Working for workplace religious diversity, equity & inclusion


Brittany Underwood | Founder & President, AKOLA, USA & Uganda

Case Study Outline

  1. → Brittany Underwood Video (above)
  2. → Learning Objectives
  3. → Main Category of Action
  4. → Brittany’s Story
  5. → Summary of Case
  6. → Interview with Brittany Underwood
  7. → Introduction to Uganda
  8.      – Demographics and Economy
  9.      – Religious Demographics
  10.      – Conflict and Violence related to Religion
  11. → More About Uganda
  12.      – What the Company Did
  13.      – What’s Left to Do
  14. → Discussion Questions
  15. → Media and Added Resources

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Learning Objectives

Brittany Underwood, founder and president of AKOLA in Texas, U.S., and Uganda, promotes gender equality and religious freedom by employing Ugandan women to create fashion jewelry. Underwood also created a Dallas-based organization that employs women who have survived human trafficking.

The learning objectives for this case study include:

  1. 1. Entering into the world of others and their needs can inspire new, innovative business ideas.
  2. 2. Inspiration for innovation can come from faith because it touches on a person’s deeper motivations.
  3. 3. Economic and social needs, such as caring for orphans, are met in a more empowering and sustainable way than just building an orphanage.
  4. 4. Empowering the most destitute can result in high end impact.
  5. 5. International social enterprise inspires social enterprise at home as well.

Main category of Action

Core business

Championing interfaith understanding and peace through a company’s core business operations, including internal procedures, human resources hiring practices, training, product/service development, sourcing policies, supply chains, as well as the development of products and services that promote interfaith understanding and peace.

Brittany’s Story

After her first year of college, Brittany Underwood thought she’d head to Uganda with some girlfriends, work for the summer and come home with some cash for school and a few experiences under her belt.

Instead, at age 19, it changed the course of her life. A local pastor, noticing Underwood was unhappy and having a tough time adjusting to the Uganda’s extremes, suggested she meet his friend Sarah.

Sarah was 22 and living in a dirt-floor hut. She was an orphan with almost nothing, but she had taken in more than a dozen street children — also orphans — and did everything she could to clothe, feed and shelter them.

“I thought two things in that moment,” Underwood, who is now 32 and lives in Dallas, said. “I thought, ‘Here I am, someone who has been given so much and I’ve literally never done anything for other people at all,’ and ‘I am standing before a woman who has nothing but shares what she has so others can live.’ That shook me out of my complacency. It stuck with me.”

After returning to Dallas and college, Underwood began raising money to build Sarah an orphanage. When that project was complete, she thought about how she could change the circumstances of women like Sarah and give them the means to earn a sustainable income.

In 2007, Underwood founded Akola, a company that empowers poor Ugandan women to make jewelry that is sold in hundreds of boutiques in the United States. Akola builds training centers in Ugandan villages — often the only permanent buildings in the villages — where women learn skills to help them support themselves and their dependents.

The Akola model has been a tremendous success — Underwood says it supports about 4,000 Ugandans — and she now teaches other young people how to craft their own sustainable charitable models. Akola recently completed a deal with high-end retailer Neiman Marcus to carry its jewelry in its department stores nationwide and has adapted its model to Dallas, where it is employing women victimized by human traffickers.

Her Christianity, Underwood said, is essential to everything she does at Akola. “My entire motivation came from my faith experience,” she said. “I sacrificed a lot for this and that came from a deeper place than just me. I was motivated by my heart and soul to create a business that wasn’t about me or about profits. And it took. And it allowed me to create a business that was truly for others.”

Underwood said religious understanding has been vital to Akola’s success. “That is what I am passionate about,” she said of religious tolerance and freedom. “Coming into a situation and realizing this isn’t your culture and the way they do business and practice their faith is different is never done perfectly. But I see that as something that is absolutely beautiful and something I have to learn from.”

Thirteen years after her first trip to Uganda, Underwood said she is still learning from the country, both as a businessperson and as a person of faith. “When I am in Uganda I am the best version of myself,” she said. “It has changed the way I understand my faith and it certainly has changed the way I interact with my culture, my community and the global community.”

Summary of Case

Conflict in Uganda has left many women and children as widows and orphans. Violence lead to widows without a means to care for their families and homeless children wandering the streets.

Brittany Underwood is Founder and Chairman of Akola, a mission-driven enterprise that empowers women to become agents of transformation in their families and communities through economic development.

Akola promotes gender equality, human rights and religious freedom by training and employing women, providing them and their children a means of existence and a better quality of life.

