Buy A Scarf, Educate A Girl: Why You Need To Know About Bené Scarves
You know what they say, travel changes your perspective and opens your eyes. That was the case for Michelle Blue (pictured above, to the right) when she had the opportunity to travel to Ghana the summer before her junior year of college. Blue was studying business with a minor in fashion merchandising when she and her classmates traveled to the West African nation to learn about textiles, the culture and set up a community trade program between Athens, Georgia and Ghana.
But the trip ended up being so much more than that.
“I went on the trip and it was all amazing. Everything from the people, the culture, the food. I’ve traveled the world and I fell in love with Ghana. So it was a great experience. But we were also able to do a lot of outreach. And so one of the programs we went to, I met some really amazing girls. It was an overwhelming experience because from my eyes, from my experience, they had so little. They were lacking in physical possessions but they still had such a joy, they still had such a spirit. They welcomed us. They were singing, they were dancing. And I was like ‘How can this be? How do you have such a joy in the midst of it all?’
You know, as Americans, we get down on the smallest things, ‘Oh, I’m having a bad hair day’ or ‘I left my cell phone,’ ‘My day is over.’ Just completely distraught. And you know there are people in this life, here in America and abroad who are dealing with so much more. But the fact that they had such a tenacity and a hope to want to do better for themselves and their families was really inspiring.
So, I left the program with that on my heart, really just trying to figure out what could I do to give back and really help them to continue their education.”
Michelle was so changed by the experience, she shared it with her best friend from middle school, Sasha Matthews. The two immediately started thinking about ways they could help. Since Michelle had taken the trip to learn about textiles, they thought of starting a clothing company, using West African textiles to help support the girls through school. The idea was a good one even though neither one of them had any idea of how to go about it.
“It’s funny because neither one of us have any design experience. It’s like so foolish. I’m like what were we thinking. We wanted it all, jackets, dresses, baby bow ties, we wanted it all.”
It took Blue’s internship in New York before she learned that their dreams were too ambitious. “[We were] way beyond our knowledge, way beyond our bank account.”
A bit discouraged, they made some adjustments and revisited some ideas.
“We kind of got in a rut but we kept in mind that the girls are still there, the need is still there. So we have to do something.”
They looked at their original plan and saw they had scarves as one of the items they wanted to sell. It was a perfect fit.
“You don’t have to worry about size, you don’t have to worry about fit. It’s the perfect accessory for any woman. We were like we can manage that right? In our minds we were like, ‘Oh, scarves are going to be easy.”
It wasn’t all that easy. But they were determined.
“Sasha and I graduated 2013 and two weeks later, we launched the business [Bené Scarves]. And it’s just been a journey ever since. We’ve been very blessed. We’ve learned alot, we’ve grown a lot, we’ve failed a lot. And we’re really just taking it all in.”
The two women work with a textile designer to create all of their own fabrics and they manufacture the scarves in the states. They used the sales of the scarves to support the girls through tuition, book supplies, and uniforms for the girls who are pursuing their secondary education.
The girls are chosen through a Bené’s partner Sista Works who does the administrative work and recruit the girls. They also make sure the money is being handle the right way.
Each print is named after one of the girls the sale from the scarves support.
Many of us love our best friends dearly but that doesn’t mean we could work with them. The stakes were even higher for Michelle and Sasha’s passion project.
“The thing about a partnership is– and it’s nothing against my other friends because I love them just as much–But the business, is literally like a marriage and Bene is our child. So the decisions that Sasha makes in her personal life are going to inversely affect me and the business and so I have to be aligned with someone that I connect with on every different level. For us, it’s a spiritual level, its a business level, it’s a moral level. Everything in our lives impact one another.
I had to have someone I trust and I respect as well to go in business with and Sasha was that. It works really well for us and I couldn’t do this without her, by any means. We definitely need each other and the business is so much stronger because both brains are here, working on it.
Sasha has a background in mathematics. I studied business marketing with a minor in fashion merchandising. But the way we think is completely different. She’s more so analytical, like ‘what is the logic behind all of this?’ And I’m more so like…Laughs…I don’t even know what I am. I’m just out there. But I’m a lot more optimistic, creating the larger vision of it and Sasha’s like ‘Ok, well how do we make this possible?’ From a roles perspective, I’m like CEO, I’m creating the vision and Sasha is COO, the operations. It works well.
We’re both invested in this and you have to have someone like that in business. We put a lot of money into the business, we put a lot of time into the business. And a lot of people don’t realize that it’s not going to be an immediate return. But it takes a special person to stick with it.
There’s been times where Sasha and I have been at a market, all day, from 9 o’clock to 7 o’clock and we didn’t make any sales. But you have to have an entrepreneurial mindset to know this is a part of business. Everything is not going to be a win. But we also knew next morning, we had to be right there at 9 o’clock, ready with smiles on our faces, regardless of how we really felt. A new day, a new opportunity. So, it’s a lot.”
Part of that “lot” included financial sacrifices as well as time and talent. While Michelle works Bené full time, Sasha works as an analyst for Nielsen. The two young women have financed everything for the business, thus far, by themselves.
“I look back at it and I’m like ‘where did all of this come from?’ Sasha and I both made sacrifices through school. She worked through college, did a lot of tutoring and did different things with her math lab, through her major. I worked through college as well, as a resident assistant so that was great for helping us get money. Neither one of us took out loans for college so that helped us move a little bit more freely. But we realized that every cute pair of shoes that we see, we can’t purchase because we’re working toward something that’s so much greater.
There’s been sacrifices. I work the business full time but I’ve had to take on part time jobs, something to make ends meet. You do what you have to do, you make it happen. So far we’ve been able to manage.”
The Blue and Matthews have been managing so well, they were featured in Pantene’s “Stronger Together” campaign. It was a huge opportunity for an up and coming philanthropic business.
“We’re still really blown away by it. We were working with a publicist in New York, who was amazing, and Pantene reached out to her looking for a brand that would be a perfect fit for them and she pitched us and we got it.
People are like Pantene? Bene Scarves? What is the connection there? They were running a campaign called Stronger Together and they were launching a new shampoo and they wanted you to use the conditioner together. So they wanted to feature women duos that were working well together and doing great. So we went into it, not really knowing the extent of it. It was great to be able to work with such a huge brand so early on. It definitely built a ton of credibility and of course helped get some exposure as well.”
As for the future of Bené, it’s all about expansion.
“We’re really excited because we’re in the process of setting some things up where we can support the girls directly. So meaning that we can increase our support as well as support more girls around the world. So, it started in Ghana but this is an issue, this is something that is occurring all over. Sasha is from Jamaica so that definitely hits home for us. And so that will be really exciting to see how we can grow our impact, support more girls. At the end of the day, that ‘s what started us off. That’s the core of us. To be able to change lives is all we’re really here to do.”
You can check out some of the patterns on the next page. And you can purchase a scarf and educate a girl, here.