Did you see our collaboration with 31 Bits a few months ago? Sadie had the opportunity to design two necklaces with one of our favorite ethical brands, 31 Bits. 31 Bits works with artisans in Uganda and Indonesia who make jewelry, bags, and home goods by hand. They provide artisans with dignified job opportunities, a sustainable income, and holistic care. We love this company because they truly care about where their products come from. Everything we buy can have a positive or negative impact in the world, so our purchases should reflect our values. We interviewed one of the co-founders, Jessie Alexander, to get the scoop on how they started 31 Bits and how this group of young female entrepreneurs have gotten through the challenges of starting a business.
Oh and if you want to check out Sadie’s designs at 31 Bits, head over here.
What inspired the start of 31 Bits?
We were in our junior year of college in Southern California, and my girlfriends and I were all in similar places that included procrastinating on papers so we could go to Disneyland in the evenings, waitressing and babysitting to make some extra money, and planning our next summer vacation travel. But with graduation just a year away, we knew we were supposed to be figuring out what was next. In the midst of filling out grad school applications and job hunting, our lives were interrupted.
Our friend Kallie had gone on a life-changing trip to Uganda where she spent two months getting to know a group of women in the town of Gulu. This group of women grew up during a war and had close to nothing. They were single moms with no education and no job, and the craziest part is that many of them were our age! They were making incredible jewelry out of old poster paper, and when Kallie brought a box of the jewelry back, we fell in love instantly. We sold the jewelry to friends and ran out within weeks. That’s when it hit us. These women had a skill, but needed a market. We lived in dorms and apartments filled with people who would love this stuff! Together, we could make a business. It felt like God had dropped this opportunity in our lap and saying no wasn’t an option. A few of us went back to Uganda the following summer and selected a group of six women to begin this adventure with. We sat with them daily, making beads and listening to their stories. We visited their homes and met their families. We laughed together, cried together, and learned from each other. We started selling jewelry at craft fairs and home parties and eventually started an online store and a wholesale program. We implemented a five-year holistic development program in Uganda, where artisans receive not only a sustainable monthly income, but holistic education in finances, health, business, and more.
So how did you take 31 Bits from a story to a company?
We started the company over ten years ago and, at the time, there were no other “do good” businesses that were actually creating fashionable products. We knew that to fund our programs in Uganda, we needed to create a product that would actually sell. So we began to study fashion and color trends. We wanted customers to make a purchase not just because of the story, but because they actually like the product. By day, we were finishing up our senior year of college, but at night we were studying trends and searching for events to sell at. We didn’t know what 31 Bits would turn into, but we quickly learned that God had much bigger plans then we had for ourselves.
How did your faith play into starting 31 Bits?
Early on, our team came across this verse in Ephesians and it completely changed the way we prayed about our company and thought about our future.
“Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.” Ephesians 3:20-21 NKJV
We realized that when we prayed for 31 Bits and thought about our future, we were scared to ask for big things. Praying to “sell more jewelry” felt selfish and unsettling. We put God in this little box and approached Him with a timid posture. “God, please give us this opportunity, but only if you want to and have time and if it’s your will….” Sounds silly to say that out loud, but over and over again we found ourselves praying to God as if He doesn’t have enough good things to hand out to everyone. We put limits on what we thought He could do.
But in this verse in Ephesians, Paul reminds us that God can do EXCEEDINGLY, ABUNDANTLY MORE than anything we can ask or think up on our own. The reality is: WE HAVE ACCESS TO THE CREATOR OF THE UNIVERSE. He is the one who created dreaming and thinking and creating. The God who created stars, oceans, ladybugs, and photosynthesis, and a million different types of clouds and rocks and colors… How can we put Him in a box? God was reminding us He can do far more than anything we can think up on our own, so it’s about time we stop paying attention to our measly plans and look at what God is up to.
How have you seen lives change in Uganda?
Watching women grow in confidence as they use their own talents to provide for their families is incredible in itself, but one of the most amazing things about our program is that it gives people a community, many for the first time. Because of disease or effects of the war, many of the women we work with were abandoned by their families, leaving them in total poverty with no opportunity. Being part of 31 Bits gives them a place to belong. Many of the women are now neighbors, living life together on a daily basis. I remember on one of my trips to Uganda, one of our artisans, Abio Vicki, told us:“Had it not been for 31 Bits, I’m not sure if I’d be alive right now. I used to think about committing suicide because I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. Now I have a family and I belong. I’m so happy.” My jaw dropped when Vicki said this. I knew 31 Bits was having an impact, but at this moment, I was beyond humbled that God was using our little company to literally bring life to people. He created us for community and if nothing else, this group of women in Uganda now have a group of people to call family.
Switching gears here, how did you and the other founders stay friends in the midst of starting a company together?
We get this question a lot and believe it or not, the five of us founders are still great friends! A couple of the girls left the company for other job opportunities, but it never impacted the foundation of our friendship. Starting a business overseas together, traveling back and forth together, living together… it’s not a typical friendship! We’re more like sisters. Of course we’ve had our share of disagreements, but at the end of the day, we always look at the big picture. Here are a few of the lessons we’ve learned along the way.
- Honesty is ALWAYS the best policy. Don’t be afraid to call someone out or express how you’re feeling. We’ve found that difficult conversations tend to be easier than you think they will be, and letting sour feelings fester for a long time will only make you more frustrated.
- When there is a disagreement, don’t respond out of emotion, wait and sort out your thoughts and bring it up when you can do it out of love.
- Trust each other. Maybe your co-worker or friend isn’t doing things like you would, but choose to trust that they have a reason they are doing things the way they are.
- Pray together. Prayer brings unity in vision and purpose.
- Support each other. We’re each other’s biggest cheerleaders in and out of the workplace.
- Leave work at work. We lived and worked together for years, so we had to learn that there is a time for big-decision meetings and there is a time for girl-talk and movie nights.
What is the most important life lesson you have learned from starting 31 Bits?
My dad always says “Keep the main thing, the main thing.” It sounds so cheesy, but this saying has really come to life in the last few years. Business can be tough and, trust me, we’ve had our fair share of challenges. But when I remember our mission and why we started this company in the first place, I remember God is faithful to keep his promises and I can’t let fear and frustration get in the way. People’s lives are literally changing through this company and when our focus stays on our mission, we are more prayerful, motivated, creative, and joyful.
What advice would you give other women who are trying to start something?
- Start with what you are passionate about. The idea of owning a business can seem glamorous, but don’t start a business for the sake of starting a business. You have to be excited about what you are selling. There are so many challenges that you’ll face and when you have a bad day, you have to be able to remember why you started your business in the first place!
- Make sure whatever you’re creating has purpose and fulfills an actual need in the world, both for the creator and the consumer.
- Be a learner. Be willing to refine your product, vision and strategy over and over again. If you have the attitude of a know-it-all you will never be able to grow as a business or a leader.
- Lastly (and most importantly), pray, pray, pray. Give everything to God from the big things to the small things. He is at work in your life in more ways than you realize, so commit everything to HIM.
Jessie Alexander is one of the co-founders of 31 Bits, a jewelry company using fashion to empower people to rise above poverty. They employ artisans in Uganda and Indonesia, giving them a sustainable monthly income as well as holistic education including financial, health, and business training. Jessie graduated from Vanguard University in 2009 with a degree in Cultural Anthropology and is now the company’s Brand Director. She lives in Costa Mesa, CA and plays an active role in her community, participating in local community development and homeless endeavors. She’s a big fan of coffee, traveling, paddleboarding, and costume parties.
Follow 31 Bits on Instagram @31bits