Passion Play: Make A Cause Your Calling

Down to Earth

Passion Play: Make A Cause Your Calling

By Alyssa Giacobbe

Brittany Merrill Underwood didn’t grow up wanting to save the world. That happened after sophomore year of college. During a reluctant “summer adventure” with her two high school friends, she found herself in Uganda where she spent three months living in a small village on the country’s western border, teaching English to locals.

While she was there, she met someone who would change the course of her life—Sarah, a 23-year-old Ugandan woman and mom to 24 orphans (Yes that’s 24 children. A remarkable undertaking by any standards.) who’d recently all lost their home. “Sarah would regularly skip meals to feed them; she sacrificed everything for them,” recalls Underwood, now 31. “I only spent 10 minutes with her, but even that little time made me realize I had so many resources at my disposal and hadn’t used them for anyone but myself.”

In the beginning, this epiphany felt like a burden. Over time it became a passion. “Being young and idealistic, I figured I’d just give them a few hundred dollars to get a new home,” says Underwood. It soon became clear that it wasn’t quite that simple. Sadly, Sarah’s story isn’t an anomaly. There are thousands of women just like her. And with that realization, Underwood knew she was meant to do more.

Back at school, she created a video telling Sarah’s story & launched a fundraiser for the cause. She raised an incredible sum of $1 million to build what became a three-floor orphanage & women’s shelter in Sarah’s village. And she didn’t stop there! Underwood turned her focus to the circumstances that had led to Sarah’s situation: too many women, too few jobs.

After graduating in 2007 Underwood launched the Akola Project. “Akola” means “she works” in the native dialect of Sarah’s village. The Akola Project is a non-profit aimed at helping women who are considered “unemployable,” train for & find jobs that foster personal & financial independence.

Many of these women had “fallen through the gap,” says Underwood. They couldn’t find work because of criminal or medical history, family demands or extreme poverty. Akola’s three work centers—two in Uganda and one in Dallas—provide women vocational & leadership training in addition to helping them secure employment. Jobs include making pillows, jewelry & woven totes under the Akola Projects brand.

100% of profits are reinvested in the local communities. In Uganda, this has meant 23 clean water wells, 2 vocational training centers & independence for thousands of women and children.  “Women and girls are most vulnerable, not only in Africa, but all around the world,” Underwood laments. “By helping a woman, you’re helping her entire family,” she adds. “Many woman in Uganda are responsible for 10 children. Which means that if you save 400 women from starvation, you’re really saving 4,000 people in total.”

The Akola Project was designed to make it super easy for people to give back. Buying from Akola is just like making a donation. This fall, Akola Project will launch in Neiman Marcus stores. It will be the retailer’s first ever “100% give-back” brand. And Akola also helps interested volunteers create their own online fundraising campaigns, with all proceeds benefiting Akola’s community development programs.

Underwood’s efforts don’t stop with financial support. She believes in a hands-on approach to giving back and stepping outside your comfort zone to find your passion & purpose. Simply put, showing up & having a presence is the best way to give back. “There are so many ways to care for and uplift women who’ve had a difficult life,” says Underwood. (Btw, as if Akola wasn’t enough, she also teaches a course on social innovation at Southern Methodist University, her alma mater.)

But why stop there? Underwood is also working with the Bush Center’s First Ladies’ Initiative to consult African First Ladies on growing ethical supply chains like the Akola Project has done in Uganda. To bring the initiative to life, Akola recently launched “experience trips” to Uganda. These trips offer travelers the chance to get involved with the work centers & community to see their aid in action. (Details and applications for annual trips are posted once dates are confirmed at; the 2017 tripis currently in the planning stages.) “Sometimes I talk to women who don’t know how to get involved or feel that they don’t have the time so they write a check instead,” Underwood says. “Of course, money is great and necessary. But getting involved in the story will make it a bigger part of your heart.  And that’s when real change happens.”