The Table Podcast

The Akola Project

In this episode, Dr. Darrell Bock and Britney Underwood discuss The Akola Project which provides underprivileged women in Uganda with economic opportunities.

Bock introduces the event
How Underwood began her involvement in Uganda
Balancing family responsibilities with her work in Uganda
What is the Akola Project?
Why Underwood uses jewelry production to help women
What is a micro-loan?
Who are the people helped by the Akola Project?
What are child soldiers?
How does the Akola Project impact women outside Uganda?
How does The Akola Project produce its jewelry?
Lessons Underwood learned through her involvement in Uganda
How is the church is involved?
Advice on starting a company like Akola
How have foundations helped Akola?
How Underwood sees this work as a calling
What is the size of your core group?
Might Akola open another location?
Darrell Bock
Well, welcome. Those of you who are in line, go ahead. Keep eating. We’re here to feed you. Those of you who are eating, keep eating. It’s okay, too. We’re gonna talk and let you eat at the same time. Let me welcome you to our second student dinner of the semester. Brittany Underwood is here, and we’re gonna have a little video that’s gonna introduce her in a second. We’re really pleased that you could be here to hear about – is it Akola? Is that how you say it?
Brittany Underwood
Akola, yeah.
Darrell Bock
I’m looking forward to this, ’cause this is kind of an out-of-the-box little thing. The first question I’m gonna ask her will make it clear how out of the box it is. But let me tell you about some of the other events that are coming at the Hendricks Center. In a couple of weeks, we’re gonna be having a Wives of Men in Ministry event, and that is April 10th to 12th. That retreat is at Pine Cove. If any of you are wives of men in ministry and want to know about that, you can contact the center, and we’ll let you know.

Then on April 23rd in Houston, we have a Faith @ Work conference that will be held at First Baptist Church in Houston. This is our annual Faith @ Work conference that we take around the country. We were in Dallas a couple of years ago. The plan is to be in Chicago with that conference next year.

This will be the first time you’ve heard about these. The two conferences that we have sitting in front of us for next year are we’re going to have a conference called Brave New World. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention ethics commission is gonna be our main speaker. He’s actually gonna be here for two days. He’s gonna do the conference with us on Monday, and then it’ll be at a chapel on Tuesday as well, the Cultural Engagement Chapel. So we’re holding onto him. He’s certainly a leading voice in terms of Christian engagement with culture, and that conference will focus on cultural engagement very, very directly.

Then in the spring, we’re holding a conference. The Systematic Theology department is gonna hold a conference on eschatology, but it’s not a prophecy conference. It is a conference on how eschatology matters for life in the present. So the working title that we have for this one – it’s not necessarily gonna be what we end up calling it – is Back from the Future. We’re gonna be toying with how thinking about our security in Christ, how that impacts the way we conduct our lives now.

So that’s the lineup, and of course you know we do we four Cultural Engagement Chapels every semester. We’ll have a couple of dinners as well, but we haven’t lined up what we’re doing with those yet. So just keep your eyes and ears open for what the center is doing.

So with that as our introduction, we actually have a video that we’re gonna use to introduce the evening. We can show that now, and that will get you oriented to what we’re doing.

Darrell Bock
Well, there you go. You’re Brittany Underwood. Well, Brittany, a pleasure to have you with us. What’s a nice girl from Atlanta doing – living in Dallas and working in Uganda?
Brittany Underwood
Yeah, that’s a great question. I did not set out to do any of this. I actually had just started really growing in my faith in college. I went to this forum in D.C., and they talked about a great way to grow in your faith is to pick a couple friends and just learn how to love each other for the summer and grow in community. I took that seriously. Two friends of mine from high school, we just decided to pick a place in the world and spend the summer there and really just focus on our friendship.

We ended up in Uganda because one of my friends, her father was the executive director of World Harvest Ministry, and they had a boarding schools that needed teachers for the summer. I honestly didn’t know where Uganda was on the map. I just signed up, and the next thing I knew we were in a rural village in east Africa. That’s where it all began.

Darrell Bock
Now what year was this?
Brittany Underwood
This was 2004.
Darrell Bock
Okay, so you went, and as the video indicated, you were deeply impacted by the experience. How long did it take from that to what you ended up doing in Uganda?
Brittany Underwood
Yeah. I actually had a really terrible attitude. I was really sick from the very beginning. I was really uncomfortable. I had never witnessed extreme poverty in the way that I saw it in Uganda.

