INTERVIEW WITH CRISSI MANN OF PROJECT BEAD
What is the background of Project Bead?
Project Bead is a US non-profit. We sell bracelets to raise money for children’s education. So our slogan is, “Educating Children One Bead at a Time.”
When did Project Bead start?
It started 5 years ago in college when I traveled to Ghana for study abroad and we met these children at a school. They were vulnerable children who didn’t have any means to pay for school. The students have funding up until high school only. If they didn’t get funding for high school, they would have to drop out. They had all these bracelets lying around because becoming a bead maker in Ghana is considered a “typical” job there. There were buckets of beads everywhere and my professor came up with this idea.
What if we brought these bracelets to the US, sell them and then send the money back so that the children can go to high school?
This just started as a small project and is now a social enterprise – a business that we are now running. Who makes the bracelets? The bracelets are made from local women in the village. We order from them quarterly, so we have four different seasons of bracelets. They ship them to the US, usually on Delta flights. We import them, sell them and then send the money back. We are now funding fifteen students.
What are the bracelets made out of?
Most of them are recycled glass. They smash it up until it’s powder, put it in a mold and fire it in a kiln. They usually come out all different sizes because each mold is different. Once they are fired, they will paint some of them. The plain ones are more popular, but we want to keep the printed ones because it’s more ethnic and stays with the roots of where they are from.
So 100% of the profit goes directly to the children’s education?
100%. We have very low administrative costs, like the website or the string to make the bracelets.
Are the students involved with the construction of the bracelets?
Well the students used to make them, but now that our orders have grown, they can’t keep up with it and we don’t want them taking time away from school. We pay women in the villages above minimum wage to make them. That ‘s amazing.
So you’re also creating jobs at the same time?
How many of you are involved?
About 15 volunteers with five people who serve as Board of Directors.
Who are the others?
Jenna and Laura who lives in Boston and Alissa who also lives in New York. We are all on the board. We also have several volunteers from different universities who make the organization run.
How do you get universities involved?
I went to Bentley, that’s where it all started. My Professor, Diane Kellogg, spear headed the whole Ghana project. She goes to Ghana three+ times a year. She is so good at recruiting people from her classes and motivating students to get involved that its turned into an internship opportunity for students. We had 30 people at one point when I was at school.
How about getting involved with other universities?
We developed a strategy where we created a sales person role. We reach out to students at different universities. And say, “Do you want to sale bracelets?” We give them the opportunity to make money from of it. You can buy a bracelet for $5 and sell it for $10 and the other $5 you can donate to a charity of your choice. It’s growing – we just started it two years ago.
So the bracelets are only sold for $5?
To resellers and wholesalers. We want it to be affordable for more people to get involved and see the potential return on investment
Do you sell at any stores in Manhattan?
The day that I met you we got our first vendor in NY. It’s a yoga store called Golden Bridge Yoga. We just started cold walking in Manhattan and asking stores to buy bracelets a couple months ago. But we have a few places already in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts. They are all listed on our website. From what I have seen, many of your bracelets come in different prints.
Do they have a meaning?
They don’t mean anything different, but a lot of the painted ones are local Ghanaian style bracelets. That’s just the trend in Ghana; they pile them all up the wrist.
What do you think is the hardest part about running a non-profit?
The hardest part is that it’s not our full time job; we are all volunteers. We all have full time jobs. I work in Finance downtown so we spend our nights and weekends on this. We have a time constraint, but give it all of our free time.
How are the living conditions in Ghana?
It’s just so tough to see. You get impatient and you just want to be successful now. But it takes time to grow a business.
How many times have you gone?
Our goal is to go every other year. I have gone twice so far.
What do you do when you are there?
We visit the kids and see how they are doing. We meet with all of our bead vendors, the women who make our bracelets and decide, our new designs for the next year. We preorder everything. Our plan for the trip to Ghana next week (4 volunteers are going!) is to partner with new schools where we can find more children to support.
Is that hard to find schools to partner with?
Yes, because there is a communication barrier. You can’t just walk onto the school grounds and say, “Hey, I want to fund your kids’ education.” It is all about relationships and trust.
Do you think the students realize the impact Project Bead is making?
Yes definitely. The kids love the bracelets. They feel like they took part in funding their education since they used to string the bracelets.
So they really strive for an education?
When we were there, they would get into their uniforms on a Saturday and read all day. You would never see a child in the US do that. That was the one thing that struck me the first time I was there. These kids are amazing. And in Ghana there is no such thing as public school – there is no free education.
No free education?
Well, no. Parents have to pay for uniforms and books. If you do not have money for that, that causes a problem.
Do you find that many students would like to take part in a trip like this?
Definitely. We would like to offer students/volunteers incentives as well. If they sell 100 bracelets over the entire year, you get to go to Ghana. Part of the profits from the bracelets will go towards their flight. This is a program we would love to start soon.
Does traveling to Ghana truly change your life?
Yes, it changes your life; you become fully invested after.
What do you hope for Project Bead in the future?
We would love a big partnership and to continue to get the word out there. Right now we are on the ground and in small stores, which is great and we are able to fund the kids, but we want to continue to grow. We want to become a major corporation and fund as many kids as possible. We would love to fund a million children if we could.
What do you want people to know or understand about Project Bead?
We are not a charity. We are a social enterprise that not only funds children in Ghana, but provides you with a beautiful bracelet or a product to sell in your store/fundraiser with a 50% profit margin. We want to partner with the world to educate children.