She grew up on a llama farm in small-town Oregon. Hardly the makings of a fashion mogul. And though she would never describe herself that way, it’s difficult to deny her success in spite of her modest beginnings. Kallie Dovel, a co-founder of 31 Bits, planned to work in a Ugandan orphanage one summer, but upon arriving in Africa, her plan fell through. Instead, she serendipitously found her way into the lives of women who spent their days creating beautiful jewelry but didn’t know the first thing about business. Dovel brought back some of their designs – fashioned entirely out of bits of poster paper – when she returned to the States and friends jumped at the chance to purchase them, turning what could have remained a set of charming souvenirs into a full-fledged business.
“We felt compelled. We didn’t have a choice. Women needed a job, we thought we could help, so we did. We had no idea it would grow into what it is today,” states Jessie Siminson, one of the five co-founders of 31 Bits. And grown it has. Five years ago, the program started with six Ugandan women and today boasts more than 170. Not to mention 21 employees split between Africa and the United States. But it’s very clear growing their business comes second to caring for these women. “We’re not just a ‘give back’ brand,” Siminson tells me. “We’re not just giving them some money and saying, ‘Hey, good luck! I hope this works out for you.’ It takes employment and education to really empower someone.” And that’s exactly what their five-year program does. After jewelry making comes financial coaching, health education, and goal setting. When these women graduate, they are fully equipped to launch their own companies and sustain their families independent of 31 Bits. Ugandan women who would otherwise be out of work now run businesses as a tailor, a pig farmer, and a landlord, to name a few. “We’re teaching them how to dream,” Siminson explains.
It doesn’t escape the founders how big an impact they make. In fact, it’s what keeps them from burning out or from letting petty disagreements get the better of them. “If we let something small get in the way, it would kill our purpose. We’ve always understood that we are doing this for a much bigger cause,” Siminson asserts. It’s what pushed them to continue when they didn’t see a profit for the first two years. It’s what keeps them focused when competing brands rise up alongside them. And it’s what I imagine will keep 31 Bits a prominent jewelry brand for years to come. Sitting in their Orange County headquarters today, you would never guess how humbly it began. Not that it’s the least bit pretentious – you enter through what can only be described as a hut, albeit a very adorable one – but they are doing well. They share a space with other artists, constantly surrounded by creative energy. And while it’s a long way from small-town Oregon, and a world away from the villages of Uganda, you get the feeling it’s exactly where these girls are meant to be.