Actually, about two weeks in, and I mention this in the video, but we were learning about the community. The local pastor could tell that I wasn’t totally engaged, and I think he just wanted to inspire me. So he said, "I want you to meet a woman who just has a really powerful story. She’s a member of our community, and I think her story will inspire you.”

I said, “Why not?” This woman changed really the course of my life. She just had trusted God with the lives of 24 street children, had no way to provide for them, but gave everything she had so they could live. I thought two things. One, “Here I am, someone who’s been given a lot, and I haven’t given anything for anyone else to live. She’s sharing her daily bread and going hungry for others.” And then also, “Here is someone who can trust God for the lives of 24 street kids. I can barely do that for myself.”

So that moment a seed was planted, and that grew for the rest of the summer. I actually went to study abroad after that in Italy, which is quite a shift, at SMU, and I broke my leg. It was a crazy story. I ended up back in Atlanta with really nothing to do except for to think about this woman, Sarah, the kids sleeping on her floor.

So it really started as just a small effort. I thought I would just send a couple of hundred dollars over, and they could buy some beans and she could send her kids to school. That grew into this idea of building a building for the kids that slept on her floor, and next thing I knew they had – a sponsorship arm had come in.

They needed a really big building. Somehow in the span from my sophomore year of college to my senior year of college, I somehow found myself raising – we raised close to $1 million for a three-story orphanage with the capacity to house 200 children in Sarah’s village. That’s when I moved to Uganda.

Darrell Bock
Oh, wow. Let’s go through that part of the story ’cause it’s an interesting part of the story. So you’re raising millions of dollars as a college student for this effort. How in the world did that happen?
Brittany Underwood
Well, I was lucky I was in Dallas. That helped. I just had friends actually through Young Life. I was a Young Life leader for Highland Park High School and just met a lot of great people in our city and a lot of great –
Darrell Bock
That’s on the North Dallas border. Yeah, there you go.
Brittany Underwood
Yeah, they’re amazing, and a lot of great families. They heard what I was doing and said, “We’d love to help you throw a fundraiser.” I did that here. I threw one in Atlanta. I had this short promotional video. I was a journalism major at SMU. I had edited that nine-minute video that told Sarah’s story and the kids’ stories. The video got out, and checks came in the mail from people we had never met. We had a great board. They helped us raise a lot of the money.

Soon I was graduating from SMU, and I thought, “I’ve gotta move over there to make sure this building actually happens. All these people gave us money. I guess I have to go.” I had three friends who put their post-college jobs on hold and moved over there and helped me get that off the ground over the next several years.

Darrell Bock
So how long were you in Uganda to be over there with the building?
Brittany Underwood
So we moved over there late 2006, and I was back and forth but there for the majority of the time until 2010 when I went to Fuller.
Darrell Bock
Okay, so four full years in Africa?
Brittany Underwood
Yeah, close to five.
Darrell Bock
Wow. So I guess the next question is you’re married now and have a child. So how does that come into the mix?
Brittany Underwood
Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s this crazy story how God just takes care of you through all this. I thought, “Great, I spent most my 20s in an east African village. I’m never gonna get married. That’s something I’m just surrendering to the Lord.” I met my husband actually at my first fundraiser here in Dallas. His family was one of our supporters, and he was a couple years older than I was at the time. We ended up reconnecting when I finished my degree at Fuller. We got married, and I moved back to Dallas. Akola, which I’ll talk about how the orphanage turned into a social business.

But after that, I started spending – every three months I would go to Uganda. I told him, “I have a house here.”

He was like, “What?” We were engaged, and I had built this house out of local materials on the Nile near where the women work. So he knew early on this is part of what our family is doing. He bought into that. We have a nine-month-old. It’s hard to take him at this time, but I still try to go once every six months. When he was six months old, I went for ten days. It was hard to leave him.

We hope it’s something that – these women are a part of my life. My husband and I got married in one of the villages we work in. All of the women were there that I’ve worked with over the years. The hope is our family is fully integrated in what we do. I think that’s how it works.

Darrell Bock
That’s cool. So you go every three months. What happens when you go over there. What do you end up doing when you’re over there?
Brittany Underwood
I used to do everything. There was only four of us, and so I had to do everything. We really built this from the ground up from with the orphanage and then with Akola. Then we went through a stage where I’d have to fly over there every time there was a fire, which was all the time we were putting out fires. Then we got to the place around 2013 where we had been operating for seven years. I had a great staff.

Our COO in Uganda came over. We stole her from Jane Goodall, and she was running all of her women’s empowerment programs. She’s a better leader than I am, knows more than I do about economic development. I totally trust her. Now she runs our staff of 30 in Uganda, and I just go there ’cause I miss the woman. So I’m kind of irrelevant at this point, but I just like to be there.

