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!

Summer of Dreams: Grace

In celebration of Grace’s story we’re offering 20% off our 2012 Summer Collection!

As a child Achiro Grace experienced some things that no one should have to experience. But somehow she has maintained a trajectory of peace and prosperity, now raising four wonderful children and working hard to pay for their education. She inspires us. We hope she inspires you, too.

In celebration of her story we’re offering 20% off our 2012 Summer Collection for a limited time. Shop here!

Commencement Address 2012: Soil, Community, Heart, and Soul

[Borrowed from jamesapearson.comI love commencement speeches, so I decided to write one every year. Here is last year’s. And here is one of the best of all time.

Commencement Address 2012
image from illinoisspringfield on flickr 

Congratulations to the class of 2012. You’ve come just in time. You have until December 21st to avert the apocalypse.

This year I turned 30, gave away most of what I owned (my possessions now fit, more or less, in two black REI duffel bags), and moved to Uganda. It makes my life sound very strange to put it that way, even to me. Because eight years ago when I wore the disappointingly cheap robe and the tasseled hat I could not have placed myself in such a life. It was too far outside the American cultural consensus about what a good life can look like. I still had much to learn.

I use ‘learn’ here as a euphemism for ‘find out I was totally wrong about very important beliefs of which I was extremely confident.’ This sort of learning is cataclysmic, an earthquake of mind and heart, a tsunami of the soul. It comes all at once in a terrifying moment and destroys the earth on which you stand, forcing you to rebuild your world on higher, firmer ground.

My first moment of such learning came while I was in college. I was studying economics in Los Angeles with a mind to make a million dollars and live by the beach and drive a very fast, very well-designed car. Then I went to Nepal. Nepal is home to the Himalayas, the world’s biggest mountains and, from what I’ve seen so far, its most beautiful. Nepal is also home to some of the world’s poorest people, coaxing their meager subsistence of rice and lentils from the impossibly terraced mountainsides. And although many endured poverty to the point of death, this did not restrain the joyful and generous fullness of their communities, the giving and taking-care-of and celebrating together.

During one long trek through the Himalayan dreamworld I crossed the deepest gorge on the planet, so crowned because it lies between two of Earth’s highest peaks. One cannot help but see the analogy to life in Nepal: soaring beauty and humanity astride a dizzying depth of need.

Flying back to the sprawling one-man-kingdoms of Los Angeles I could have scattered my understanding of the world like so many ashes from the plane. It was gone. And with it the future that I had long imagined for myself. I was adrift in the flood, searching for terra firma.

This cataclysmic type of learning is among the hardest experiences I’ve encountered. It undermines the identity, value system, the very sense of meaning of an individual. Three times it has done so to me.

Nonetheless it is my greatest hope for you that you allow such learning to overthrow your life, that you will seek out its catastrophic powers through travel and relationships and deep, open engagement with ideas that differ from your own.

I wish this for you first because these moments of cataclysmic learning have led me, at times painfully, to a truer understanding of identity, values, and meaning, and I believe they will do the same for you.

And secondly I wish this sort of learning for you because the world needs it. Through my most recent moment of cataclysmic learning I have come to see the great challenges the world faces – things like resource depletion, collapsing ecosystems, economic injustice, the changing climate – as symptoms of a deeper cultural problem. They derive from our pervasive global culture of endless growth, the consensus belief that humanity has a manifest destiny to conquer and control the world, no matter the consequences to the Earth or even to ourselves.

For most of us it’s hard to see exactly where this culture is wrong because our own beliefs are built on it, and because we are all complicit in its ills. I consume too much. I support labor exploitation. I drive a CO₂ pumping SUV. Even worse, I depend almost entirely on the global system this culture has created. I need it. And so do you.

This is why we must let truth get to the roots of our beliefs and, where necessary, shatter them. Because only when our foundational beliefs are broken are we driven to find a stronger foundation. Only when our identity and values and meaning are shaken will we send our roots to deeper, truer soil.

One truth that has become clearer to me through each cataclysmic learning experience is: no matter the level of affluence or poverty, what’s important in a person’s life is a sense of meaning. Our global economy-dominated culture would have you find meaning in success, in wealth, in the enjoyment of the many pleasures that it offers. The obvious problem with this sort of meaning is that it can be destroyed, by forces of nature and market.

But there is a stronger, truer source of meaning that can not be broken. It is our own ability to love. We create meaning in our world by loving it and the people and things within it. Here we see the more insidious side of our global culture: in tempting us to find meaning there it wants us to love success, to love wealth, to love luxury, even while these things care nothing for us, and will leave us at our first misstep.

The truer objects of our love care for us as we do them and will not disown us so quickly. There are four that I’ve found: the Earth that sustains our lives, the people who shape our identities, our own health—physical and otherwise, and the deep truths that teach us our values. Soil, community, heart, and soul.

