Join us today, May 23rd to support the United Nation's International Day to End Obstetric Fistula. Akola has partnered with the Uganda Fistula Fund for Terrewode to support the construction of the first women's fistula hospital in Uganda to help end the suffering from the worst of birth injuries. 
Photography by Lynne Dobson

After laboring for days, imagine how it feels to lose your baby and find yourself left with a devastating medical condition called obstetric fistula. Caused by obstructed labor without access to a caesarian section, this birth injury takes the life of the baby and leaves the mother with constant incontinence. Often ostracized from family and community, fistula leaves women subjected to a life of physical and mental anguish.

The Uganda Fistula Fund for Terrewode will build the first hospital in Uganda dedicated to improving reproductive health for the 200,000 impoverished women enduring the tragedy of fistula. 

Specialized reparative surgery will close the fistula, the hole caused by the unrelieved pressure of days-long labor. The tiny hole is due to compression and destruction of internal soft tissues in the walls of her reproductive and excretory systems. Surgical repair to close the hole and stop the leakage is her only hope and costs about $500 in Uganda. Terrewode's compassionate staff will also provide the necessary long-term recovery, rehab and rest for proper healing to restore a dignified, healthy life. 

Spread Hope with Akola!

At Akola, we work with women who persevere amidst trial every single day and pursue victory by clinging to hope. They come to us with story after story about how making jewelry at Akola has helped redesign their story and their families stories - their strength gives us hope and their desire to care for themselves and their families inspires our work everyday.
To serve as a constant reminder, we created a bracelet that you can keep for yourself as a reminder to spread hope or give to friends to inspire hope. Each bracelet has a single varied color, hand-rolled paper bead that represents a single woman in Dallas and Uganda who is directly impacted through working at Akola. The beads are strung on simple pieces of leather and held in place with two small gold beads. The bracelets comes attached to a card that highlights the hope of either one of our Akola Dallas or Akola Uganda women. By purchasing one of these bracelets, you not only have the opportunity to help make their hope a reality, but to inspire others to hope as well!

Shop now!

Akola Men's Ministry

January 16, 2017

akola   full impact  

A recent study by UNWomen showed that economies grow when women work and that countries that are increasing the share of household income controlled by women changes spending money in ways that benefit the families children. At Akola, several of our women act as the sole providers for themselves and their families. Several of them have achieved large milestones and met goals, that without Akola, could not have otherwise reached. We are seeing entire communities be transformed through the lives of stories that are being completely re-designed.


In 2015, some of the Akola women approached our leadership and shared that they desired to see similar programs to be offered for the men in their lives. The women believed that Akola has a huge impact on their lives and wanted others to experience it as well!

Akola launched the first Men’s ministry program with Akola’s Weaving, Training and Textiles Production Manager, Mukulu Solomon in September 2015. The program seeks to reach the construction workers who are currently building section two of the vocational center.  The group of men meet once a month and follow the same curriculum that the Akola women use in the Village Fellowship program!

In 2016, the group averaged about 21 men in attendance each month. The men engaged in Appreciative Inquiry discussions and Bible discussions of the following topics: The Hidden Treasure,  Comfort, Vision, Confidence, Stewardship, Understanding,  Justice in Leadership, Profit, Business and The Church. We are excited to see how our ministry to entire families continues to grow in 2017!



Men’s Ministry Testimony: “As they explored biblical perspectives on gender, Kabi Francis shared that he had three wives and over ten children, but he gives his wives freedom to take the lead in the family and works with them to plan for the future. He shared that he was brought up with the teaching that women have no right to do anything in the home without the man’s approval. In this tradition view, the man brought honor and security to the family. However, he has seen that now women are able to move more freely, and thinks it is good that women can now work and help support the family.”  



“O come, all ye faithful, joyful, and triumphant!” If there were ever words to describe our Akola Dallas ladies, these are it. Faithful, joyful, and triumphant. Faithful to show up to work each day and hopeful for their future. Full of joy for the life they have been given and the community they get to share it with. Triumphant – daily overcoming their burdens and striving to improve their families.



This past Saturday we gathered at our Dallas Headquarters downtown to celebrate the holiday season together. Christmas classics crooned over the radio, while we nibbled on homemade cookies and sipped hot cocoa. Moms taught their kids and husbands how to make the bracelets they so carefully make for our customers. Kiddos ran (safely) amok on the patio outside while we snapped a few Christmas card photos.


Santa had some help from his trusty elf, baby Diego!

This gathering of the faithful, joyful, and triumphant women we know so well was more than just a time for holiday cheer. It was a time for families to meet other families, for women to share their craft and show off their hard work, and for all to celebrate together each other’s triumphs.



Photography by Kelsey Lemons.



Ampaire Charity 

Everyday, we work with empowered women across all different social and cultural backgrounds. One of our greatest honors is getting to support and encourage people from all walks of life! In our "Designing Her Story" series, we will be introducing you to some of our very own Akola women!