Darrell Bock
Now let’s talk about the transition from the orphanage to the company. Why don’t you explain how the company itself works? I’m assuming Akola means something. Am I right about that?
Brittany Underwood
Darrell Bock
Okay, so what does Akola mean?
Brittany Underwood
Akola means “she works.” We spent several years building this huge orphanage, but we were working with a construction company, so we were essentially just paying construction payments. So we started doing a lot of other stuff during that time. We had someone give us a pretty large grant to drill clean water wells across the country. So we thought, “We’re just paying this contractor. We might as well do other things.”

So we started drilling these clean water wells around Uganda. We’d go into all these different villages, and it was the same story. There are so many women like Sarah who had 20 street kids sleeping on their floor and no way to provide for them.

We just started to realize, “There’s gotta be a more sustainable way to address the orphan crisis and be able to provide for disadvantaged children.” You can’t just build $60 million orphanage structures around the country. That’s not gonna solve the problem, and it’s not sustainable. It’s expensive, and there’s a lot of issues with that model, period. It’s a really antiquated model that we don’t use here for a reason.

So we just learned a lot along the way, and once we finished the building, we thought, “I wonder if there’s a better way to do this.” So we started the Akola project in 2007 with the intention of working with other women like Sarah who had street kids – an average of ten kids was our metric – living in their home, no way to provide for them and no way to earn income. The kids weren’t in school, weren’t getting proper nutrition.

We thought if we could just help build capacity for these women, they have the heart. They’re already taking care of these kids. They just need the money to send ’em to school and some basic training. They should be able to handle this. These kids don’t have to go to an orphanage home.

We started Akola for that purpose with 15 women working under a mango tree. We said, “Well, in order for the women to make money, we’ve gotta create some kind of business or product.” We looked at a lot of local programs that we could just – these women are cut off from the global economy. These women that we work with are in very rural villages, barely have roads that are functioning, women in northern Uganda who have survived the 20-year war up there and conflict.

We thought, “We need to create a product, something that we could market and sell that we know can fund these women so they can take care of those kids.” We picked jewelry honestly ’cause it was easy to ship. That was our first. We were like, “This is easy. It’s small.”

I went to SMU, so I know a lot of people who have good fashion sense, and we knew – I had a lot of friends who were designers. I thought that would be something we could build. So we in 2007-2008 set out to build this business to support the women.

Darrell Bock
Now I’m trying to figure out exactly how I want to ask this question. You went from jewelry, and how exactly does this work? In other words, how – what’s the model that you’re using to sustain these women?
Brittany Underwood
Yeah, so we developed it. We started grassroots, trial and error, figuring out what worked, what didn’t. We quickly realized we actually have to build the infrastructure for economic opportunity because we work in villages where there’s not a tin roof. There’s nowhere for women to work, and once the business starts growing, it’s not sustainable for them to work under a mango tree. It doesn’t give them a lot of dignity.

So we started building centers, training centers around the country, and then the next thing we do is once we’ve built a center, and we accompany that with the clean water wells, really building the infrastructure that they need for economic opportunity. Once we do that, we train women who are not artisans, women with no educational/vocational background, to make the products that we sell in the global marketplace. We design them. We create high-fashion products.

Part of that is it can’t be a charity purchase. We’re working with 500 women whose livelihood depends on our ability to sell this product, and so we learned pretty early on to do a good job in that area. So we started retailing our product around the U.S. We’ve been sold in 450 stores around the country, one department store, potentially another specialty store this fall, and large accounts with Tons and Metavani and been able to offer the women dependable employment because the products sold well.

One the women have dependable employment, they’re able to provide for the ten kids in their home. We were able to set a metric where they made enough money to not only send the women who were working fulltime, all of their kids to school, provide for their health care, rebuild their homes, but also invest in local businesses in their communities, ’cause once these women realized, “Gosh, we’re capable,” they have dignity and they have opportunity. They want to do more.

So instead of using microloans for them to start small businesses, we just trained them to save the money – a portion of the money they would earn through us to invest in these businesses. We walked alongside of them and launched a series of classes in finance and business to really help them be successful. We believe that really helps drive sustainability for generations to come, whether we’re there for five years, ten years, one years, and they’re investing that money in long-term solutions for their community.

Darrell Bock
Now some people might not know what a microloan is. Can we explain what that is?
Brittany Underwood
Yeah. So a microloan is just a small loan to normally a disadvantaged population. We really serve women who are a rung below candidates for microfinance. Our women would not know to get a loan. They wouldn’t have the confidence to do it. Yeah, they really wouldn’t have the confidence.

