After studying abroad in West Africa, Archel Bernard faced a decision: Return to the U.S. or stay in Liberia and help rebuild after the devastating Ebola outbreak there that killed more than 4,800 people.
The daughter of Liberian war refugees, Bernard first fell in love with the place when she visited Monrovia after the second of two bloody civil conflicts there ended in 2003. Despite the devastation, she saw the beauty of her ancestral homeland. “I looked around, and I was like, ‘Yeah, OK, there’s a reason that my grandfather would never leave, that my mother feels so connected,’ ”she says. “There’s a reason that this is my home.”
Bernard stayed and founded fashion company The Bombchel Factory, where she employs Ebola survivors, rape victims and the deaf — giving them life-long skills they would never otherwise have — all while creating gorgeous clothing.
Bernard started humbly, selling goods from the back of a truck. Now she has a factory that can produce thousands of garments a month. So how did Bernard go from tourist to successful social entrepreneur? Here are lessons drawn from her experience:
Recognize the need – and the opportunity
For Bernard, who studied digital design in college, fashion wasn’t an obvious career choice. But she realized that through fashion, she could serve the people of Monrovia on multiple levels. “No matter what, everybody really wants to look good,” she says. “You look good, you feel good, especially in a place like this. It’s something that we give people to look forward to, getting dressed up and feeling good about themselves.”
Plus, “I just knew I was going to be the West African Oprah Winfrey,” she says. “The West African Oprah Winfrey had to wear West African clothes.”
But Bernard wanted to go beyond just making them look and feel good. She also wanted to help the community’s women develop skills so that they no longer had to rely on men for financial support.
“I love Liberia with all of my heart, but I don’t feel like Liberia treats the women well,” she says. “We have a female president and we have other female leaders in government, but domestically women are not treated with the kind of respect that you would want.”
She says she sees the impact of that disrespect in the women she employs:
“Let’s say a woman sews something improperly in the factory, and I’m like, ‘Hey, you know better than this.’ She gets so deep inside her feelings and she’s so upset, and she feels like she really committed the worst act in the world and really it’s just a simple mistake. But all of this is because of the way they’ve been treated before. You know they’ve been yelled at. They’ve been beaten. … I wanted to do something that would build up the confidence of a woman in Liberia.”
Bernard’s first hire, a widow who at age 27 had a 14-year-old daughter, subsisted by selling fish at a market after her husband died from Ebola. “She couldn’t read, she couldn’t write, and she had no skills,” says Bernard. “Now we’re working with her. She’s in literacy classes, so she’s learning her alphabet in addition to learning how to sew, and therefore she now has a skill. She’s really making more money than she ever made in her life and she’s learning how to read and write her name.”
Start where you are
Many would-be entrepreneurs with great ideas suffer from paralysis early in their venture. They hit a stumbling block in one portion of their business, and the whole operation grinds to a halt. It doesn’t have to be that way, says Bernard. “There were days I didn’t have a place that I knew I was going to sleep,” she says. “There were times when I was like, ‘I have $10, I need gas and I need food, and I don’t know how I’m going to make both those things happen. ’ ” Rather than letting setbacks cripple her endeavors, she kept moving forward – even when it meant inches rather than miles. “I just took it a day at a time, and I just started where I was and did what I could with what I had.”
Get smart about money
Bernard started her business with a crowdfunding campaign. “I knew that we needed more money in order to hire more women, and I didn’t want to give up equity because I really want the women to see the benefits of everything they sell.” So she used Kickstarter to get things going. Doing so had an added benefit beyond bringing in $66,000 in needed capital: It provided valuable market data. “It’s been very helpful to see what the target market bought,” says Bernard.
Use your network
Every photo of Bombchel factory’s clothing is so gorgeous, you wouldn’t think they were all shot on a shoestring budget. Bernard’s secret: She uses her mother and sisters as models, and a family friend and college classmate, also from Liberia, supplied the photography. You may find that you already have all of the resources you need to launch, run and market your enterprise.
Bernard found her purpose more than 5,000 miles from home.