Archive | July, 2015

Lilian – Handcrafting Tuli with Love and Life

Lilian

Lilian sits in her living room, biting her lip slightly as she rolls beads from strips of salvaged paper. She scrutinizes each bead for flaws, placing those she deems perfect in one bowland those with flaws in another. She takes her job seriously.

But then, when a neighbor strolls in through her open front door, as they often do, Lilian flashes her wide smile, which is famous around her neighborhood, as is her warm, bubbly laugh.

“I try every day to be positive for the people around me,” she says. “Here in Uganda, life can be very hard. I want to remind them that life is also very good.”

Lilian’s positivity is genuine, despite her tumultuous life prior to Tuli. At just 22 years old, she’s supporting two children, her mother, and her grandmother, who has diabetes and requires expensive medication. She had her first daughter as a teenager shortly after marrying a man who was physically abusive. Then, when her daughter was seven years old, her husband left, freeing her from violence but trapping her in deeper poverty. Soon after he left, Lilian discovered she was pregnant. She was working on and off through her pregnancy, asking neighbors to watch her daughter when she could find work and staying at home making crafts when she couldn’t. When she went into labor, she walked several miles carrying her young daughter and supplies to the hospital.

“That day, that walk, was the hardest day,” she said. “In all the years with my husband, I never saw so much pain. But still, I thank God for that day.” She gestures to the sleeping child in her hands. “I thank God for Saphina.”

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When Lilian began working with Tuli, she had just finished a job as a maid for an Indian couple who were in Kampala on contract work. She made just pennies a day for full time work, not nearly enough to feed and house her family, but it was work, so she took it. Before that, she’d worked for an American couple who paid better, but their time in Uganda was short.

“With the Americans, that was when life was best,” she said. “We had enough to eat. We could pay for rent. That’s why I thank God for Tuli. Here in Uganda, we need jobs with high pay that last.”

You hear that a lot in Uganda: People want jobs. Unemployment is high, and the few jobs available, even with low pay, often mean the difference between eating or going without. Lilian said she once worked as a cook until one day another woman came to her work and took her place. Lilian’s employers passively allowed it, and the woman threatened to kill Lilian if she protested. Lilian tried to go back to work, but the woman had a reputation, and she had to think of her children, so she conceded. Still, it’s hard to have a conversation with Lilian without her mentioning something she’s thankful for, whether big or small. Her faith in God carries her through the good times and the bad, and her trust is something that we at Tuli find inspiring every day. Now that she’s been working with Tuli for over a year, she doesn’t worry about her grandmother’s medication, her eldest daughter’s school fees, or the high price of rent in Kampala’s slums. Once in a while, she even is able to treat her children to candy, but her goal now is to save. She hopes to one day ride in an airplane, even if it’s just to neighboring Kenya. “I hear that the clouds are like rocks, bumping the plane,” she says, laughing. “Is that true?”

We asked Lilian what she’d like to say to the people who buy Tuli products, and her face grew rarely serious.

“I cannot even say thank you,” she said. “I give thanks to God every day for people in America buying our beads and giving us hope.”

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Tuli. Changing lives, one necklace at a time

This week, we have the wonderful privilege of speaking with Megan Hoye,tuli+cover one of the co-founders of Tuli.

Tell us a bit about the history of Tuli?

It seems like Tuli is something I stumbled into, but in hindsight, I can see that it was all God. After I graduated college, I moved alone from Seattle to a sleepy coastal town in Florida to write for a small newspaper. I loved my job, but I felt restless. I started questioning my career choice, which was terrifying: If not journalism, then what?

At that time, my friend sent me some paper beaded jewelry from Uganda. I was struck by how women in Uganda found a way to turn something salvaged into something beautiful in an effort to earn money in unemployment-stricken Uganda. I knew buyers were few in Uganda – but what about in the U.S.?

I  connected with a Ugandan woman I’d met through a former volunteer position, Jane Nampijja, who became Tuli’s co-founder. We’d both worked with nonprofits before, and wanted to create something that didn’t rely on donations. After talking about sustainable solutions to poverty, we considered the current fashion market, and I reached out to some industry contacts I’d made years earlier, when I was modeling to pay for my college tuition.

After several months of work and countless disastrous attempts at designing jewelry, I flew to Uganda to meet Jane, and spent a month with her putting our business together. She and I met with the women who became our partners, and together, we came up with designs and a product line. Jane and I appointed some artisans as quality assurance coordinators as well. Ultimately, we want Tuli to be as much our partner artisans’ business as it is ours.

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What are some of the trials and triumphs you have faced in bringing Tuli to where it is today?

