Stella’s Long Dream

[As you browse our online store this season you'll see a beautiful Ugandan woman modeling our jewelry. This is Stella. She is one of 28 Ugandan women who handcraft every piece of jewelry we sell. This is her story. Thanks for helping her write it.]

Stella with her Family

Stella’s beautiful daughter Susan just started ‘baby class,’ Uganda’s version of kindergarten. But it would be hard to understand how much this means to Stella without first knowing about Internally Displaced Person’s camps.

Stella was raised in northern Uganda at the height of Joseph Kony’s terrible rebellion. His soldiers, many of them abducted as children themselves, killed three of her brothers. That’s when her family moved into a nearby IDP camp.

 

‘The camps were the burial grounds of dreams.’

 

These camps were ostensibly planned for the protection of families like Stella’s, but were often more deadly than the rebels. Thousands of poor farming families were crammed into close quarters with no education, healthcare, opportunity. For food people relied on the UN to delivers sacks of corn flour and beans. Malnourishment and disease ruled people’s lives. The camps were the burial grounds of dreams.

But Stella made it out. She met her future husband in the camp and he decided to make his way to Kampala, Uganda’s peaceful capital city, to look for work. Four years later she followed him. Life in Kampala was better, said Stella. There were no gunshots at night and people weren’t sick all the time.

But still there was poverty. She worked hard in a local rock quarry, pounding stones into gravel to scrape out rent and put food on the table. Then suddenly she was pregnant, and worried that she wouldn’t be able to provide her baby with food, healthcare, the education that Stella herself never had.

At this moment of great hope and fear, we met Stella near the rock quarry and she joined Ember Arts.

With her new income from making jewelry she quickly organized a proper wedding with her husband. Soon little Susan was born into a family brimming with new hope. Stella and her husband helped pay school fees for six relatives as Susan grew and their son Jonathan was born. Today Stella has goals of building her family a house back in the north, now that it’s peaceful, and of opening a produce business.

But her greatest dream is to educate her children, to provide Susan and Jonathan with the sort of opportunity that did not exist back in the IDP camps. And now, seven years after leaving the camp, that dream is coming true.

Ember Hero Giveaway!

We believe in heroes. Not the mutant, alien, superpower kind, but the real kind. The kind of people that make the world better, if only a little bit at a time. Like our Ugandan partners, women working their tails off to chase their dreams and build better futures for their families. And Becky Straw, who has made huge sacrifices to create good jobs in the developing world.

Who are the heroes in your life? Do you have a friend or sister or teacher or mom who has made all the difference? Is there someone you know who is chasing her dreams and inspiring you to do the same? Take a moment to tell them they are a hero, and through our Ember Hero Giveaway you could win two pairs of our brand new Jinja Bangles! A pair for you and a pair for your hero.

Just follow these quick steps:
1) Click on this photo to go to Facebook:

2) Tag your hero in a comment on the photo, and tell them what makes them a hero. Comment as many times as you want, and please only tag one friend per comment. (If you can’t comment, ‘like’ Ember Arts first.)
3) The winner, announced next week, will win two pairs of our brand new Jinja Bangles! A pair for your and a pair for your hero.

We all need heroes, and luckily they’re all around us. Take a minute to tag a hero, and good luck in the giveaway!

Becky Straw, Ember Hero

Becky Straw is our Fall 2012 Ember Hero. We’re donating 50% of all online sales now thru November 9th to her organization, The Adventure Project! Shop our new Fall Lineup here!

Do not start a nonprofit, says Becky Straw, co-founder of The Adventure Project, a nonprofit. She makes a strong case. If you start a nonprofit you’ll be broke, stressed, and you’ll have to be boring while you work long hours with no money. You will be rejected a lot. And, by the odds, you’ll fail within a few years.

Becky has been through all of it except the failing. For the last two years she lived couch-to-couch, maxing out her credit cards and relying on gracious friends and family, and working with her co-founder Jody Landers to build the foundation of an enormous vision. They aim to create one million jobs in the developing world within a decade.

Sitting across the table from Becky in a cafe in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, she says she’s tired from flying across the world and spending three long days in the field catching up with a social business she partners with. Still she crackles with energy. I’ve been in the country three extra, less busy days and I’m fading with jet lag. She shares with me the grand vision she and her partner are building, lamenting that it’s hard to shrink it down to the elevator pitch that many would-be backers want.

Her vision sees good businesses in poor countries as the final solution to poverty, and to many other endemic problems, like access to clean water and affordable healthcare. The Adventure Project aims to focus international attention and money on these businesses, helping them scale and make the biggest positive impact.

And, in a way, it all started with swimming.

“As a kid I was terrible,” Becky told me later over email. “I’m not trying to be modest, I have multiple last place ribbons to prove it.” Then, when she was twelve, a swim coach took her aside and gave her this advice: “Everything in life is 90% hard work and only 10% talent, so just work harder than everyone else.”

“That stuck with me, and he was right,” said Becky. “I put my head down and never stopped trying.” Her hard work earned her a scholarship to swim collegiately on a team that won two conference titles. She still wasn’t the fastest on the team (“I was the worst of the best”) but, she recalls, “it didn’t really matter to me, because I learned that I love to work hard, and will go to great lengths to make something happen.”