So after going through Akola’s program, these women have become candidates for loans. We have women who have worked with us for seven years who have run for local office. Again, these are women who could barely look you in the eyes when we first started working with them. They were so severely marginalized, and now their kids are in school.

Their communities are functioning. They’re injecting and infusing capital into a traditional barter community. So now the local brick-maker, who never got paid for his bricks, gets money, so he sends his kids to school. So we have seen entire communities – we work in nine of them – just totally transformed by this model. It’s been really exciting.

Darrell Bock
Now some social questions. The orphans, where do they come from? Is this because of war or a disease, combination of the above? And then are the women – I take it they’re widows themselves in many cases or something like that?
Brittany Underwood
Yeah. So Uganda is a polygamous country. There’s a lot of women who are left with kids with no help all over, especially in rural communities where men generally move to the city to get a job. You don’t see that many men in these communities. People always ask, “Do the men get mad? Where are they?”

There’s not a lot of them around, and the ones that are there are very supportive. We also provide opportunity for them through building our centers. We always employ local men, use local labor, and that’s a way that they get involved in these projects and earn an income.

But, yeah, these are women who have been through war, 20 years, and we have women whose children were abducted by the LRA and forced into sexual labor and some forced into becoming child soldiers. We have women who the majority of their family members died of HIV/AIDS, and they’re survivors of that.

A lot of times, the orphans come from the community, and that’s why orphanages don’t make that much sense, because in these communities everyone knows who the orphan kids are. There’s not like a random kid that comes along. These are very interconnected communities. Generally, the orphan kids come from the father leaves.

The mom generally contracts HIV/AIDS. A fourth of the women we work with are tested positive. I would guess probably half of them are. She passes away. She’s got four kids. They go to her sister. Something happens to her sister. Her sister has three kids, too. The grandmother takes them, and next thing you know there’s ten dependents.

Really, how it’s worked out for the women we work with, the average is ten dependents, seven children and two adult dependents. All of them fully rely on the mother to care for them, and she has no way to provide.

Darrell Bock
Wow, what a story. You talked about child soldiering, and people don’t know what that is, either. Why don’t you explain what a child soldier is?
Brittany Underwood
Yeah, so there’s a 20-year conflict, a 25-year-old conflict in northern Uganda. I don’t know if any of you are familiar with the Lord’s Resistance Army. I know Invisible Children made a lot of that public. But child soldiers is when there is an internal conflict or external conflict in a country. The warlords come in and they – it’s the most horrific things hearing these stories from the ground in our project in northern Uganda.

They would come in and burn down a village, kill parents in front of their children. They tie the children up and make them watch human mutilation to a degree that is just – it’s hard to even talk about. But the children would watch that and know that they had nowhere to go back to.

So they’d take them. They would become part of this army. They give them guns and drugs and God knows what else, and the next thing you know, the child then becomes sort of a mercenary. That war is essentially over. It’s disbanded. But the remnants of it, it’s a disaster.

Darrell Bock
And the age of these children might be?
Brittany Underwood
Now they’re on average probably 15. We work with a lot of the mothers of child soldiers, and some never came back. Some of their kids never came back, and some did. They were lucky to escape with their lives.

We work in the Pader district and Pajule, which was one of the hardest-hit areas in the war, and they’re still rebuilding. They were living in internally displaced camps ’cause the government tried to protect them. The camps would get attacked, which it wasn’t a very safe place for them.

Then once the conflict – they started negotiating peace treaties in 2007. It’s been kind of rocky since then, but they moved people to satellite camps, and now they’re moving back to their ancestral homes. In our project in northern Uganda, we really focus on that rebuilding effort. By helping the women generate income and learn these soft and hard skills, we’re hoping they’ll be able to get back on their feet.

Darrell Bock
That’s quite a story. Now we’ve got microphones set up so that you all can ask questions as I continue to work with this. So where are you today in terms of how many – you said you’re in nine different areas?
Brittany Underwood
Nine different communities, yeah.
Darrell Bock
Nine different communities. The size of the communities, what’s the average size of these villages? Can you say?
Brittany Underwood
It depends. Arboala village we work with close to 100 women in that village, and Tchbibi is 30, 40 women, all these tiny, little villages along the Nile in northern Uganda, and then we also expanded Dallas. We work with women here who’ve been formerly incarcerated or sexually trafficked. They work in our distribution center, and we teach them hard skills to help them get back on their feet and help them get a job when their criminal history normally wouldn’t allow for that.

