|Nonprofit giving Rwandan women second chance at life |
After the 1994 genocide there, a lot of Rwandan women had no other choice when it came to surviving and feeding their families. As such, they can now not move into the mainstream workforce as the country's government tries to foster stability and encourage economic development.
Jared Miller, a former partner in Nashville-based private equity firm The Incubator Group and long-time activist for African causes, sought to change that two years ago. He helped establish Sisters of Rwanda to create job opportunities for former prostitutes so that they could sustain themselves without selling themselves.
This summer, 43 former prostitutes began selling handmade necklaces for $40 each in the United States through Sisters of Rwanda. Miller said they booked $19,000 in sales in the first month. The next month, they did $24,000.
Each woman is paid per necklace and can earn anywhere from $30 a month to $100. Instead of living in poverty, the women are earning wages that would put them in the middle class in Rwanda, where 60 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to Central Intelligence Agency information.
By launching the effort, Miller and the organization's staff joined a growing number of "social entrepreneurs" around the world helping poor areas create economic sustainability.
"It's teaching them how to fish instead of giving them the fish," said Amber Beckham, Sisters of Rwanda's country director in the United States.
In doing so, the organization is applying the principles that any for-profit business uses — a focus on quality, branding and putting workers' different skills to use to achieve efficient production.
Now, its leaders, who recently changed the group's name to Keza, plan to expand into other products such as handbags, shoes and other kinds of jewelry.
"Our demand is about to outweigh our supply," Miller said from Rwanda. "The goal is to do more couture, high-fashion products," he said.
In Nashville, the necklaces are sold in Nashville Clothing Co. two locations as well as Crown Jewelers, The Good Cup, St. Bartholomew's Bookstore and Back East and Ash Blue.
With social entrepreneurship, it's not about financial profit but social benefit. And people involved in it don't see social entrepreneurship necessarily as a concept or an idea.
"We look at its as primarily a leadership approach," said Bruce Lowry, a spokesman for Palo Alto, Calif.-based Skoll Foundation, a nonprofit started in 1999 by Jeff Skoll, the first eBay employee and president, to encourage social entrepreneurship.
Efforts come in various forms. Some seek self-sustainability, while others rely on grants. Some projects are a hybrid of nonprofit and for-profit models.
"It doesn't have to be a revenue model," Lowry said. "We call it a resource engine."
Miller's plan is for Keza to be fully self-sustainable, something he says can be done by the end of the year.
Before making the necklaces, he said the organization had tried other products, learning that pottery definitely wasn't the way to go. A cash infusion from Nashville resident and 1980s pop star Donna Summer got the organization back on track. Miller and his team then turned to necklaces made in Uganda and sought to improve on them by focusing on quality.
Keza puts a great deal of importance on teaching the women the value of making a quality product. The necklaces are made of recycled paper, which is symbolic given the role of former prostitutes. It takes one woman about two weeks to make a necklace from start to finish.
"(Customers) buy a charity story once," Miller said.
Keza is in the process of altering the production process to take advantage of the different skill sets to create more of an assembly line to improve quality and speed production. That will even out the pay scale as well.
But Miller said Keza must first have two months of operating cash flow in reserve before that can happen. That, in turn, depends on overcoming the distribution challenge all ventures of its kind face.
"The basic business model is scaling," Skoll's Lowry said. "Almost any of these models is going to depend on scale."
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