a bad day!
We’ve also learnt just how much we respect each other. We’ve watched each of us grow into different roles. For example, Jessie, who is now our CEO, started in our Sales role. She didn't have any experience in Sales, she had to learn from the ground up. The same with me and Marketing… I was googling PR terms because at ‘go time’ I had no idea what things meant! We’re so proud of how far we’ve come in the last 6 years. A couple of us still live together, so we’re always hanging out! It’s really unique.
Each of your products tell a story. How do communicate these stories to consumers?
That’s something we’re still learning. We have so many amazing stories we don’t know how to tell them all- it’s a good problem to have!
We could easily go down the ‘green’ storytelling route: our jewelry is environmentally friendly, it’s made by hand with recycled paper and has a water-based varnish.
There’s also the social good side and the fact that women’s lives are being tangibly changed.
And then there’s the story of 31 Bits, the fun things happening here in America, and how we design our lines to be on-trend every new season.
We work really hard at branding ourselves and we’re learning how to juggle these stories. For example, each line has a new theme. This year it’s ‘How It’s Made.’ We’re spending time explaining the bead-making process. A lot of people buy 31 Bits and don’t realize it’s made out of hand-rolled paper. We love this because it means a customer was attracted to the style of a piece, and that’s when we know we’re doing something right! We don’t want to be seen just as a charity line- we want people to buy our products because they love them!
We also love social media, especially Instagram and Facebook. It’s made it really helpful to share stories. A picture tells a thousand words. Whether it’s a picture of one of the ladies in Uganda, a photo shoot we’re doing in the States, an event that’s happening, or a way we love to pair the jewelry, it’s a great way to share multiple stories.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to start something in the fashion and cause space?
We were in a unique position because we weren't really looking to start something, it fell in our laps, and we just knew we had to!
If someone has a dream or vision for something, it’s about being a learner and really taking time and learning from similar companies in the same field who are doing a good job.
Secondly, meet with as many people as possible. I feel like one of the reasons 31 Bits has lasted, and been as successful as it has, is because of the people around us. We met with whoever we could to pick their brains, whether it was with business or fashion questions. There’s so much value in that.
If the cause is overseas… take time to understand the culture. Live there for a month. Learn what their needs are, not what you think their needs are. A lot of the time people walk into a culture and think they know exactly what to do. Sometimes it’s not accurate. Know your area.
Lastly, just go for it! We’ve had a lot of hiccups along the way and asked if we should continue. But through perseverance and prayer we’ve kept going… and I’m so glad we did!
For more information visit http://31bits.com
All images courtesy of 31 Bits