Making a change in poverty and injustice - just with your own work? This seems impossible for most people as they feel they can't change anything in the world with their own power. For them it's a task for governments. But Stella Romana Airoldi, born in Germany and grew up in the Netherlands, wanted to make a change on her own and she did. After her travels to Uganda, where people are still traumatized from war, are HIV positive and have little education, Stella decided to help by empowering people to provide for themselves. So in 2012 she started 22STARS. In the online shop of 22STARS and in stores like YAY in Amsterdam she sells jewellery, which is handmade from recycled paper by women from the Acholi Quarters in Uganda. In this interview Stella shares her story about her world wide travels, her business and digital nomad lifestyle.
What's the meaning of 22STARS?
"Since I am a little girl 22 has always been my lucky number and I love sleeping under the stars. In some Myths 22 is potentially the most successful of all numbers and it can turn the most ambitious dreams into reality. Stars symbolize how everything is interconnected in this world. Whether we live in Europe or in Africa, we all can see the stars. For our designers stars mean hope, guidance, protection and balance. We also want you to turn your dreams into reality and reach for the stars!"
Stella Romana Airoldi, Founder of 22STARS
Let's start with a short intro video to get an impression of Stella's project 22STARS in Uganda:
Stella, your online shop 22STARS sells handcrafted jewellery made by women from Uganda. How did you came up with this idea?
Following in the footsteps of my parents I lead a very active life and traveled 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 and became a board member of SIFE Leiden, where I learned that the best way to help people out of poverty is by making sure that they can provide for themselves.
"The best way to help people out of poverty is to make sure that they can provide for themselves."
I wrote my thesis about girl child soldiers within the Lord Resistance Army and 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.
Women wearing the beautiful jewellery - handmade from recycled paper
I interviewed for my thesis a couple of women who all fled from the LRA and the war in Northern Uganda to the Acholi Quarters in Kampala. Those ladies were making already jewellery from recycled paper. I definitely promote the idea of letting people earn their money instead of just giving them money out of pity.
So after Uganda I was busy writing my thesis and thus still busy with Uganda in my head. I decided to order some more jewellery from them to give it to my families and friends with Christmas and thus help them. At that time the idea of starting a business with them popped up in my mind, but I was still busy with my studies and internships: I did in 2011 a second Master’s Degree in Human Rights and Democratisation and I was awarded a scholarship to work as a trainee with the European Union Delegation in Beijing in 2012.
However, I never forgot about the women in Uganda and left China to realize the concept of 22STARS in the Netherlands by the end of 2012. Impressed by the artistic skills of the ladies to make beautiful jewellery out of recycled paper and fascinated by their stories, I decided to use my own creativity to help them design, market and sell their products on the international market.
"I decided to use my own creativity to help the women in the Acholi Quarters (...)."
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. I also gathered a large network around me of amazing people who are helping me to share the story of 22STARS and their jewellery.
End of 2014 I realized that running a business from a distance is almost mission impossible, so since then I spend way more time on the ground in Uganda.
„Fashion that gives back“ is a claim one can find in your online shop. What does this mean and what makes your shop different from other jewellery shops?
With "Fashion that gives back" we mean that it gives something valuable back to the community that is more then just the money for the products. We believe that to really empower people to provide for themselves they need more than only a market for their jewellery.
And this is especially the case for the Acholi Quarters, it is really a challenge working with designers who have no phone, no email address, had little education, are HIV positive, war traumatized, cannot read and write, speak only Acholi and have very large families.
Part of our net profit will therefore be used 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.
"Part of our profit will be used to finance projects like educating our designers and their children."
As 22STARS is still a small business we provide the following activities only occasionally and not as often as we would like to. Therefore if you are interested in volunteering and helping us with the following program, please feel free to email email@example.com.
Stella from 22STARS working with women from the Acholi Quartes in Uganda
What have you done before starting your own business? And why did you decide to be self-employed?
Before I started my own business I studied, worked and travelled all over the world. It all started already in 2008 when I decided to travel around the world alone for about 8 months (South America, Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa).
"I studied, worked and travelled all over the world - alone."
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 in the Netherlands and a second Master in Human Rights and Democratization in Italy and Spain. I did an internship at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a Dutch Law Firm in the Caribbeans and at the European Union Delegation in Beijng. Thus in 2012 after I left China and was used to live the past several years every 6 months in a different country it was quite weird to decided where I would like to live long term.
"I used to live every 6 months in a different country."
I was busy looking for jobs in the international law/human rights business, when I thus decided to go back to Uganda and start up 22STARS. At the beginning I never thought I would do 22STARS full time, it was just more something that happened.
Women from Uganda selling their handmade jewellery at the market and on 22STARS
Besides 22STARS I also worked a couple of months for the webshop of Calvin Klein to do the German/English customer service to gain a bit more insight in the webshop/fashion industry.
But I quickly realized that I needed to make a decision: focusing for 100% on 22STARS and go more often back to Uganda or stop the whole idea.
