The Gift of Work
Young Dallas philanthropist impacts the world from her Deep Ellum shop
If you’ve been to Main Street in Deep Ellum recently, you may have noticed Akola and thought that another fashionable accessories boutique had sprung up in neighborhood. But this store has more depth to it than just the contents on its shelves.
Akola’s story started in 2004, when Brittany Merrill Underwood decided to spend her summer in Uganda teaching at a boarding school. While there, Underwood met a woman named Sarah who inspired the SMU student with her willingness to give away everything she had to others. At that time, Sarah was caring for 24 street children who found refuge in her home.
Underwood knew immediately that she had to do something to help. When she returned to the United States, she began to raise money to build an orphanage for those children in Sarah’s community.
All of the profits from the Akola store in Deep Ellum are reinvested to empower Ugandan women in poverty.
Underwood moved to Uganda in 2006 after she graduated, to oversee the construction of the orphanage, and the Akola Project was born — not only as a way to help the children in these rural Ugandan villages but also as a way to provide a viable work source for the women who average seven to 10 dependents each.
Akola — which means “to work” in the native tongue — was named by the women of the local community, who were excited to start making a living for themselves and their families. To earn wages, the women crafted beautiful necklaces, clutches and other goods, and, in the process, they were able to sustain themselves for the first time. Through their work with Akola Project, these women help more than 2,000 disadvantaged children.
Today, Akola jewelry — made from paper, glass beads, horn and hand-cast Ethiopian metals — is sold in more than 350 boutiques across the nation and online. Now, with Underwood back in Dallas, she is also making an impact with her flagship store in Deep Ellum. All of the profits are reinvested to empower women in poverty. Underwood even shared her story with Katie Couric earlier this year.
“Opening a storefront for Akola has been a dream of mine,” Underwood says. “It’s one thing to be able to share our story online and through events and speaking opportunities. But I think for people to be able to come into a physical space and see and touch our jewelry and be able to talk to us and ask questions will really bring an opportunity for a deeper connection to the mission of Akola and a deeper understanding of what we do.”
The Deep Ellum shop is stocked with jewelry and hand-woven textiles that range in price from $32-$225. One hundred percent of net proceeds are returned to Akola’s development projects in Uganda and Dallas.
The mission of empowering marginalized women to transform their families and communities is one that requires creativity, synergy and compassion, and Underwood may have found the perfect neighborhood to plant roots.
“The Deep Ellum community and [developer] Scott Rhorman’s team have been amazing and have welcomed us with open arms to the neighborhood,” Underwood says. “We can’t wait to get settled in even deeper in the heart of such an exciting part of Dallas.”