Today, we're sharing the story of Ampaire Charity. Smart, loyal and extremely dedicated. Charity has worked hard at Akola since 2010. She is selfless and thinks about the needs of her children above all else and truly seeks to give back! She joined Akola in 2010 and was quickly promoted to a supervisor role. When she learned that the nearest school in her community was extremely far away, she participated in the Akola Academy and was inspired to start her very own school! She raised the money, rented a small piece of land and built a simple building to house the school. She opened her school, Fount of Grace in 2015 and currently has 120 students enrolled and teaches nursery to third grade. Her goal is to expand to teach up to 7th grade! We hope that you are as inspired by Charity's story as our team is.

Charity and her students

Describe your life's work:

I was born in a family, which was not well off and I started a bit of school up to P7 level then from that I got married, to a family which was not okay also. I had to struggle. I struggled by digging, making sure the home could survive. My target was to make sure I had enough food in my family, so I had to work hard to make sure my children had enough food for their life. I had friends who were working as missionaries in Uganda who loved me, they started to visit my home. When they were visiting my home, they started to share about God’s word. We had fellowship in my home. In that process that’s when I was encouraged by those missionaries to go to bible school and I joined Busoga bible school where I studied 2 years for the basic certificate. Then I added another 2 years for the advanced certificate for bible school. After my graduation I had a friend who was part ownership with Akola. He trained me on bead rolling and handcraft. During that training I also managed to get the certificate in handicraft. When that same friend of mine who made the partnership with Akola said they were looking for workers, I was among the 5 who were selected to come and start the designing with Akola.

I joined when it was just like simple work. They were saying it could take one week, after that they made it continue for a month, then after a month it became a year and I have worked here for 5 years now. After a year they appointed me to become a supervisor and they trained me to train the women in Nabukosi. I started to train 21 women in designing in what the organization wanted. After that I was promoted…I started the bible sharing. They selected me to work as the Wellness and Ministry Assistant. At that time I was promoted to become a staff which was so great on my side. It was a big achievement. From that I have been working with that and I have achieved some growth in my work, in my service, and now I have started to train more Ministry officers and I have some wellness officers in the village – Amina in Buwala….those are the wellness officers that I am leading. And I have 4 more ministry officers who are working on the village fellowship and Ngobi House bible study. At Ngobi house bible study I have some officers who are working with me. In the village we have trained 4 officers who are trained to read the Bible and lead bible study.

Since I started to grow I liked working with children. When I started working in the village as a supervisor, esp in Nabukosi I saw there were many children who were lacking education because they would stay at home all day. I would pray with them as I was trained in that…I started to teach them about Jesus, to sing songs….we would sing together during lunch hours and then after lunch they would go back home. That made them love me and develop friendships with them – they knew my name and I knew theirs. After a little while, Akola started Akola Academy to talk about how we would work towards our goals. I came up with a goal to start a school. That school was all about Jesus and God because it is in my heart because I started with that Bible school and worked with Akola towards that mission towards God’s way. I started a school with the foundation of Christianity.

My trainer at AA said it would be good to boost my vision, my goal. I started to make the strategies of how I can start it. I shared with my friend Edith and she bought into my idea and she said it’s so good to have that development in that community. And indeed she joined me and contributed some money and it made us buy some wood, timbers, to start a temporary construction to build a temporary building to where the children could learn. We selected two teachers within the community to teach and develop a syllabus to teach the government curriculum in that area. They are doing well because now we have two teachers (Jared and Gina). That’s where I am…and I’m hoping to continue with that strategy towards my goal because I’m hoping to grow with that school….right now I am renting that land and I am hoping to get more books, exam papers, etc because the parents can’t afford that. At the moment I am still having that struggle to fulfill that vision of mine because I need money to cover the rent of that place where I’m working from. The children are enjoying that school, they are proud of that. That’s why I am continuing to work towards this goal.


Charity's school.


Walk us through a day in your world:

In my family when I wake up in the morning, I first visit my garden before I prepare myself to come for work. From my garden I pick some veg for my children to prepare for lunch. I take my breakfast, then I bathe, then I have to prepare to come for work. Coming to work, I usually use the boda boda in the morning because it’s a bit of a distance – when I walk in the morning I get more tired and it disturbs my work during the day (the boda boda costs – 2000 UGX). Then when I reach my work, I eat lunch from work. I have to perform all the duties my boss gives me because I like my work, I like my job. I have to respond, I have to be a good listener, I have to see that Akola can develop and grow. We perform very well every duty. I usually leave the work at 5 (start at 9), by leaving that work I have to foot [walk] home. Because there is no need to worry I will be late. I foot because I want my body to be strong and I need some exercise. I prepare supper for my family. I get some vegs that I collected in the morning – it takes me 3 hours to prepare this supper/meal. I eat supper at 9:30. Then I sit with my family and we sing some songs from the Christian songs. Then I converse/chat with my children. Then we pray, after praying then we can go to bed, at 11.


Where do you draw your motivation from?

I think the friendship that I got from Akola leadership. The Akola leadership has done me so good because the mission itself of Akola, the vision. They are motivating me to keep moving within the environment that makes me, that gives me courage to grow and to do better. They are giving us trainings, they are giving us leadership, which is giving us the needs that we can use in our daily life. Akola is providing all of that and it gives me a good life to continue to grow, to look for more and to grow higher and higher – development, spiritually - it has motivated me in many ways. The spirituality that it has given me gives me hope to hope and grow towards the best.


