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Dear Friend,

Every journey requires faith and a first step.

This could mean leaving the comfort of your home, the familiar, or venturing out into the unknown. Each step takes you closer to discovering who you are and shaping who will you become. In my case, it started with a moment, a woman. It was 2004. I was a spoiled, selfish, 19 year old college student looking forward to a summer adventure. My friends landed on Uganda. To be honest, I could barely find it on a map. I arrived and was immediately hot, sick and incredibly uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be there.

Two weeks into my trip, I took my bad attitude and wandered up a dirt road to a shack on the outskirts of Uganda’s capital city, Kampala. It was there that I met a Ugandan woman named Sarah. Sarah lived her life with great meaning and purpose. She sacrificed everything she had to care for 24 children who slept on her floor. There I was, a girl who had been given so much, standing before a woman who had so little but gave what she had away so that others could live. I only spent ten minutes with Sarah, but I was forever changed. I knew that there were poor children in the world. But for the first time, I SAW them. I saw their mats, distended stomachs, and their sores. I wanted to help. My “first step” was to send funds to help Sarah feed her kids. Within a year I had plans drawn up to build an orphanage designed to care for 180 orphans in Sarah’s community.

"I realized that meaningful job creation is critical. Women in poverty need living wage employment, training and support to meet the needs of their children and transform their lives." I moved to Uganda and the orphanage project opened the door to a journey to build and pioneer a sustainable model to uplift women and children. I met and came to love Ugandan mothers like Sarah, who were desperately trying to care for their children. They worked hard, digging in a field for almost nothing, and it was never enough. I realized that meaningful job creation is critical. Women in poverty need living wage employment, training and support to meet the needs of their children and transform their lives.

I started Akola, meaning "She Works", in 2007 with 15 women making jewelry under a tree. Today, Akola has blossomed into a thriving purpose-driven brand and manufacturing business that creates beautiful designs that build up the lives and livelihoods of the extreme poor. Each Akola piece is handcrafted with the beauty and spirit of each Akola woman who makes it. It represents a story, a life, a family – hope and dignity. A product that heals, a product that restores. Beads hand knotted with pride. A first job. A first step. A new life.

"Today, Akola has blossomed into a thriving purpose-driven brand and manufacturing business that creates beautiful designs that build up the lives and livelihoods of the extreme poor."

I started this journey as a teenager and I am now a mother with three kids of my own. It’s been many years of dancing, singing, crying, and on the bathroom floor praying. To watch what Akola has become truly takes my breath away.

"My challenge to you is to say YES. Step out and take the risk to love,
to live, and to become fully alive
and who you were created to be.
Your life will never be the same.
Your heart will never be the same. The world will never be the same."
People always ask- how did we do it?! My answer is always the same... God had a vision for the lives of our women and He invited me to be a part of it. He created our Akola women not just to survive, but to be fully alive, and to transform the world. His vision was the same for me and it is the same for you. You were created as an agent of transformation... whether you know it or not. With faith, hope, love, and a little bit of courage, you can change the world. But most importantly, be changed yourself.

Founder, Brittany Merrill Underwood