It started with one woman, just trying to make ends meet. She was sitting on the ground outside her mud hut in Africa, rolling paper into colorful paper beads that she hoped to sell. Her name was Millie Grace Akena.
Millie would inspire a movement that is now on track to improve the lives of more than 1 million other impoverished African women, and likely many millions more.
Three Boulder women were visiting Uganda when they walked past Millie. They stopped to learn more about her. They learned about Millie’s struggles, but more importantly, her hope. They also learned that no one in Millie’s community had money to buy the beautiful jewelry she was making. This gave the Boulder women an idea.
In 2004, they launched a nonprofit, BeadforLife. The original purpose: to support women like Millie and help sell her products back in the United States (and beyond).
But over the years, BeadforLife took some unexpected turns — in a big way.
The nonprofit began working with dozens of other bead-makers. People around the world began hosting “bead parties” to sell the jewelry, reaching more than 1.2 million people and raising millions of dollars. BeadforLife began offering other fair trade products, too, like shea butter.
This led to an entrepreneurial business training program for the women in poverty, to help train them to launch their own local businesses. And it worked. Women in Uganda began opening produce stands, shoe stores and more.
Eventually, this morphed into the Street Business School, a training program to teach African women how to run a successful business. Four years ago, BeadforLife launched the pilot phase of a “global expansion” of its business school; it developed a curriculum and trained 14 other partner organizations across Africa, so they could bring the program to their respective regions.
Last year, BeadforLife entered phase two of this expansion program. The nonprofit is now training 184 more partner organizations, with the expectation of reaching 1 million African women by 2027, according to one of the founders, Devin Hibbard, of Boulder. BeadforLife will train 40 more partners in 2018 alone.
“Our philosophy was we wanted women to graduate out of our program with a sustainable livelihood,” she says. “It grew out of the bead-making program. But the Street Business School can reach far more women because it doesn’t require a global market to support the women.”
Today, BeadforLife still sells paper bead jewelry. But the jewelry contributes to the business school programs, too. Later this year, BeadforLife will launch a new product: Each of the new bracelets will pay for one woman to go through one training module in the business program.
A Closer Look at the Street Business School
The Street Business School is organized into eight business modules that look similar to something you’d learn in an MBA program, such as how to do market research, build customer loyalty and do bookkeeping. But while the program does offer some Western-style strategies (like how to categorize your expenses on paper), it takes into account the African women’s culture and experiences, too.
“Most women we serve have never finished elementary school, so the curriculum is laser-targeted to meet the needs of those women,” Hibbard says.
If you can’t read or write, you can’t plot your expenses on paper, and the school wants to offer skills the women can take home and use immediately. So women are also taught how to sew an apron with different pockets, one for each product they sell. For example, a woman who runs a veggie stand may have one pocket for potatoes, one for mangos and one for bananas. When they sell a potato, they put that money in the potato pocket, and they use that money to replenish the potato stock (and also see which products are in highest demand).
“Everything we teach is targeted in that way. It’s a unique curriculum,” Hibbard says. “These concepts are universal. But we’ve made it relevant to them.”
Beyond learning the specific skills, the Street Business School works to connect women with other inspirational women business leaders to help build confidence, mentor and coach them.
“More important than teaching concepts is helping them reclaim their human dignity,” Hibbard says. “Women who have been living in poverty, many have been told their entire life they’re not worth much. … And they don’t believe in their own ability.”
The Street Business School has numbers to back up its program. On average, women who enter the school earn $1.35 per day in Uganda. That means they can’t meet their basic needs. Two years after graduating the six-month program, 89 percent of the graduates are running a business and now earn an average income of $4.19 a day. That’s above the United Nations’ global poverty line.
Hibbard tells the story of one of BeadforLife’s original bead-makers, Teddy. When she gave birth to a deaf daughter, her husband left the family. He denied the child could be his, leaving Teddy alone with three young girls and no money. When she found BeadforLife, she dreamed of opening her own primary school.
Today, that dream has come true. Teddy runs a school in her village for a couple hundred students, and Teddy is a leader in her community.
“She is one of the thousands of women who have gone through the Street Business School,” Hibbard says. “BeadforLife has transformed her life and the lives of her family.”
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