We also have production. We have women in West Dallas who actually string the beads on the necklace that are made in Uganda for sale for here. A big thing about our model is we run everything through a nonprofit framework. Our organizational structure is a nonprofit with a mission-related enterprise, same as Goodwill.

That’s probably another equivalent to our – but that means 100 percent of our profits are reinvested in our social mission. So when you buy an Akola necklace, not only is it – every bead on the necklace empowering women, the assembly empowers and employs women, the distribution empowers and employs women, but also all the money goes back to that mission. So it’s really high-impact.

Darrell Bock
Okay, now this is a fun question to ask, and that is take us through the start to the finish of a piece of jewelry. Where does it begin, and how does it end? What is it that the women over there are doing, and what is it that the women over here are doing? That kind of thing.
Darrell Bock
I’ll use an example, one of our department store orders last year, and how it was produced is we had women in six villages hand-rolling paper beads. Once we sold them the paper, they rolled the beads. We’d buy them back, and that’s our part-time workers. They make the core components of the necklace. We also have women who hand-cut Ankole cow horn, among many other things.

They make the components of the necklaces, and that money goes back to paying school fees for their kids. And then it’s assembled by either our assembly team, which is our fulltime workers in Uganda and based in Jinja in eastern Uganda or the women here in West Dallas. It’s kind of interchangeable. Some stuff is produced there, some here, even in the same order. Then it’s distributed by women who have been referred us to by New Friends New Life, who have been formerly incarcerated or sexually trafficked, trying to get back on their feet.

Darrell Bock
That’s a local organization.
Brittany Underwood
Yeah, and they send us women who are ready to work, who have been fully rehabilitated from their program. Our West Dallas women are also referred to us by nine other nonprofits in our city who’ve worked with women and want them to get back on their feet. We’re also partnering with Butner, who is doing the case management for all of our women.

So we really here in Dallas just focus on the training and employment whereas in Uganda we do a whole suite of programs around their employment called Akola Academy. So there’s business classes and wellness, yeah, just a series of classes to help their development. But here we’re able to rely on partners for that.

Darrell Bock
So relative size, how many women are you working with in Uganda, and how many women are employed here?
Brittany Underwood
Around 450 women in Uganda, and here we just started our Dallas pilot last year with 15 women. I think we’re gonna be at 30 in the next couple weeks hopefully, and we’re hoping to grow to 100 in the next two years. We just partnered with United Way here in Dallas, and they’re helping us reach capacity here.
Darrell Bock
So you’re rolling and going, huh?
Brittany Underwood
Yeah, it’s busy.
Darrell Bock
And you’ve become a mom in the meantime.
Brittany Underwood
Yes, I have a nine-month-old. I teach a course on social innovation at SMU. So I’m teaching, working, and have a nine-month-old. This has been an exciting balancing act.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, we’ll talk about the counseling part of this later. So wrap it up for us. What do you feel like you’ve learned in going through this experience? As you said, this isn’t at all what you thought you – when you took that initial trip to Uganda, this wasn’t on the – this wasn’t in the plans.
Brittany Underwood
Oh, no.
Darrell Bock
What would you regard as some of the turning points that you saw – that you see, besides obviously the initial experience?
Brittany Underwood
Yeah. After working on the ground, building what Akola is today, those first five years we were burned so bad. We were cheated. We were lied to. We were threatened. We made every mistake in the book.

I got to the point where I was so burned out and I was so tired and just thinking, “Lord, what am I even doing? We’ve probably done more harm than help in a lot of ways. I’m sick. I’m tired. My friends are getting married, and I’m in the middle of nowhere.” I really became disillusioned.

I actually had a former professor of mine at SMU, who is on our board, who said, “I think you need to take a break to get – retool and look at your model and take a step back and work on your heart and figure out why you’re doing this.” That’s when I went to Fuller Seminary in Pasadena and did my master’s in intercultural studies and international development. I studied under Bryant Myers, who I really respect his development theories and theology.

It was at that time that I – actually, my best work came from that. We were able to take, just by taking a pause, all of the good things and bad things that we had done and experienced over that first five years I was in Uganda in my early 20s, able to form a real model out of that, a model for social business. It’s actually crazy. It’s in a McGraw-Hill textbook now, which is nuts.

But I formed it there, and part of that was taking a step back and learning more about international development, studying it after I had experienced it, and taking again my experience from the ground and really thinking it through, dissecting it, figuring out what can we do better, and how can we serve these people better.