How have you surprised yourself?

When I was young I struggled to see that I can be okay, I can be fine. Having a good life, having the needs I could get, I could want was not all that possible until I was old – because I have been struggling so much since 18 years until I was married, I continued struggling. Then I had 4 children. When I started, got a chance, to have that dream of being fine, that’s when my dream was fulfilled. I had never had such a job that would be paying me money as Akola is doing now. It had always been my prayer, that I would have a job like this. So I was praying to God so he can provide for me, a better work than digging [farming], at least I could live a better life. I struggled until I was 47 years when I joined Akola. That’s when God answered my prayers and he gave me this job of Akola. It has given me peace and it has given me what I prayed to God – that I get a job I could be paid monthly. I am so grateful and thankful.


Charity's students.


What is the most valuable insight you have gained in your work?

During my period of working with Akola I have really enjoyed this period because I have learned a lot – for example, I have learned how to make good friends, how to communicate with others, and even how to make some strategies about development. I think I have really gained some value from being in Akola. 

What personality traits play an essential role in your work and growth? Why?

I am social, I really like to learn, and I’m a good listener. So, all of that has helped me have such impact so that I am growing because I like it – I want to grow, I’m yearning to grow, I have that interest in growth. That strength within me has helped me to socialize with people who will always support me.

Who do you admire most as a successful woman and why?

I think I admire the way my mom was struggling with her family and she gave me a good example of resisting the situations because she got married at my dad’s home and my dad was not all good and time came when my dad leftus, left my family, he didn’t leave us with anything, no land to dig, with a small grass house. The way I like my mom most is because our mom stood with us, she supported us with the little she could get. We had no clothes, only 1 dress, my brother only had one shirt. And my mom was struggling to see that we could eat, that we could go to the government school. We didn’t study far because my mom couldn’t manage it but she was encouraging it and she had to stand with us when my dad left us. Our mom, after encouraging us, she taught us how to work hard, that’s why I love her – she would take us into the garden, while she digged she would tell us good stories, telling us we would be fine. I loved my mom because she was a strong woman who would stand with her family. It helped me to stand with my children in certain situations. And by doing that, our mom has succeeded because we have grown up and we can help her – I continue to give her some of my salary to help her with her needs now too because she worked very hard for us when we were still young. At least now she has succeeded because she sees us working and we support her.


Looking into the future, how do you want to grow?

I think as I grow I think I would like to have enjoyable old age. That I could be having my good home, finished, and I would like to have projects that can help me in my old age. That’s why I planned to have such a school because as I grow I want to be a busy old woman, not just to sleep, but I want to be an active old woman. I want to chat with the children in my school, teach them – I have a lot to share with them. I have many stories. That’s how I want my old age to be because I want to be a busy old woman who is earning because even though I am old I still need to have some money to support me. That’s the way I want to my life to be.


Looking into the future, how do you want to grow?

I think as I grow I think I would like to have enjoyable old age. That I could be having my good home, finished, and I would like to have projects that can help me in my old age. That’s why I planned to have such a school because as I grow I want to be a busy old woman, not just to sleep, but I want to be an active old woman. I want to chat with the children in my school, teach them – I have a lot to share with them. I have many stories. That’s how I want my old age to be because I want to be a busy old woman who is earning because even though I am old I still need to have some money to support me. That’s the way I want to my life to be.


What advice would you give a young Charity?

I really like to share with young growing girls that those girls who are still growing I like to share with them about my life, the way I have struggled, the way I have grown, the way I have succeeded. I want to tell them that they can relax, that they can have goals, that they should love their God because he is the provider – to keep that relationship with God because with God all things are possible. That’s usually my encouragement with young girls, and even to stand for their rights and to support their words, their thoughts.


Where do you find the most joy?

In my good moments, when I have good moments I usually listen to Christian music, and it encourages me and it gives me joy because I like music – I like music a lot and I think it is that which gives me joy. Sometimes when my pocket is having some money, with salary, I have joy because I can give my family what it needs and there I also find joy – listening to music and having money.


What are you looking most forward to with the holiday season?

After getting my holiday package, I am planning to visit my mom and I will just spend a few days there, then I will come back to my family where I will spend Christmas day with my family. My children like to eat rice and chicken and I will buy that for their Christmas gift, to have a good meal while celebrating the birth of Jesus. They can keep on their mind that when Jesus is born things are very good (good meals). It will be remaining in their memories that on the day of Jesus’s birth things are very good, because everything is good. When it remains in their life things are good they can remember that Christ is the best.

Charity leading Akola Academy.

Do you always create a big meal or do you have any other favorite things that you repeat?

My family knows that when Christmas is coming it means big, big things! They know it will be a special one, we will eat special things, we will receive gifts from their friends. In the course of the year we don’t always have such a day as Christmas in my home. It is once in a year which is very special!


Do you have a dressing you wear that makes you feel more powerful than others?

I have nothing which I can put on that makes me feel extra special. I put on any dressing and I can’t think much about that dressing but I think about giving my children the best meal rather than putting on a best dress. When I have something to put on then that is enough for me. I don’t feel like I’m really strong because I have put on something – I’m simply okay with any dressing.


