In this week's artisan portrait, meet Stella Romana Airoldi the founder of 22STARS. This is a socially minded business that designs, crafts and sells handmade jewelry. This unique jewelry is handmade from recycled paper, by women living in the Acholi Quarter of Kampala, Uganda. All the jewelry pieces of 22STARS are fabricated in a socially responsible manner that is friendly to the environment.
Can you tell us a bit more about yourself?
I am Stella Romana Airoldi and I am from German/Italian descent. At the age of six my mother went to live with me in The Netherlands. Following in the footsteps of my parents I travelled all over the world. During these travels I was regularly confronted with poverty and injustice. For that reason I decided to do my Master's degree in Public International Law. I learned that the best way to help people out of poverty is by making sure that they can provide for themselves. I wrote my thesis about girl child soldiers within the Lord Resistance Army. I visited Uganda in 2009 to volunteer at an Aids Information Center and do research for my thesis. This is how my passion and interest for Uganda started.
How did you started 22STARS?
In 2011 I obtained a second Master's Degree from the European Inter University Centre in Human Rights and Democratization and I was awarded a scholarship to work as a trainee with the European Union Delegation in Beijing. However, I never forgot about the women in Uganda. Therefore I left China to realize the concept of 22STARS in the Netherlands by the end of 2012. I returned to Kampala, participated in a 10-week course from the 'Start Up Campus' in Rotterdam and started doing everything myself: text writing, web design, taking the fashion shoot pictures, building the webpages, marketing, sales and networking.
Why did you choose 22STARS as a name?
With regards to the meaning of 22STARS: when I was a small child, I was already attracted to the number 22. I found out that in some myths 22 is potentially the most successful of all numbers and it can turn the most ambitious dreams into reality. And when you turn the numbers toward each other as we did in our logo you get a heart. Thus, 22 was the perfect number for the name of my company that stands for: a mind for business, a passion for fashion, and a heart for the world!
The stars symbolize how everything is interconnected in this world. Whether we live in Europe or in Africa, we can all see the stars. You have to take risks, go out there and be determinate to reach for the stars and be all you can be. For our artisans, stars have additional meanings. For Susan, stars mean hope and she prays under them. For Beatrice, stars are like a guide that shows you your own path. For Atim, they stand for protection and balance. For Grace, it means that she doesn't have to worry in the darkness for that is when the stars shine brightest.
What is the jewelry making process?
Making the unique jewelry takes a lot of time and our orders are getting bigger and bigger, so that's why we needed to expand our group to 15 women. I send my designs/orders to Pastor David who then goes with them to our team manager Susan, or when I am in Kampala, I explain them directly to her. Then, Susan needs to go to the center to buy the recycled paper and other material according to the order. She needs to measure every single bead, cut them, roll them, and varnish them: in total there are 26 steps to be taken before the jewelry is ready! When I send designs to Uganda, Susan is the creative one who turns them into reality and trains the other ladies in how to make them. She has a very hard life and is doing amazing work. I have a lot of respect for her.
What impact does your company have on local artisans?
By giving our designers a plan to market and sell their products internationally they are able to earn an income to provide their families with housing, food, medicine and education. In addition to really empower people to provide for themselves they need more than just an income: therefore we use part of our net profit to finance our 22STARS projects, educating our designers and their children; they receive English lessons, learn about Income Generating Activities (IGA), get social support, health education and music, dance and drama classes. In my opinion the psychological support the women receive is even more important then teaching them how to make new designs. I see the impact we have on their lives and that has so far been the biggest milestone.
What sort of difficulties do you have?
Sometimes it is difficult to explain exactly the designs I want in the first place, so we are working on improving that, by making more clear orders in terms of showing them color prints and exact measurements. Another challenge is that when we have a nice design we need to make sure that the other products look the same and have the same high quality. Also we are facing problems here with regards to the safety of our designers, as they don't live in houses with a security guard and fences... And their health of course; they need to eat very well and also need psychological counseling: they need to accept the situation they are in and see that there is still a future for them. So far we are dealing very well with all of these issues. Our 22STARS volunteers David, Moses and Aidah are doing an amazing job in helping those ladies!
Where do you find inspiration to create the collection?
For each collection I have a different source of inspiration and a new team. One thing all my collections have in common is that they always have something to do with stars. And my general inspiration I get from travelling. When I travel, I love to meet strangers and embrace the unknown. Being open for everything and not in control of anything just gives me a kick. It is not about discovering new landscapes and seeing touristy stuff, but it is about the journey and the experience. When I travel I get new eyes and a lot of inspiration and positive energy that I use for 22STARS right away.
What is the best part of your job?
We got a lot of positive feedback from our designers; making the jewelry does not only help them financially, but also emotionally, it restores their dignity. Moses, David and Aidah are our three Ugandan volunteers and are doing counseling most of the time. All our designers had to overcome many challenges in their life. They fled during the war in North Uganda, lost many family members, gave birth to their children at a very young age, had little to no education and most of them are HIV positive. But there is a lot of hope! Their support and help for each other masks their terrible past. They form an incredible source of creativity, energy and positive power producing these wonderful pieces of unique jewelry. They are truly inspiring for anyone who wants to reach for the stars.