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.

 

Back to School

Early on a Monday morning, all of Acholi Quarters is buzzing with children in freshly washed uniforms as mothers, fathers, or grandparents help them carry a term’s worth of school supplies to the first day of classes. There are notebooks, pens, crayons, and even some very practical classroom supplies like bundled grass brooms and toilet paper. Six year-old Tracy is ready with all of these, plus a completed packet of homework assignments.

She looks a little dazed as her mother pulls on her socks and shoes. The sun is barely up, after all, and it’s the first day back to school after a long break. Her older sister Margaret, four years ahead of her in P5 (primary school level 5), is a seasoned morning veteran. She is in and out of the room preparing the breakfast while she works on shirt buttons and shoe buckles. Both girls finish up a cup of tea and some bread before heading out the door to walk down the hill to their school.

Our partners here in Uganda are eager to show off their freshly washed and uniformed children on the first day of school, and throughout the day they drop by the office with children and a pile of school supplies to make sure their child is photographed too. Education of their children and grandchildren is one of the highest priorities and biggest dreams for their future.

School fees, though, are too often an obstacle in this community. As the sea of uniforms dies down and the students settle in to their first day of classes, the neighborhood is still surprisingly full of children playing games and sitting on front stoops, children whose families cannot afford to send them to school. Steady jobs with fair wages are a profoundly important way to bring about change in Uganda, allowing parents like our partners in Acholi quarters the opportunity to educate their children and provide them with everything they need to succeed.

Meet our jewelry designer, Emily Grace Goodrich

Making Jewelry

Designing beautifully elegant jewelry isn’t simple. Designing beautifully elegant jewelry out of recycled material adds even more complication to the process. 

Emily, our jewelry designer, designs beautifully elegant jewelry out of recycled material and then teaches a group of 28 Ugandan women how to make all of our designs ready for our American retail market. 

Emily Goodrich, spends a majority of her year living in San Diego fulfilling various roles at the Ember Arts office. However, her greatest contribution to our company is her tremendous ability to design paper bead jewelry. 

For the next four months, Emily, will be living in Uganda teaching all of our Ugandan partners how to make our 2013 collection, a collection we believe to be our best yet. 

To learn more about Emily and to understand how she continually pushes the limits of what is possible with paper jewelry, we asked her a few questions. Her answers, about the work she does, are fascinating and reveal a side of Ember Arts most people never get to see. Here is what she shared. Enjoy.

As a jewelry designer what exactly do you do for Ember Arts?

My job entails forecasting jewelry and color trends in the U.S., and using what I know about our own market and the available materials in Uganda to find a middle ground. I do a bit of resource research as well, I just finished a day of scouring the markets to see what sort of new materials we might be able to incorporate into our jewelry. I also spend time in Uganda teaching things like color theory. For an idea of what that looks like, check out the sway earring, which is a piece I’m very proud of the bead makers for mastering, as light tints and a dark shades of a central color were once new concepts for them. We are continually working to build a color vocabulary that makes sense across cultures.

What will you be focusing your attention on while you are in Uganda?

We’ve already had a touch-up training session to remember the new designs for Fall/Holiday 2012, and to learn about making a great multicolor piece. In the next weeks, I’m going to be working with a smaller group of women to experiment with new bead shapes and new materials, and potentially some entirely new products. Then, I’ll be narrowing down a group of designs to start the training for 2013. I’ll also be looking for new kinds of materials that we can incorporate into the jewelry. In the past we’ve used ‘cavera,’ which is the local word for plastic bags. There are lots of interesting materials in the market, but they’re often available only once. Part of the work is to determine which items will be available consistently.

How many times have you been to Uganda?

This is my fourth trip to Uganda.

What is it like to work with a group of 28 Ugandan women, some of which you can not communicate with because of the language barrier? 

It’s a little challenging at times, sometimes I have to work with a translator, and I’ve definitely had to get used to being laughed at. These women love to joke, and it doesn’t always translate! But they are also starting to feel more and more like old friends. I’ve learned about 30 words in the Acholi language, and they get a huge kick out of it. They are also quick learners, mostly they teach themselves by looking at the samples, which makes things a lot easier for me. And I’ve learned a lot from them as well, like how to get a fair price for fabric at the market. You should see the glaring look of disgust that our smiling Gladies can pull off, which usually drops the price by at least 10,000 shillings!

Continue reading

Pursuing the Work of Play

Recycled Playground in Uganda
The other day, I asked one of our bead makers if she’d seen the playground being built at the primary school on the hillside below Acholi Quarters.

“Yes, I’ve seen it!” she replied. “With the helicopter. It’s very funny.”

The ‘helicopter’ she’s referring to really is a bit funny; a whimsical, primary colored aircraft- made from plastic bottle caps. This curiosity, and the recycled swings, climbing toys, and life-sized board games that accompany it are the handiwork of Ruganzu Bruno Tusingwire, a Ugandan artist who has recently been awarded a TED City 2.0 prize for his creative approach to playground equipment.

With a few years of teaching experience under his belt and a background in fine art, Bruno is using what knowledge of education he has to design creative, imaginative spaces for children built largely out of recycled materials. The climbing structures are made from old tires, as will be the seats for the swings. Games such as ‘Snakes and Ladders,’ where kids will act as life-size space markers, are being build atop cement platforms that use plastic bottles as building blocks to give shape to the structure and cut down on the price of concrete. The game will also provide a fun opportunity to practice addition and subtraction.

 

The surrounding community has played a large role in building this structure, collecting bottles from trash heaps and roadsides for the construction and even donating time and efforts to the building. Bruno noted that he’d actually had to do very little of the work himself. He also shared the story of a local mother who thanked him for his work, saying that she no longer has to struggle to get her children off to school in the morning, they are eager to go. And studies show that they’ll be better behaved in the classroom because of the opportunity to play. One teacher at the school is grateful for this, but also the opportunity the children will have to imagine a better future for themselves. He believes they’ll look at things like the bottle-lined wall around the playground and the brightly colored airplane, and be inspired to create things like that themselves. “If someone can build and airplane like this, what can I do?” he mused, speaking as he imagines a student might speak. What’s clearest, though, is that the children themselves approve. Though construction is still underway, the functional parts of the playground are already crowded with children eager to try out the new equipment.

Bruno worked hard to pull himself out of very challenging childhood circumstances and moved on to study art at university, working toward a successful career as a gallery artist and portraitist. But what is perhaps most inspiring about his story is the shift in his personal goals toward providing creative play environments for children who wouldn’t ordinarily have access to them. He says he realized that as a fine artist, at the end of the day, his work would just be hanging on the wall of a rich person’s house, and that the story mostly stops there. Now, he plans to be part of building a better story, one that lives on in communities for years after the playground is finished, creating conversations about new topics like recycling, and the importance of imagination in childhood.

In this capacity to envision a better future for the children of Uganda, Bruno has much in common with our bead makers in Acholi Quarters. When asked about their own dreams, education for their children was at the top of nearly everyone’s priority list. When you support the dreams of the women of Ember Arts, you support the education of their children as well; and we agree that raising well educated children who know how to dream is a crucial step in moving Uganda toward its best possible future.

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.