On the sales end, Brittany markets and distributes through Akola’s Texas operation, which also employ women who have been rescued from human trafficking.

Interview with Brittany Underwood

Brittany Merrill Underwood sits down with Katie Couric to talk about the Akola Project and its impact around the globe.

Introduction to Uganda

Demographics and Economy

Uganda’s 2010population numbered 33.4 million, with an annual population growth rate of 3.3% (2000-2010). In those same years, the country added 9.2 million to the population.

The GDP PER CAPITA is $1,454 (US). 73.2% of the adult population are literate. The life expectance in 2010 was 54.7 years.  

Uganda mostly exports agricultural products (80 percent of total exports). The most important exports is coffee (22 percent of total exports) followed by tea, cotton, copper, oil and fish.

Uganda’s Natural resources: copper, cobalt, hydropower, limestone, salt, arable land, gold. Exports: $3.156 billion (2013 est.): coffee, fish and fish products, tea, cotton, flowers, horticultural products; gold. Imports: $4.858 billion (2013 est.): capital equipment, vehicles, petroleum, medical supplies; cereals.

Religious Demographics

Approximately 87% of Ugandans identify as Christian, while 11.5% identify as Muslim. Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and the unaffiliated respectively each represent less than 1% of the nation’s population, according to Pew Research.

Pew Research estimates that out of a population of 9,212,000, 28,980,000 Ugandans identified as Christian in 2010, with a projected growth to 51,760,000 in 2030. Ugandans identifying Muslims in 2010 were at 2,840,000, expected to grow to 7,760,000 in 2030. For the same years, the unaffiliated represented 290,000 citizens, expected to grow to 530,000. Christians have a fertility rate (TFR) of 5.9, with Muslims following closely at 5.7. The median age for all religions, including Christians and Muslims, is 16, according to Pew.

Nearly two-in-three Mozambique’s people identify as Christian (56.7%), according to the Pew Research Center. Muslims account for 18% of the population, while 17.8% of the population are religiously unaffiliated. 7.4% of the population follow various folk religions, and, respectively, less than 1% of the population are Buddhists, Hindus and Jews.

Conflict and Violence Related to Religion

“Since the 1990s Uganda has been involved in a civil war in the north against the Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA is led by Joseph Kony, who wishes to, allegedly, establish a state based on the biblical Ten Commandments. Kony is accused of carrying out widespread abduction of children to serve as soldiers or sex slaves. It is estimated that the LRA have abducted around 30,000 children and that the civil war has led to the displacement of 1.6 million people from Northern Uganda and the death, mutilation and kidnapping of more than 100,000 people.” (Insight on Conflict)

As shown in the Pew Research chart below, the global median score for social hostilities involving religion is 2.4 on a 10-point scale, where 10 is high. Uganda’s rating is 4.1, meaning it has high social hostilities involving religion. The global median score for governmental restrictions on religious freedom is 3.1. Mozambique has moderate governmental restrictions on religious freedom with a score of 3.7.

More About the Uganda Situation*

The colonial boundaries created by Britain to delimit Uganda grouped together a wide range of ethnic groups with different political systems and cultures. These differences complicated the establishment of a working political community after independence was achieved in 1962. The dictatorial regime of Idi AMIN (1971-79) was responsible for the deaths of some 300,000 opponents; guerrilla war and human rights abuses under Milton OBOTE (1980-85) claimed at least another 100,000 lives. The rule of Yoweri MUSEVENI since 1986 has brought relative stability and economic growth to Uganda. A constitutional referendum in 2005 cancelled a 19-year ban on multi-party politics and lifted presidential term limits.

Uganda has substantial natural resources, including fertile soils, regular rainfall, small deposits of copper, gold, and other minerals, and recently discovered oil. Agriculture is the most important sector of the economy, employing one third of the work force. Coffee accounts for the bulk of export revenues. Uganda’s economy remains predominantly agricultural with a small industrial sector that is dependent on imported inputs like oil and equipment. Overall productivity is hampered by a number of supply-side constraints, including underinvestment in an agricultural sector that continues to rely on rudimentary technology. Industrial growth is impeded by high-costs due to poor infrastructure, low levels of private investment, and the depreciation of the Ugandan shilling.

