BeadforLife has gone through many big changes over the years, but it has always kept true to one mission: help more Ugandan women climb out of poverty. Now, for its latest big change, the nonprofit has decided to share its business training model with partner organizations, so they can join the good fight.
BeadforLife launched in 2004 as an effort to help women in Uganda raise money by buying and reselling jewelry made from paper beads. Recently, they scaled down the bead business to meet jewelry demands, and to expand the Street Business School, which sets up makeshift classrooms to teach business skills to Ugandan women living in poverty.
The Street Business School takes very few resources to deliver and can be set up almost anywhere, coordinator Carlyla Dawson says, be it a church, a bar, or under a structure on the side of the road. It’s not about making a profit, Dawson says, our goal is to impact as many women’s lives as possible.
HUMBLE BEGINNINGS AND PAPER BEADS
Twelve years ago, as three American women travelling in Uganda wound their way through a crowded slum, a local woman caught their eye. She was sitting on the ground outside a mud home, rolling strings of paper into colorful beads. Her name was Millie, and she was a jewelry-maker.
Torkin Wakefield, Ginny Jordan, and Devin Hibbard bought some of Millie’s jewelry and returned home to the United States. They soon realized there was a market for Ugandan paper beads. They launched BeadforLife with a simple business model: the founders would purchase jewelry from participating women in Uganda, then sell it at house parties back home.
As it grew, the organization — now a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) in the U.S. and a registered NGO in Uganda — began selling online as well.
MORE THAN JUST BEADS
In 2009, BeadforLife launched a precursor to the Street Business School, an 18-month joint education and business program called Bead to Business that recruited women living in extreme poverty who had an interest in entrepreneurship. In the first few months, the women trained to make a product for BeadforLife — not just beaded jewelry but textiles, too, like shoulder bags — then were given business development training. On a monthly basis, they could produce and sell their product to BeadforLife. The organization would then sell the products internationally and use the profits to fund the educational program.
The Bead to Business model continues to run, but the founders wanted to continue expanding and find a way to share this program with others. In 2012, Dawson was brought in to help them expand. “We always knew there was a limit to the Bead to Business model based on the number of products we could sell,” Dawson says. “And while we knew that we’re good at selling these products, what we really do well is helping women in poverty start independent local businesses. That led us to the Street Business School.”
The Street Business School has all the educational aspects of Bead to Business, but lasts for six months instead of 18, and rather than produce items for BeadforLife to sell, the participants are trained to start local businesses they can run independently. It’s also far cheaper to operate: The Bead to Business program costs about $700, plus $1,000 in product sales per participant, Dawson says, while the Street Business School costs about $275 per person, which is allowing BeadforLife to reach more women.
THE STREET BUSINESS SCHOOL
BeadforLife now runs both the jewelry business and the Street Business School. Dawson says the jewelry business will continue to help keep the company self-sustainable, and the impact will spread through the Street Business School.
The nonprofit typically has three to four schools running at a time, all in different areas of Kampala, each with 40 to 50 students. Courses train participants basic business skills while coaching them as they plan and open their own businesses.
The first class, Dawson says, is about getting into the right mindset. “One of the first questions we ask participants is, what is standing in their way? The majority of the time they say it’s capital,” she says. “So we help participants redefine what they think capital is. It can be money, but it can also be access to resources, a skill you have. It can be your mind, it can be your hands.”
It can also be looking out for opportunities. Dawson says an example exercise they do in class is asking each woman to bring to class an object from around the house that she hasn’t used in a while. “It could be anything. We’ve pretty much seen it all,” Dawson says. With these items — items the women already have — they brainstorm how to get enough money to open a business. Only a very small amount is needed in most cases, Dawson says. Around $5 to $10.
From there they discuss how to identify business opportunities and how to measure the validity of a business idea. Each session is only two to three hours long, since most of the women have work to do, families to take care of, or both. Because time to study is rare, Dawson says, they try to make each lesson as practical as they can, so the women can apply what they learn right away.
In addition to business training, women receive one-on-one coaching session. “This is about getting to know the individual person, getting to know their circumstances and challenges and everything they’re dealing with, and getting them to really believe in themselves,” Dawson says.
BOOKKEEPING, PLANNING, RESEARCH — AND BUILDING CONFIDENCE
The next class is bookkeeping, which is taught at different levels. Those who have had no education and those who are illiterate use apron pockets to keep track of sales. Those with some education learn to use simple profit-loss tracking sheets.
