Business Name: Bulu Mango, a social enterprise connecting women around the world through crafts
Type of Business: Clothing & Accessories; Social Enterprise
Business Location: New York, NY, United States
Reason for starting
A collection of experiences led me to start Bulu Mango. First and foremost I was inspired by the story, courage, and talent of a single woman I met while studying post conflict transformation in northern Uganda. She had incredible skills as an artist but completely lacked a market for her products and like many from northern Uganda, was living in the aftermath of war. I sold her products informally to friends and family at home to help her find stability in her life. Meanwhile, I was working in and around the humanitarian world in South Sudan and Uganda but I was discouraged by the entire system. On one hand, large US corporations outsource their labor to countries who pay their factories workers barely enough to survive and on the other hand, our government pours money into humanitarian agencies who teach vocational training skills to women who don’t have jobs. Bulu Mango aims to challenge this paradox by creating a business that takes away the need for aid and invests directly in real talent.
How do you define success?
Look good, feel good, do good – this is how Bulu Mango defines success. When Bulu Mango products are sold in the US and shopper looks good, women artisans who make them feel pride in their work and start to gain a steady income to pay for their children’s school fees, house rent, healthcare, and all the other basic needs.
Bulu Mango started with ten women squished together in a tiny room in a slum in Kampala, Uganda. In the fall of 2013, Bulu Mango started our first women’s center, a real workspace for the Kampala Women’s Group. The Center has become a safe haven for the women involved. We eat together, laugh together and work together.
What is your top challenge and how have you addressed it?
During my first meeting with the ten women I would be working with in the slum, I asked the ladies how much it costs them to make a piece of jewelry. I wanted to get a sense of their current earnings and how much money I would need to make my first investment. They stared at me blindly and told me that they had never calculated their costs. I realized quickly that I was working with communities who saw money from hand to mouth. There was hardly enough money to buy food so as soon as the women had something to sell, they would do so, regardless of the price. I gave each person a notebook that day and told them to write down everything they bought to make their products for the next month. We broke down the raw costs and realized that often, women were selling their products and taking a loss. To price our products, we make sure women confidently understand the value of each product.
Who is your most important role model?
Ketty, the director of the Kampala Women’s Group, is my most important role model. Ketty has suffered trauma that is unimaginable to the average person. The first time I sold her beads, I gave her back 100% of the money and helped her to open a local bank account. Immediately, she moved into a house (she had been homeless), settled her children in, and enrolled in school. The next time I saw her, a year later, she spoke perfect English, could read and write, and even had her passport. When I suggested starting a business together, the next day she had gathered a group of the ten most talented women artisans in the community. It is unique to find a person like this and an honor to work with her.