Nine years ago, while still a grad student at SMU, Brittany Merrill Underwood launched the Akola Project, a nonprofit jewelry company that trains and employs Ugandan women to handcraft jewelry with fair and sustainable materials (think strands of African glass beads and hand-carved horn). As her business grew, she was also able to bring work stateside, employing Dallas women once incarcerated and victimized by sex trafficking. This fall, her line became the first “full-impact” brand—meaning every step of production gives back in some way—to be featured at Neiman Marcus. We caught up with the Akola Project founder to find out more about the groundbreaking collaboration.
What makes the Neiman Marcus collection unique?
Our luxury line combines the best of our beautiful raw materials with high-end gemstones and pearls. We’re really big on our materials doing no harm, so we started working with the Bush Center’s Women’s Initiative and went to Ethiopia to try to find gemstones. It set us on a trail that’s been very eye-opening. There’s been a narrative that you have to sacrifice quality of product for impact, but I think we’re proving that wrong.
How did the collaboration first come together?
It started when I was asked to join the mentoring class for the Women’s Initiative in 2014, while I was building a curriculum for a new course in social innovation at SMU. The president of the Dallas Women’s Foundation, Roslyn Dawson Thompson, asked if I would consider expanding our Uganda business model in Dallas. The only thing that didn’t transfer to America was the living wage. Our Dallas women could only make up to $8 an hour. Our goal was for them to make $15.
How did you adjust your business model to accomplish that?
We needed to design a line that could sell between $200 to $500, and that’s when I met Karen Katz [CEO of the Neiman Marcus Group]. Last May, Neimans asked us to make a line for them. We thought there would be a small rollout, but the collection received a full-fledged national launch.
In what ways did Neiman Marcus’ involvement affect the Akola model?
We were able to bring on board 100 women living in Dallas in the span of several weeks. We partnered with close to 15 local nonprofits and had five production sites across the city. It was a crazy, wonderful summer.
How did it feel to see your designs displayed by such an iconic Dallas brand?
It was huge. Every sector of Dallas came together to make this collection possible. We had help from the Bush Center, the Hunt family [Ashlee Kleinert is the chairman of Akola’s board], and several Dallas nonprofits. Neimans was the final touch. I just don’t know if this could have happened in another city.
The new Akola line at Neiman Marcus will retail from $295 to $500, with trunk show pieces ranging higher. For more moderate prices, check out Akola’s storefront, which moved from its former Deep Ellum location to 6827 Snider Plaza in October. akolaproject.org.