Describe your favorite meal and favorite drink?

I think my favorite meal is when I eat and prepare. I usually like to eat mixed food, like a small portion of posho, with small sweet potato, and small matooke, that can be a favorite meal for me, especially with gnut sauce! Then, my best drink there is my local drink called “Bush” it is prepared from millet and sogum (a certain plant which we dig in western Uganda and it prepares a good drink, sometimes that’s what they use to brew the beer). I usually make it! And I’m going to make it for my Christmas. It gives strength because it has a lot of protein and it hydrates.



Brittany Cobb 
Interior Designer and Founder of Flea Style

With an eye for good style and a knack for unique things; driven, hardworking spirit, Brittany Cobb shares our heart that hard work and a positive attitude go a long way. It is evident that Brittany pours passion into everything that she does and desires to leave each thing a little better than the way she found it. Brittany is the founder of Flea Style and our team had the pleasure of spending some time her a few weeks ago! We hope that you are motivated to take a leap of faith and pursue your passion like Brittany does every single day.

Photography by Chelsea Q. White

Describe your life's work:

To be a good person that contributes to society first and foremost. To be a loving and cherished mother, wife, daughter, grand-daughter, sister, colleague, boss and friend. After that, to inspire people — makers, collectors, small business owners — to follow their dreams and help provide platforms for their success.


Walk us through a day in your world:

Every day is entirely new and unique for me. I’m in the office 9:30 to 5 p.m. every single day (or on Flea Style stuff if outside of the office). But before and after that, I’m on mom and wife duty whether I’m taking kiddos to school, grabbing groceries or holed up on the sofa with my husband watching Anthony Bourdain. For Flea Style, we have seasons, so my day really depends on what’s on our plate immediately and down the pipeline. When we’re in show season (fall and spring) I’m meeting with the city, our event planners, publicist, doing media interviews, space planning site maps, figuring out parking situations, sourcing vendors, answering vendor questions, brainstorming promotional material, passing out flyers, building event decor, ordering business supplies, shooting video footage, you name it! There is so much hard work that goes into our shows I can’t even begin to spew it all here. When we’re in summit season (winter and summer), I’m touring event spaces, meeting with sponsors, planning flights, courting panelists, working with their handlers on schedules, crafting panel discussions, planning meals, etc. During all of those times and in between I’m sourcing products for our website, modeling those products, helping shoot content, shooting footage for our YouTube channel, hosting workshops at our office, working with our lawyers on updates, contracts, trademarks, etc. There literally isn’t a dull moment at Flea Style and in addition to all of this, we are always dreaming up new platforms and ways to further our mission.


Where do you draw your motivation from?

I’m motivated by growth, the American dream and providing the future I want for my family and community. I love to work, be busy and see results whether it be watching a small brand succeed at one of our events, growing our show venues from 5,000 square foot space to 100,000 or making a little change on our website that shifts the entire mood and style of our site. I’ve never been financially motivated but as Flea Style grows I do find motivation in figuring out the money trail path so I can hire more people, empower more small businesses and make the Flea Style mission work — and more importantly — succeed. I’m motivated by my children and their future. I want them to see a working mom that balances work, personal and mommy time.


How have you surprised yourself?

I’ve never thought of that but now that you ask I think I’m surprised that I really made the leap and left my successful interior design business to make a go of this unusual business and career path. I had a really fun and fulfilling career as an interior designer and decorator but had to make a choice to either follow that dream or the Flea Style dream. I simply couldn’t do them both well. Design was the easy choice: I had a dialed-in client roster, got to travel all over the world and shop for a living. But it didn’t fill my heart like Flea Style did. I’m really proud that I made this decision and fight for this dream every single day. There is no real reward without risk. And I’m taking a huge risk in spending all of my energy on Flea Style. I’m very excited to see what this risk reaps down the line.


What is the most valuable realization you have had in your work?

Shopping small makes a huge difference. Working with so many startup and budding brands I see the impact it has on their lives first hand when they have sales at shows, online or a chunk of press. These things are literally allowing these hard working people to leave their rut jobs, follow their passions, feed their families, buy materials from other local companies, get off anxiety medication, hire your friend or neighbor, you name it. It’s magical to watch the domino effect Flea Style is making in Dallas, Texas and beyond


What personality traits play an essential role in your work and growth? Why?

This is such a great question. I think a lot of people look at others’ success and don’t realize that personality is such a huge piece of the puzzle. It’s not luck. It’s everything that person poured into their passion. For me, it’s hard work first and foremost. I graduated college a semester early because I stacked classes to nab the job of my dreams at the time. I put in the time, sweat, you name it to get stuff done efficiently and well. I think solid hard work and dedication to a craft or job is a little lost today due to social media and short attention spans. I also know that kindness, friendliness and an open mind have been huge in my success since my job works heavily with people and communication skills.


Who do you admire most as a successful woman and why?

Hard work, honesty and a positive attitude are top admirable qualities for me. If you work for me, you must have these qualities and wear them on your sleeve every single day. As a working mom, I really admire other working moms. It’s not easy to balance both worlds and I am all heart eyes for those that do, especially with passion, dignity and grace.


