DREAM CATCHER: BRITTANY MERRILL UNDERWOOD
After finishing her sophomore year at Southern Methodist University, Brittany Merrill Underwood traveled to Uganda, East Africa, to teach in a boarding school. There she met a remarkable Ugandan woman named Sarah who was scarcely in her 20s herself but was sacrificing everything to provide food and shelter to the 24 street children who slept on her floor. Brittany says she was shaken out of her complacency, humbled deeply by the strength of this young woman who had been given nothing but shared everything so that these children could live. In 2006, Brittany founded an organization to build an orphanage big enough for 180 children, providing safe shelter to the orphans who slept on Sarah’s floor and many others. Brittany then launched the Akola Project in Eastern Uganda in 2007 to empower women to support their families and communities through economic development and has since expanded into the war-torn communities of Northern Uganda as well. She has been recognized both nationally and internationally for her work in the country, has been distinguished by her alma mater with the Emerging Leader Award, and has been invited to join the elite 2014 mentoring class for the Laura Bush Women’s Initiative.
What three words best describe your company? Impactful. Innovative. Sustainable.
What makes you different from your competition? Akola is unique in our space because we are a social business that is run through a non-profit framework. This means that 100% of the net revenue from all of our products goes directly back into development projects benefiting the women who make them in Uganda; in addition to creating a thriving social business for women, we have built an orphanage home to house over 200 street children, drilled 23 clean water wells in displaced communities, and provided educational programs for the women in our programs. And rather than working with existing artisan groups, we partner with women in rural villages who have never had access to training or educational opportunities and spend five years training them to become artisans to unlock their potential.
What piece of invaluable advice did you receive that you would like to pass on to women pursuing their dreams? Do not put limitations on your dreams. Anything is possible, so don’t ever give up! When you hear ‘no’, find creative ways to make it a ‘yes.’ Perseverance and tenacity are the most important qualities of an entrepreneur.
My biggest challenge is… Trusting that God will provide for the women we seek to serve and that it is not all on my shoulders!
My best advice, in one sentence, for launching a venture is… Know your limitations and surround yourself with people whose strengths complement your weaknesses.
If I had to do it all over I would have… Gone to business school!
My best piece of firing advice is… Be compassionate but honest.
What was the biggest obstacle to launching your business or venture? Not having a business background!
Let’s Get Personal:
What are three words that best describe you? Visionary. Determined. Adventurous.
When you go on vacation you always… Bring books, a journal and hot sauce, and plan lots of adventures with my husband.
My favorite TV show is… Homeland
My favorite scent is… Le Labo Santal 33
A woman who inspires me is… My mother-in- law!
I wish someone would have told me… That I could be most effective when I was balanced in all areas of my life.
I funded my dream by… Being willing to often sacrifice my own salary.
If I weren’t doing what I do, I would be… Writing for National Geographic.
I gave up ___ to pursue my dream: The comforts of living in America and being near my friends and family.