Here at Smart Girls, we are all about social entrepreneurship. To so many, the idea that you can give back while making a profit is crazy, but it really does work! Look at TOMs. Look at Warby Parker. Look at us! But especially, look at Bird and Stone. Launched just last year by Elana Reinholtz, Bird and Stone is a jewelry company based in New York City that uses a portion of the profits to financially support and educate women in developing countries, allowing them to chase their dreams and start their own businesses.
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What sparked your decision to launch Bird and Stone?
It was quite an accident. In 2013, I decided to use my finance skills for good and found a NGO partner on the ground in Kenya that worked with 70 widowed women in rural villages equipping them with financial training and micro-loans. In order to pay for the volunteer fees (gas to the villages, booklets to teach, etc) and teach business, I needed $1,000. So, I made and sold jewelry to my professional network. While I arrived in Kenya, I became inspired by the passionate and strong women who were rebuilding their lives, but lacked the capital to start their own businesses. When I returned, I pledged to help these women have an equal opportunity at life as I had experienced in the US. That’s when Bird & Stone was born. Now, we use a portion of our profits to fund initiatives that help empower and educate women to chase their dream and climb out of poverty.
You visited Kenya before starting the business. What was that experience like?
Kenya is currently going through an unprecedented growth period – a tech hub is exploding in Nairobi, it’s the East African center of finance, and its government is fairly stable. When I flew in to Nairobi, I took an 8 hour bus to the rural part of the country where 70% of people work in agriculture. If I hadn’t lived in South Africa in college, I don’t think I would have been prepared. I knew what I was walking into and I knew not to expect things to go as planned. A lot of outsiders typically come in with ideas and don’t do enough listening and adapting to local needs. I, myself, was guilty of that. When I arrived, my intro phrases in Swahili earned me smiles, but, I had a translator the entire time I taught classes. Only about half of the women we taught could read and write, and that’s something I hadn’t even thought of. I learned that many of the women needed their daughters’ help to keep up their bookkeeping. This year, my resolution is to learn Swahili. I am putting a lot of work into it – there’s not many people you can practice your Swahili with! But, looking forward, I hope to be able to engage, listen, and understand the women we are supporting on my next trip to Kenya.
Is there a story behind the name “Bird and Stone”?
“Two birds with one stone”. So, you can buy jewelry and make an impact — you can be a micro-philanthropist as we call it. Also, the ‘bird’ is the idealist part of all of us and ‘stone’ is the grounded part. Like all social businesses, we are split between trying to improve the world, but still stay in business by bringing in revenue. Most of us have a balance of these two – the optimistic and realistic dueling inside us. The name tries to capture that.
The company represents conscious consumerism- a philanthropic business approach that invokes awareness in its customers. Besides beautiful jewelry, what do you hope that your customers gain from your company?
Empowerment of women and girls is at the center of our mission. I hope that through being exposed to B&S they learn that investing in women is a way to reduce extreme poverty. 90% of women’s income is reinvested in the community and their family (as opposed to 40% of men’s). This has been proven in research and many organizations, including the upcoming sustainable development goals by the UN, are making investment in women a priority.
Additionally, I hope customers know that their consumer dollar is a vote for social change. For example: taking the time to find a farmer’s market supports local food systems, paying more for fair-trade coffee helps sustain fair wages, and countless others. I implore you to take a look at your purchases – question where they come from, who is making them, and if there are better options out there.
A percentage of the profits goes toward microloans of a few hundred dollars for women in Kenya. The money might not seem like that much to us, but helps these women tremendously. How do the women utilize these loans?
Right, the money goes further because of the relative value there. For instance, a woman in our fund can purchase a sack of maize for $70 to sell at the market and increase her income 3x for 3 months. Further, once a loan recipient gets an initial investment, she can re-invest some of the profits to expand her business. The result is the ability to pay school fees for her children and make home improvements like running water and cement flooring.
Microloans really help women pull themselves out of poverty. Why do you think it’s important for them to have this independence?
Working single mothers are disproportionately likely to be poor and the statistics are staggering: While families headed by a working mom make up less than a quarter of all working families, they make up nearly 40 percent of all low-income ones — and that’s in the U.S! It’s even higher in the developing world. Among the many reasons is that women take on a large amount of childrearing and are more likely to work part-time (not privy to health care benefits), forcing them to fall behind in the salary climb.
I think we’d all agree that all people deserve a chance to stand on their own two feet, but single mothers are especially disadvantaged by their responsibilities and I believe that they need more support in order to be on an equal playing ground.
The jewelry is gorgeous. What inspires your designs?
I love anthropology. I almost majored in it in college but went with Business. I love cultures, people, and traditions around the world. So far, our collections have been inspired by the geography in Kenya and cities, but, we are working on a collection inspired by the indigenous people of our country and we’re really excited about it. We will be naming pieces after inspiring women from different tribes as well as customs so we can pair that with informational stories to share in our e-mails and social media marketing.
Have you always been interested in fashion and accessories?
I dislike shopping, actually! I wear pretty much the same thing to make getting dressed faster – all black in the winter and all white in the summer with chunky/turquoise jewelry. I think accessories have always spoken to me and that part is an organic extension of my taste.
You sold jewelry to fund your first trip to Kenya. Where did you learn to make it?
Self-taught! I went on YouTube, read a lot online, and ventured into the Garment District to make my first prototypes. I then made order forms and hacked a quick Etsy store. It was very simple, but we’ve come a long way since then.
Did you ever imagine yourself doing something as impactful as this?
That’s a very kind question. I hope we are making an impact, but the truth is, we’ll make more of an impact the more we grow and can expand the donations to invest in more women. I guess I’ve been entrepreneurial since a young age but the trip to Kenya was part of my post-college awakening. I realized I had the potential to make someone’s life better, and ever since then, I have devoted every waking moment to a company that can help improve someone’s life. I think it’s truly a beautiful thing that companies can do well and do good at the same time. I am also lucky we are in a wave of conscious consumerism and a model like this is matched with such enthusiasm. The supporters have been incredible and would not be possible without all of our friends and advisers that believed in us since the beginning.
What’s next for you and the company?
Well, business-wise, we hope to grow this year into a really well-known name. We plan on attending more events where we can share our mission, expanding to 70 retail stores (we are currently in 8!), and hoping to secure a big-box retail partnership to increase our reach to the mass of this country.
Additionally, we are looking to bring more information for our customers back in the US and Europe on what’s happening with the women in Kenya. We hope to create a consistent model where the product feels more connected to the women in Kenya and where we can improve the communication of the impact each time people make a purchase.
What do you think it means to be a Smart Girl?
I think it means being true to yourself and leading by example. We are in a generational moment where women are beginning to represent in industries across the board: in politics, business and science. But, it’s going to take each and every Smart Girl reading this interview to believe in her talents and push forward in order to eventually see a woman in every spaceship, every boardroom, and film crew. My advice is believe in yourself and go after what you want – you could be inspiring another girl to follow your lead and not even know it!