Who are you and can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Britta Kelley and I am the Founder of Kamili.
What exactly is Kamili?
Kamili is a company that provides newly resettled refugees with flexible, dignified jobs crafting handmade jewelry. Once refugees escape their war torn countries and are resettled here in the US, they are safe, but their struggles are far from over. Language, transportation and educational barriers prevent they from getting jobs that pay living wages- and they have an extremely difficult time climbing out of poverty. And what makes Kamili extra special is that all our makers earn above living wages and all profits go directly to the makers and the refugee community here in Richmond.
What inspired you to start Kamili?
I began my work as a mentor for newly resettled refugee families- helping them navigate their new life here in the US. I grew close with many of the Congolese families I volunteered with and it weighed heavy on my heart watching them struggle to provide for their families financially. They are so kind, motivated, smart- but because of the barriers I mentioned earlier, it is almost impossible to find a job that pays a living wage. So, I created a business where my refugee friends would not need to speak english, have a formal education or need to drive anywhere. We take the beads to them, they make it in their spare time and then we hustle to sell them.
How did you come up with the name?
When I was brainstorming names with the my Congolese buddies, we kept returning back to how they feel being here in the US. Their overwhelming response was- safe, free, becoming full again. Word’s in their native language, Kinyarwanda, are very lengthy and difficult for the average American to say, so we landed on a Swahili name- Kamili. Kamili means “full” and that captures our mission perfectly. We want our makers to always feel full. Full of hope, full of love, full of community.
You are empowering refugees with flexible, dignified jobs- can you tell us about that?
Kamili empowers the families we work with on many levels. Taking charity handouts is not a great feeling, nor is it sustainable. Government assistance ends for these families in a matter of months after being resettled. Their new life here gets real- real fast. Rent needs to be paid and food needs to go on the table. So creating a unique income opportunity for them to provide for the family is very empowering. They can take control of their financial future- something they haven’t been able to do for a long time living in a war-torn land. The jobs are flexible in the sense they can do it in their own time and wherever they want! And our makers are treated with the upmost respect and love. Kamili is a vehicle for them to earn a living AND heal from their traumas.
Is there a favorite product?
I truly love them all! Love to mix and match the colors depending on my mood that day or what I am wearing. The solid white and black bracelets are staples for me though. I wear a couple of those every day and mix in whatever color I’m feeling. Really excited for the spring/summer colors too!
We are coming out with clay earrings and I absolutely love them as well. They add such a fun vibe to my minimal, low key look.
What is your favorite part about running Kamili?
Bead deliveries and pick ups! Spending time with the women and their families is by far the best. On top of just catching up with them every visit, I also get to bring them more work and a good old fashion pay check. I have spent too much time watching these families struggle to pay their electric bill or buy groceries and collecting clothing for them- so being able to create this opportunity for them has been beyond fulfilling.
Also- having funds to support the refugee community in Richmond is amazing as well! Kamili pays for ESL classes for the Congolese community, created an emergency fund for our makers and a community engagement fund that supports our community with enrichment classes. Plus, we purchase all the birthday cakes for the many children in the community, which is a small act, but really impactful on their well beings.
What is your least favorite part about running Kamili?
Operations- supply and inventory management of materials. Boring, way more complicated than people think! The beads we work with come in many variations and the suppliers we work with don’t get consistent beads. So sourcing the materials and managing the inventory of the bracelets is not the most fun for the average person- but the challenge of it makes it fun for me!
How do you spread the word about Kamili?
We run on a scrappy budget, so we relied on friends and family spreading the word at first. And of course- social media. It has been incredible to see how word spread quickly about our initiative. The cause speaks for itself and when people learn about Kamili and what we are doing, they go and spread the word for us! It is so great to see because not everyone has the time and money to support newly resettled refugees- but most have the heart. Kamili has become a way for people who care to help support these families- and an effective one.
Do you have any advice for fellow entrepreneurs?
If you are going to create a business and pour every part of your soul into it- make sure you genuinely love it. The product, the service, the concept, the brand image, the impact, the partnerships- everything. It all has to align in order to be successful. It also helps to be relentlessly persistent. After every set back, jump up and recover quickly. Show up early to everything. Be kind to everyone. And learn to recognize when you need to step back for a second because it is easy to lose track of your life outside the business.
Do you have a favorite quote or go to saying?
“Do small things with great love.” – Mother Teresa. I am not particularly religious, but this quote really resinates with me. Although I would love to change a million things about refugee resettlement in our world, I can’t do that right now. But I can for sure do small things and I can do it with a lot of love.