Most kids who got hooked on Michael Jackson in the mid-'80s were mesmerized by the sparkly glove. At age 7, Jared Miller was awestruck by Jackson's work on "We are the World," proceeds of which would benefit starving children in Ethiopia. Before long he was giving book reports on Africa and saving his allowance for humanitarian donations. Today, he and his wife, Ilea Dorsey — both advocates of the Ubuntu philosophy (the idea that we are all interconnected) — spend 10 months out of the year there building a business that does most nonprofit work one better: teaching a group of Rwandan women, many of them former prostitutes, how to run a fashion label. And now it's profitable.
"All we've done is formalize begging with the traditional aid platform," says the shaved-headed Miller, whose muscular physique was earned from mixed martial arts training, another one of his passions. "We didn't want to just create a handout situation." So he's spent the last four years in Rwanda developing the business model for fashion label/partnership Keza, a word that means "beautiful" in Kinyarwanda, one of the country's official languages. He and his wife found a group of 23 Rwandan women whose ages ranged from 19 to nearly 50, and who were finally plotting an exit from a lifelong cycle of prostitution and abuse while selling charcoal or working as street vendors, and taught them to make jewelry. The label currently sells men's and women's pieces made from indigenous resources, and is looking to expand to clothing and other accessories.
"These women were poor and female in Africa," explains Miller. "Most of them had been raped or abused, and there was a stigma. So they are the last people to have opportunities for income, much less something as prestigious as running a jewelry company."
He spent two of those four years helping the women — many of whom were raising families alone — to create a conducive environment for entrepreneurial studies. That meant finding them housing and education, and meeting their nutritional needs and those of their families. A year alone was spent just teaching the women bead-making.
The process takes the paper detritus of Rwanda — whether it's school folders, film festival posters or paper company waste — and rolls, strings and glues it, then lacquers it with a wood varnish for durability and shine. The result is a collection of stunningly elegant and earthy pieces that look both tribal and modern. (An upcoming men's line called Shuja'ah — which means warrior — combines elements of leather and cow horn.)
"We're taking trash and turning it into something else powerful and beautiful," Miller says of the pieces. The goal is to make Keza a kind of clearinghouse for designers worldwide who want to spearhead more socially conscious lines, while these African women will act as manufacturers. American-based design groups such as Rhode Island School of Design have contributed ideas as well, thus making the entire enterprise a kind of revolving door of humanitarianism, creativity and capitalism. "Pity only sells once," Miller is fond of saying. He hopes the care and effort they put into making quality products will help rebrand Africa as a continent whose narrative is richer than genocide, poverty and oppression, one that exports more than just arts and crafts.
But the greater reward is having watched these women's lives transform immensely in just a few short years. "We've watched them come back to life," says Dorsey. "Everything changes about them. They eat better, so they plump up. Their skin is refreshed. They get their hair done because they're getting paid now. They walk taller. And we're at a point now where they speak up about how they want their business to run and what they prefer and what they think should change. It's become a dialogue now more than a lecture. First they were like, wide-eyed — 'Can we do this?' Now they're like, 'We can do this!' " —TRACY MOORE
Photographed by Eric England wearing prototypes for Shuja'ah.