It’s there that Enterkin met Sarah Nabirye for the first time. She had heard of Nabirye, a single mother of six, working to support her children on her own, and hoped she might be exactly the person she was looking for. She took a chance. She handed Sarah a bow tie from an American retail store, and within 24 hours, Nabirye made an exact replica.
Later, Sydney Hulebak, Brin’s close friend and colleague, also visited Sarah in her home, and received another beautiful bow tie.
And that’s when Lion’s Thread became a reality.
But before Brin and Sydney visited Sarah’s village, before Nabirye made the perfect replica, Brin traveled to Uganda in 2009 with a passion for education and community development. After seeing the need for qualified educators and curriculums for local village children, and with past experience in educational fundraising, Enterkin was compelled to start a non-profit called The African SOUP, short for The Sponsorship of Orphans in Uganda Project. Currently serving over 400 primary school children, The SOUP is dedicated to building schools, developing curriculum and empowering the community to provide education for vulnerable children in eastern Uganda.
But as The SOUP’s mission grew and as the needs of the organization expanded, there was a constant need to fundraise. This got Enterkin thinking about a new model – one that could financially sustain itself and The SOUP. “I’ve had a passion for figuring out how to look at development differently,” she says, “How to create empowerment in the development model, and also how to have an income stream for The SOUP that’s more sustainable than a donor model.”
And with the idea of social enterprise burgeoning in the entrepreneurial community, Enterkin had a plan. The idea was to sell a product that was lightweight, easily shipped and handcrafted by local Ugandan women. The profits then would go to community development, healthcare, and financial education for Uganda. The residual profits would go to The SOUP. Sydney Hulebak, part of The SOUP team, joined Enterkin as co-founder and creative director for the new endeavor, and Lion’s Thread was born.
The first challenge was to decide on a product. Mango purees and leather belts were on the initial list, but they required more hoops to jump through for international shipping. It was Hulebak who brought the “passion for fashion.” After an internship with a men’s fashion line, she began to brainstorm. Bow ties were light, able to be hand-crafted, and there weren’t very many markets focused solely on that accessory item. Also, the vibrant fabric market in Uganda made the decision that much more appealing.
With this plan in mind, Brin and Sydney went in search of their team, which led them to Nabirye’s doorstep. The next day, they each left with a perfect bow tie. “After that, I knew Sarah was going to be the difference,” Enterkin says. Nabirye began to take on the Lion’s Thread vision as her own. She started hiring and mentoring local women and showing them how to work on the sewing machine. “I really saw Sarah turn people into leaders. It was so powerful,” Enterkin says.
Once bow ties were in process, the next step was to create a brand and facilitate conversation. “We wanted to engage an audience that hasn’t had a lot of opportunity to do social good,” Enterkin says. “And that’s young professional men.” By selling unique and handcrafted bow ties, Lion’s Thread creates an opportunity for men’s fashion to have a voice. “It can be a talking point at a dinner party. It can bring empowerment to a conversation between some dudes in a cigar bar.”
“We wanted to engage an audience that hasn’t had a lot of opportunity to do social good,
and that’s young professional men.”
The Lion’s Thread motto is “Look Good, Do Good” and, first and foremost, as a business, its goal is to make the highest quality product in the market, which will welcome attention and discussion. But currently, nine women are gainfully employed in Uganda by a job that provides integrity, dignity, healthcare and school fees for their children through this endeavor. Proceeds also go to helping these women open bank accounts, a first for many of them, and teaching them how to save a portion of their earnings. That truly is “doing good.” By wearing one of these ties, people can say confidently that the fabric they are wearing is empowering women in Africa, and that’s the goal of the conversation.
But besides the colorful bow ties and extraordinary opportunity for social good, what makes this business stand out is its understanding of the development model. Enterkin explained that they live by The SOUP’s phrase, “A Hand Up, not a Hand Out.” She says the incredibly smart Ugandans she works with every day are fully capable of developing their own country, they just haven’t had access to the right resources.
