While most undergrad students boast to-do lists already jam-packed with coursework demands, the girl bosses of 31 Bits decided to add one more extracurricular goal on top of it all: The launch of a socially minded fashion business. After a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Uganda, the ladies of 31 Bits realized that they had an opportunity to inspire real change in the world through fashion—specifically to empower Ugandan women to rise above poverty. By their junior year, what had started as an after-school hobby developed into an incredible product line of handmade jewelry, available to be purchased in more than 300 stores.
Today, 31 Bits has grown into much more than a jewelry-making business. It provides holistic developmental programs that help Ugandan women attain education, healthcare and counseling. Needless to say, we’re pretty impressed! These ladies prove that you can truly have it all—as long as you’re willing to work for it. We’re thrilled to be able to tour the stunning studio of the 31 Bits team with Kallie Dovel, Alli Talley and Jessie Simonson, and to share their inspiring story detailing how they went from college students to successful businesswomen. Read on and prepare to be inspired!
How did the 31 Bits team transition from carefree college students to empowered businesswomen? Tell us your story!
It still sounds crazy when we refer to ourselves as businesswomen. In some ways, we feel like we’re still transitioning! We started 31 Bits when we were juniors at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, CA, never anticipating that it would become our career. We were full-time students, working part-time jobs and hustling on 31 Bits whenever we had spare time. After graduation, we all continued to juggle part-time jobs on top of 31 Bits. Within a couple of years came the miraculous day when we were able to make 31 Bits our full-time jobs. Over the past eight years, we’ve definitely had to teach ourselves the importance of self-motivation, organization and confidence within each of our positions. There are no handbooks for starting a company with your friends—let alone one in Uganda! We’ve made our share of mistakes over the years, but we continue to learn and grow from them. We’re still figuring out how to be empowered businesswomen, especially as we all get married and have kids!
What sparked your desire to make a change in the world through fashion?
In college, we learned more about where our food, clothing and household products come from and how they’re made. We were amazed at the lack of ethically made products! When the opportunity to start 31 Bits came about, we were excited to bring awareness to this issue. That being said, we have recently seen a shift in consumerism, where people now care more than ever about the products they buy. They want to know where they come from, who made them, what’s in them, etc. We have always stayed true to the greater purpose of our company. That’s why we have such loyal 31 Bits fans! They can go onto our website and learn about the woman that made their necklace, see how it’s made and even watch videos about the 31 Bits story.
How did you get the word out when you were first getting 31 Bits off the ground?
We said “yes” to everything. From throwing house parties in our neighbor’s living room, to attending arts and craft fairs and speaking at local churches—we did it all! We wore our jewelry everywhere we went, and that alone would spark conversation. In time, we made a website and created a Facebook page, but 31 Bits really grew from word of mouth!
Our model is to empower people by selling their products in the fashion industry, but that’s only the beginning. We believe true empowerment begins with caring for a person holistically and occurs when a person is completely self-sustainable.
Why did you decide to use jewelry to help people? Did you ever consider selling another product instead?
We started with paper bead jewelry because it was a craft that is unique to Africa, and one that our ladies were already skilled in creating. We will probably always sell paper bead jewelry of some kind, but we’re beginning the process of branching out into new products and accessories. Stay tuned!
Tell us about the design/production process behind the jewelry pieces. Where do you find inspiration?
Kallie, one of the 31 Bits founders, is our head designer and the creative mastermind behind all of our latest styles. Kallie comes up with the inspiration for each season, and teams up with Emily, our designer in Uganda, to execute the designs. We have a team of “Sample Specialists” who create the samples, and send them back to the U.S. for approval. It’s quite the process! Kallie forecasts trends so that she knows exactly what colors will be “in” for that season, and goes from there. She finds inspiration everywhere—from the runway to outdoors!
How does 31 Bits directly impact the lives of Ugandan women?
Our model is to empower people by selling their products in the fashion industry, but that’s only the beginning. We believe true empowerment begins with caring for a person holistically and occurs when a person is completely self-sustainable. Our model is based on a five-year program built to empower each beneficiary and her/his family while exposing them to the love of Christ. We use a holistic approach, providing programs focused on finances, counseling, health, spirituality, career training and mentorship. After five years in our program, a beneficiary is ready to graduate. She/he is educated, healthy and confident while managing a business with a sustainable income.
Could you tell us a bit about the current status of Uganda, and why you believe its people (specifically women) need help?
Gulu, Uganda, is filled with astoundingly high spirits and energy, but there is a lack of opportunity that has diminished many people’s hope for prosperity. There is a growing need for effective action to take place that will counter poverty, offer hope and establish sustainability. That’s where we come in! We not only give our beneficiaries a sustainable salary, but we educate and equip them to start their own businesses. Our ladies are now living empowered lives and dreaming of brighter futures for their families!
What would you say has been the most rewarding aspect of this journey?
When our first group of 31 Bits artisans graduated from the program. After five years, our first group of eight women had their own businesses and were able to provide for themselves and their families completely on their own. That was definitely rewarding!
What’s the meaning behind the name 31 Bits?
The ’31’ comes from Proverbs 31, which describes a diligent woman providing and caring for her family. The ‘Bits’ comes from what the beads are made out of—bits of paper!
What are some of your most effective marketing strategies?
We love teaming up with influencers, bloggers and celebrities! We recently sent Sophia Bush to the 31 Bits headquarters in Uganda, where she was able to meet our ladies and see our development work in person. She even designed her own necklace! Having Sophia tell our story and share our products with her fans is priceless. We hope to take another celeb (or two!) to Uganda again this year.
We started 31 Bits when we were juniors at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, CA, never anticipating that it would become our career. We were full-time students, working part-time jobs and hustling on 31 Bits whenever we had spare time.
Tell us about your office space! What was the vision behind the design?
The 31 Bits headquarters is located in Costa Mesa, in an industrial warehouse. We love how spacious it is, but we fell in love with its quirky and hip elements. We have an attached Quonset hut that we’ve turned into our retail shop, and an area for hosting parties and photo shoots. And we’re next door to a waffle shop! What more could you want?
What are some of your favorite 31 Bits jewelry pieces? What are some of your most popular pieces?
We’re so excited about our new REFINED Collection, featuring paper beads on a 14-karat gold-filled chain. They’re delicate, classy and totally chic! Our most popular piece from this collection is hands-down The Droplet Necklace—we’re obsessed!
Describe the 31 Bits mission in three words.
Love. Empowerment. Fashion.
Where do you see 31 Bits in five years? Ten years?
We hope to keep expanding our programming and to continue empowering women. Whether that’s in Uganda or another part of the world, we’ll see! We have a lot of exciting plans up our sleeves. We also have a dream of collaborating with Taylor Swift—it’s going to happen!
What is the one app you can’t live without for your business?
Instagram! We love interacting with our following through Instagram, so feel free to follow along with us, too!