Looking forward, how do you want to spend yourself?

I would like to continue to support the small business community. Every day I’m laying the bricks to get to a point where I can be very involved with the business but also step away for periods of time to live life to the fullest with my friends and family. Down the road, once I feel like I’ve really built up Flea Style and my staff, I want to travel the world with my children and humble them by seeing how big, bad and beautiful this world is. I was fortunate to travel all over the globe in my 20s from Russia and Marrakech to Istanbul and Germany and knowing the realities of the world shaped my personality and passions. I would like to give that lens to my children — and explore more myself!


What advice do you have for those trying to design their own story?

Find something that you’re so passionate about you can hardly sleep at night. It’s that thing that will drive you to succeed, stay motivated (even when times are tough) and love the story you’re writing in this world. Be open-minded. Some opportunities don’t present themselves in a perfect pretty box or obvious ways. Be kind and never burn bridges. You never know who you will work with or need to call upon down the road. Stay humble and work hard.


What outfit do you feel the most confident in and why?

My style changes with my mood. That said, I wear denim nearly every single day. I feel just as confident in distressed jeans as a prim Chanel tweed jacket. One day I might feel like rocking cargos and a blazer and others a prairie skirt and cowboy boots. I really wear whatever I wake up and feel that day. I’m lucky I don’t have a company dress code or serious business meetings that call for boring suit sets.


Favorite Coffee Order

A small iced latte with whole milk with a tiny dash of Sweet’N Low. Forever and always hot or cold outside.


Where do you find the most joy?

My children's laughs. Family time. Flea markets. The ocean (I’m from Southern California). The perfect lemon drop martini or margarita.


What is your favorite Holiday Tradition?

We’re still forming our holiday traditions with two young toddlers and family all over the country. We used to spend Christmas in California but this will be our second year to hole up in Dallas and have my immediate family at our house since we’re in the middle of the US. No matter where we are, we always have a Christmas Eve feast at home-made by my dad, the best cook I know.


What are you most looking forward to this Holiday Season?

I’m excited to have all of my family together at my house. We only all get together once or twice a year so it’s always a very special time for us. I’m looking forward to seeing Christmas through my son’s eyes. He will be three in January and will definitely get what’s going on this year. My husband and I have a trip planned to Arizona for New Years to relax and enjoy the family help with our kiddos. I’m looking forward to some serious sun and R&R after my busiest year yet!

Photography by Chelsea Q. White


Shop Brittany's Looks




 

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Sara Blakely's One Piece of Advice to Akola

In February of 2015, Akola Founder & CEO, Brittany Merrill Underwood, was awarded the "Leg Up" award from Spanx. In May, the Founder of Spanx, Sara Blakely, pressed pause on her busy schedule and made time to talk with Brittany. A short, 15-minute conversation outlined the groundwork for success and inspired Brittany to make a very large impact through Akola. 

 

Photography by Alex Wolf 

Sara Blakely launched Spanx in 2000. During Brittany and Sara's phone call, Sara shared that the best thing you can do is build your brand out of story telling and focus on the "why" behind the business. She learned that the answer is always "no" in department stores, so she creatively broke rules. Her passion for entrepreneurship and belief that she could prove that her brand was impactful lead to her great, widespread success. Sara ended the brief conversation with Brittany by encouraging her to aim high and get into Neiman Marcus by saying "You can't tell the women's story without telling your story. You want to inspire women to do what you have done. Never second guess yourself."

 

Brittany hung up the phone and had her mind made up. Akola was going to launch as a brand in Neiman Marcus.

Fast forward to Fall of 2015 when Hedda Gioia Dowd, Dallas restaurateur, heard Brittany share her journey with Akola at an event and was so moved by the Akola story that she introduced Brittany to Karen Katz, CEO of Neiman Marcus, who shares a very similar passion for women's empowerment. Brittany met with Karen in January and shared how Akola's entire production process, raw materials, assembly and distribution process empower women to become agents of transformation in their families and communities. She also shared that as a non-profit, Akola reinvests 100% back into its social mission. Excitement grew and the two discussed how they could leverage the Akola model to support a living wage for women to effectively transform the lives of disadvantaged families in the United States. A few months later, Akola presented a line of elevated designs to Neiman Marcus and Karen Katz announced that Akola would be launching in all Neiman Marcus locations across the country and online, making Akola the first Full Impact Brand to launch in the luxury space! Amazing. Within three weeks of confirming the collection, Akola was able to offer work opportunity, equip, and train over 100 women in the United States!

Tonight, Akola is celebrating the second official launch party at Neiman Marcus in Atlanta, GA. The Sara Blakely Foundation and Spanx are sponsoring the event. Brittany and Sara, both Atlanta natives, will be in attendance. Brittany and the Akola team are so excited to celebrate the success of Akola alongside Sara Blakely and the Spanx team and hope to inspire many more to be agents of transformation in their every day life!



Khanh Nguyen 
Founder, Creative Director and Designer of Nha Khanh

Born into the fashion world, Khanh is now using her keen sense of detail to design some of the most beautiful dresses that we have ever seen. Her days are spent working with her ever so supportive husband who is the CEO of Nha Khanh, instilling her same love of fashion into her 4 year old, Nha-vy and investing herself in both her staff and her family. At Akola, we love Khanh because she knows in her heart that your team matters and she leads with a humble strength.

