Our first #ladybossinterview of 2017 is Megan Kitt: Founder of Tuli. She's a jewelry designer, an entrepreneur and a BOSS! Read my interview with Megan to know more about her, TULI and how she's creating sustainable jobs to help fight poverty in Uganda.
Can you tell us about your journey and background?
I never expected to be working in fashion! I’ve been interested in global development and poverty alleviation for as long as I can remember, but because I love writing, my goal was always to be a journalist and use storytelling to make a difference. But, two things from my adolescence pointed me to Tuli: first, when I was 15, my friend and I hosted a concert and donated all our profit from ticket sales to a nonprofit working in East Africa. That was my first encounter with social business, and it stuck with me. Second, I worked as a fashion model to help pay for college, which taught me a lot about the industry.
Fast forward to a couple years out of college, I was working as a journalist and was sent to Uganda on a writing assignment. While there, I worked with a small group of women to create our first products, and Tuli was born. In hindsight, I see it as the culmination of the experiences and knowledge I gained as a journalist, as a model, and as a very small-scale social entrepreneur.
Photo Credit: Megan Kitt, Founder of TULI
What is Tuli?
Tuli is a company that fights poverty by creating sustainable jobs in Uganda. We sell jewelry that’s handmade by a group of artisans in Kampala and pay fair, living wages that provide steady, reliable income. Every product puts money directly into the hands of the woman who made it. Tuli is different from other social businesses for two reasons. First, we’re very impact-focused, and therefore create long-term jobs instead of the temporary jobs some similar organizations offer. Second, while the driving mission of Tuli is to fight poverty, we are also committed to fashion. Our focus on design keeps Tuli relevant in today’s fashion market. Our goal is to create jewelry that people love with a cause they can’t resist.
Photo Credit: tulistore.com
Photo Credit: tulistore.com
How did you get the idea or concept for your business?
As I said above, a lot of experiences came together to give me the idea for Tuli. Beyond my benefit concert days, I interned for and worked with nonprofits in some form for years, and I realized how much time nonprofits spend on fundraising, and I also realized that while aid is a noble endeavor, it is more a bandage than a solution to the problem of poverty. When I traveled to Uganda for the first time and started speaking with Ugandans of all social classes, I realized that what people want most is a job in unemployment-laden Uganda. Jewelry making is common in Uganda, and bringing it to the US is a common model for nonprofits as well, but I looked at it and thought that, because of my experience in fashion, I could market it better. By creating design-centered pieces and running Tuli to the same standards the fashion industry do, we’ve grown a steadily growing business, which yields fair wages and livable incomes for our artisans.
What are the materials used to create your jewelries?
Our jewelry is all made using recycled paper beads, a craft that is common in Uganda. Our artisans repurpose paper that would otherwise be thrown away into tightly-rolled beads, paint them by hand, and then coat them with a water-based varnish to make them as durable as they are beautiful.
What makes them ethical and eco-friendly?
Tuli products are ethical because we provide fair wages to our artisans, which allows them to feed their families, educate their children, and save for their future. Once we bring an artisan on our team, we work with them as long as they want their jobs (although some of our artisans have used their income to start their own businesses or go back to school and get other jobs, which is incredible!). That means they’re able to rise out of poverty for good. While our cause is centered on poverty alleviation, our products are also eco-friendly because they are made from recycled paper that would otherwise be thrown away.
Photo Credit: tulistore.com
How important it is to provide environmental friendly products to your consumers?
Environmental impact is an important issue that all companies should be considering, because preserving our planet is crucial and likely cannot be done by governments alone. Environmentally-conscious businesses can have a huge impact on the earth, and on revenues, since consumers flock to companies that do good.
Are you the designer for each jewelry seen on your website?
Yes – for now! We’ve recently brought on a small team to assist in the designing of our fall 2017 collection and beyond. As much as I love design and hope to always design at least some pieces, as Tuli grows, it’s not sustainable for me to be doing everything myself. I started Tuli on a journalist’s salary and bootstrapped the whole thing, which means I did everything myself in the early days. As we gained traction, I slowly began to build a team to handle different aspects of the business (accounting was the first to go from my plate!). Sometimes it’s sad to leave behind the more fun parts of my job, like designing pieces and producing our photo shoots, but ultimately my goal is to create as many jobs in Uganda as possible, and I can’t do that alone.
All your jewelries are handmade in Uganda, why?
Our jewelry is handmade in Uganda because it’s a practical way to create jobs there that are consistent, easy to support from sales worldwide, and are conducive to the lifestyle of our artisans, many of whom are single mothers who appreciate the flexibility of working from their homes so they don’t have to worry about childcare.
Why did you decide to help and provide sustainable jobs to people living in Uganda?
