Be Fearless Spotlight: Krochet Kids intl.

This Spotlight is authored by guest writer Caitlin Kelly as part of a special blog series by the Case Foundation featuring Be Fearless stories from the field. Follow along with us as we meet people and learn about organizations that are taking risks, being bold and failing forward in their efforts to create transformative change in the social sector.

The affluent shoppers in upscale stores like Nordstorm, Whole Foods, Anthropologie or Canada’s Holt Renfrew may not realize that the backpacks, baby booties, wool scarves and T-shirts they’re buying are employing 175 women in Uganda and Peru.

For Kohl Crecelius, CEO and co-founder of Krochet Kids intl., a seven-year-old nonprofit based in Costa Mesa, CA, the focus is training workers in new skills they can eventually use on their own—not simply hitting his firm’s production numbers, or making sure there’s enough inventory.

That’s what makes Krochet Kids intl. so fearless—their willingness to make a wager. “We’re in the process of making a big bet that people will truly care about how our products are made,” says Crecelius.

While many organizations focus on teaching skills, Krochet Kids intl.’s approach is riskier and embodies the notion of fearlessness by making sure their clients will eventually leave Krochet Kids, often to open a wholly different sort of business on their own.

That’s fine with Crecelius. His longer-term goal is to teach entrepreneurial values and skills, no matter how they’re eventually put to use. “What we saw far too much of when we were creating Krochet Kids intl. was a cycle of dependency. Hundreds of aid organizations focus on short-term need, but not on equipping their clients to be self-reliant individuals.” So far, the program has graduated 50 women into their own businesses.

Like many working in the nonprofit field, he was first inspired by his own travels, the aid work he witnessed in Uganda spurring him to experiment and create a different model. “I saw how short-sighted that was and how it needed to be done differently. The women I met wanted to work and to be capable of changing their own circumstances,” he says.

Crecelius’ brother had learned to crochet while attending college in San Diego, CA, a skill he passed on and which they decided might be a skill useful to women in northern Uganda, where they started with 10 workers. This realization sparked the creation of Krochet Kids intl., and over the course of the last eight years Crecelius’ big idea has been refined through experimentation and a series of unlikely partnerships.

His ethos informs how Krochet Kids intl. combines running an apparel company with a larger, long-term goal of teaching its workers the skills they need to eventually leave and run their own businesses. Their program gives the women a three-to-five-year commitment of consistent employment at a set wage based on piecework, a three-year educational curriculum that includes literacy, numeracy and financial planning and one-on-one mentorship.

That long-term commitment is essential because, like many such organizations, they work within a larger cultural context, one in which women are often more highly valued for keeping their labor within the family for its benefit. That requires its own sort of fearlessness on the part of their women workers; the women who choose to work with Krochet Kids intl. need to know that other income they may be giving up will be consistently replaced for several years—their families rely on it.

Working with local in-country partners, Krochet Kids intl. aims to break the cycle of poverty through rigorous and ongoing measurement of its impact. Every month, they track 45 indicators of progress across six areas: economic health, educational progress, physical health, social well-being, psychological well-being and spiritual well-being. Local social workers act as mentors to the women, insuring they can count on ongoing personal support.

“One of the questions we ask the women is ‘What are your perceptions of poverty?’ ranking their answers from 1, (the depths of poverty) to 10, (feeling completely free of it),” says Crecelius. “All the way through, we see a trend towards them having more confidence.”

Their metrics also indicate that the women they employ enjoy incomes 10 times higher than before, savings 25 times higher and—crucially for women earning good local wages—are 40 percent less likely to suffer from domestic violence. They are 25 percent more likely to participate in major family decisions, and their children are eight times more likely to attend high school.

“Impact is results, not action,” he says. “We have chosen to put impact first, through offering jobs, education and mentorship. That’s one of our main differentiators, that we’re a nonprofit and we have led with impact.”

The two regions they work with are culturally and economically very different—rural northern Uganda and the outskirts of a major city, Lima, Peru. Local churches, government agencies and local staff make home visits to find and select women who most need to learn new skills and boost their incomes. In Uganda, the attrition rate is less than two percent because they work in rural areas with few other competitors for labor. That rate is higher in Peru, which has a higher rate of transience and many more employment options available there to urban women. When the women leave, however, they may choose to use their new business skills and confidence beyond apparel production, like buying a motorcycle and renting it out as a taxi, or purchasing a piece of land and farming it.

The women now also make a much wider array of products, from T-shirts to backpacks, which “helps to smooth out seasonality from a business perspective,” Crecelius explains. “Our whole premise is based on a lot of risks—like, who makes headwear out of sub-Saharan Africa?” Yet product sales today bring in 80 percent of the group’s revenue.

An unlikely bet in 2012, fueled by urgency and a potentially huge win, meant heading briefly in an unusual and unlikely direction. The “most nerve-wracking night of my life” came for Crecelius then as he waited to learn the winners of a competition created by Chase Bank’s American Giving Awards whose top prize was $1 million. Krochet Kids intl. won second prize—taking home $500,000, which they used to create a new sewing floor in Peru. The contest, he admits “was not merit-based. It was a popularity contest,” but the potential gain was great enough that “we just shut down and went all hands on deck,” gaining “millions of impressions” on Facebook and other social media sites.

His business model also includes partnering with a wide range of others, from sneaker manufacturer Vans—using Krochet Kids intl.’s Peruvian fabric—and the consumer products distributor Birchbox, to VSCO, a photo-sharing app. “They’ve allowed us to reach unique and specific audiences,” he says. “Partnership is a two-way street and we’ve realized the amount we have to offer. It’s a really beautiful thing. It’s a win-win.”

Feeling inspired? If you’re ready to begin your own Be Fearless journey start by downloading our free Be Fearless Action Guide and Case Studies.