Gifts With A Global Impact

One of the aspects of UC Santa Barbara’s entrepreneurial program that makes me the most proud is that we encourage students to start all types of ventures, including non-profits and B corps driven by a social-impact mission.

One such venture that arose from UCSB’s program in 2011 was Because of Hope (BOH), co-founded by Natalie Ruiz, along with fellow UCSB students Allison Butin and Nikki Day. BOH is a 501(c)(3) non-profit which empowers Ugandan widows and orphans to emerge from poverty by creating sustainable, micro-startups. Per Natalie, “When we started BOH, we didn’t understand the gravity of what it would become. I was young, fresh out of college and bursting with passion to change the world. I have since learned that the realities of poverty are harsh and unforgiving. Single mothers fight to survive against the obstacles of unemployment, poor education, drought, and famine. Abandoned or widowed, these are the realities for most of our women.”

In Uganda, polygamy and other factors make it common for women to head large families as the sole provider, causing a significant disparity between their income and household expenses. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the number of rural single mothers is on the rise in Uganda. As such, BOH’s mission is more relevant than ever.

This holiday season, if you’re looking for a gift that will have an outsized impact, consider purchasing some of the handcrafted items created by BOH’s artisans.

John Greathouse: Natalie – it has been so gratifying to watch what you, and your team, have accomplished over the past decade. What were the events that led you to launch Because of Hope, which I believe you did while you were still a student, correct? (Natalies remarks have been lightly edited for brevity and readability.) 

Natalie Ruiz: Yes. During college, I made several trips to Uganda and I met a Ugandan NGO called Widows and Orphans Community Action Plan (WOCAP). They were working with some incredible women, giving them opportunities to earn income, primarily through making paper-bead jewelry. Most of these women were single-moms, raising an average of six kids. Their circumstances were challenging, and yet, they had this incredible joy and hope in God. They were so inspiring!

I started selling their jewelry and during my senior year, I knew I was supposed to start a nonprofit to partner with WOCAP. We wrote the business plan in your Entrepreneurship class, and soon after graduated, we founded Because of Hope, a name inspired by the women’s hope. 

Greathouse: I knew you pitched the idea in our class, but I didn’t realize this was your first step in (forming) your venture. That’s fantastic.

OK, so your first initiative was to help Ugandan widows sell their crafts in the U.S. I recall that in the early days, you’d take empty suitcases with you on trips to Uganda, which you’d fill up with merchandise (to avoid shipping costs). Very entrepreneurial of you. What other bootstrapping tactics were required to sustain the business?

Ruiz: Yes, lots of bootstrapping over the years. In Uganda, we currently work with 83 families and most of them participate in the Beads Project. But when we started in the U.S., we didn’t have any startup capital. So, we signed up as vendors at holiday events to sell the women’s jewelry. Within a few months, we sold over $10,000 which gave us some funding to get more established.

Greathouse: You’ve expanded your programs to include agricultural micro-businesses, education, which has included offering scholarships. You’ve granted over 250 scholarships and counting, which is incredible. The students are obviously not the only beneficiaries, but their families, employers, etc. all benefit from your efforts. Was it an organic shift to include education in your mission?

Ruiz: Yes, in 2013 when we started the program, it was clear that many of our families valued education but couldn’t afford it. Education in Uganda isn’t free, and yet it is so important in overcoming poverty. Our scholarship program BSSP (BOH Student Scholarship Program) provides scholarships from primary school through university, and we typically sponsor students long term. So, our students have the opportunity to reach high levels of education that can lead to quality jobs. This impacts their lives, as well as their families and their community. 

Greathouse: . If I understand the agricultural program correctly, your focus isn’t just on improved farming techniques, but you also teach women to essentially run a small business that involves crops and livestock. How does augmenting your clients’  food security compliment the totality of BOH’s vision?

Ruiz: Well, as you mentioned John, food security is a significant issue. Our crop projects empower our families to increase their food security at home, while also giving them the flexibility to sell the surplus for income. By growing different crops and raising pigs and chickens, our women essentially have more opportunities to earn income. Agriculture has its risks, and just like a diversified portfolio is wise with investments, so is diversified income when it comes to farming in Uganda.

Greathouse: Have there been any initiatives that just didn’t work or turned out totally different from what you initially envisioned? If so, what learnings did you apply to rolling out future programs?  

Ruiz: Thankfully, we haven’t had any program completely flop in Uganda. But we have definitely improved our program development over the years. Our women are so hardworking, entrepreneurial, and gifted. The more ownership and input they have in developing new programs, the better. This is why our agriculture projects are some of our most sustainable projects, because the women have the most ownership in their success.

Greathouse: I’d love to hear any advice you have for emerging entrepreneurs who are considering launching a non-profit or B corp. Is there anything you wish you had spent more time thinking about in your early days, any mistakes you’d advise others to be wary of?  

Ruiz: Learn from others. It is easy to get passionately lost in your big ideas. But be teachable and learn from those who have gone before you. I have been so blessed by mentors and people who have shared their nonprofit experiences. My advice is be teachable, and be willing to pay it forward when others want to learn from you. 

Greathouse: I’m sure your days are filled with hard work, punctuated with heartwarming stories of lives changed. If you’re comfortable doing so, can you share some especially impactful / unexpected anecdotes that have arisen from BOH’s efforts?   

Ruiz: Most of our families are led by women who have been widowed due to death or abandonment. One of the most rewarding things is seeing them and their families thrive. Gerald, a student in BSSP, applied for a scholarship after being forced to drop out of private school. His father had passed away and his family could no longer afford his school fees. Now through BSSP, he is attending university and hopes to become an engineer. His mother Lovisa has also been very successful in our Agriculture Projects and has been able to improve their family’s food security and sources of income. Seeing real lives impacted… that’s what’s so rewarding.

Greathouse: That’s a great story… and Gerald and Lovisa are just two of the many folks whose lives you’ve transformed. Good for you.

It’s great that your mission nourishes you, because keeping   a non-profit solvent can be more challenging than raising money for a conventional startup. Do you have any words of wisdom to share with young social entrepreneurs? To this end, what metrics do you use to communicate your impact and demonstrate the return on your donors’ philanthropic “investments?”

Ruiz: Be sincere. It’s not just about the money. It’s about inviting people to be a part of the mission. Most people won’t ever travel to Uganda, but by partnering with us, they can directly impact the lives of people halfway around the world. We track program metrics like animals, crops, income, scholarships, etc., but we usually communicate this in the context of testimonies. Our families are real people, so we love sharing real stories about how they are actually being impacted. Be sincere in your fundraising, and care more about people than numbers.

Greathouse: Great advice. What is in store for you as a social entrepreneur, and BOH as an organization, in the coming decade? How do you envision your involvement and the organization’s mission evolving?

Ruiz: I hope to be involved with BOH long term. Empowerment takes time and building relationships in Uganda is a big part of that. I want to see our families be more fully self-sustained with everything they need to thrive. We have made a lot of progress, but we still have a ways to go.

Greathouse: This has been great Natalie, what is the best way for people to learn more, and potentially support BOH’s lifechanging programs? 

Ruiz: With the holidays coming up, people can buy meaningful gifts made by our women or donate online at becauseofhope.org. It doesn’t take traveling to Uganda to have an impact, and we are thankful for everyone who invests in the empowerment of our families. Thanks for your support, John. It has been great to chat with you today!

You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse.

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