But another piece was my heart: “Why am I doing this? Where is God in the midst of suffering?” There’s a lot of things that I wrestled with coming out of that, and I was able to resolve a lot of that just by taking a step back for two years at Fuller. Once I finished my degree there and came back here to Dallas, that’s when Akola really took off in 2013.

So I think one of the best lessons in this is just having the courage to take a pause sometimes and the courage to fail. I really look at the building that we did, the orphanage structure. I’m glad we did it. I know God was in it. But it’s not a great model. In a lot of ways, it was a failure, in my mind at least. From a development perspective and how it’s serving those children, it’s not doing that very well. We have no control over it. We didn’t even put the title in our time ’cause we didn’t know better at the time. There was a lot of ways we failed.

I had a mentor right before I went to Fuller who said to me – I said, “I’m just leaving. I don’t even know why we came. I’m just confused about the whole thing. I feel like again we’ve hurt more than helped.” I said, “I’m out of here.”

He said, “That’s the problem with people in your generation. Things get hard, and you bail and you go to something else. I really challenge you – everyone who comes here. It doesn’t matter if they have a Ph.D. in international development. You’re gonna fail at first. Probably the first five years you’re here, you’re gonna do a lot of harm. But if you can take the lessons that you learned from that, then the next 50 years you’ll really be able to help.”

He said, “I challenge you to commit to this country.” I took that pause, and I did, and now 12 years later, we’re really paving the way for social businesses and have hit a scale that most organizations haven’t and have been able to show that you can do it through a nonprofit framework where all of it goes back. You can do that with faith and integrity.

It’s been an incredible journey, but I could have very easily given up every year along the way until the past couple years when things really took off. I guess some really good advice is take a pause when you need to pause, have the courage to fail and to face that, and just learn from your experience and make it better.

Darrell Bock
Now maybe a question is has the church itself or churches themselves played any role in this? What’s been their part of the story?
Brittany Underwood
So the women we work with in Uganda are predominantly Christian. It’s sort of animist Christian. There’s a lot of things mixed in on a village folk level. But, yeah, the women we work with are mainly Christian, and so we’ve been able to – I’ve learned a lot from them in my faith. We’ve been able to walk alongside of them and share our stories in faith. That’s been the spiritual part of this journey.

We’ve had churches all along the way partner with us. We have some of the bigger churches in Dallas that support us and have from the very beginning, but we also have organizations like United Way that are not faith-based supporting us. That’s always been important to us in the very beginning is that we wanted everyone to be a part of this journey, and my faith has informed this whole process and everything that I do. The women’s faith has transformed my life. They have taught me more than I could ever give to them.

But we wanted to create a company that anyone could be a part of it, and that’s been really beneficial. We’ve had some people challenge us and say, “Well, why aren’t a faith-based organization? It’s coming from that.”

What we say is God’s working in every part of this every day through our staff, through the women, in ways that are hard for me to even describe. So we haven’t had to necessarily have a ministry component to make it what we feel like is honoring to God.

Darrell Bock
Now we may have some people out here who are thinking about what they – are thinking about the possibilities of doing something like this. What advice would you give them?
Brittany Underwood
If you’re doing a social enterprise, your product really matters. You cannot create a charity purchase that doesn’t go a long way. People will buy a little bit of it, but it’ll never grow to scale. And to really serve people well through a social business or social enterprise, you have to run the business well, and you need a great product. You can’t do it without that.

So I think from that angle, I would say really work on your product and on your business model, and tap into things like social finance, impact investing, all of these great new philanthropic tools that are brand-new in our generation to help fund these kind of ventures in ways that were never possible before.

Advice interpersonally, again, don’t be afraid to fail. You learn from that, and as long as you take those lessons, you can create something really beautiful out of your experience. That would be the interpersonal piece.

Also, just realizing God has a different plan for everyone’s life. I wasn’t someone who grew up and wanted to change the world. I just wanted to be faithful. I took step by step small steps of faith that have led to something really big, but that was never the intention. It would have been okay if it didn’t grow to this scale. The orphanage structure, we learned from that, and God called me just to be a mom. That would have been just as beautiful as what Akola has become.

A lot of people say, “That’s so cool. I want to do this.” That’s great, and I think it’s great to set out to do it. But I think also just to look at your life and look right in front of you like what has God put in front of you? Who has he put in front of you? And being faithful to that. I think that’s when big things happen is they grow out of that.

Darrell Bock
Now as you were growing this business, how much role did foundations play in helping you out? You mentioned fundraisers, but was there foundational support as well?
Brittany Underwood
Some family foundations in the beginning. Almost like any venture, in the very beginning, they were friends – our family or friends through Young Life or individual donors who just invested in me and this idea. They hoped that it would work out, but they trusted our heart and vision for it. That’s all they really had, and a small video.

