DALLAS — Valerie Brown brushes five gray silk threads with clear nail polish to unite them into a point. She threads the needlelike strand through a faceted onyx bead and deftly ties a knot, carefully crafting a glittering necklace that Neiman Marcus will sell for $475 over the holidays.
“This is a job, but it’s relaxation at the same time,” Brown reflected. “My thing is to have peace.”
Like her colleagues stringing beads at a community center in a disadvantaged area here, Brown has had what she calls a “stressful life” — which, at the center, can cover a devastating experience such as being incarcerated, sexually trafficked or abused.
Thanks to a new partnership of the Akola Project and Neiman Marcus, she and 99 other local women are on paths to financial independence.
“We are the first nonprofit that has ever retailed in the luxury space,” said Brittany Underwood, founder and chief executive officer of the Akola Project in Dallas. “Hopefully that sets a precedent.”
Neiman’s will introduce the collection on Thursday at its flagship in downtown Dallas at a party, with some of the women who created it attending.
The program is based on a model that Underwood developed in Uganda in 2007, where Akola now employs more than 350 women making paper bead and horn jewelry that’s sold in hundreds of boutiques.
In a then-unusual strategy that has since been adopted more widely, she decided Akola would reinvest all proceeds in its mission. Its other key tenets are paying living wages and educating women about life skills and entrepreneurship through peer-led classes that pay it forward.
The Neiman’s link emerged after Underwood spoke about the program at the George W. Bush Institute, and an audience member approached her about using the strategy in Dallas.
The catch was that they needed to produce higher-priced jewelry in order to pay Dallas women a living wage of at least $15 an hour.
Intrigued, Neiman’s president and chief executive officer Karen Katz met with Underwood and swiftly endorsed the project.
“We are very excited about the launch and most importantly for the opportunity to put women in Dallas who have experienced hardships to work doing something creative, beautiful and life-changing,” Katz said. “Neiman Marcus believes in the impactful story and inspiration of Akola and of the beautifully made jewelry that leaves you feeling good.”
Neiman’s has already had success with other social-venture products such as Toms shoes and the holiday Love to Give collection, which benefits local arts education programs, Katz pointed out.
“We believe they will respond in kind to the Akola collection,” she said.
The fall collection offers 16 pieces, ranging from a $105 labradorite and bone bead bracelet to a double-strand druzy and white agate necklace for $495. Other materials include blue and gray agate, aquamarine, white quartz, leather tassels and hand-carved bone.
All materials are carefully sourced, Underwood pointed out.
“We look at every part of our value chain and wanting to have impact and that begins with raw materials,” she said. “With the Neiman Marcus collection, we are training our women in Uganda how to make the bone and glass so that all materials except for metal and gemstones would have an impact, and we’re working on those too. The hand-cut labradorite provides jobs for a marginalized population in India.”
Even Akola’s distribution center trains women who have been sexually trafficked or incarcerated in e-mail, customer service, inventory management and Quickbooks. They are all referred to Akola by local non-profit service agencies.
Many of the women making the jewelry are mothers, so Akola schedules work from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. They are paid by the piece, with some making as much as $30 an hour.
“I can earn as much as I would at a full-time job working part-time,” said Brown, who is already calculating how she can buy a flock of chickens for her counterparts in Uganda.
Working quietly next to her, Dorothy Trahan was grateful for the opportunity.
“It’s very hard to get a job when you’re in your 50s,” Trahan remarked. “And we’re paid weekly.”
Underwood, meanwhile, is eight months pregnant with her second child and composing a social venture manual for the Bush Institute to distribute to African first ladies.
It took five years of painstaking learning to engage 250 women in Uganda, she noted, while the Dallas operation employed 100 within three months. There haven’t even been road bumps such as theft.
“I think it’s because we’re working with nonprofits who know these women and what they need and that they are ready for the opportunity,” she said. “What’s even bigger than our amazing opportunity with Neiman Marcus is what’s happening in the luxury space. Eighty-seven percent of Millennials are more likely to buy a product if it has a social impact. Beyond Akola, there is something changing in the water about the way people shop.”