Brittany Merrill Underwood

Founder and CEO
Akola Project
A headshot of Brittany Merrill Underwood, the founder and CEO of Akola Project

In 2004, when Brittany Underwood was 19, she went to Uganda and met a woman named Sarah. “She had sacrificed everything to take hungry kids into her home, where they all slept on the floor,” Underwood says. “That shook me out of my complacency.” Thus, the inspiration for Akola Project, a community-owned jewelry business that empowers women around the world, was born. “We offer a living wage to these women,” Underwood says, “but also provide training centers, wells and robust social services.”

Since the beginning, 100 percent of the revenues have been reinvested in the mission; in five years, Underwood expects to reach $10 million in annual sales. She thinks Akola, a top-selling brand at Neiman Marcus, is the first full-impact brand and nonprofit to retail in the luxury space. “You can use retail to drive meaningful change,” she says. “Retail is finally waking up to the fact that it can focus not only on not doing harm, but it can do good. We’re so lucky to be at the cusp of that.”