Since 1986, the government – with the support of foreign countries and international agencies – has acted to rehabilitate and stabilize the economy by undertaking currency reform, raising producer prices on export crops, increasing prices of petroleum products, and improving civil service wages. The policy changes are especially aimed at dampening inflation while encouraging foreign investment to boost production and export earnings. Since 1990 economic reforms ushered in an era of solid economic growth based on continued investment in infrastructure, improved incentives for production and exports, lower inflation, better domestic security, and the return of exiled Indian-Ugandan entrepreneurs.

The global economic downturn in 2008 hurt Uganda’s exports; however, Uganda’s GDP growth has largely recovered due to past reforms and a rapidly growing urban consumer population. Oil revenues and taxes are expected to become a larger source of government funding as production starts in the next five to 10 years. However, lower oil prices since 2014 and protracted negotiations and legal disputes between the Ugandan government and oil companies may prove a stumbling block to further exploration and development.

Uganda faces many challenges. Instability in South Sudan has led to a sharp increase in Sudanese refugees and is disrupting Uganda’s main export market. High energy costs, inadequate transportation and energy infrastructure, insufficient budgetary discipline, and corruption inhibit economic development and investor confidence. During 2015 the Uganda shilling depreciated 22% against the dollar, and inflation rose from 3% to 9%, which led to the Bank of Uganda hiking interest rates from 11% to 17%. As a result, inflation remained below double digits; however, trade and capital-intensive industries were negatively impacted.

The budget for FY 2015/16 is dominated by energy and road infrastructure spending, while relying on donor support for long-term economic drivers of growth, including agriculture, health, and education. The largest infrastructure projects are externally financed through low-interest concessional loans. As a result, debt servicing for these loans is expected to rise in 2016/2017 by 22% and consume 15% the domestic budget.

* CIA Factbook

What the Company Did

Ms. Brittany Underwood is Founder and Chairman of Akola, a mission-driven enterprise that empowers women to become agents of transformation in their families and communities through economic development. In Uganda and its environ, conflict has left many women as widows and children as orphans. Her work through Akola promotes gender equality, human rights and religious freedom by providing women a pathway to financial peace and a better quality of life. When women thrive the whole community thrives. Mothers can focus on their children’s education and teach them to respect all peoples.

Brittany – motivated by her faith to serve all regardless of faith – discovered that by training and employing women and guaranteeing them a monthly income we could care for thousands of children, without the construction of an orphanage home. By ensuring children safety and care at home, communities can focus more on development than conflict and societal pressures that challenge basic freedoms. She also has developed a Texas operation to employ women rescued from trafficking.

In 2007, Brittany launched a new sustainable model to uplift women and children. The women named it “Akola”, which means “to work” in their local dialect. After five years in the field, she worked with the best development practitioners in the country to develop a sustainable impact model for women. The work paid off. Over the last seven years, the Akola Project has blossomed into a thriving social-business that empowers women across the globe.

Their merchandise is sold in 500 major department stores around the nation. The hope of Akola is to encourage new thinking about international development and to inspire the next generation of social innovators to deliver the highest level of impact in disadvantaged communities. Brittany’s work promotes gender equality, human rights and religious freedom by providing women a pathway to financial peace and a better quality of life.  When women thrive the whole community thrives. Mothers can focus on their children’s education and teach them to respect all peoples.

In 2004, Brittany Underwood was moved to compassion as a sophomore in college after meeting a Ugandan woman named Sarah who cared for 24 street children in her home. Compassion escalated to action as Brittany founded a non-profit to construct an orphanage home to house children who slept on Sarah’s floor. In 2006, upon graduating college, Brittany moved to Uganda to begin the construction of the orphanage and the drilling of over 20 water wells throughout the country.

As the team traveled to different villages, they were amazed by women who cared for 10+ children in their homes. Like Sarah, they had a hope and vision for their families; they simply did not have the income or confidence to embrace their calling. After completing the orphanage, Brittany discovered that by training and employing women and guaranteeing them a monthly income we could care for thousands of children, without the construction of an orphanage home.

What’s Left to Do?

This dynamic new enterprise positively impacts women in Uganda and the United States. It will be useful to see how this model can be applied more broadly to other products and services.

Discussion Questions

  1. 1. What role did faith play in Brittany’s business approach?
  2. 2. Is the way Brittany’s faith inspired her transferable to other business situations?
  3. 3. How can business people not motivated by faith learn from Brittany?
  4. 4. Can the domestic-international connection in the Akola approach be replicated in other business and social enterprises?

Media and Added Resources

This case study was prepared by Melissa Grim, J.D., M.T.S., a senior research fellow with the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, and Brian Grim, Ph.D., president of the foundation. It is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton Religion Trust.