Who doesn’t love “guilt-free” shopping or better yet, shopping you can feel great about?!? A few years back, I was invited to a jewelry trunk show for a brand called Akola. I knew it was for charity, but didn’t know anything about the brand or the cause. When I arrived, I saw a huge table full of gorgeous, brightly colored beaded necklaces strung around super cool cross-like pendants. I was sold…holiday gifts for all the ladies on my list! And…this was before I knew the important stuff! As I tried on each unique piece, I chatted with Elizabeth Carlock Phillips, who has been involved with the brand for seven years, and now serves as Founding Designer and Board Vice President. She explained that Akola, founded by Brittany Underwood, is a 100% impact brand (further described below) and told me all about how they empower women in both Uganda and her hometown of Dallas.
What struck me the most about Akola is how the impact is being made. This is not just about women in Africa making necklaces to make a living to survive. Yes, making a living is part of it, but they are also being given the opportunity to have better futures for themselves and their dependents. Most importantly, from a LivLight perspective, Akola is having a huge impact on the health and well-being of these women. They are receiving health education, HIV testing and counseling, malaria testing, TB education, vision maintenance, family planning and maternal health education, and so much more. And, this is in addition to the vocational training they receive.
“Being a hybrid model, Akola has the opportunity not only to provide jobs to women through its product lines but to also respond to these women’s personal goals and ambitions with tools that equip them to reach better futures for themselves and their dependents, breaking generational cycles of poverty. We don’t just want these women to survive, but to thrive, so we take a holistic approach.” –Elizabeth Carlock Phillips
The latest and greatest news on the Akola front is that they have just become the first full-impact brand to enter the luxury market! They are now being sold at Neiman Marcus stores nationwide and NM online! Check out www.akolaproject.org to shop and learn more and click here to shop the exclusive collection at Neiman Marcus. I love to throw on my Akola jewelry over my workout clothes, with jeans and a white t-shirt and with dressier outfits, making them some of the most versatile pieces I own!
Continue reading for my interview with Elizabeth Carlock Phillips and to learn more about Akola!
Interview with Elizabeth Carlock Phillips
For those readers not familiar with Akola, can you explain what it means to be a 100% impact brand.
Akola is the first full-impact brand in the luxury space with its recent launch into all Neiman Marcus department stores nationally. 100% impact means all proceeds from sales are socially reinvested in Akola’s mission, while the organization seeks positive social and environmental impact at each phase and in each material of our supply and production chains. The hope is that this is raising the bar for other brands to operate similarly, first becoming conscious of where and how materials are sourced then also proactively creating intentional social benefit through the product opportunity.
It seems you were ahead of the curve starting a company aiming to create social impact over a decade ago. How did your journey intersect with Akola’s and how has Akola evolved over the years?
I started my first social business in high school more than twelve years ago, donating proceeds from jewelry sales to select charities, then launched my eponymous accessories and lifestyle brand full-time after college. I had done my senior research course thesis on “Cause-related Marketing in the Retail Space,” and that consumer trend research and my desire to drive impact led to the creation of a for-profit business model with several non-profit collections under the brand. It got attention as being one of the first social ventures in Dallas, Texas. Meanwhile, Brittany Merrill Underwood had founded Akola to employ and empower marginalized women in Uganda, and when I found out about what she was doing and vice versa, we joined forces to elevate Akola’s existing paper bead product line, and I had the amazing experience of training the first Akola women in creating a marketable collection which launched at Dallas Market Center as Elizabeth Carlock Designs for the Akola Project. Under Brittany’s steadfast leadership and vision, Akola has grown from there dramatically and is now in several hundred boutiques and department stores around the country with robust e-commerce sales as well. In just the seven years I’ve been involved, I’ve witnessed the brand evolve from $20 paper bead necklaces strung on fishing line sold to fundraise for the organization’s Uganda efforts, into a well-respected and sought-after brand and social business employing hundreds of marginalized women, with sales contributing to a new type of sustainable, non-profit model.
At LivLight, our goal is to create a lifestyle, which promotes health and well-being. It seems much of your impact is doing the same. Can you tell us about this?
