Hire Calling: The Bead Goes On

Meet the founders of BeadforLife, a nonprofit that helps impoverished Ugandan women sell their crafts on a worldwide stage. Here's the fourth installment in our series on innovators who have been brilliant at creating jobs for women. Click here to vote by August 31, 2012, for the job genius whose work impresses you most. We'll give the winner $20,000

by the MORE Editors
Photograph: Misha Gravenor

TORKIN WAKEFIELD(far right), DEVIN HIBBARD (left) and GINNY JORDAN (seated),

Since 2004 this nonprofit has helped thousands of Ugandan women and their families emerge from poverty by marketing their beaded jewelry (see photo) and shea butter products.

In 2003, Wakefield was working in Kampala, Uganda, helping women with HIV/AIDS; Hibbard (her daughter) and Jordan (a family friend) visited. After checking on a patient in a slum, Hibbard recalls, the three passed a woman outside her mud home making rolled-paper beads. She said they were hard to sell. “We bought a few necklaces,” Hibbard says, “and so many friends in Kampala admired them that we wondered how there could be no market.” They asked the woman to gather other local bead makers; 100 showed up. “We bought two necklaces from each and brought them home as gifts. People liked the beads—and the stories of these incredible women, working to give their kids a better future.”

The trio wanted to create sustainable income for the bead makers. They knew a lot about helping—Hibbard has a master's in public administration, Wakefield is a former Peace Corps volunteer, and Jordan is a psychotherapist. But none had a business background. Still, they launched an organization that not only sells jewelry made by Ugandan women but also trains them in entrepreneurship.

The beads and shea products, made from nuts harvested by rural women, are sold online and in 50 retail outlets. But 70 percent of revenue comes from bead parties—more than 3,000 of them in 2011 alone. Necklaces, bracelets and earrings go for $5 to $50. The volunteer hostess gets a kit that includes a CD of songs sung by former bead makers. Party proceeds fund development projects in Uganda, including entrepreneurial training, health programs and kids' school fees.

On average, beaders' monthly income after training increases sevenfold, to about $230. This past year, 1,700 women who made beads, sewed bags for them or gathered nuts supported 14,000 family members.

“When you learn that 50 percent of the world's people live on $2 a day or less,” Jordan says, “you feel overwhelmed. It's great to discover that helping doesn't have to be arduous. You can start to take action by buying something beautiful.” Wakefield agrees: “People in our culture are yearning for connection and meaning. Bead parties create an opportunity for women to say, ‘I can do something that matters for real people.’ ”

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First Published November 23, 2011

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