But as we’ve grown, we mainly get our support through foundations now, and I think that that’s something you earn over time. Once your organization gets to a point where you have a proven impact model and theory of change, and you’re able to measure it, and you have a track record, that’s when foundation money is accessible and important.

Darrell Bock
So that’s basically how you’re generating your ability to sustain the operation.
Brittany Underwood
Through foundations, but we also do a lot of impact investing. I don’t know if many of you are familiar with these new tools with social finance, but there is this big bang in the philanthropic world where capital markets, which didn’t normally interact with giving, there is this convergence where foundations now are willing to, out of their endowment fund, give impact investments in the form of low-interest loans. If you’re a for-profit social impact company, they’ll do equity investments. That’s where we have been able to get the real funding to scale.

So if we have a purchase order for 10,000 units and that costs a lot to make, we got a half-a-million-dollar impact investment last year for this department store order. We’re able to put that into our product, and we end up making five times that amount of money for our programs and the women, but would never have been able to do it without that. That was basically structured as a low-interest loan with a five-percent return from a foundation, and it gave us the money we needed to scale. That’s actually been the greatest tool that we have been able to use to grow.

Darrell Bock
Are those grants renewable? Have you established a track record with certain people who are giving to you now on an annual basis ’cause they know what you’re about?
Brittany Underwood
Absolutely, yeah. We have a great group of people, and we’ve been able to recently now with United Way and Dallas Women’s Foundation access the top tier of philanthropic support. That’s very hard to get, very competitive, and I think once you hit that level, just doors open. So we’re in a good place for raising money, but also again trying to do a lot of our – a lot of our resource strategy is through impact investment.
Darrell Bock
Interesting. Okay, Casey, go ahead.
Audience Member
My question is through this journey of creating Akola, how has that both shaped and then changed the way that you view one’s work or occupation as part of their larger vocation or calling?
Brittany Underwood
It’s totally intertwined. I think with what I do, people always ask – they’re like, “Gosh, you work so much.”

But I’m like, “I don’t feel like it’s work. This is my passion. This is what I love to do, and it’s all intertwined.” If I’m working on a Saturday, it doesn’t feel like, “Oh, gosh, I’m working on a Saturday.” It’s, “I would rather do this than most other things minus being with my family.”

That’s also where the balance becomes hard, ’cause you’re like, “My work and my vocation and my calling and my faith, everything is tied together.” So it’s really easy to work all the time because it’s just your life.

But I also think that’s such a gift because I think that’s how it’s supposed to be. If we look at different biblical references on what it means to really live out our vocation and our calling, it’s discovering what we were created for and living that out. I feel like I’ve used every gift I’ve been given by God in this work, every talent. I’ve just pushed it as far as I can. I’ve exhausted every part of myself in this and feel like not only does my life have meaning, but I’m – the way I was designed, the way God made me is being fully used. That’s so rewarding, and honestly, there’s nothing better than that.

The only challenge is, again, I’m also designed to be a mom to my little nine-month-old. It’s not competing, and I hope as he gets older that becomes more integrated and he becomes a part of what we do. He goes down to Akola. We have a store on Main Street – please come see us – near Pecan Lodge. He’ll come down there and get passed around by every staff member, all the women. He’s kind of like the community kid. I love that. So in some ways, too, that balance is just the integration of all of your passions. Again, God’s in all of that.

Darrell Bock
Now obviously your husband can I say signed on for the ride?
Brittany Underwood
Y’all can pray for him. He bears the biggest burden.
Darrell Bock
What was that like? Because that’s a huge adjustment for him. If you weren’t expecting what took place, he certainly didn’t coming in.
Brittany Underwood
No. We got married in 2012 right before everything. This had been going for a long time, but it really took off right after that. He was not signing up for a life of me traveling all the time and working all the time, and he does that, too. We’ve had to work through that in our marriage. He’s really supportive, and he knows and knew from the beginning. Again, we met at my first fundraiser. He knows I’m called to this, and he doesn’t challenge that, which is great.

But, yeah, how that plays out on a day-to-day basis, it’s really hard, and we’ve had to have a lot of tough conversations about what happens when we both have to travel. His job funds our family. I don’t make tons of money from Akola. So there’s that. But then mine’s making a difference in a lot of people’s lives, and then there’s that.

Today is a great example. I normally only work till 2:00 on Tuesdays. So I have a nanny that comes till 2:00, and then I’ll take Lathe in the afternoon and still try to get some work done. But today I had a meeting with Neiman Marcus about launching one of our collections through them, and then we had this.

