Empowering African women through fashion

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Kat Roemer sat in front of her computer as she began her quest for a summer internship, scouring internships.com for something that grabbed her attention. And something did.

Entranced by the story of another young woman’s experience in Ghana, Roemer applied for an internship with a company named Della whose main goal is to empower women through selling their products, such as purses and sleeves, and giving them an education.

The bags shown here are examples of products made by women in Ghana and sold through Della. Photo courtesy Della

Della is a business based in Los Angeles that sells textile products created by women in Hohoe, Ghana. The woman whose story captured Roemer was Tina Tangalakis, the founder of Della.

Tangalakis worked as a costume designer wardrobe stylist at the age of 20 for the entertainment business. After a few years, she decided she wanted to do something different with her life.

“It clicked in my head,” Tangalakis said. “I wanted to design for myself, on my own terms.”

Tangalakis quit working for the entertainment industry and began to do volunteer work. Eventually in 2009 she volunteered for a trip that took her to Ghana, not expecting anything extraordinary to happen.

“I went with the sole purpose of volunteering,” Tangalakis said.

When Tangalakis arrived in Ghana she was immediately shocked by the textiles the local vendors had, the bright colors and the women who sat at the side of the road with their sewing machines, waiting for work. She commissioned a seamstress to make four bags for her sisters, a bag which she designed. Upon seeing the finished product and how fashionable it was, she decided to take 50 bags home and sold all of them within two weeks.

Her simple idea turned into what Della is today, a business with a developmental aspect. Della employs 30 women in Ghana who create their products; in return the women are paid, taught useful skills and given an education. Della helps them learn how to manage the money they earn, open a savings account and is in the process of getting a school teacher in the town of Hohoe so the women can get the equivalent of an American high school diploma.

Della also has a program where the seamstresses teach kids in a local orphanage how to sew, a skill that can turn into a career in Ghana.

Starting a business working toward developing members in another country wasn’t easy, but Tangalakis has no regrets.

“Any entrepreneur would tell you that every day there’s a challenge to overcome,” Tangalakis said. “There were a lot of challenges at first, but it was completely worth it.”

Roemer, a sophomore from Pasadena, Calif., had a positive experience working with Della as their sales intern.

“What my job was, which I absolutely loved, was to get in contact with buyers from either stores we were already selling in, but mostly stores that we weren’t and try to get our product into the market,” Roemer said.

Della had success that summer as its product went into Apple stores. Della didn’t only give Roemer a positive experience as an intern; it also gave her a love for companies with similar missions and purposes as Della.

When it came time to leave California and come back to Utah for school, Roemer contacted another business that works with women in Africa and became its campus representative for BYU. This company also uses fashion to empower women and give them employment, but instead of marketing textiles it uses recycled paper to make jewelry. Its name is 31 Bits.

In 2007, Kallie Dovel traveled to Uganda to volunteer at an orphanage. These plans fell through, and she found herself with a lot of spare time on her hands, according to Jenna Holdgrafer, director of involvement at 31 Bits.

Dovel saw women making beads out of recycled paper on the streets. They used the beads to make jewelry, and by the end of the summer they asked Dovel if she would sell their products back in the states. She took a box of their jewelry home with her and sold it quickly. She and four friends then came up with the idea to start the business, originally employing five women in Uganda to make the jewelry.

“Four years later we have 110 women in Uganda and we’re in 250 stores,” Holdgrafer said.

Like Della, 31 Bits is a business with a purpose to not just sell products, but to educate the women. 31 Bits employs women in Uganda while giving them business training and English lessons, creating new opportunities for the employees.

“What 31 Bits tries to do is give them a job and give them an education so they can be successful,” Holdgrafer said.

Even the company’s name holds special meaning as it tries to give these women the skills they need to have their own successful business. The number 31 comes from Proverbs 31, which talks about a virtuous woman and all the work she can do, and “bits” comes from bits of paper.

“We’re trying to create more Proverbs 31 women in Uganda,” Holdgrafer said.

31 Bits and Della work to empower women to become self-sufficient through their programs rather than creating a dependency through giving the women all they need. The companies do this while using skills and talents the women already possess.

“Both take a skill and a tradition that these women have,” Roemer said. “For example, in Ghana there are these amazing prints that we don’t have here in America. They are incredibly colorful and pigmented, and these women have learned from generations past how to sew and how to do it well.”

While the process has been an amazing experience for Roemer, the best part for Tangalakis is that her designs go toward a greater purpose and she is not stuck working for the entertainment business.

“The most rewarding part is knowing that as young women, putting all this work together, we’re supporting other young women with families and goals,” Tangalakis said.

This sentiment was shared by Roemer and Holdgrafer, showing that these companies not only empower women in Ghana and Uganda but also the women who create and work for them.

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