Business Will Change The World, Chapter 1

Business Will Change The World


Business will change the world. This isn’t a pitch or a proposal, this is a fact about the future. I am as sure of this as I am of the sun peeking over the eastern hills come morning.

The last 200 years plot a story of global transformation. Billions of people moved from subsistence farms to cities, where employment and education hold the chance for prosperity and wealth, and services like water and electricity promise comfort. Last year, for the first time in history, more people lived in cities than not, and the move is accelerating. By 2030 it is expected that 5 billion (5,000,000,000) people will live in urban areas and their slums and suburbs.

This is a massive cultural and geopolitical change… [Read the rest at]

Open Circle: The Perfect Product

Socially Proactive Business is bigger than Acholi Beads.  In an effort to remove some of the barriers that people face in entering this sort of business, and also to invite discussion and advice, I’m open-sourcing our business model.  This continuing series, Open Circle, will share many of the challenges we have faced and the best practices we’ve established for making Acholi Beads successful on both sides of the world.

After choosing your partners and a local visionary, your choice of what product to make and sell is the next critical decision.  The key to choosing and developing a product is that it should stand on its own in the target market.  That is, regardless of the story behind it, people want to buy it because it’s just that attractive.

Acholi people, our partners in Acholi Beads, have a great sense of style.  The challenge is that it’s very different from American style, so how do we work with them to create jewelry that Americans love?  Here’s a quick plan that can help you identify and develop a great product that can be produced by people in a culture that is very different from the target culture.

1) Find a product you believe the American market will love, and that your partners will be able to produce, and bring it back to the States to test.  (If you can’t narrow it down to one product, bring five and see which works best.)  Ask your friends if they like it; get a booth at a local festival and try selling it; go to a local boutique and ask them if they’d like to stock it.  If it is a total bust, try something else, otherwise…

[Alternately, find a product that Americans already love that you believe your partners will be able to produce, like beanies.]

2) Use the feedback from the market to improve the product.  Consider designs, colors, and materials that will make it more attractive to the American market.  Be creative!  Don’t hem yourself into traditional designs.  Remember, the most important thing is to create a successful product.  Make new ones, sell them, and get more feedback, etc.

3) Give your partners in the developing world very specific design parameters.  Remember, they have never been to America so you are their only window through which to view the American market.  They want to make successful products, so teach them what Americans love.

4) Continually innovate with your partners.  Keep your product fresh and developing over time by changing colors or patterns and by introducing new designs.

5) Once you have a product that works, focus on it.  Get great at it.  Build a brand around it.  Don’t branch out to new products too soon.

Open Circle is written by James A. Pearson, and is an invitation to join Acholi Beads in using business for the benefit of those who need it most.  Email James here:

Open Circle 1: The Foundational Choice

Socially Proactive Business is bigger than Acholi Beads.  In an effort to remove some of the barriers that people face in entering this sort of business, and also to invite discussion and advice, I’m open-sourcing our business model.  This continuing series, Open Circle, will share many of the challenges we have faced and the best practices we’ve established for making Acholi Beads successful on both sides of the world.

My first principle for starting a business in a culture that I don’t belong to, and especially in a developing country, is this: Find and partner with a local visionary.

This where success starts.  It is the most important thing you can do to position for long term success by an order of magnitude.

What is a local visionary?  She’s the person who knows what is needed in the place you’re looking to work, and knows how to make it happen.  How does she know?  She grew up there and knows its culture, strengths, and lackings intrinsically, absorbed them like language.  She has long been working there to advance the goals that you share, using whatever resources she has marshaled to better her friends, family, and community members.  Her life bears the unmistakable gleam of service – the sincere smiles of her community when she sees them.  She is the one that her community happily rallies around when she brings them an idea for development.

She is your beginning.

Why is this important?  To answer this I like to tell the story of Mahabir Pun, a soft-spoken, pot-bellied, middle-aged man from a small village in rural Nepal.  When I met him he had spent the last decade working as a volunteer in his and surrounding villages, building up the local education system.  These villages are separated by days’ hikes over steep Himalayan geography, so Mahabir walks and walks and walks, up mountains and down again, sleeping on rough wood or dirt floors, in order to see the children of his home succeed in the rapidly modernizing world.  “As long as I can walk I can do this,” he says.

antennaIn college I had the marvelous fortune to visit Mahabir and assist in his work to connect these villages to each other and to the world through a long distance wireless network.  A brilliant friend of mine wrote a grant to supply the equipment, and we flew to Nepal.  Over a month of beautiful monsoon hikes we networked five villages, using two high-altitude relay stations and an internet connection 30+ kilometers away in the nearest city.  Leaving Nepal we felt the happy exhilaration of success.  But Mahabir’s work had only begun.