Bookkeeping is followed by business planning and market research; after these classes, the women have their second one-on-one coaching session. This time, the coach visits them at their business, or, if they don’t have a business location yet, at their home. At this point, Dawson says, most have the skills and the concept and are putting everything together. The coaching is simply to continue to encourage them and address any challenges they may have.
The course finishes with instruction on growing a customer base, business diversification, money management, and a class called Partnerships, which is about asking students to identify areas outside their business that they would like to learn more about. The No. 1 area of interest, Dawson says, is usually family planning, so BeadforLife brings in a family planning service to meet with the women.
“Every lesson they learn and every time they go out there, all of that is building their personal confidence to be a successful businesswoman,” she says.
After the final coaching session, the students graduate, and Dawson says that if all has gone well they have the skills to run businesses on their own. So far, more than 80% of the businesses started in BeadforLife classes operate for at least 18-22 months after graduation.
EVERY KIND OF BUSINESS YOU MIGHT EXPECT
Dawson says they’ve seen every kind of business you might expect in a developing country, from small vegetable stalls on the side of the road to women who run tailoring services. Students open hair salons, restaurants, and hotels; they sell used clothes. A particularly popular area is animal husbandry: Many of the women raise chickens and pigs.
For Dawson, one woman in particular, Edith, stands out as a superstar. She started a brick-making business. Her grandfather and father had been brick makers, and Edith already knew how to do it — but one thing was standing in her way: tradition. It was a big deal for a woman to get into brick making, Dawson says. But Edith persevered and is a successful brick entrepreneur now. Nor is she satisfied with the one venture. She also has opened up another businesses on the side, selling handbags.
When they begin at the Street Business School, most women make between $2 and $5 a day, Dawson says. “The women we work with are pretty vulnerable and unable to meet their basic daily needs.” But by the end of classes, most women are making more than double their income by the end of the program.
UGANDANS TEACHING UGANDANS
Since the beginning, the Street Business School has been a way for BeadforLife to reach as more women than was possible with the Bead to Business program. But once they began discussing expansion, they agreed that extending their personal reach around the world would likely lead to diluted effectiveness.
A key reason for this, Dawson says, was cultural context. Every time the nonprofit finds an area with impoverished women and opens a school, they’re careful about how they meet the community. Usually, the process starts by meeting local leaders and finding out if the program is something the community might want. Once they have permission to set up, they recruit students to attend the school.
“The key is, it’s always delivered by locals, it’s not like me coming in and trying to address some cultural challenge,” Dawson says. “It’s someone from the same culture who can come in and say, ‘I totally get that, let’s see what we can do.'”
The teachers they have on staff don’t have business degrees. But Dawson says entrepreneurial experience is enough. They mainly recruit those who have a sense of the community and the business environment there. “We provide all the technical training around business concepts,” she says. “They’re very, very basic concepts and principles that a lot of us know and take for granted. But someone who’s never had any formal education might not really know the importance of customer service, or how to promote your product.”
She says some of the most powerful classes are taught by alumni of the Street Business School. “They come in and give inspirational talks, sometimes about particular sessions and what they did with them. These are hugely powerful. Our staff is very relatable. We’re careful about coming into the community at the community level. But, there’s nothing like having a participant who’s doing well share their story. The energy really shifts in the room. You can see. Wheels start to turn and everyone is on the edge of their seats.”
Yet if BeadforLife wanted to expand to other countries, Dawson says, they would have to get to know each area as well as they did those in Uganda. They would have to have classes taught in local languages. And that isn’t realistic.
“We realized very early on in the process that we don’t have the ability to get to know every community to the level that we would need to deliver this school effectively, and that the people who can best deliver it are partner organizations already operating there,” Dawson says.
Which is why Beadforlife is partnering with other organizations around the world, and will soon begin training them to open up their own Street Business Schools.
THE BIGGEST IMPACT POSSIBLE
Dawson says they’re about to launch their first official trainer training workshop in September. They’ll train six to eight new organizations to run their own Street Business Schools, and afterward BeadforLife will work closely with each for a year. Eventually, they hope to have a large international network of Street Business Schools.
“We anticipate having three trainings done by the end of the next year,” Dawson says. “We’re still very much entrepreneurs ourselves, so we’ll be continuing to look at what types of revenue-generating options we have, and we’re looking at a larger expansion model and figuring out how to best share this program.”
Their ultimate goal is to reach one million women by 2027. And by “reach,” Dawson says, they don’t just mean teach. They want to markedly, quantifiably improve their lives.