Meaning is not something outside of us waiting to be found, it is a product of our proper relationship to our existence, a loving connection to our place, our people, our selves, and the deepest truth we can muster.

As you make choices in the coming years that will shape your life, your beliefs, your impact on our shared planet, I encourage you to seek soil, community, heart, and soul. Seek them in distant cultures. Seek them in the wisdom of others. Seek them in your own heritage. Let them shake your foundations. Let them topple your worldview. Let them become the bedrock on which you build your part of our future.

You probably won’t end up in Uganda with two duffel bags to your name, but together you might actually save us from that apocalypse, December 21st or otherwise.

Summer of Dreams: Christine

[To celebrate Christine's accomplishments we are offering 25% off all necklaces in our online store thru July 4th! Shop here.]

Summer of Dreams: Christine

Christine recalls a day in her youth when the Lord’s Resistance Army attacked. She ran as fast as she could into the wild savannah of northern Uganda, her clothes catching and tearing on the thick vegetation. She hid in the tall grass until the sounds of the assault stopped, and then slowly, quietly made her way back to a devastated home. To connect the dots between that moment and where Christine is today is to see an indomitable character.

After escaping from the war she moved to Kampala, where a life of poverty and hard labor was her only option to support her growing family. She is raising five daughters and a baby son, who surprised her at 40-years-old. Despite a past shot through by war, despite options limited to slum life and physical labor, despite the many cultural weights stacked against Ugandan women in general, Christine has become a successful leader, elected to local government, and a major landlord in the Acholi Quarters community, renting out 20 rooms that she has built over the years.

Christine told us that she has three major dreams in life: To see all her children receive the best educations possible; To have her own business; and To build a house in her home district of Kitgum that her family can rely on for decades to come.

Thanks to her incredible determination, and thanks to everyone who has supported us and purchased our jewelry, she is accomplishing all three. All her children who are old enough are in school (an expensive endeavor in Uganda), with the oldest in nursing school. Her real estate business is bringing in consistent income. And a few weeks back I got to visit her nearly completed house in Kitgum.

Christine is a person a deeply respect, and a woman I truly admire. We are lucky to call her a partner, and to get to support her as she achieves her dreams.

Christine at her house
Christine with her husband’s family at her house in Kitgum.

Christine and her girls
Christine and her five daughters at their home in Kampala.

Christine and Esther visit their homes in Kitgum.

Displaced No More: Building Dream Homes in Northern Uganda (Video)


Christine and her family in front of her almost finished house. Video and more photos below.

My first visit to Kitgum, a dusty town in northern Uganda, was in 2006, when there were still curfews on the roads to prevent rebel attacks, and countless thousands of Ugandans were confined to squalid displacement camps. My second trip was a week ago. This time I came to visit two of our partners who are building homes for their families. Everything has changed.

Christine and Esther are two of the elders of our partner group. Both are extremely bright and entrepreneurial, not to mention hilarious. And both fled their homes to save their families during Kony’s war. I found them on Christine’s in-laws’ land. Across the street was a site where, a few years ago, thousands of people were stuck in an IDP camp, malnourished and without opportunity. Today the land is planted thickly with tall, green stalks of maize.

Christine led us away from the road, on a footpath through clusters of mud huts, and finally to her big concrete house. She gave us a tour, pointing out the sitting room, the kitchen, the master bedroom, the garage. It’s not yet finished, but already it’s the nicest house in the neighborhood.

Next we jumped on motorcycles and rode to Esther’s land, where the foundation and the first height of brick walls outline her new home’s floor-plan. She walked us through the house and motioned out to the big garden surrounding it, growing food for her family.

Out there, looking over Esther’s land in the sunset light, I thought about the staggering victory this moment represented for these women. They overcame two decades of war, displacement from their homes, a culture that denies women most opportunities offered to men, and the quicksand of poverty. And now they stand proudly on land that they own, in front of homes that will invite their families into peace and security for many years to come.

These are women I deeply admire.


Esther and her son standing in front of her garden and the growing walls of her house.


Neighbor kids wonder about the white guy while Christine does some housekeeping. 

Co-Dreamer: Tina Tangalakis

We share the stories of people making great dreams into realities to inspire us all to dream big, work hard, and build a better world. Together, our dreams light the future.

Tina from Della surrounded by the Della seamstresses

Open to a new adventure, and unsuspecting of what potential lie ahead, Tina Tangalakis put the Los Angeles design world behind her and headed to Ghana.

She was instantly captivated by the culture; the colors, the landscape, a new way of life and especially the fabric. Tina decided to use some of those inspiring textiles to create souvenirs to bring back home to family and friends, leading her to a local seamstress named Beatrice in the village of Hohoe (‘ho-ho-eh’). It took only 48 hours for Tina to realize what was happening, and she instantly knew that the bags she designed with Beatrice would pave the way for a friendship and international partnership.

After a month in Ghana and with 50 bags in hand, she returned home and sold all 50 in two weeks.