To be honest, Tuli has been a long series of trials – I think most business are – but, I’m happy to say that our greatest trials have in turn become our greatest triumphs. In the early days, we had a difficult time sourcing our materials. The key to our designs at Tuli is using high-quality chain in our products because we believe that’s the best way to compete with larger, factory-made brands. However, sourcing high-quality chain in Uganda isn’t easy, and we knew that without high-quality products, our sales would quickly falter.

At the time, it seemed as though that problem would wreck us. But then we found a supplier who agreed to work with us to provide the highest quality materials. Unfortunately, after the first problem was resolved, others quickly emerged. We couldn’t attract web traffic. Then, our website kept crashing. My camera was stolen, making  lifestyle photo-shoots impossible. And so on and so forth.

We’ve gotten over those hurdles only to find new ones. As we scale up, we’ve been facing the need to grow the company, and it’s both exciting and difficult. But Tuli has been through so much already that I know we’ve got a resilient team and concept. I trust that we’ll be able to make it through whatever comes our way.

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How have you seen God actively move in the work Tuli is doing?

This fall will be Tuli’s one-year anniversary. It has been mind-blowing to see how far we have come.  The Tuli team has been working really hard, and we’re so far beyond where I thought we would be at this point. I’m grateful for that every day.

Pursuing Tuli was a huge leap of faith and act of trusting God for me. Not only was I considering a new business – leaving behind the career I’d worked toward for years, but I was also considering a move to Japan with my fiancé.  I was terrified at the time, but looking back now from my apartment outside of Tokyo, I see how taking those steps all came together to create a job that’s more satisfying than I ever could have imagined.

Tuli is a constant reminder for me to remain faithful.  What made no sense to me at the time makes perfect sense in hindsight. Every experience, even something as seemingly inconsequential as modeling, came together to form Tuli. Tuli is entirely indebted to God.

I don’t have a business background, and I’m the person orchestrating Tuli’s overall operations, so I need all the divine help I can get! I remember when I first started thinking about everything involved with starting a business like Tuli – from building a website to product design; from lifestyle photography to accounting. It all seemed so daunting, and I didn’t know how to do any of it. I also had no money to invest in hiring people who did. Somehow, one obstacle after another, each of those things have been provided for, through a combination of the right people coming along to help or the right resources coming along to teach me.

That’s not to say it wasn’t hard –  but a combination of the right circumstances and the right people made something that once looked impossible come to life.

I wasn’t at all equipped to start this business, but step by step, and through some amazing people, God provided the guidance to get me there. So, to be completely honest, the fact that Tuli even exists is both mind-blowing and a testament to God’s greatness. Everything else about Tuli, therefore, is the same testament.

As an organization what are you excited about right now?

We’re excited to watch Tuli grow! We’ve been able to increase our orders to Uganda, which increases our impact, and we’ll soon be adding new partner artisans! It’s so exciting to think about how much more our customers’ purchases will help people in the years to come. We’ve also been able to expand our team a bit lately, and I can’t wait to see how the organization improves as a result. As a bootstrapped startup, there have been things I’ve had to take the reins on (like design and advertising) that really aren’t my strengths. Having talented people in place for those roles will do huge things for Tuli and, as a result, for the impact we have in Uganda.

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We can’t wait to see what the future holds for you. What are some of your hopes and goals for 2015? The next three years?

All of our decisions at Tuli center on two interrelated things: growth and impact. We want to expand our sales, find better ways to serve our partners in Uganda and create meaningful change in their lives.

For the rest of 2015, we’re planning to launch a bridal line and train some more artisans to expand the Tuli team in Uganda. We’ve been selling more items than anticipated, which is great! But a negative effect of that is, since each item is handmade with a high focus on quality, we can only produce so many products per month with the women we work with now. I’m planning to go back to Uganda at the end of this year to bring some more women on the team and further expand our mission in Kampala.

Beyond that, we plan to grow. The more items we sell, the more income we can provide in Uganda. To do this, we hope to keep adding versatility to our line, get our products into more stores, and bring more people onto our team. I strongly believe that the stronger the team, the more powerful the organization.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

Bought Beautifully has been such a blessing to Tuli! We’ve loved getting to know the team and their hearts and learning from some incredible companies. I’m so grateful to your readers for supporting not just Tuli, but also the entire Bought Beautifully network of people and brands.

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Wow! Thanks Megan! Partnering with Tuli has been a blessing and encouragement for us!  We absolutely love your designs and the heart and women behind them.
You can support Tuli in their mission of fighting poverty in Uganda by purchasing their great products here. Every purchase employs a woman in dignified work!

 

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