At both The SOUP and Lion’s Thread, Enterkin asks, “How can we, as a team, provide access but not a hand out?” And Hulebak adds, “In no way do we want the words pity or charity to be connected to what we do, because we don’t believe that’s what it is.”
The goal of the Lion’s Thread model is to provide internal income streams for these women that are not donor-funded, in other words, income as an exchange for labor. “It seems second nature,” Enterkin says, “But development has been perverted in a lot of ways. It’s drifted to dependency, away from empowering people to want to seek opportunity, and we want to fight that as hard as possible.”
And while it may sound second-nature, working this practically into the plan was a challenge for the Lion’s Thread team. Initially, Enterkin and another Lion’s Thread member were in Uganda to solidify the early production process, but it became clear that the systems needed to change in order to reflect the “Hand Up” model.
“Development has been perverted in a lot of ways. It’s drifted to dependency, away from empowering people to want to seek opportunity, and we want to fight that as hard as possible.”
In order to have effective economic development, true empowerment of the women, and even viable programs, decisions needed to be made locally. “It was a huge learning curve,” Hulebak says, “It took a while for us to realize it, but there’s so much value in taking a step back and turning over that decision-making power.”
Today, there is a completely local leadership in Uganda, with Ugandan women acting as Head of Operations, Nabirye’s current position, Head of Finances, and Head Seamstress. These women make the business decisions, everything from employee of the month to what production should look like. “No one works for me,” Enterkin says. “I am nobody without Sarah. The locals are as important to our success as we are.”
As much as this revolutionary mindset is worth sharing, the team still works at expanding their marketing channels. Just a few years ago, they launched a Kickstarter campaign for initial capital expenses, followed by their website and social media launches. Next, the team was invited to participate in the Clinton Global Initiative, where Hulebak competed for funding on behalf of Lion’s Thread and was selected to receive startup funds.
Currently, they participate in an event called “Brews and Bowties” in the metro Atlanta area, which allows the team to tell their story and exhibit the bow ties firsthand in local breweries. The Lion’s Thread team also participates in fashion shows nationwide.
But most of all, Lion’s Thread’s goal is to generate brand ambassadors by cultivating their loyal fan base and turning them into marketing voices for the vision. “It’s no easy task,” Enterkin says. “But once we find a fan, we give them every opportunity to advocate for us, because that’s free advertisement, the best kind you could ask for.”
“Once we find a fan, we give them every opportunity to advocate for us.”
Moving forward, with both an Atlanta office and an office in eastern Uganda, Lion’s Thread hopes to increase partnerships with retail stores and opportunities in custom and wedding wear.
In Uganda, the team hopes not only to make more opportunities available for women like Nabirye, but also to expand their presence in the local community, presence that will lead to broader impact in areas like community health measures and village savings.
Here in the United States, Lion’s Thread’s desire is to grow into more than a menswear brand, to move into lifestyle brand clothing rather than just accessory items.
Both here and abroad, they hope to share their story and gain more ambassadors. And with impact like this from such a compelling model, it’s hard not to be a fan.
Just recently, Nabirye invited Enterkin over for tea in her new house, complete with running water and electricity, all made possible because of advocates and customers who believe in this mission. “She has so much pride in her new home,” Enterkin says, “And now, she has the dignity she deserves.”
So how can you get involved? Buy a bow tie, wear a bow tie and, most importantly, start a conversation.
If you’re a student, Lion’s Thread offers a College Ambassador program, providing a pack of resources, better known as “swag,” that will help you host an event and spread the word on your campus. If you’d like to do the same in your workplace, Lion’s Thread will provide those resources to you as well.
For more ways that you can become a Lion’s Thread ambassador, or to find out more about how Lion’s Thread is empowering the Ugandan community, check out their website www.lionsthread.com or follow them on Twitter @lionsthread. For more information on The African Soup, visit theafricansoup.org.
Spread the word
Tell Lion’s Thread that you heard about them through The Tin Can Wire by entering the coupon code “tincanwire15” and you’ll get a 15% discount on your first bow tie when you order at lionsthread.com