When Stella Romana Airoldi first set foot in Uganda, she had no idea she was about to embark on an even greater journey to help bring education and jobs to the women she met there. Building off of an existing product she saw being made by the women in northern Uganda, Stella founded 22STARS, a brand that stretches far beyond the jewelry it creates. Each piece is handmade from 100% recycled materials, and the proceeds help women support their families, while making education accessible to their children. In addition, the women who work for the brand receive financial training, social support, health training, and a variety of other classes.
1. Tell us a little bit about how your business got started?
In 2009, I was in Uganda doing research for my thesis about girl resistance soldiers in the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army). I visited an internal displacement camp, and I met women who were making recycled jewelry—very simple paper necklaces. So, to support them, I ordered a big box of jewelry and gave it to my friends and family.
Then in 2011, some friends of mine said, “We know that they can make those necklaces, but can they make something more interesting?”
I started ordering customized products, and people started saying they were “so cool,” and asked me why didn’t I start selling them in a store. So, I went to a store, but was told I needed to have a business first. I later went to the Dutch Chamber of Commerce and got my business registered. At that time, I thought I would just help the women in Uganda as a side job.
At that time, I thought I would just help the women in Uganda as a side job.
But in 2013, I realized I didn’t know anything about running a business—because I had studied law—so I got a scholarship to do a course at the University in Rotterdam, and they taught me everything about marketing, websites textiles, and importing things.
I set up my website, and by the end of 2013, I was going to a lot of markets in The Netherlands. But I realized that scaling was a problem, because when I sold out of something, and I would ask the women in Uganda to make it again, colors wouldn’t be exactly the same, the necklaces would be longer or shorter, or the beads would suddenly be a different size. I realized that if I really wanted to continue with this and grow, I would have to go back to Uganda. So at the end of 2014, I went back to Uganda and improved 22STARS.
2.What does a normal workday look like for you?
A normal workday looks like everything. It’s always different. I spend a couple of months per year in Uganda, and when I’m there I mostly focus on quality control and improving products and communication with the women. I see what needs to be done. For instance, I just started a project to get school fees paid for their kids.
When I’m in Uganda I really focus on the women themselves. Every day I go to the slums, I take pictures of the women, interview them and get a better picture of what is possible, moving forward. If I’m not in Uganda, I do most of my work from behind my computer. Like photoshoots, editing pictures, writing stories, designing new products, coming up with new products, or editing material I’ve collected in Uganda.
It can really be anything because at the moment I’m running the business all by myself. So I have to take care of everything: product design, sales, marketing, sending out new orders, etc.
Because I don’t have a 9-5, sometimes I work at night, and sometimes I work in the morning, and sometimes there are 2-3 days where I’m traveling when I do hardly any work, or I just brainstorm in my head. My workday is always different.
Having my iPhone is really important for me. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to reply to emails or get my orders. I use my own websites with WordPress and WooCommerce, and I also sell on Etsy and some other platforms, so I need my laptop to update products. Then, another tool I use is my Canon camera, which I use to shoot movies and pictures. Regarding applications, I use iMovie to edit my movies on my phone and Instagram or ColorPic to edit my pictures.
4. How did you find your first customers?
I found my first customers before I even started the business—when I went back to The Netherlands, I gave the jewelry to all of my friends and family. They didn’t buy it from me, but they were interested in it, so the next year they offered to give me money to get some bracelets for them and for gifts for their friends, as well.
After that, I started working with a program for university startups, where they suggested that I should go to markets and see how people react. So, on Sundays, I would go to the markets in Amsterdam, and I’d have my own stall.
It wasn’t very profitable, and I realized that a lot of people didn’t realize that you pay taxes on your income, as well as import taxes and shipping and handling costs. So sometimes they would be like, “Why is your product 5 euros when in Uganda it’s only 1 euro or 2 euros?” But it was still nice to have my first experience with customers to see what they were willing to pay, or not pay, and what kind of colors and designs they liked.
5. What would you suggest for others starting businesses like yours, as far as getting the word out there?
I would definitely suggest for people who want to start a business to go out and sell their product at a market. Even if you don’t make a profit, you still get a lot of customer experience, and you can talk to your customers right there, which is really helpful for an online store.