Photography by Chelsea Q. White

Describe your life's work:

My life is all about work. First of all, I basically do what I love to do. I sleep, I eat, I breathe and everything else is about fashion, designing and making dresses. It’s my first love. I was born into a family of apparel in Vietnam. My grandparents were tailors and seamstresses, mainly making women’s suits, and were in the business for 60 years. My uncles and mom were born into it, too. Out of my family, my mother was the first to break into the bridal business and made more European inspired dresses in the 80’s and 90’s. I grew up watching her design and when I was about 5 or 6 I really began to love helping her with dresses, seeing her and new designs. When I was 12, my family moved to the United States. As I grew up, I began to love fashion more and more but my parents didn’t want me to go into a career in Fashion because they believed we had too much opportunity here in the United States and saw it to be a common career that anyone without an education could walk into. I started school and tried to stay away from fashion, but it ended up taking me 8 years to finish because I changed my major in year 5. My dad refused to talk to me or care about what I was doing for two years, but I worked very hard, proved myself and caught up. I was committed and focused. I ended up winning the Fashion Group International Career Day competition and was given the opportunity to go to Paris and learn from successful brands in the industry like Chanel. My eyes were open to so much while in Paris!

During that time, my then boyfriend flew to visit me and proposed in Venice. I almost dropped the ring in the water, but was so inspired to make all of my own wedding dresses! I came back from Paris and ended up designing four dresses to wear throughout the day, designed both of our mother’s gowns, two flower girls and all of my bridesmaids. I documented the whole process on Facebook and people began inquiring about custom made dresses. My husband saw the potential and helped me launch the line in 2010. He is now the CEO and helps manage the company in order to allow me more freedom to be creative and do what I love! One of my wedding dresses ended up being the dress that launch Nha Khanh and is now the “Milace” dress and makes an appearance in every collection that we make!


Walk us through a day in your world:

I wake up and get my four year-old daughter, Nha-vy ready for school. She loves fashion and dressing up - she wants to dress up every day! After I drop her off, I spend 8-10 hours designing and then I go home and research what to do next, what styles are trending. Every day when my husband picks Nha-vy up, she wants to come to the studio so I have paint and paper for her to do her own sketches on. The fashion business is very busy, so sometimes it can get a little chaotic. At the studio, everyone is doing their own thing. I do mostly design, but I also help answer all questions and edit all details. In a regular week, I take meetings on Monday, focus on technical things and help my staff on sewing techniques, fabric for designs, ect. On Tuesday and Wednesday, hold client meetings on Thursday and then Friday is mainly dedicated to relationships with my staff - we usually go out to eat as a team and have a more laidback day.

Khanh with her daughter at Akola's Neiman Marcus launch event.
Photo via Instagram @nhakhanh.


Where do you draw your motivation from?

Lace is what I love the most and what I draw motivation and inspiration from the most. Looking at it can pretty much spark 1,000 different ideas. I love it everytime we get new lace and fabric - the patterns, the delicacy - it brings me back to my wedding day and I remember why I started. I also draw motivation from nature, flowers, the sky, the ocean and the wind. Sometimes, my clients bring inspiration that I don’t think I will use, but end up drawing ideas from it. There lifestyle influences the way I work, the way I design and helps me to aspire to be the kind of woman I want to become.


How have you surprised yourself?

I still surprise myself today and often think “What am I doing here?” I am definitely living a dream come true. I am grateful and try not to take my work for granted. It is a blessing to wake up every day and do what I love. Because of fashion, the difficult days are not as hard and even in the hardest times, I still wake up and think “What can I design today?”


What is the most valuable realization you have had in your work?

Building relationships with your staff is huge. I think that it is the most important thing in any business. When you don’t have relationship, you don’t see eye to eye and it is harder to build things as a whole. A dress requires a lot of things to make a final product. I can have a vision, but cannot see it to completion without my team. Understanding your clients AND your staff are the most important parts of business, but I have to take care of my staff before I can take care of anything else. It is a challenge, but if my staff are happy then I am happy. When they are happy, they are doing their job and it results in happy clients. I still learn every day that relationships have a domino effect, and it starts with me.


What personality traits play an essential role in your work and growth? Why?

I am a positive person in any environment or situation. There is so much trial, error and challenges, but I have learned that when you are positive and optimistic, it sends out a good vibe and affects everyone. Being positive is something that I have developed over the years, but it works so well for me, those who work for me and those around me. I always say nothing is the end of the world, so let’s just enjoy life. Everything is always okay at the end of the day. Enjoy the moment and do not sweat today over things that you have no control over.


Looking forward, how do you want to spend yourself?

My husband recently asked this same question and it’s funny because he always jokes about selling the business and asking me what I will do. He tells me you can travel and see the world, but I always say no! I am designing forever. I truly see myself designing and being surrounded by making dresses every day. This is what makes me happy. Even if I don’t have my own business, I will design, make patterns, sew, whatever. Just let me make clothes!


What advice do you have for those trying to design their own story?

