Business students marketing goods crafted by women in Ethiopia

How do you build opportunity out of abject poverty? Students in Dr. David Gras’ values-centered entrepreneurship class are learning by doing. They are designing and marketing jewelry, headbands and soap for Ethiopian women to create so they can support their families.

Each student is a pro-bono consultant for the Adera Foundation, which improves the lives of desperate people in Ethiopia, including impoverished single mothers who have contacted HIV, by generating business revenue activities.

“Usually in our classes we make up products and business plans, but in this class we are actually getting something sold and helping people in Ethiopia. It makes everything we learn more real. We are learning how to talk to people and get things done, how to delegate and negotiate, how to get a product to a store, and that’s something I haven’t done in any other class,” Melissa Quijano, entrepreneurship major, said.

Dr. Gras, whose research focuses on social entrepreneurship, created the class to complement the Neeley School’s mission of developing ethical leaders with a global perspective who help shape the business environment. “Very few business schools have social entrepreneurship classes, so this class is a good way to differentiate our entrepreneurship program from other schools. It also helps top social-minded TCU students recognize the values-centered entrepreneurial potential within themselves and others, and gain a real-world understanding of the best practices, opportunities, challenges and issues facing social entrepreneurs.”

The partnership with Adera came about after a meeting in Ethiopia between Dr. Garry Bruton and Julie Miller, executive director of Adera, based in Fort Worth, to research how to build a business out of poverty. Knowing about Gras’ class, he put the two together.

The 16 students in the class participate in four groups to brainstorm ways to use business principles to improve the lives of Adera’s beneficiaries.

One group came up with a headband the women could knit, another group designed jewelry the women could make, and another group designed bead charm bracelets with a different cause assigned to each bead. All of these items are on sale now at the TCU Barnes & Noble. The fourth group came up with designer soap made from camels’ milk, to sell to Ethiopian boutique hotels and other establishments there.

Jacqueline Hunt’s group had an idea for knitted blankets, but had to scale down the plan due to exporting costs. They changed to a headband.

“Knitting is really popular with the women in Ethiopia, so we found an easy pattern, and then we decided to include a special touch using Ethiopian coins as buttons,” Jacqueline said. They named their product Amoqa, which means warmth is Amharic, the women’s language. Other team members are Russell Brady, Deanna Pflieger and Rachel Vanlandingham.

Molly Landon’s team came up with jewelry designs in TCU purple. “We came up with different designs for earrings, necklaces and bracelets, then we had a designer create a prototype,” she said. “We told her if we wanted something shorter or longer, in different colors or more beads.” They sent the prototypes to Ethiopia for the women to create the jewelry. Other members of the team are Dora Maduro, Ashtyn Hurr and Michael Daniels.

“I like to do things that are hands on and real-world applicable, because I plan on being an entrepreneur,” Michael said, “so I love being able to work and see the impact that were are having on people, even people on other continents.”

Keaton George said that the project has been the most rewarding thing he has done at the Neeley School so far. His group, which includes Melissa Quijano, Alexander Lipari and Hanna Stradinger, designed bead bracelets where the money from each color of bead goes toward a specific cause.

“Another professor, Michael Sherrod, advised me to take this class,” Keaton said. “Within the first couple of weeks I was really impressed with the mix of hands-on learning, academics and presentations.”

Alessandra Papini’s group began with an idea for goats’ milk soap, but they encountered a problem: Ethiopians don’t milk goats. But they do milk camels. And it turns out that camel’s milk is filled with beneficial nutrients. The group is working to sell the soap to local businesses in Addis Ababa.

“Everyone has asked us for a sample, but the U.S. is not our target right now,” Alessandra explained. “It would be awesome to bring it over here large scale, but we need to start with a customer base and build revenue. We’re in a good positon right now and have a potential buyer in Ethiopia.” Other members of the group are Patrick McGee, Molly Sheahan and Allison Laws.

Alessandra said the class has opened her eyes. “Dr. Gras has showed us so many examples of businesses that amaze me with how they have come up with ideas to impact so many people. It helps me to see how other people have become successful by implementing a business plan with a meaning to it. Dr. Gras has done a very good job of putting it in our heads. You need the ‘why’ first.”

Want to support the students and the women in Ethiopia? Shop at the TCU Barnes & Noble for Adera jewelry and headbands.