I would also recommend getting fliers and asking people to sign up for your newsletter. Get them involved in a competition where they can win something, or give them information about a sale or the products you have. It’s a good way to get the word out. Then, of course, have your own website and see if you can collaborate with bloggers or magazines.
Then, of course, have your own website and see if you can collaborate with bloggers or magazines.
6. What marketing efforts have worked for you and what haven’t?
The best marketing effort I’ve found is to partner up with bigger companies. I don’t have a large marketing budget, but what I’ve done is partner with a website called Discovered, and they sell products from different countries and different types of artisans, so they put more effort into marketing and they have a higher margin.
I also sometimes give my products to samplers, like bloggers, magazines, or actors, so the website can get more exposure. I’ve also reached out to television shows, as well, because they’re so much bigger than I am.
Another marketing strategy is just selling products at festivals and markets. Sometimes I make a profit, and sometimes I don’t, but it’s always good to be present. People really like to see that you’re active with your business. Even if it rains, and no one was buying my jewelry, I would still be publishing on the website of the event. Other ways, of course, if you’re trying to get people to view your product, is for you to do sponsorships for events. I would do goodie bags for some companies because more people would see my products and hear my story.
7. What is the biggest pain of running a small business? What’s the easiest?
What’s easy is that I can be very flexible, since I’m doing everything myself. I can do anything I want, and I can always manage expectations with my clients.
The biggest pain is, of course, that I have to do everything myself. Sometimes it can be a bit much, like photo shoots, uploading products, making new products, getting the word out. Even if I find volunteers, it’s difficult to explain to them exactly what’s in my head, or what I want. Plus, a lot of people don’t want to do things for free, they want to get paid, and if you’re a small business, you really have to be aware of your expenses.
8. Tell us about your team! What is the best part of the people who work with your business?
The best part of my team is that all the women who I work with are extremely inspiring. Sometimes I feel like I’m learning more from them, than they are from me.
And all the women I work with have overcome so many challenges during their lives. Most of them fled from northern Uganda during the LRA and Kony. Most of them are HIV-positive, live in extreme poverty, and had children when they were teenagers. Some of them already have kids who are 18 or 19 years old, so they had them when they were 12. I’ve learned how not to give up, from the ladies, and how to fight and to keep going on.
I have more people involved when I’m not in Uganda, now, so things run well and I print and post orders so that everyone is aware of what is going on. I think it’s very important to be transparent with your team. My team in The Netherlands is basically only my mom. She handles all of the shipping for me, so when I get a new collection, I ship it from Uganda to The Netherlands, and when I get an order I send my mom an email and she sends it for me. I have an extremely small team. I sometimes have people to help me with translation or photo shoots, but that’s usually a one-time thing. I also have ambassadors who are trying to get the word out for me (which also counts as a marketing strategy).
9. Is this your first shot at entrepreneurialism?
Yes, this is the first shot I’ve had at entrepreneurialism. But I gained some experience when I joined SIFE (Students In Free Enterprise) where we set up projects inside and outside The Netherlands meant to help people rise above poverty. For example, we had projects with artists and fishermen in Bolivia, and one in Madagascar, and a project in The Netherlands that works to help people in prison build their SVC’s. That was the first time I discovered how small businesses can help people get out of poverty and it later helped to inspire me to start 22Stars. I have a background working with human rights and a background in law. My parents are in the medicine world, so I didn’t really have entrepreneurialism introduced to me, but like I said – you learn along the way—talk to people and get started.
I have a background working with human rights and a background in law. My parents are in the medicine world, so I didn’t really have entrepreneurialism introduced to me, but like I said – you learn along the way—talk to people and get started.
Of course, it’s difficult to answer because other people know what they like. But people really love hearing the stories and about the process of making the jewelry, along with the stories about the women and what they’ve gone through. And what they’re doing in their lives. I think storytelling is very important, but then also having good pictures, because if you don’t have good product pictures, people can’t see what your product looks like and it’s not going to help you.