Akola is a unique model in that it is a non-profit 501(c)3 with a sustainable social business operating alongside empowerment programs, which we call Akola Academy. The Akola women request education in areas like health, financial literacy and vocational training, and we provide those tools to meet each of their personalized goals. The social business sustains itself and its scaled through sales and investment capital. Being a hybrid model, Akola has the opportunity not only to provide jobs to women through its product lines but to also respond to these women’s personal goals and ambitions with tools that equip them to reach better futures for themselves and their dependents, breaking generational cycles of poverty. We don’t just want these women to survive, but to thrive, so we take a holistic approach.
We love that you work to empower women in both Africa and Dallas. How are you making a difference in the lives of these women?
You can see the women tell their own stories at AkolaProject.org and encourage you to read what they say about their hopes and how Akola has uplifted them. It starts with a job, but we don’t stop there. In addition to earning a living wage, Akola women are connected to services and programs that help them overcome extreme obstacles and barriers like criminal backgrounds, poverty, trauma and little or no education. The purchase orders from Neiman Marcus in particular have allowed Akola to scale its impact domestically by employing around 100 women in poverty in West Dallas to respond to buyer and consumer demand. As in Uganda, these women otherwise have limited or no income opportunities or pathways to a better life. So, the Akola women in Uganda are now empowering marginalized women in Texas who have become a part of the production, fulfillment and distribution processes for the organization. It’s a beautiful example of women joined together globally by a social enterprise. The jewelry has always just been a means to an end, though. Sometimes feeling connected to a community and a global marketplace is a big impact in itself, and it’s been so rewarding to see that side effect of the model’s expansion as well.
The Akola pieces are beautiful and unique. Can you tell us about some of the surprising materials used to make them?
Every piece Akola produces is one-of-a-kind, just like the women who assemble it. Akola’s elevated collections, such as the ones #onlyatNM, include semi-precious gemstones with elements of fine metal plating. But even Akola’s higher-end products somewhere include a paper bead from Uganda to remind the consumer of the international impact of his or her purchase. Akola also works with responsibly sourced Ankole horn which we use to make some beads and pendants for the jewelry. It’s a beautiful material that has roots in the East African culture and ties in nicely to Akola’s aesthetic alongside a variety of other beads in many colors. Our original paper beads, which are literally made of rolled paper and glazed with non-toxic varnish, are still popular as well, and we continue making core collections from that material, too. Our pieces are great conversation starters!
These days, we’ve been hearing more and more about brands that create social impact. Since we’re all about activewear over at LivLight, can you tell us about any athleisure brands you like that are making an impact?
It is amazing to see the conscious consumerism movement growing alongside a wave of social entrepreneurialism. There are so many brands, boutiques, and e-commerce sites popping up with an impact mindset. Many traditional companies are also making a shift toward transparency and a give-back component. The main thing is to ask questions as a consumer. For example, “Who makes these yoga pants? Does the factory adhere to ethical standards?” We all deserve that type of information and if a brand can’t provide it, you can choose to take your purchasing power elsewhere!
For those readers looking to take the leap and follow their dream of starting a new business or one of social impact, what advice would you offer them?
I personally love meeting other entrepreneurial women and girls and encouraging them to find their own intersections of purpose, passion and paycheck. Sometimes, that’s using your skillset and expertise to partner with an existing organization or company. Other times, it is not an easy path but it is rewarding if you have the dedication and patience to build something of your own that impacts other lives. I often advise to “start with the heart” and let whatever that cause or passion is to drive the modeling of the start-up and grow from there, always having integrity to the mission that inspired it. But it’s going to be a long road…
The Akola story is really amazing and a great example of how much patience, dedication, and adaptability it can take to arrive at substantial and scalable impact. Akola’s founder and CEO, Brittany Merrill Underwood, has been at it for over a decade, beginning at age 19, so a lot of what’s inspiring in this story is that you’re never too young to start making an impact and helping others, but it sometimes takes many years and a lot of dedication and patience to build something with broad reach. Many twists and turns along the way to be expected!
Finally, what’s up next for Akola?!?
I have served on the Akola board for several years now, and we are always looking to the future. Akola has built vocational centers throughout Uganda which creates capacity for future product lines, like more textiles and home goods, so that is on the horizon. The goal is also to continue to reach and transform more lives both in Uganda where it all began, and now also in Dallas. We invite anyone and everyone to join us on this journey! Please purchase Akola goods or donate to Akola Academy, the empowerment programs piece of what we do. Your dollars make a difference and allow Akola to continue scaling its impact.