"Focusing 100% on 22STARS was a decision to follow my dream."
It was not a decision of being self-employed or not, but of following my dream that I had with 22STARS or not. So as you know I of course decided to continue with 22STARS.
How does your life looks like? Where did you already stayed this year and what are your upcoming plans? And how about productivity while traveling?
That's how my past 12 months looked like: After Uganda I decided to travel around Africa a bit more and spend a few times in South Africa. So I didn’t know anyone in Cape Town and spend my first weeks in a hostel. Result, I had an amazing time, but did not get that much work done.
So then I moved into an apartment by myself. Result I got way more work done, but felt lonely by times. Then luckily I found out about the “digital nomad/ location independent entrepreneur” community. I met Johannes Voelkner from Webworktravel and Elmar Haker from Flaks who organizes vactions for Dutch entrepreneurs. So then I found the perfect mix: havig good work results and not being lonely anymore.
"The perfect mix: Having good work results and not being alone anymore."
After Cape Town I travelled alone through Mozambique. Again I stayed in hostels, had bad to no Wifi and thus didn’t got so much work done. So by the time I arrived at the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe I decided to spend there 10 days, as I really needed to catch up with work and spend more time in one place. So that worked, then I went to Zanzibar. Of course again not very productive. Especially because I met a lot of backpackers who were not working but just enjoying their time there. Then it is always so hard to say I am not joining, I need to get work done...
So after Zanzibar I was again in Uganda working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to catch up again with work. Then I spend two months in Tarifa where I joined Johannes and Elmar with their nomad community. That was a lot of fun and I got a lot of work done too.
After Tarifa I spend the summer months in the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland where my family lives. That was obviously more hectic. So then it is always difficult to get a lot of work done. Usually I work then from different kind of coffee bars. So I was happy when I was in September back in Tarifa and had again an apartement by myself to work from. At the moment I just came back from one month Uganda and now I am again working from different coffee bars in The Netherlands.
Next week at 18th november I will join about 150 digital nomads to go on a 8 day cruise to Brasil. Really looking forward to that and I hope it will be an interesting time. Initially I planned to travel around South America for a couple of months.
Beautiful jewellery made by women from the Acholi quarters - Buy it here on 22STARS!
As you are a digital nomad, I am wondering how do you manage your business while travelling the world?
As you perhaps realize from my previous travels; travelling/backpacking and working at the same time is not really the most productive combination.
So of course I could say let’s stay somewhere again for at least 1-2 month in the same place, so that I can also work effectively. But at the moment I am a bit tired of settling into new places all the time, plus I really have to put a lot of more work into 22STARS when I want to make it a big success.
So I decided that when I am in Brasil I really want to take a 1-2 weeks off, so really enjoy Brasil, go kitesurfing etc. And then I probably will just go back to the Netherlands and then in January I will go back to Uganda.
Eventhough I work online, there are many things which I can do only in Uganda and a hard to coordinate from abroad. It is possible, but will cost extra time and money. So I decided instead of going backpacking/travelling in South America, to go to Uganda and focus on my business there for one, two or three months… Let’s see how long I need.
After that I have some more digital nomad trips on the agenda: I will join Coboat for two weeks and go sailing with them somewhere. I hope to meet inspiring people there who also can push me in bringing my business to the next level.
And how do you handle the distribution process?
I have the best mom in the world. So all orders that I get, I forward to her and then she goes to the post office.
When I have larger orders for retailers I usually try to do them in the time that I am myself in the Netherlands or I send them straight from Uganda to the specific store in a certain country.
What did you learn from your remote working lifestyle for your life and business?
What I learned is that I really need my own place to get a lot of work done, and that I thus cannot constantly travel and live in hostels.
The best way is for example travelling 2-4 weeks, then staying at a place for few months, travel again etc. I also really love going back to the same places, like Tarifa for example. I was there this year in May and June. In September I also could have said let’s go for a month to Lisbon or whatever, but then I chose Tarifa again, because I also really love to go the same places, where I know already where the supermarket is, where I know already a few people, work places etc.
"I love going back to the same places to have more time to focus on my work."
Because then I don't need to discover all of that again. I find more inner peace and have more time to focus on my work and enjoy my stay. So for me the best is always a combination of discovering new things and finding peace in places I already know.
If readers also would like to start a similiar lifestyle, what would be your advice?
With regard to the lifestyle: just go with the flow and see what works best for you and what not. Everyone has there own rhythm, so what works for me, perhaps doesn’t work for you and vice versa. And sometimes you just really need to try things out before you truly know how you feel about it.
Business is a rollercoaster! With lots of frustating but also rewarding times.
With regard to my business: accept that it is a rollercoaster, so a lot of frustrating times, but also a lot of awarding times. Things just never go exactly as planned and especially when you can plan your own time schedule you will see that there are days you do hardly anything and that there will be days that you work 24 hours non stop.
Thank you for the interview, Stella!
Bildmaterial von 22Stars
Online-Shop 22STARS: www.22stars.com