In the ensuing years Mahabir networked many more villages in the region, and in other parts of Nepal and Asia, and his work has been hailed with awards and honors from around the world.  His success did not depend on us; we only walked alongside him for one step of a much grander journey that he has continued every day since.  Mahabir is a local visionary.

Like Mahabir, a local visionary will ensure that your work is to the greatest benefit of the local community.  He understands how to organize and manage people in his community, and since he is broadly respected by his peers they trust and appreciate his leadership.  He will make your partnership with the local community easier, more enjoyable, and far more effective than otherwise.

What if, you might ask, after an exhaustive search you cannot find a qualified local visionary where you want to work?  You have two choices: 1) Go somewhere else, or 2) Cultivate one.  Acholi Beads chose option 2, which has brought us a unique set of challenges.  These I’ll share in a future edition of Open Circle.

Open Circle is written by James A. Pearson, and is an invitation to join Acholi Beads in using business for the benefit of those who need it most.

The Challenges of Brighter Future

I always get a little anxious when I walk back into Acholi Quarters after months in America.

Despite my frequent phone calls and the stories that trickle back to us from across the world, my experience in Uganda tells me that trouble could be simmering just below the surface of any multinational organization.  The communicational gap is as vast as the distance, and technology has yet to build a sufficient bridge.

So I called a meeting of all the bead makers and other members of the cooperative with which we are partnered and opened the floor for them to share their successes and challenges, bracing in the back of my mind for storm clouds.

They began with their successes, which took me by surprise.  Many have bought land and are building houses, both in Acholi Quarters and in their villages in the north.  Almost without exception their many children and the orphans they care for are in school, their fees paid with earnings from Acholi Beads.  They are running savings and microfinance programs that are empowering them to accomplish huge goals like building family homes and start new businesses, goals that had been buried as impossible just over a year ago.

Perhaps most touchingly, the few co-op members who are not yet bead makers stood up and shared that even they were on the road to more successful lives thanks to the the financial training and microfinance programs we arranged.  They were running their homes more efficiently and starting up new small businesses – vegetable trading, charcoal sales, etc.  But still they asked to join the bead makers as soon as possible, so that, in the words of one member, “I can look better, like them.”

And it’s true.  Acholi Beads women look different.  Their wardrobes are newer and more varied, they gain the trademark pounds of higher Acholi society, and they carry with them an air of respect and progress, a weighty hopefulness that was palpably unique as the women paraded through Acholi Quarters in freshly minted Acholi Beads t-shirts, commissioned by them for the occasion.

Then came their challenges, and a small, unconscious clenching of my abdomen.  The first woman stood up.  Education, she said, was troubling them.  They were now able to pay for primary and secondary schooling, but university fees seemed like they would be out of reach when the time came, and for some that time was near.  Wow.  Even their challenges are wrapped in success!  Before Acholi Beads most of these womens’ children were sitting with them in the hot, dusty rock quarry, chipping away at the their daily meal or the month’s meager rent, dreaming of school and a better life.  Now they’re worried about university tuition!  It was better than I could have hoped.  I made a note to

Next up was healthcare.  Although they are making good money, many are having trouble accessing good health services.  It’s difficult to find doctors who can speak their language, they said, and sometimes they don’t have enough in their budgets for unforseen hospital visits at the end of the month.  This is certainly a challenge, but will be overcome.  Together we will establish that all the resources are in place for them to receive good care, and it will only take a little planning on their part to make it a reality.

Finally, Mama Esther stood up and gave voice to a challenge that they all agreed upon.  They were planning, she said, to eventually move back to their villages in the north.  But before they could do that they needed to build homes, and some still needed to buy the land to build them on.  Esther herself had just bought a plot of land and had already constructed the foundation for her home, but many of the newer bead makers had not yet had such an opportunity.  She was echoed by many of the bead makers in stating this as one of the greatest challenges facing each of them.

With this I was filled with a smile.  This is exactly the type of thing for which I designed Acholi Beads.  The bead makers have not yet realized the full strength and longevity of our partnership.  They are used to a pattern of white people starting projects and quickly fazing them and moving on to the next group in need.  Acholi Beads, though, is here to stay, and will support their goals for as long as there is a market for their beautiful products, which looks to be years to come.

