Fashion For Good: Interview With Jessie Simonson, Co-Founder Of 31 Bits
Meet Jessie Simonson, Co-Founder Of 31 Bits
Jessie Simonson is a creative through and through. A traveler, art director, and storyteller, Jessie is the co-founder of 31 Bits – an accessory line ethically produced by artisans around the world. From earning a college degree in cultural anthropology to becoming a social entrepreneur, we are ever impressed by Jessie’s energy and passion for pursuing social change. We recently had the privilege of sitting down and talking about her inspiration behind the brand, the challenges they have faced building an international business, and the value of partnership to her business success.
Of all the places in the world, what inspired you about Uganda originally and most recently about Bali? What was the catalyst for working in these countries and are there other communities on your radar?
My co-founders and I were first drawn to Uganda because of the artistry. In 2007, our now designer, Kallie, was on a trip to Uganda where she met women making jewelry from paper. When she brought it back to our college, we instantly fell in love. The product was incredible and we had never seen anything like it. The other founders and I took turns living in Uganda, getting to know the artisans’ stories, so many of which were full of heartbreak and despair. But we never saw them as hopeless, we saw them as skilled artists who could use their talents to change the course of their lives.
Seven years later, as we started exploring new places and products, we met metal jewelry artisans from Java who were living in Bali to find fair work. The market for metal jewelry has decreased in Indonesia, but these dedicated artisans continued to master their skill. We are honored to help them preserve their art form by designing pieces that give their traditional techniques a modern twist. As for new communities, you’ll just have to wait and see…
To date, your impact has been focused on providing economic opportunity and sustainable income for your artisan partners, but I understand you’re now researching education, health, and business programs as well. Tell us more about that growth.
Since the beginning of 31 Bits, we’ve always looked at the outcome first. We ask questions like: What will be the impact of working with these artisans? What are their needs and goals for themselves, their families, and their communities? The scariest question we ask is – Is there a chance this could have a negative impact?
Our biggest priority is to make sure our artisans are treated lovingly and paid a fair income for the products they are making. This income enables them to send their children to school, provide food, a home, and healthcare for their families. In Uganda, our five-year program includes health education, finance training, counseling, business training and mentorship, and family programs. We come alongside each artisan to identify the skills and resources she has to start a business that could thrive in Uganda and help build the local economy. Our business mentors coach them as they start these businesses so they have a sustainable income after graduation. Over the last 3 years, we’ve graduated 53 artisans out of our program, all who have sustainable businesses and incomes outside of 31 Bits!
In Indonesia, we’re building relationships with our artisans and their families to better understand what their dreams are for their community and how we can play a part. Indonesia is rich with beautiful resources and incredible talent, but corruption in the supply chain and poor infrastructure has limited their access to the global market. We’re able to provide our artisans with access to fair, safe, and joyful working conditions while putting their artistry in front of you.
You have built a truly international team. What cultural barriers have you faced and how has the diversity of your team made your business stronger?
My cofounders and I would not be where we’re at today without a solid team behind us. One of the biggest challenges we faced when building an international team is that typically our directors from the West would only sign up for an 18-month contract. It takes time to build relationships and when our team is constantly evolving, it felt like we were starting over every year and a half. That’s why we have a team of Ugandan, bilingual managers who help run all of our programming. They share our values and heart for empowering artisans and have built the foundation of our program. We have important values and standards that every member on our team understands such as love, transparency, equality, and innovation.
You’re clearly a creative – from art director to storyteller, where do you find your inspiration and how do you move through the dry spells and road blocks that we all face at various points in our career?
More than a creative, I would describe myself as a maximizer. Owning a company has all kinds of ups and downs, but I’ve learned how to take the resources around me and put them into action. It doesn’t matter if we have a small budget or a short timeline, I try to dig into the creativity and resources present in our team and make it into something that will blow our customers away!
My inspiration comes from three places: Jesus, the outdoors, and my friends. Jesus keeps me going, the outdoors get me up and moving, and my friends push me to be better! I surround myself with creative people, from designers to photographers to musicians. We’re constantly picking each other’s brains and helping each other out. Whether we’re joining forces on a project or enjoying a glass of rosé, my friends inspire me everyday.
Did you ever imagine you would run your own business? What are some of the greatest challenges and joys of being a social entrepreneur?
I’m the daughter of a pastor and a therapist, so needless to say, being a business owner was never on my radar. But now that I’m here, I’ve got the bug. Of course there are countless challenges – understanding the market, keeping up with technology, putting weeks into a campaign that flops – but the joy that comes with a social business overcomes every challenge. Landing a big account that allows you to give 50 more artisans the opportunity to make an income, watching a woman go from poverty to being a business owner, developing and growing a team that eventually becomes like family. There’s nothing that compares to this kind of joy. We might be nine years into 31 Bits, but I have a feeling this is still the beginning. We have all kinds of dreams for what’s ahead.
How has building 31 Bits – from design aesthetic, to artisan partnerships, to customer preferences – influenced other aspects of your life? How are the values you’ve built in to your business reflected in other aspects of your life?
One of the values I’ve learned is to be present in the moment. Between owning a company, traveling, speaking engagements and my social life, my life is FULL. I’m guilty of running from one event to the next, making sure to post some pretty photos of each activity on social media, and ending the day realizing I never had a real conversation. Our artisan partnerships and our international development programs are born from relationships. By being present in the moment and having real conversations with people, we are able to recognize both talent and need, and do something about it. This has changed my day-to-day routine. When I sit down for a meal with someone, my phone goes in my purse and they have my fullest attention. If I meet you at an event, I won’t be looking past your shoulder for the next person to talk to. I want to know your name, your story, and what makes you tick.
And lastly, what are some of your favorite ethical brands when it comes to fashion, home, and accessories? What qualities do you look for in the businesses you support?
It’s so exciting that there are so many amazing brands to buy ethical products from. It wasn’t like that when we started 31 Bits nine years ago. For home, I love the modern style of Rose & Fitzgerald. For bags, my collection consists of Nena & Co, Mercado Global, and ABLE. For shoes, I’ve been so impressed by the comfort and style at Sseko Designs and Nisolo. For the comfiest, everyday clothing, I wear Everlane and Krochet Kids. And believe it or not, I have no problem wearing jewelry from other ethical brands – I pair my 31 Bits jewelry with pieces from The Giving Keys and Half United.