 

“I experienced that feeling that hits you in the gut, and you know you’ll never be able to live blissfully ignorant again.”

 

That sort of determination, ‘Grit’, as it’s often called, is being hailed by top researchers as one of the most important characteristics of successful people. And Becky clearly has large grit reserves. Which means that she could likely succeed at just about anything: movie making, real estate development, technology startups, fields that could win her fame or fortune or both. So why put all that determination towards stopping poverty?

“I think the main experience for me was volunteering in Romania after college,” she said. A couple from Ohio ran a group home for kids who had been orphaned and abused. Some of them had been confined to cribs for the first ten years of their lives and had to learn to walk starting at age eleven.

“I experienced that feeling that hits you in the gut,” said Becky, “and you know you’ll never be able to live blissfully ignorant again. It made me horribly sad to see the vast disparity between the rich and poor. But it was also incredibly hopeful, because I witnessed resilience and love. And it gave me purpose.”

She earned a Master’s in International Social Welfare from Columbia before joining a fledgling non-profit called charity: water. Becky was employee number three, and helped launch one of the most innovative and successful non-profits in the world. She left charity: water during some challenging organizational growth pains and soon reconnected with a donor named Jody she had become fast friends with a year earlier during a trip to Liberia. Over dinner in Colorado they discovered their common passion for social enterprise and started a Google document titled, “Launch List,” filled with items like “Assemble a board” and “Get charitable status”.

They started in on the to do list in October 2010 and launched The Adventure Project a month later.

So far they have partnered with four social ventures in four developing countries, creating over 350 jobs. These businesses are helping solve the problems of hunger, water, environment, and healthcare, and are serving almost 900,000 people.

When I met her in Uganda she had been visiting one of these partners, a company called Living Goods that combines the Avon door-to-door sales model with the effectiveness of community driven healthcare. Women are trained as community health workers and visit the homes of their neighbors, checking on family health and offering advice and selling low-cost solutions where necessary.

On her organization’s blog Becky shares a story (with beautiful photos from Esther Havens) that epitomizes the impact she and Jody are having. A Ugandan woman named Gertrude, recently widowed and left with three young children, was hired and trained by Living Goods as they expanded to her village. When she started visiting homes she met a woman who had three children sick with malaria and no money for medication. Gertrude decided to trust the woman and paid for the medications herself before moving on to the next house. Two days later the children had recovered, the woman had repaid Gertrude for the medication, and the village was buzzing that Gertrude had saved these children’s lives. Now her new health business is booming and she can afford to send her kids to school. And all throughout the village she is known as “the Kind One.”

Becky’s dream, and the vision of The Adventure Project, is to take Gertrude’s story and multiply it by a million. One million new jobs. One million people solving their communities’ problems. One million families out of poverty. It’s the kind of goal that will take, more than anything, a lot of grit.

Learn more about Becky’s work here. We’re donating 50% of all online sales now thru November 9th to The Adventure Project! Shop our new Fall Lineup here!

Behind the Scenes

Ember Arts is all about creating beautiful jewelry and helping our Ugandan partners fulfill their dreams; but with the fun parts comes a lot of behind-the-scenes work that doesn’t often make it into the limelight.

First and foremost is choosing the paper. Most of the recycled paper that we use comes from Owino, a bustling and crowded marketplace in the center of Uganda’s capital. After winding through a maze of temporary stalls, piles of used clothing, boda boda motorcycles, and giant loads of goods strapped to the backs of bicycles, there’s an aisle lined with booths of paper stacked ten to twelve feet high.

This paper comes from all over the city, in the form of outdated brochures and advertisement posters, mistakes from local printers, and pretty much any other source of used paper you can think of. This is Kampala’s version of a recycling program, where virtually no scrap goes to waste. The women scour the stacks of paper, looking for colors like rich reds, blues, and the elusive favorite turquoise. Gladies is an expert at negotiating and has a great eye for color, so she’s often one of the representatives sent to the market to choose paper. She’ll also pay a visit to one of many small jewelry supply shops in town to buy things like spacer beads, ear hooks, and string.

 

 

After the paper makes its way back to Acholi Quarters, the co-op has opened their office to paper cutters who come with their machines, a stapler, pen and a ruler to cut the paper down to size. Most beads start as long, skinny triangles. The paper cutter are experts at knowing how different weights and lengths of paper will affect bead size and shape.

 

 

Last but not least is quality control. The women have chosen a leadership team to direct their group, and that team is also responsible for counting and checking each order. They spend several days in the office measuring necklace lengths, sizing necklaces, and making note of how many pieces of jewelry each member of the co-op has made. Gladies (below left) and Alice (below right) are two of the women responsible for quality control.

 

 

Perhaps the most interesting part of this behind-the-scenes work is that it also creates employment for others in the community, like the expert paper-cutters or the entrepreneurial women of Owino market.

Each piece of jewelry represents many hard-working hands, and we hope you’ll be excited to carry all of these stories with you.