Sometimes a trip is more than just a great escape.
That's what happened to Kallie Dovel when she first traveled to Uganda in summer 2007. It was there that she saw what women were going through: little to no education, lack of health care, extreme poverty.
But there was one thing they had: paper beads they made by hand and turned into jewelry. Unfortunately, there wasn't a market for them to sell the items.
Dovel started thinking. She brought home a box of the Ugandan jewelry and showed it to friends and family, who were amazed. She sold it at school and at events. People responded strongly; they loved the jewelry.
But Dovel, who was finishing her degree at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, couldn't do it alone. She went to her friends and told them that she really wanted to sell the jewelry and invest in Uganda, but she needed their help.
"So we started helping her," said Alli Swanson. "We started selling jewelry at craft fairs and random events, wherever we could."
In the summer of 2008, Dovel and three of her friends went to Uganda to meet the women they had been supporting, to see their lives and figure out a way to make their jewelry business model more sustainable.
The girls hired six women in Uganda, with a salary equivalent to a teacher, to make the beads and jewelry. The founders also started devising their business plan.
It was then that 31 Bits — founded by Dovel, Swanson, Anna Nelson, Brooke Hodges and Jessie Simonson, all Vanguard students — was born.
While the other founders finished school, Dovel lived and worked with the Ugandan women to put the business model in place.
Costa Mesa-based 31 Bits had its big break in October 2008 when Reef, the renowned sandal maker, called. One of Reef's designers was friends with one of the founder's moms. The designer loved 31 Bits' story, the beads and the jewelry's design, and had brought up the idea with the Reef design team of making a special-edition sandal with 31 Bits.
"Reef is one of the largest sandal companies in the world, so we were really excited at the possibility of partnering with them," said Swanson, who serves as 31 Bits' director of public relations and marketing. "We met with them and had [photocopied] pictures of the ladies and box of jewelry, told our story and said a prayer. They loved our story and they placed a rather large order from us. That's when it took off for us and that's when it became something bigger."
That first big order, some 16,000 beads, gave the founders enough money to get their business truly off the ground.
Nearly four years later, 31 Bits is on its fourth sandal design with Reef. The necklaces and bracelets made out of paper beads are sold internationally in about 140 boutiques. Local sellers include Silhouettes and Jack's Surfboards in Newport Beach, and Deer Lovely in Costa Mesa.
For a list of shops, visit http://www.31bits.com.
Bracelets range from $10 to $48. Necklaces are $20 to about $60.
As for the name, "31" comes from Proverbs 31, a Bible verse that describes a diligent woman working hard to provide for her family. "Bits" comes from the fact that the beads are literally made out of paper bits.
The founders now have a complete program in place in Northern Uganda, in a small village called Gulu. They work with locals who help run the program there, which employs about 110 women.
They make the beads and jewelry, continue to get paid a wage equal to a teacher's salary, are given education, are given medicine — many of them have HIV — and, most importantly, are given the tools and the means to empower themselves and start businesses of their own, Swanson said. The company gives back 70% of its profits to the cause, she added.
Many women want to join the 31 Bits program, but participants are chosen based on extreme financial hardship.
This December, the first 10 women will graduate from the 31 Bits program, which lasts about four to five years. One plans to buy pigs, then raise and sell them as a business. Another plans to buy land, then sell the land's fruits and vegetables.
"It's really cool to watch them go from apprehension to excitement about their future," Swanson said.
This past year, the five founders, each 24 years old, finally got to quit their part-time jobs and start working on the business full time.
Running an international business is full of challenges. There are shipping worries and product quality-control concerns — both of which have led to tons of "Skyping" with their points of contact in Uganda. But one of the biggest issues is cultural differences.
"We had to make sure we weren't ever offending the culture there," Swanson said. "We had to do things right and figure out their needs and meet them in the right way, especially in a small town like Gulu, which is a very social town. When new organizations come in and new programs get underway, if anyone or anything isn't kosher, [that organization] gets a [bad] reputation and we wanted to keep ours [good]."
The company is debuting its spring line of jewelry and has recently launched a wedding line in conjunction with well-known wedding photographer Jasmine Star.
The delicate, more upscale pieces have been well received with brides who are looking for more of a bohemian, upscale type of jewelry, Swanson said.
For now, 31 Bits is working on perfecting its current jewelry line and building its brand. Nordstrom or Anthropologie could be next to carry the line, if the founders have their way.
"We would like to be in a bigger account to spread the word and grow," Swanson said. "Branding is competitive, but our cause and belief in our programs and what's going in Uganda, we think 2012 is our year to grow."