The more I learned about global development, nonprofits, and economics the more I realized that job creation is the key to fighting poverty for good. Through a social business like Tuli, people have access to a source of income they wouldn’t otherwise have, which helps them individually but also pumps more money into Uganda’s economy and, because our artisans can afford to send their children to school, creates a more educated workforce for future generations. Creating steady jobs has the biggest impact on poverty. As for Uganda, in all honesty, I started there because I was already there for a writing job and therefore had some connections there that have helped me to establish and grow Tuli.
What are the significant changes you’ve witness in their lives?
My favorite story is of woman named Florence. She was one of the first artisans I met when I was starting Tuli, and from the moment I met her, I knew she was bound for great things. She’s intelligent and a remarkably hard worker, but she couldn’t find a job, which is, I think, illustrative of the problems developing countries face. She worked with Tuli for its first 18 months and used her money to go to school until, finally, she got a new job as a headmistress at a girls’ private school. We miss her, but when she quit, it was a happy day – it validates everything that Tuli is trying to accomplish. I’ve seen so many changes like this one, but Florence’s story is my favorite, largely because she was our first success story.
What would you like to accomplish with Tuli?
It’s a lofty goal, but I want to end poverty. Tuli is validating a business model that is non-exploitative, that pays fair wages, and that is still healthy from a business standpoint. I hope we can play a significant role in the ethical fashion movement and watch as more businesses adopt similar practices. There’s no need for the fashion industry to be as harmful as it is.
What is the most rewarding part since you’ve started Tuli?
Watching people’s lives change is by far the most rewarding part of running Tuli. It’s easy to feel a sense of job satisfaction when you get to see real, stable turnarounds in people’s lives.
Photo Credit: tulistore.com
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I struggle with that a lot, and I don’t know that I do have a work/life balance. But I have a few tricks. First, when I take time away from Tuli, I try to make it quality time, whether it’s with people or alone, so that I feel refreshed. This doesn’t have to be hard, and it’s not like I’m spending all my down time doing exciting things constantly. But, for example, time spent browsing the Internet aimlessly on my phone doesn’t refresh me as much as time spent watching Seinfeld reruns with my husband does. I also do a lot of scheduling and have learned to invest time into organization; it increases my productivity and helps me control my business rather than letting it control me.
As a woman entrepreneur, what do you think are some of the challenges to women’s leadership in 2017?
I think one of the difficulties of being a career-focused woman is the pressure or expectation around the traditional role of the woman as the more nurturing and hands-on in family life. These pressures can be internal or external, and I think often they stem from both. Even when I was 22, newly graduated, and a family was about as far from my mind as it could be, the expectation that I would be a mother negatively influenced my career through the interviewing process and the through perception others had of my tenacity. This is a challenge for most women despite their family plans or how they and their partners split the responsibilities of family life.
Even now that I’m my own boss, I still have thoughts about how to preserve my career when I do have children, because I’m certain the 18-hour days won’t be feasible anymore (especially because my husband is in the military and therefore won’t be able to pick up any slack when he’s deployed). And, I do want to give my future family the time it deserves, but having both a career and a family can sometimes feel daunting. And, it doesn’t help that I get plenty of comments about how Tuli is a good placeholder for me until the kids come along. Of course, the notion that women can’t have careers and families is ludicrous, but this is still new territory and we all must find a way to navigate that space for those of us who choose to do both.
If you had one piece of advice to give to someone who’s just starting their entrepreneurial journey, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to learn new things. When I first started Tuli, I was given a list of things I needed and their costs – a website, a marketing plan, etc. The problem: I didn’t have the money for these things. So, I learned how to do it all myself. I built Tuli’s website, learned to shoot the photos that are on it, fumbled through designing its initial graphics, and pieced together what, at the time, was a very DIY business. Now that Tuli is bigger, I don’t have to do that anymore, but I’m glad I did for a couple of reasons. First, it made me very conscious of how Tuli spends money, keeping Tuli more efficient. Second, it helps me now to oversee the different aspects of Tuli’s operation when I’ve done them all myself, so I understand them. Our DIY start has helped us to stay lean and efficient as we’ve grown.
To what do you attribute your success?
I’ve known a lot of people who have helped me and guided me, particularly my parents, who are also business owners and have taught me so much about how to run my own business and how to lead others. Beyond that, I think Tuli became successful largely because I was too stubborn to give up. My initial designs were disastrous (and kept falling apart!), and once I solved that problem and pieced a website together, when we launched, we had barely any web traffic, and as a result, we had very few sales. I kept tweaking and learning as much about marketing as possible until finally, we had a steady trickle, which grew to a stream, which grew into the sustainable and growing business we have today.
Are your products available worldwide?
Yes! We ship worldwide.
Where can we purchase your jewelries?
Our jewelry is available online at www.tulistore.com or in select boutique stores across the US.