Torkin Wakefield joined Holy Names University for the second discussion in the 2013–2014 James Durbin Entrepreneurship Speaker Series on November 13. Wakefield is a cofounder of BeadforLife, which works to create sustainable economic opportunities for Ugandan women.
“This year our (speaker series) theme is passionate leaders in social entrepreneurship,” President William Hynes said. “All entrepreneurship seeks to add value, but social entrepreneurship uses the principles and practices of entrepreneurship to work for social goods.”
Wakefield knew that she would be moving to Uganda with her husband, who is an AIDS physician, but she did not know what she would do once she arrived. Before leaving, she set an intention with her best friend, Ginny Jordan, and daughter Devin Hibbard, to start a project that would make a difference in the lives of others.
After she moved to Uganda, Wakefield started volunteering for an orphanage that took in infants infected with HIV. One day she was asked to go to a slum to see a woman who was dying of AIDS. Wakefield, as well as Jordan and Hibbard who were visiting at the time, came across a woman making beads with paper. The woman, Millie Grace Akena, worked in a rock quarry for $1 a day, but she liked handiwork.
“An Irish developer . . . had taught her to make these beads, but that was eight years ago, and there was no market for these beads,” Wakefield said. Wakefield, Jordan, and Hibbard purchased some bracelets and necklaces and went on their way.
The next day at the orphanage a colleague expressed interest in a necklace that Wakefield was wearing, and the following day another woman commented on the distinct jewelry. Despite being told there was no market for the beads, Wakefield, Jordan, and Hibbard thought that Akena could make income selling the beads if the right doors were opened. They decided to find Akena and try to connect her with the local tourist gift shop, the Banana Boat.
“We finally found her at the rock quarry. She told us that actually several people had been taught to make paper beads, and could those women come with her to meet us?” Wakefield said. When Wakefield, Jordan, and Hibbard arrived for that meeting, there were about 50 women and a hundred children.
“Now the issue had changed. It was no longer Millie Grace Akena and the Banana Boat—now it was 50 women all of whom were dirt poor, who had hopes and dreams that somehow these paper beads would go somewhere,” Wakefield said.
BeadforLife has served thousands of Ugandan women since officially launching in September 2004, and has reached even greater numbers in the community. The nonprofit’s beading program is an 18-month training that also teaches business skills and prepares women to launch their own sustainable enterprises. Participants increase their income by seven to 10 times while enrolled in the program—making approximately $200 per month. BeadforLife sells the paper jewelry created through the program on its website, through retailers, and through Bead Party events held throughout the world. Approximately 18,000 volunteer-hosted parties have taken place in locales as distinct as Saudi Arabia, Australia, and the United States, and more than a million people have attended bead parties, where they can purchase the paper jewelry and learn about extreme poverty.
In addition to the beading program, BeadforLife has started several other programs to provide entrepreneurial training and other services to impoverished communities. These include a program for Northern Ugandan women to create shea butter products from shea nuts, an education program that pays for six years of boarding school for qualified girls, and the Street Business School, which provides three months of business training in poor communities for anyone who identifies as entrepreneurial.
“It’s a wonderful thing to be small and self funded because you can move quickly, and you can move into those opportunities that seem like they hold promise, and you can let go of projects that didn’t work so well,” Wakefield said.
Wakefield suggested that those who are interested in becoming social entrepreneurs should play on their own strengths. She also recommended that potential social entrepreneurs allow themselves to be supported by other people, and not to stop because of a lack of money. Instead, she said to start small and build up by pursuing financial support from other resources.
“Need is everywhere. It is so easy to find a project to throw yourself into,” Wakefield said.