In 2004, Underwood's life changed forever. It was the summer between her sophomore and junior years at Southern Methodist University, and she and two friends were in search of short-term adventure. They hatched a plan to spend several weeks teaching abroad. Underwood was thinking Europe, but her friends had another idea—Uganda.
"I had a really hard time the first couple of weeks because I had never been witness to such extreme poverty," she says. But then a local pastor introduced her to Sarah, a woman a few years younger than herself, who had taken in two dozen homeless children.
"She had no way to provide for them, but she wanted to give them shelter," says Underwood. "That meeting changed the absolute direction of my life."
Underwood returned to Dallas and spent the next two years at SMU raising funds to build an orphanage for the children in Sarah's village. By the time she graduated, she'd managed to collect nearly $1 million. She headed back to Uganda to oversee construction of the orphanage, but as she met more women who faced plights similar to Sarah's, she realized the key was more than simple charity: "They don't need a handout. They have the drive, they just don't have the resources." If they did, Underwood reasoned, they'd be able to provide for themselves and the 10 to 30 kids living in each home. It was then the Akola Project was born.
Named by the women it was established to help, Akola—meaning "she works" in local Ugandan dialect—is a nonprofit jewelry company dedicated to empowering disadvantaged women. Underwood's idea was actually quite simple: Teach the women a craft, pay them a living wage to make and sell said jewelry, then turn around and reinvest all the profits back into the community.
Bringing the idea to fruition was a little tougher, of course. But nine years after launching, Akola is thriving. Three "hope centers" in northern Uganda train and employ more than 450 women from nine different villages. The women earn four times the local minimum wage, which allows them to support not merely themselves, but also two other adults and seven children per household. (Do the math—that's more than 3,000 kids.)
Newcomers learn to source material, hand-roll paper beads, carve Ankole cow horn, and more. Once training is complete, they can return to their homes to do the work. True to the Akola mission—"Absolutely do no harm, and as much as possible make a positive difference"—every material is ethically sourced.
Building on the success of the Uganda project, Akola expanded to Dallas in 2014, working with women who were ready to make a fresh start but considered unemployable due to their immigration status, criminal history, or past as victims of sex trafficking.
"Opportunities like the partnership with Neiman Marcus are huge for us," says Underwood. "In our minds, it feels like Akola is officially launching now. It's a crazy thing that grew and grew and just keeps growing."
Founded by Brittany Merrill Underwood, Akola jewelry is a project that is committed to empowering women in poverty. The Akola collection features casual everyday pearl bracelets, beaded necklaces for special occasions, and earrings in simple yet intricate designs. The pieces in the brand's collection are handcrafted by women from Uganda's disadvantaged communities who've been trained in the craft of jewelry-making. The raw materials that go into Akola pieces are carefully selected from across the globe. Shop Neiman Marcus' dazzling selection of Akola necklaces and bracelets.