You have to passionately love what you do! That’s when things get easier. If you don’t love what you do, it will just get hard. Focus on doing what you love, and that will make a difference. I always say that it doesn’t matter the glitz and the fame, I have to do what I love first and it doesn’t matter who notices. My hard work has got to go into my product and then I can let my product speak for itself.

You may have the vision, but you will need so many great minds along the way. Your team is everything that you need to build your career. Building your team is the most important thing - If you don’t have that chemistry, things will get very hard for you. You have to think through how you will bring others together and show them how to love what you do. A lot of people lose track of their focus, but the thing is, when you come together you build better teams. By yourself, it’s a hard, hard ride.


What outfit do you feel the most confident in and why?

I have to wear jeans, a t-shirt and flats to work. It’s what I feel most comfortable in. When I am meeting with clients, I love my wide leg pants. I have 5 pairs in every color! When I wear them, I wear the same t-shirt and throw on some heels and I feel perfect.



Favorite Coffee Order

I used to drink a lot of coffee. I would always get a hazelnut latte if I was getting a hot drink and a coffee frappuccino with extra shots if a cold drink. About four months ago, I stopped drinking coffee. Now, I have an early gray tea every morning and every afternoon after lunch and I am ready to get going!


Where do you find the most joy?

My daughter! Other than that, my office at my studio. That is my great joy room and I spend a lot of my time there.



What is your favorite Holiday Tradition?

I am not Catholic, but my husband is, so for the last 12 years, I have spent Christmas Eve with him and his family. We go to mass, open Christmas gifts and have a big dinner at his parents place.


What are you most looking forward to this Holiday Season?

I look forward to spending Christmas Eve with my husband’s family every year and look forward to time with my family. I love Nha-vy having great memories built with her grandparents every year!

Photography by Chelsea Q. White


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Toni Munoz-Hunt, 
Founder of Model Behaviors, Philanthropist, Mother

Gentle in spirit, yet strong and fierce, Model Behaviors Founder Toni Munoz-Hunt radiates inspiration as an ideal "Akola Woman." Toni carries herself with utmost class and professionalism all while successfully leading her business, serving on the Akola board, acting as an incredible mother to her sweet Darlington and loyally supporting her husband, Dan. Toni's sense of fashion could take her from high tea to lunch with her girlfriends without missing a beat! If only we could borrow her closet... 

Photography by Chelsea Q. White

Describe your life's work:

My life's work is incomplete. Our parent's generation was more focused on working on weaknesses instead of strengthening strengths. This generation has strengths in so many things - people are redefining themselves and their boundaries - especially women. I am a mom, but not just a mom. I am a wife, a sister and a daughter. I have varied interests.

I started modeling when I was 16 years old. It was never wanted and never enjoyed. I didn't grow up "cool" and all of a sudden I was thrust into an environment that was all about my looks. I am a more "behind the scenes" girl and modeling brought me out of my shell. I am so thankful for it, because it helped me get through school. It took me a long time to finish because I was going back and forth - work took me all over the world - but I worked my butt off to finish.


Modeling allowed me to see the world and to see women in difficult environments. I started to get more involved in different cultures and learning about how I could be the most impactful for women. Exposure to culture brought me to Model Behaviors which is an accumulation from everything I have learned. Being able to help women and giving back has always been important to me.  We are a group of women that are experts in different areas, very well-rounded and collaborating to make a difference. We sell events, productions and branding to different companies that share a vision for helping women in their communities.


Basically, I feel like my work just started. Everything I have done this far brought me to this point. I am learning that we can all come together. People don't have to have a lot of money, but talents. They have to know that they can take their talent and do something really special with it. We are about bettering women, through bettering ourselves.


Walk us through a day in your world:

Our days are different every single day! No two days are the same. In a regular week, I take two days to focus on my little girl, Darlington. On Mondays, she has her music class and then her swim class. Afterwards, we cook together for the week. Thursdays, she has her "play wisely" class. I work from home, so Darlington is always around, but I take those two days and make them extra special - Darlington gets a ton of extra attention. I devote Tuesday's to Model Behaviors and then on Wednesday's I have off. Typically, I have Model Behavior meetings and coach women through their business ideas or whatever they want to focus on the be their best self. I want to work with women to retrain their brain's to think positively. Friday's and the weekends, we are usually traveling for sports. It never stops!


Where do you draw your motivation from?

I have to say that I am really blessed with amazing friends. I would not be able to accomplish half of the stuff that I do without them. They are honest, warm, supporting, always come from a good place and will hold me accountable. None of them are shy about telling me if I am wrong. I also have a very supportive family. Growing up where we did was difficult, but my parents taught me how to do everything. We do construction and I work as the general contractor - I run all of it. Though we didn't have much, my parents taught me that if there is a will, there is a way. If I have one pet peeve, it is when someone tries to block me from achieving something. I always say don't tell me no, tell me how. I won't take your no answer anyways, so I would rather you be a part of what I am doing instead of me knocking you over to get what I want. Don't ever take no for an answer. Someone is doing it, why can't it be you?


How have you surprised yourself?