My cousin picked him up from the baby sitter. My mother-in-law got him from my cousin, and Baxter, my husband, is picking him up from my mother-in-law at 6:45, and then he’s going to bed. Some days are just like that, and Baxter has been really patient. But, yeah, that isn’t easy, and he bears a lot of the cost, probably the majority of the cost, of what I do.

Financially I don’t – I’m not able to contribute much, and yet I work all the time. Spiritually, I’m pulled in so many directions. Emotionally, he doesn’t get that much. He’s a great man to have signed up for that.

Darrell Bock
Now how often do you travel now to Africa, and how is your trips – how have your trips to Africa changed versus when you started?
Brittany Underwood
Yeah, so I was going once every couple months, and now I go – I’m trying to go once every six months just with my son and go for a ten-day period. My mom will come here and watch my son, and my husband will help with that a lot. The trips now are more to encourage our staff, to encourage the women, to help them know that I care about them and we care about them over there.

That’s really it. We have an amazing team on the ground. Yeah, in the beginning I was doing everything. In the middle, I was putting out – every time again there was a fire, I had to fly to Uganda and solve it and figure it out. There was no one else to do it.

Now I have a team that does that. So I get to really be an innovator and an encourager. I meet with our team, and we think about, “What could this be in three years and five years?” We get to dream together, and I get to just be a champion of them. That’s really fun.

Darrell Bock
Your core team is how large?
Brittany Underwood
Thirty in Uganda and 15 here.
Darrell Bock
Okay. I’ll go ahead and let you go ahead and ask your question.
Audience Member
You mentioned at the beginning that the community had a role in selecting the women. My question would be if you wanted to put the tenth village, how would you start, and what are the way to start?
Brittany Underwood
Actually, we’re changing this strategy, and this happened when we expanded to Dallas. When we thought about growing our program here, we thought there’s amazing nonprofits and ministries in our city that have been working with marginalized women for sometimes 100 years. Why would we reinvent the wheel? In Uganda, there’s not a lot of organizations in the village we work in that are willing to go into those areas, so we have to do everything.

But here the need was really the training and the job opportunities for women who because of their history can’t get a job. For the nonprofits, their big dilemma here was, “Great, we’ve just rehabilitated this group of women, but they’re gonna go back into prostitution, back into poverty, back into jail because they don’t have an economic alternative.”

We worked with Serve West Dallas, which is an amazing organization, a collective-impact organization that brings all of the ministries in West Dallas together. We said, “Hey, we can offer 45 women jobs.” They worked with nine nonprofits who sent us women from their program who were ready to work, women who were ready to get back on their feet.

So we did that, and then for the women in our distribution center we partner with New Friends New Life, who sends us women for a three-month internship period and then a one-year fellowship. Then we hire them fulltime, and a lot of times it’s the first job they’ve ever had after a lifetime of being incarcerated over and over and over again. So it’s a great opportunity for them, and that’s worked so well for us. We thought, “We’ve been able to offer something that these nonprofits can’t, and that’s getting these women back on their feet from the rehabilitation program.”

In Uganda and anywhere we go in the future, it’s kind of the same thing. There are other organizations now that we can partner with like Butner who are already providing those services. So we can focus on what we’re really great at and what other people can’t offer, which is the training and employment. So if we ever go to another village – we’re looking at Kenya as the next place we’d grow in – we would do it alongside a partner like Butner where they would do all of the holistic development, even the financial training and business training, and we would go in and do the basic product training and employment. That’s a great question.

Darrell Bock
Well, our time has slipped from us very, very quickly, Brittany, but I really appreciate you taking the time to tell us your story. It’s a great story. It’s a story of profound faith in which someone senses a need and basically says, “Okay, God, stretch me.” The faithfulness comes through. The heart comes through. The ministry impact comes through. We’ll continue to pray for Akola and what’s going on. Let me close this in order to prayer.

Father, we do thank you for just the beauty of a story of simple, energetic, committed, faithful faith. We lift up Brittany, and we lift up Akola. We just pray for these women both here and in Uganda and pray for the success of the ministry. We ask that you would continue to lead and guide the team that oversees this and that you would continue to open doors, and that opportunity would continue to exist to help people not only rediscover who they are and rebuild their lives, but also come to appreciate what capabilities you give people who sometimes are told that they don’t matter at all. So we thank you for these many gifts that you give us in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Brittany Underwood
Thank you so much.
Darrell Bock
Thank you.
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Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than forty books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
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