We were carefree juniors in college. We were waitresses and babysitters, living for the moment.
But with graduation just a year away, we knew we were supposed to be figuring out what was next. We began filling out grad school applications, applying for jobs, and making travel plans. But in the midst of planning out what was next, our lives were interrupted.
Our classmate, Kallie, had just gotten back from a life-changing trip to Uganda. She met women who grew up in a war and had nothing. They were single moms with no education and no job, and they were our age. OUR AGE. Our lives couldn’t look more different.
The women may not have had an education, but their skills and resourcefulness were astounding. They were making incredible jewelry out of old posters. Kallie brought a box of the jewelry back, and we fell in love instantly. We sold the jewelry to friends and ran out within weeks. That’s when it hit us. These women had a skill, but needed a market. We lived in dorms and apartments filled with people who would love this stuff. Together, we could make a business.
Sounds simple right? Little did we know this was the beginning of the hardest, scariest, and most incredible journey imaginable.
A few of us went back to Uganda the following summer and selected a group of six women to begin this adventure with. We sat with them daily, making beads and listening to their stories. We visited their homes and met their families. We laughed together, cried together, prayed together, and learned from each other. These women taught us the value of real relationships. They taught us to always be learners, to always have faith in God, and to never take ourselves too seriously. These lessons are what 31 Bits was founded on.
So there we were, a misfit group of dreamers, artists, and social butterflies—not businesswomen. We didn’t know the first thing about starting a business. By day we were college students, but the evenings were filled with studying fashion, marketing, and international development work. We discovered two things. First, we were determined to create a fashionable product that customers would buy because they actually liked it, not because it was a “charity buy.” Second, we knew the artisans needed a lot more than a paycheck. They desired a sense of dignity. They needed to be cared for physically, mentally, and emotionally. They needed family.
Our journey started by selling at school events, craft fairs, and home parties, telling our story to anyone who would listen. We decided to call the company 31 Bits because Proverbs 31 describes a diligent woman providing and caring for her family using her gifts and talents. The “bits” comes from what the beads are made out of—“bits” of paper!
We developed a holistic development program for our artisans in Uganda that would enable our artisans to graduate after five years with their own businesses in Uganda. It’s been an amazing journey to see their lives completely change. We’ve had graduates start everything from a pig farm, to a produce business, to a restaurant!
But our story doesn’t end there. In 2016, we started dreaming again. We realized our customers have the purchasing power to provide dignified job opportunities to artisans all over the globe, and 31 Bits could be the gateway. So we started traveling and building friendships with artisans around the world and eventually found ourselves in Indonesia. We began partnering with different artisan groups, putting a modern spin on their traditional techniques. We introduced intricate brass jewelry, the perfect pairing with our paper beads!
Nearly a decade later, we’re humbled and ecstatic that 31 Bits can be found in LifeWay stores all across the nation, has been endorsed by inspiring women like Candace Cameron Bure and Shauna Niequist, and has been written about by Forbes, Fox News, Good Housekeeping and more. Most importantly, we’re humbled that hundreds of artisans’ lives have been changed forever.
Toward the beginning of starting 31 Bits, we came across Ephesians 3:20: “Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.” We’ve known from the start that God is up to much bigger things through 31 Bits then we could ever imagine. His plans for our artisans and our company are bigger and better than the plans we write. We’re constantly surprised, awed, and humbled by His power displayed through 31 Bits.
In 2008, we were a bunch of carefree 21-year-olds. Today, we have plenty to care about. We believe the products we purchase should be a reflection of our values. We believe businesses should be conscious of both the creator and the consumer. And we believe by partnering with you, our customers, we can change the future of this industry. Thanks for joining us in the journey.
Kallie Thomson, Alli Talley, and Jessie Simonson are the owners and co-founders of an ethical accessories and home goods company called 31 Bits. They started the company in 2008 when they were seniors in college at Vanguard University of Southern California. What started as an after school hobby and a small dream turned into their full time careers. They’ve had the opportunity to give hundreds of artisans in Uganda and Indonesia access to the global market and dignified work opportunities. Their love for travel, fashion, and building community has inspired every part of their business and personal lives. Learn more about their work at 31bits.com.