Motherhood! You can never be prepared for it. I am a person who naturally wants to be prepared for everything. I have come to learn that I will not be prepared for every single aspect of motherhood. From birth to being sick to when they talk back, everything is a surprise. The most surprising thing is that I have been selfish for a long time. It was only me, by myself, but now there is this little person that can't take care of herself. She needs me. I have to be a lot more self-aware, care more about the people around me and how I spend my time. Time is so precious and I would rather spend it with Darlington.



What is the most valuable realization you have had in your work?

The realization that women don't want to be told what to do hit me like a ton of bricks. We want something that walks us through things at the same time, at the same level. Women don't want to be spoken to or at, but rather with. It's insight for me, but it;s like, Duh! of course! That's how I would want to be talked to or collaborate. Because of this realization, at Model Behaviors, the client is the expert. In reality, our clients know what they want but they just have to walk through everything to figure out how to get there. It takes us trusting in that person, working together with them and approaching as a collaborator rather than an expert.


What personality traits play an essential role in your work and growth? Why?

Friends always tell me "Toni, you are so humble!" I definitely think that humility is important because we are all people. I always try to come back to that. Recently, I lost a close girlfriends and I think going through that process was powerful. At the end of her life, life in general, what is most important is that we are all people. Integrity is important, too. I always try and do the right thing. If I do the wrong thing, I have a lot of people who don't mind telling me. Lastly, I never give up. I don't care how long it takes, as long as I get there.


Looking forward, how do you want to spend yourself?

I guess I want to spend myself with purpose. I think that is the most important thing. I ask myself "Do I really want to do this? Does it really inspire me? Is this something that I would be proud of in the end?" A big part of growing Model Behaviors is picking who we want to collaborate with. I don't want to work for the money, I want to work for the cause. Often, we choose to work with non-profits who don't have much to offer, but we all have the same heart, the same mission. I want to spend myself purposefully.


What advice do you have for those trying to design their own story?

Go onto strengths finder and figure out your top 3 strengths. A lot of times, women are focused on their weaknesses. I think it is important to figure out how you became who you are. Know your weaknesses, but strategically learn how to apply your strengths. We usually walk through women's past, find a timelines and figure out different aspects that shape them into who they are. When you have an understanding of why you are the way that you are because of history, you are able to design your life and apply your strengths to your new design.


What outfit do you feel the most confident in and why?

I have different styles. Sometimes I am rock & roll, sometimes I am lace. I am comfortable in a little bit of rock and roll and a little bit of lace - it shows my personality! I am soft, but I have a little edge. I feel powerful when I can play both parts!



Favorite Coffee Order

Anything bad for me! I am really healthy otherwise, but get me into Starbucks and I want to know which drink tastes like a milkshake and that's the one I want.


Where do you find the most joy?

Joy in togetherness!



What is your favorite Holiday Tradition?

Now that we have started our own new family, we are making our own family traditions. Last year we started the Christmas pajamas and seeing a Christmas movie. It really Depends on where we are. If we are in New Mexico with my family, we always have tamales. We feed everybody and their brother. We also love Luminatos - they cover the whole town and are one of the most beautiful sights! In Aspen, we are figuring out what to do to make it special. We have done sledding and snowhikes with the dogs. We also love going to get Hot Chocolate at The Little Nell - It is the very best!


What are you most looking forward to this Holiday Season?

Togetherness! We are always giving to everybody else and doing everything else. Our life is whacky. We really live for these times when it is just us. We take in every little moment!

Photography by Chelsea Q. White


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The Akola Woman

October 05, 2016

At Akola, we define the Akola Woman as someone who is fashionable, sophisticated and strong, and also as one who cares about making an impact. The Akola Woman lives out Akola’s mission to empower women to become agents of transformation in her community. In our eyes Jennifer Sampson, President and CEO of United Way Dallas, is one of these women.

Before becoming United Way Dallas’ first female CEO, Sampson served as the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at United Way since 2004. She is a founding member of United Way’s Women of Tocqueville Society, which is a group of successful women who are committed to bring positive change in Dallas.

 

Akola’s impact model aligns with United Way’s Income Impact goals, and as such, United Way has become a crucial contributor to bringing the Akola model to Dallas. As members of United Way’s GroundFloor Fellowship, Akola has partnered with critical mentors and received donated seed capital to expand the Akola model in our city to reach 100+ women.

Learn more about how you can be a part of the Akola story.

As a result of a generous grant from United Way and guidance from Jennifer and her team, Akola has been able to build a successful Dallas program and launch an elevated jewelry line through every Neiman Marcus nationwide, both in stores and online! In order to complete our first high volume order, United Way helped Akola connect with several other nonprofits around Dallas to provide jobs, train and equip over 100 women in Dallas who make a living wage to assemble the Akola by Neiman Marcus Line. As Akola’s operations in Uganda continue to expand and the Dallas program thrives, we rely on generous partners like United Way to support our efforts to empower women through economic opportunities.

In this month’s issue of the D CEO Magazine, Jennifer Sampson wore one of the very first Akola for Neiman Marcus pieces in D CEO’s “My Style” feature. Akola is honored to have the support of Jennifer Sampson and the rest of United Way! We owe a large portion of our Dallas based program success to our incredible partnership with them. 

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