31 Bits: The Business of Empowering Ugandan Women

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What began as a mission trip for a local girl has grown into an international business that changes lives in profound ways.

“God clearly moved me where He wanted me to be,” explained Newport resident Kallie Dovel. “God is so much bigger than we can imagine and I am so excited about what He is doing! God is using 31 Bits for so much more than jewelry.”

31 Bits is a business with a heart as well as a strong plan designed to give internally displaced women in Northern Uganda an opportunity to end their poverty by teaching them to earn an income. Participating women go through a training program where they are given literacy education, financial and vocational training, counseling, and strong support systems.

A woman who has received job training and support from 31 Bits in Uganda, with her daughter. Photo by Ally Garvin

Kallie explained that the origin of 31 Bits goes back four years to when she went to Africa during the summer of her junior year at Vanguard.

“I’ve always traveled a lot and been interested in international work,” Kallie said. “My parents blessed me by letting me go on mission trips and I really love helping people. I went to help at an orphanage in Uganda but it didn’t work out so I went north to Gulu where some friends were. I met women making jewelry and it was absolutely beautiful. I couldn’t believe the beads made out of paper.”

“I got to know the women and heard their stories and learned they couldn’t afford to send their children to school,” Kallie continued. “I could not go home without doing something, so I bought a big box of the jewelry home to sell, and send the money back to the Ugandan women. It sold like hot cakes. I talked to some of my friends at school and we talked about making a business of it.”

One of those friends is Alli Swanson, who is now the director of marketing for 31 Bits.

“That next summer, four of us went and lived with the women in Gulu for one month and figured out how they could earn sustainable income. We met with other organizations and talked about how to make it a reality,” Alli said. “We hired six women, and decided we’d buy a certain amount each month to help them make a better life for themselves.”

“After we came home we got a phone call from Reef Sandals,” Alli continued. “They’d heard what we were doing and, long story short, told us they wanted to make a sandal with our beads, and put in an order for thousands of strands of beads! We were able to expand to about 30 women, and Kallie moved there full-time for a year. God has blessed it abundantly. It’s now grown to over 100 women in Uganda. We’re all so excited.”

“What started out as a hobby in college became a career that I get to do with my best friends,” Alli said. “We get to impact and change lives. God keeps stretching my view of Him. He has worked so many miracles; none of us were business majors, but God puts the right people, incredible people, in our lives to help us. I’m thankful we all got the opportunity to live there and understand the culture. We’re like a big family and we all have our roles. It’s the body of Christ working together.”

The U.S. Team is made up of founders Kallie Dovel, Alli Swanson, Brooke Hodges, Anna Nelson and Jessie Simonson. The Ugandan team includes two project managers, an inventor, a designer, a husband/wife team who handle production and development, and a “livelihoods program manager,” who teaches English and financial training as well as health and AIDS training.

Kallie explained that the name comes from Proverbs 31, which is about women providing for their families. The “bits” refers to the bits of paper that make up the beads.

“Proverbs 31 is about upright women, full of wisdom and integrity, and that’s what we want our women to be and to become,” Kallie said. “It’s exciting to watch the women grow; we’ve seen women who were in the bush for 10 years with rebels start to heal emotionally, physically and spiritually. God wants to heal people and He wants us to love people. We have an onsite counselor in the compound. Many women are learning to trust others for the first time.”

The team of 31 Bits has a big vision and an even bigger heart, and they all credit a big God. They sell a quality product with a clear purpose to help people. The jewelry is sold online, or locally at Jack’s Surfboards, Almond Surf Shop, Yoga Works and Even Sisters. For further information, go to www.31bits.com.

Cindy can be reached at [email protected]

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