Tina always had a dream of combining art and humanitarianism to create a business that is ethical, responsible and fashionable and today, 3 years later, that dream is a reality through Della. Committed to long-term success in providing jobs and education to Hohoe, Della’s products are all handmade by local women who are economically vulnerable.

Tina’s dream has received rave reviews from notable fashion culture makers such as People Magazine and has now expanded to boutiques all over the United States, even the Anguilla and Virgin Islands. Della’s products range from bags and earrings, to Macbook cases and the sale of all products guarantees a positive effect on the people of Hohoe.

1. Tell us about the name Della.

While dreaming up with the business, I wanted to choose a name that connected us with Ghana, yet was contemporary enough to be the name of fashion line. While reflecting on all my Ghanaian experiences, one person I met really left an impression: his name was Della, the driver for the volunteer organization I worked with.  He was literally the first person I met after getting off the plane and arriving in Accra & greeted me with the most welcoming, warm smile. I hope the essence of the real “Della” shows through our product line.

2. How have you seen the women of Hohoe grow and become empowered?

This has been pretty awesome. I’ve seen members of our Ghanian team become financially independent, more confident and their skill levels have all increased exponentially. I know that our team is very happy to have steady work that supports them, their dreams, and their families.  Several of our employees are single mothers and it is great to know that we are creating opportunity for their family.

3. If the world could be different in one way because you lived, what would it be?

Hm, I’m not sure about this one.  I really think making a positive impact on one person makes a difference.  So if I am able to help one person along the way, I am happy.

One Thousand Dreamers

Yesterday we hit 1,000 ‘likes’ on our Facebook page. To say thank you, our designer Emily Grace Goodrich created this hand-illustrated poster for you. Click on it for the hi-res printable version.
1,000 Dreamers

One thousand dreamers. One thousand people who believe, with us, that each person can dream a better future for herself, for her family, for her community and her world. One thousand people who support the hard work of making dreams come true.

Since we started, the women we partner with in Uganda have sent their children to school, built homes for their families, started businesses. They have realized dreams they once thought impossible.

Today they are envisioning bigger, brighter dreams. Not just escaping poverty, but building success, impact, and legacy. They are transforming their families and improving their communities.

We can all do this. We can all dream a better future and set about building it. And if, one thousand strong, we commit ourselves to building a better world, there is no telling how great a change we might make. Together, our dreams light the future.

Local Visionaries: The Past, Present, and Future of Development

In the summer of 2003 I found myself hiking with a small team through a leech-infested cloud forest in the Himalayas. In big woven baskets carried by Nepali friends were parabolic dish antennas, long-distance radios, solar panels, and a cornucopia of other electronics: strange cargo in a region with no power, no phones, not even roads connecting the scattered mountain villages. But we had a mission. Against all odds we were building the area’s first computer network.


Nepali men not only carried the equipment, they helped construct and continue to maintain the network. Click above for larger image.

This wasn’t my idea. It was the vision of a Nepali man named Mahabir. Hidden behind Mahabir’s quiet nonchalance is a brilliant mind and a tectonic dedication to the wellbeing of his people.

Mahabir is a what I call a local visionary, and I believe he is the key to global development. When I went to Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, I had no idea what its people needed or what opportunities existed. But Mahabir knew. He knew because he was raised there. He absorbed all the various nuances of Nepalese culture and society like we absorb our first language. And with great personal sacrifice he pursued a vision for his people that far exceeded what any outsider thought possible. Working for Mahabir’s vision was by far the best thing I could do for Nepal.


Mahabir holding the beginnings of a delicious dinner, with JoAnn, an American volunteer. Click above for larger image.

I think this is true everywhere. The best thing that I can do for Nepal or India or Haiti or Uganda, or for that matter for America, is to find a local visionary and support the work she gives her life to.

This caliber of local visionary is rare. But just one can change her community, her country, even the world. Most great global visionaries are local visionaries. Gandhi, Mandela, King: all were deeply and primarily rooted in the challenges and potentials of their place and people, and by their dedication they each shaped the global story.

Mahabir is one of a small handful of such visionaries that I have been lucky to meet. Sister Rosemary in Uganda is another, working simultaneously to rehabilitate war-affected girls and to recycle Uganda’s waste into socially useful products. Another Ugandan visionary is Abramz Tekya, who inspires hope, direction, and social consciousness in the youth of his country through breakdancing and hip-hop, the same pursuits that, as a young man, saved him from the dangers of the slums. Amani Matabaro, a Congolese visionary, splits his time between working for international non-profits and investing his earnings in community development work for his home village and those surrounding.

Those that I haven’t yet met include Alastair McIntosh in Scotland and Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma (who today reportedly won a seat in Burmese parliament after decades of struggle), among thousands of others.

These remarkable people are the future of their communities and their countries. And they are part of a proud tradition. Local visionaries are not just the future of development, they are its best history, and its most impactful present. Collectively they are building a better world.