I think storytelling is very important, but then also having good pictures, because if you don’t have good product pictures, people can’t see what your product looks like, and it’s not going to help you.
I really love wearing my own jewelry and I think that also really helps, and I think people really like to see that. It’s my style, and I love it, and I wouldn’t like to design jewelry that I wasn’t comfortable wearing.
11. What are some of the greatest things that have come about since you decided to venture out on your own?
So far, what I really like is that the lives of the women I’m working with have improved.
People have gone back to school, people have built their own houses. That’s the best reward and the best thing that has come out of the business; and then also inspiring people I meet along the way, and conversations I have with people.
Not having a 9-5 job, but working any hour of any day and being able to work at my own pace. I really like that. Sometimes I get up at 5AM or 6AM and I have my coffee and start working, and sometimes I have a late night out or I want to go to the gym in the morning, so I work later in the day. I have my own hours, the business varies, and the biggest reward is always seeing the improvement of lives in Africa, and also sponsoring kids, and paying their school fees.
12. What do you like to do when you’re not working?
Like I said, a lot of my work I would also consider my hobby, so I like to see what other jewelry brands exist, or what kind of jewelry people are wearing. I also like trying new things and taking pictures. But if it’s not work-related, I love outdoor sports like hiking, swimming, kite surfing, skiing, and snowboarding. So I kind of like all outdoor sports. When I’m in Uganda I like to meet up with people, go for dinner or a drink, or I really like cooking.
13. Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs that are looking to start their own thing?
I would recommend to just get started. Just give it a try and see how it goes. Talk to a lot of people and see if there’s a market. Get advice, get feedback, and if you don’t want to take a financial risk that’s too big, I would recommend that you get a part-time job where you’ll still have time to work on your business 3-4 times per week. It takes a lot of discipline, so if you just quit your job and suddenly have a lot of free time, it can be hard. But it helps a lot if you go to meetings with other startups and entrepreneurs so you can get ideas and follow a course, and just really talk to people.
14. Are you involved in any communities or groups specific to your business?
Not really. The most active community I’m involved with is the Digital Nomads Community on Facebook. They help with tips for how to edit videos or pictures or how to manage my website, things like that. Then, of course, I also know some NGOs here in Uganda, so while I’m here I visit some orphanages, and also others projects to see what works or doesn’t work. Also, because I studied human rights, I have a big human rights community, people who know how it is on the field. It’s more like individual people, than communities, though.
15. What is your biggest piece of financial advice for small business owners like yourself? Resources?
Really start small and take small steps. For example, don’t just go and order 1,000 business cards. As you improve and get feedback, you’ll probably want a different design on your business card, or you’ll want to have different text printed on your fliers. If you already have 1000, that’s a pity. With my jewelry I really started to order small products until I knew which products were doing well, and which ones I really liked. And then, step by step, I started to order larger quantities. Because you don’t want to get stuck with a lot of stock that you can’t get rid of.
Also, try to do as much as you can yourself, and see where you can cut costs. For example, I do photo shoots myself, but when I first started my website, I kept getting hacked because I had a free team. It’s important that you spend money on security and someone to help you on things you don’t know much about.
Start small, and save your first sales and reinvest in your company. It’s not easy, but I would definitely say, have a second job or something that allows you to still pay your rent and eat. It does take a lot of sacrifices, though.
16. What is one thing you wish you knew 1 year ago?
I think I would have liked to have more insight into the mindset of the people that I work with in Uganda, to understand how to communicate. Now it’s going a lot better, but a year ago I had no clue that they didn’t understand me if I was talking about the colors for the Spring/Summer/Winter collection—because in Uganda, there’s only the rainy season and the dry season.
Also, I didn’t realize what it would be like to work with women who are HIV-positive, who have to take medicine and sometimes to go to the hospital. You can’t be too strict, but on the other hand I also have big clients in the States who ask me to deliver on time. If I don’t deliver on time then the pop-up store, or whatever, is gone and they don’t need the products anymore.
One year ago I would have loved to know how to handle that.
Also, having two groups of women, from the beginning, who I could have worked with would have been handy to have as a backup, if one group couldn’t make something.