Be steady. In business, there will be some enormous wins and celebrations, but also huge blows. You have to be steady for your team and roll with the punches. It’s OK if you need to take a night to say some prayers and shed some tears, but as the company leader, it’s important that you wake up the next day and look for some good that you can do.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Brittany Underwood of Akola.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The inspiration behind Akola stemmed from my extensive time spent in rural Uganda in my early twenties and becoming inspired by the incredible female community leaders I met there. After living and working for several years to develop housing for Ugandan street children (who were being cared for by women around the same age as myself), I saw just how incredibly strong and capable all of these ladies were. They just didn’t have the employment or education opportunities to leverage their strengths and talents. Akola, meaning “she works” in a local Ugandan dialect, manifested with the understanding that in order to create lasting, sustainable change for these communities, investing in economic and educational development for the women holding these communities together was crucial.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We started the business with a handful of women hand-rolling paper beads in rural Uganda. Today, Akola is a globally-inspired jewelry brand that uses striking designs to reflect the strength and femininity of women who are changing the world. We’ve grown the brand from being carried in one small Dallas boutique to partnerships with the nation’s largest luxury retailers such as Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Saks 5th Ave. Each piece is handcrafted from high-quality materials by women in the U.S. and East Africa, providing life-changing job opportunities and integrating social impact and economic empowerment at every point in the supply chain.
We work with a wonderful woman named Irene in our cow horn studio in East Arica who truly inspires me and is a great example of the Akola model working. Before joining Akola, Irene struggled to raise her children alone. Without sufficient financial means to support herself or her family, there were days when they would eat only one meal. The odd jobs she was able to secure were not enough. One day, while tending to a neighbor’s land, she was told Akola was hiring. At first, Irene was hesitant and embarrassed to apply to interview, but she recognized that this was the opportunity she had been waiting for, and Akola was able to offer her a job as a jewelry artisan.
As part of her employment, Irene has been able to enroll in problems offered through Akola, and receive training in communication and conflict resolution, which led to her reuniting with her husband. She also learned entrepreneurship skills that she used to open her own chapati (a local bread) business. With knowledge from the financial literacy training and savings groups Irene was enrolled in, she was also able to save enough money to send all of her children to school and build a house on land she purchased.
Over time, Irene has progressed through Akola’s programs to become an empowerment officer, tasked with supporting trainings in public speaking, communication, and self-esteem. Today Irene is a confident public speaker, has reunited her family, and operates a number of local businesses. Irene’s past struggles are a distant memory.
Irene is truly an inspiration and part of the reason I wake up every day to do the work we do!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re in the process of launching new retail partnerships with Nordstrom and Saks. We’re currently carried in Neiman Marcus, and the opportunity to expand our portfolio of retail partners is an incredibly exciting undertaking. Not only do we know we’ll be able to reach more women who want to create an impact with their purchases, but we’ll create life-changing job opportunities for women in need.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
At Akola we have been able to create incredible change in women’s lives. To-date, Akola has provided training, dependable living-wage work opportunities and holistic education programs to hundreds of women in the U.S. and East Africa who have transformed the lives of thousands of children.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
My advice would be to have a company mission that’s bigger than any one person, create something that they are passionate about and gets them excited about waking up every morning.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Delegate. Find great leaders who can manage different parts of the team, who are experts in their specific line of work and let them manage their teams. If you can delegate well to people who have more experience and accomplishments in their field of work, your company will thrive.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Hands down this would be Karen Katz, the former CEO of Neiman Marcus. She took a huge risk on me and on Akola and launched our little social impact jewelry brand nationally through Neiman Marcus, which is highly unusual in the fashion space.
The first time I met Karen, she gave me 10 minutes to tell her about Akola in an intimidating board room with Neiman Marcus executives. I gave her my elevator pitch and told her that what I know is how to develop social impact that creates better lives for women in crisis. I knew how to create an impactful supply chain at every level, and I knew that the Neiman Marcus customer cared about this level of transparency and believed in companies that make an impact.
But what I didn’t know was to how to create a global luxury brand. I asked Karen bet on us and bring Neiman Marcus and Akola together to build something really special. She took a huge risk and is the reason Akola is what it is today. Her direct contact and impact for Akola didn’t end in that board room, Karen is a regular source of support, making connections and providing resources for us still to this day and is a huge help to our brand.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Don’t be afraid to fail.
We take big risks and I think that’s one of the reasons Akola has become. There is always the potential that it won’t work out, but remaining optimistic and making smart, informed bets has helped us get to where we are.
Fail, but recover fast
To do this work you have to be willing to fail, but fail quickly and be OK with that. Sometimes your plan doesn’t work out but have you to not let it get you down, continue with the momentum and move on to what’s next.
See roadblocks as an opportunity to innovate.
Failure provides an opportunity to innovate and think of new creative approaches to a problem. Rather than box yourself in, constantly be thinking about how you can innovate and change to be better.
In business, there will be some enormous wins and celebrations, but also huge blows. You have to be steady for your team and roll with the punches. It’s OK if you need to take a night to say some prayers and shed some tears, but as the company leader, it’s important that you wake up the next day and look for some good that you can do.
Don’t give up — wake up every day and get back to work. I think one of the keys to a successful entrepreneur is perseverance. Those who don’t get too discouraged, persevere and have faith that something will work are often the most successful.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Thankfully we’re already doing this with Akola! So, of course, my answer would be to continue amplifying what we do. We’ve created a movement to connect women of all economic backgrounds, race, and religion. Akola takes everything that divides us and brings it together to make lives better, to be strong women who can be there for our kids and change our communities.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My biggest life lesson came from my dad and I will never forget it. He, like myself, was an entrepreneur and it’s no wonder that I caught his entrepreneurial bug! I was twelve years old and we were at the Grand Canyon together. I remember this so vividly, I even remember what I was wearing! We were standing together looking out at the canyon and he asked me: What would you do if there was no box? If there were no limitations? I don’t remember what I said, I think my reply was that I wanted to be an opera singer, but to my surprise, his response was: you can do that. His advice for me was to never ever, ever give up. To constantly pursue the idea of “why not?” and to always remind myself that there aren’t limitations unless I created them. I am sure this is where a lot of my resilience comes from today, and where a lot of my own business advice stems from.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 😉
Such a tough question!
On a pop culture level, I would have to say Beyonce. First of all, she is a queen. Second of all, women follow her from across the globe, and she is one of the few stars of our time that no matter where you are from you know who she is and you know that she stands for women. So much of her cultural profile aligns with what we’re working to do at Akola too, and it’s clear that this sort of message resonates globally.
On a business level, I’d say James Rhee, the CEO of Ashley Stewart. The way he has reshaped the company is wildly impressive, and as a CEO I look up to the way he is using retail to transform women’s lives. He’s added humanity into the retail model and found a way to promote positive body image by turning around the brand.
Thank you for joining us!