Then they started sharing their goals, which largely followed their needs – children graduating from university and homes built in their families’ villages – with one notable exception.  Mama Esther wants to buy a car one day, or at least ride in her children’s cars.  I think we can make that happen.

Uganda Dispatch: A Welcome of Joy and Sorrow

[My mom, sister, bro-in-law, and niece recently arrived in Uganda to work with our Ugandan partners. I’d like to share some of our stories with you.]

Biola always smiles when we greet each other.  She smiles and laughs and almost dances and like a contagion it spreads to my face and all the people around us join in the small burst of celebration.  On our first day in Acholi Quarters she had clapped her hands up and laughed and we hugged and she used her little English and I my little Acholi to tell each other how happy we were to be there together.

But yesterday when I went into her home she did not smile.  She did not move, did not look up, but sat in sculpture on the concrete floor, letting a steady rain of tears speak loudly for her.  At the previous day’s celebration she had danced with all the copious joy that she brings to life, leading her fellow bead makers in displaying the beauty of Acholi culture and their pride in their recent accomplishments.  They had given my family and I a welcome that none of us will forget.

But it had been too much.  Now she could not stand, could only sit shivering on the ground, struggling to lift a bottle of water to her parched lips.

Biola came from northern Uganda when her embattled imune system began to fail.  Kampala, Uganda’s capital, offered better medical care, proximity to her son George, and hope for a better life.  When I met her she was a robust 60, still working in the rock quarry with a strength that would have been stunning from a healthy woman half her age.  And when she began making Acholi Beads I saw her innate joy boil over and splash its color all around her.  HIV, however, is no forgetful foe.  It always returns.

George called a car to come and he and his friends carried his grimacing mother down the steep, graveled hillside.  She collapsed into the back seat, resting on a shoulder, unmoving.  At the hospital last night I sat on an old, disembodied Toyota bench seat, struggling in the dim light to discern the rise and fall of her grey blanket.  Today she remains in the hospital, slightly improved but still weak.

It is a bitter reminder that despite their ascension our women remain vulnerable to the specters of their long, ragged past – disease, poverty, lack of education.  Life change does not happen quickly, community change takes years.

We are committed.

On this trip we will continue to refine our business to benefit those who need it the most – our Ugandan partners.  We will help them create a healthcare solution, ensure that their incomes are sufficient and well-used, and look towards the future with continued education in finance, health, and the value of school.

And we hope and pray that Biola will continue to spill her joy on our Acholi Beads family for many years to come.

New Senate Bill Seeks Peace for Northern Uganda, Credits Invisible Children

This week Senator Russ Feingold introduced a new bill to the Senate that, if passed, will accelerate the United States’ involvement in ending the atrocities of the Lord’s Resistance Army and aiding the victims of their decades long war in northern Uganda.

In his statement introducing the bill, Senator Feingold credits the efforts of “young Americans” in bringing the distant civil war to forefront of American concern. This is a direct nod to the efforts of several groups like Resolve Uganda and Gulu Walk, but most notably to the years of creative activism and awareness campaigns by my friends at Invisible Children.  Read this excerpt from Senator Feingold:

For many years, we have both sought to bring attention to the terror orchestrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army, the LRA, and the suffering of the people of northern Uganda.  We have come a long way in just a few years, thanks especially to young Americans who have become increasingly aware of and outspoken about this horrific situation.  And as a result, the United States has made increased efforts to help end this horror.  Those efforts have yielded some success, but if we are now to finally see this conflict to its end, we need to commit to a proactive strategy to help end the threat posed by the LRA and support reconstruction, justice, and reconciliation in northern Uganda.  This bill seeks to do just that.

It has taken thousands upon thousands of screenings, a bunch of national and international tours, three audacious nation- and world-wide events, and countless hours and dollars committed by high school and college students, and finally this week the greatest single power in the world, the US government, is considering making our cause its own.

Congratulations to IC for this huge victory!  And don’t stop now.

Read Senator Feingold’s full comments here, and while you’re at it, sign up for TRI and keep IC rocking.

Glimpse #2 – By Moms, For Moms

Acholi Beads Glimpse: By Moms, For Moms from James Pearson on Vimeo.

Acholi Beads jewelry is made by Moms, for Moms. See the mothers of Acholi Quarters as they juggle their kids, and use their art to build a better life for their families.

This special Mother’s Day video is dedicated to Suzie, Lorraine, Lindee, Jessica, and Willie Jean.