Brittany Underwood’s first visit to Uganda as a student completely changed the course of her life. “I had never witnessed extreme poverty,” she says, and she just wanted to help. Fifteen years later, her non-profit Akola Project is helping hundreds of women through the creation, distribution and sale of handmade jewelry. The nonprofit reinvests 100% of its revenue into programs that support its mission: to become the leading global retail brand that creates economic opportunity and transforms communities by empowering women at risk.
In this episode of Retail Gets Real, Underwood, honored this year as “A Giver” on the NRF Foundation’s list of people shaping the future of retail, describes Akola’s unique retail model and the impact it has through strategic partnerships with established retailers like Neiman Marcus.
During his first trip to Africa in 2004, Underwood met Sarah, a young Ugandan who took in and cared for 24 street children. “I was totally shaken by my complacency,” she says, “and started working with Sarah to help care for the kids.” Underwood spent the next five years talking to village women, trying to understand their real needs. “We learned from them that all they wanted was an opportunity,” she says. “They just wanted a way to do it themselves. Not for us to do for them.
Jewelry making was easy to teach and transported across continents. As the business grew, Akola women learned to manage everything from bead making, jewelry design and assembly, to working in distribution centers and international supply chain management. “It’s the joy of my life,” says Underwood, “to see these women recognize that they are so much more than they ever believed or knew.”
“The decision to do something is what makes all the difference in the world.”
Brittany Merrill Underwood
With many obstacles to overcome along the way, perseverance was the key to success. “The decision to do something is what makes all the difference in the world,” says Underwood. “There were so many times we could have given up.” In 2016, Akola opened in Dallas as a second-chance employment program for formerly incarcerated and sex-trafficked women. Through the exclusive partnership with Neiman Marcus, the non-profit organization has distributed more than half a million dollars to program participants this year.
Listen to the episode for the full story. Discover more stories from inspiring retail leaders on the list of people shaping the future of retail and subscribe to Retail Gets Real for a new episode every week.
Nadee Bandaranayake is associate producer of NRF’s Retail Gets Real podcast. Meet all the co-hosts and learn more about the show.