by UBA Guest Editor, Karen Campbell

HOUSTON-They see an injustice and take action. They passionately believe that women care about helping women. And they are more than willing to think differently to make a difference.  

Humble Beginnings

/files/Photos/PagesStorageBin/Front Page News/2011/Sweet-Notions-Tag.jpgA certain determination is shared by Jessica Stricker and Shannon Hopkins, co-founders of Sweet Notions, a social enterprise that uses the sales of collected and refurbished fashion accessories to fund causes. To date, the focus has been on vulnerable women and, specifically, women coming out of human trafficking. 

"After a successful but costly campaign to create awareness of human trafficking in London where Shannon was living, we both believed that there had to be a way to support great causes but in new ways," recounted Jessica, a North Carolina transplant to Texas where she first met her soon-to-be business partner.

"Since Shannon and I had backgrounds in fashion marketing and merchandising - and since we love accessories - we decided to see what would happen if we asked our friends and family to simply get rid of what they no longer wore."

With $500 in cash and the collections from that initial "ask", the two entrepreneurs soon had $10,000 and a start up enterprise. Four years later the funds they collect make possible Design Camps - art therapy for vulnerable women including those in programs addressing human trafficking. 

"Many times the women who have been victims of trafficking don't speak English. They may have criminal records. Sometimes they are still struggling with finally having choices, rather than being told exactly what to do and when," said Jessica. "All these factors prove to be challenging for social workers who want to help them. 

"Taking something that was tossed aside or broken and creating something beautiful from it - even something as simple as a pair of earrings - is a strong message to give someone who has heard for too long that she is nothing," she concluded. 

/files/Photos/PagesStorageBin/Front Page News/2011/Somo-Beads.jpgHeidi Schroeder shakes her head at stories like those told by Shannon and Jessica. She doesn't doubt them. She's simply amazed that as a 24-year-old she's standing alongside such exemplary women. Heidi is co-founder of SOMObeads, which seeks to sustain an international educational project with sales from beads purchased at a fair market price and resold in the U.S..

"I took a trip to Uganda, met an incredible survivor - a former child soldier who now passionately believes in education - and my life was changed," Heidi said of her basis for beginning the fashion-focused LLC she founded with former college friend Lauren Slyh. 

After observing firsthand the work of H.E.A.L.S. (Health, Education, Art, Literacy and Sports), a solid concept with dwindling funding in Gulu, Uganda, Heidi knew she wanted to do something to sustain it. 

Having studied math while attending Hillsdale College in her home state of Michigan and with a joyful exuberance about what she had seen firsthand in Uganda, she knew she could sell the beautiful necklaces the women created from beads made from magazine pages. She paid a fair price to the women and returned to the states with the hope of making a few sales and sending the funds back to H.E.A.L.S. 

"They sold so quickly," she noted. "Soon I was getting groups traveling back and forth from Uganda to bring me more beads and selling those in trunk shows. And finally, Lauren told me it was time to get serious. So now we're building SOMO - which means education - into a fashion brand."

Both Sweet Notions and Somo Beads have chosen to focus on helping others first. Neither of the local founders receives salaries for their tireless efforts. In fact, both hold fulltime jobs. And both share their leadership roles with distant cofounders. Heidi lives in Houston, keeps her passport ready for trips to the land that has claimed her heart and uses communication tools like Skype and email to partner with Lauren, a Portland resident. Jessica, also a Houston resident, depends on a website, Facebook, Twitter and storage units to house the growing enterprise she shares with Shannon, who lives "across the pond." 

Though challenged by tough economic times, they all share a sense of purpose and continue to ask what's next and what can be done to meet the needs.

Common Faith

Sweet Notions and SOMObeads also share a common foundation. Both enterprises were birthed from a desire to pursue the path of Jesus Christ. 

"My faith is at the core of any project I work on," said Jessica who has helped with church planting movements internationally and who is often described as a "new kind of missionary."

"But, instead of trying to teach about Jesus in words, my aim is to try to be like Jesus in action and live the gospel incarnate through projects like Sweet Notions."

/files/Photos/PagesStorageBin/Front Page News/2011/Heidi-Schroeder-150.jpgHeidi resonates with the idea of living the incarnational life.  

"Sometimes I question if I'm doing this because I want to be hero," Heidi, the daughter of an ordained minister, said. "But I know this is what Jesus did -- giving people what they needed, knowing the truth but not forcing it. Showing people love and that they are worth something and that you care because you give them an education seems to be more Jesus' style."

Both Sweet Notions and SOMObeads want to provide new ways to address old problems. Financing good works is often problematic, especially in difficult financial times. By providing products that people want and then allowing the sales of those products to be channeled into good works every dollar collected is maximized. 

Combining Forces

Recently, Sweet Notions and SOMObeads partnered for an event asking the question, "Can fashion/files/Photos/PagesStorageBin/Front Page News/2011/Sweet-Notions-Somo-Display-.jpg forward be pushed further?" Held at The Rose Galleria in Bellaire (a non-profit breast cancer organization), the goal was to make some sales, enlist volunteers for future events and outreach projects, and forge some relationships.  All goals were met. 

In a conference room and clinic lobby already made beautiful by the generous donations of breast care supporters, the donated jewelry and African beads were displayed in dramatic vignettes. Trunks were transformed into exhibition pieces. Empty frames served as necklace holders. Baskets overflowed with colorful purses and scarves. And the crowd - mostly women - were challenged to "look good while doing good."

During the event, the announcement came that Sweet Notions would soon be working with the YMCA's program for women coming out of human trafficking.  Jessica pointed out that volunteers would definitely be needed to work alongside the women on simple jewelry projects each week. 

/files/Photos/PagesStorageBin/Front Page News/2011/The-Rose_1.jpgThe location of the event was chosen purposely. The Rose was also founded by two women - 25 years ago. The Rose, Sweet Notions, and SOMObeads are three organizations focusing on different causes led by six women sharing the tendency to "think differently to make a difference." Though born to different generations, they share much more than they differ. Humble beginnings didn't deter them from their chosen paths. They face a lack of funds with an abundance of creativity. And each knows that the woman beside her cares deeply and will work tirelessly.

For more information on the organizations mentioned here, visit www.SweetNotions.orgwww.SOMObeads.com, and www.the-rose.org

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Women Making A Difference