The bead necklace Alli Swanson wears has a story behind it, one that begins all the way in the Gulu District of northern Uganda.
In 2007, her best friend Kallie Dovel, then a student at Vanguard University, traveled to the war-torn region, where she encountered displaced women making jewelry from old posters, fliers and textbooks. They would shred the paper into tiny bits and roll them into vibrantly patterned beads, then varnish the results and string them together. The bracelets and necklaces were beautiful, but the women had no plans to sell them.
When she returned home, Dovel rallied Swanson and a couple of other girlfriends to start what would become 31 Bits (www.31bits.com), a fashionable fair-trade movement. They returned to Uganda and presented six local women with a business idea: Every month, they would purchase the jewelry to sell in the States. The jewelry-makers could earn the equivalent of a Ugandan teacher's salary. "These women were strong, hardworking and determined," Swanson says. "They didn't need more free aid; they needed opportunity—the opportunity to thrive using the skills they had."
The name 31 Bits is inspired by Proverbs 31, which describes an industrious woman who provides for her family. Today, more than 100 Ugandan women are employed by the Costa Mesa-based company, which sells the collections online and in boutiques around the county, including Deer Lovely at the OC Mart Mix and Laurenly in downtown Orange. The one-of-a-kind pieces range from about $10 for a single bracelet to $52 for a statement-making wedding necklace. The latest collection, Chasing Daylight, brings in new textures and intricate designs. "It's about renewing energy, exploring new territory and dreaming bigger," Swanson explains.
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As part of its program in Gulu, 31 Bits provides the jewelry artists with English lessons, financial planning, courses in entrepreneurship, HIV/AIDS education and counseling. After four years of working with the company, the women graduate from the program and start their own businesses. This year, one will be starting a piggery. Another has purchased land and will be growing fruits and vegetables to sell at local market. "We're so excited to see them plan for their futures," Swanson says. "Talk about empowerment."
Swanson loves when people ask about her jewelry. "Little do they know what they're getting themselves into," she says.
This column appeared in print as "Her Merchandise Is Good."