Fashion For Good

With Every Handbag, This Houston Designer Hopes to Send a Girl to School

Nigerian girls are far less likely to access education than their male counterparts, a fact Tomide Awe wants to upend—one accessory at a time.

By Abby Ledoux January 23, 2018

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When it comes to female education in Nigeria, Olori founder Tomide Awe beat the odds. But the staggering statistics out of this designer's home country are never far from her mind.

Image: Jay Marroquin

More than 130 million girls around the world lack access to education. Gender disparities are among the highest in parts of Africa, where 9.5 million girls will never step foot in a school compared to 5 million boys.

In Nigeria, girls ages 15-24 have a 58 percent literacy rate – nearly 18 percent lower than their male counterparts. 

And while Nigerian-turned-Houstonian Tomide Awe beat those odds, they’re never far from her mind. 

“I had parents that were fortunate to afford to send me to school,” Awe said. “When I finally got [education], my life just revolved around ensuring that other girls could someday have the opportunities that I did.”

At 17, Awe left her native Nigeria for the United Kingdom, where she studied for five years. After briefly returning to Africa to work, she came to the states to earn her MBA at Wharton–the University of Pennsylvania business school that boasts a 9-percent acceptance rate and alumni like Warren Buffett and Elon Musk.

It was there, in Wharton entrepreneurship classes, that Awe first conceptualized the business she launched three months ago: Olori, which sponsors one month of education in Nigeria for every premium, handmade, African-inspired handbag it sells.

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For every handbag sale, Olori sponsors one month of education for a girl in Nigeria through Bridge International Academies.

Image: Jay Marroquin 

Structured and modern, the bags implement traditional African textiles important to Awe’s heritage. Inspired by the vibrant patterns she'd wear to siblings’ weddings, Awe sought to find a way she (and her western friends) could incorporate the bold, tribal fabrics in everyday looks. The handbag, that ubiquitous accessory, seemed a fitting choice—and a symbolic one.

“I thought about it in relation to our mission. You’re carrying our handbag, and you’re actually lifting another girl out of poverty,” Awe said.

That was principally important to Awe, who coined Olori’s tagline, “Good for Women, Women for Good.”

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In fact, Awe’s company actually originated as a vehicle for her charity: “I thought about the philanthropy part before I thought about the business,” she said. “I didn’t just want it to be a charitable thing to do—we’re not just giving money because we want to show people we’re a good company.” 

Awe carefully contemplated her choice of giving partner, settling on Bridge International Academies, an organization that partners with international charities, foundations, and governments to deliver sustainable education in Nigeria, Kenya, Liberia, Uganda and India. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are investors.

Just three months old, Olori has made one round of proceed-based donations so far±Awe times the giving to align with the Nigerian school calendar, so contributions are pooled and bequeathed at the start of each quarter. 

“I wanted to ensure that every dollar would be fully enjoyed by the person that gets it,” Awe said. “They’re not just recipients of [charity] … they’re part of the empowered woman network that we are really trying to build.” 

Joining the empowered women network in Houston is as easy as selecting a bag, which feature Aso-Oke textiles—meaning “top cloth”—woven by the Yoruba people of western Nigeria for special occasions using time-honored techniques passed down through generations. 

The name Olori means "queen," so “everything we do has to be regal,” Awe said, “and that includes textiles we use.”

Incredibly, Awe had no design experience when she launched her handbag company–just an Ivy League MBA and a dream. 

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Image: Jay Marroquin

“It was crazy. It’s still crazy. I can admit that I didn’t foresee a lot of things,” she said. “I had to educate myself about it, and I’m still educating myself about the whole process.”

Right now, a family of artisans in Asia make Olori bags, but Awe is in the process of transitioning production to the “perfect partner” in Rwanda—a women-owned village collective that sets its own wages and prices and, Awe said, will also benefit from Olori’s mission of empowering underprivileged women and girls with access to resources.

Beyond that, Awe is developing Olori’s next collection, which will carry lower price points than the $199 most current offerings retail for. She’s also gearing up to introduce smaller wallets and “bolder” products.

“In terms of design, I’m thinking about people that are internationally aware, people that are bold and fearless and not afraid to be different,” she said. “That’s the kind of woman we want to be our customers, because she will fight for other women, she will fight for other girls. She’s not afraid to be a feminist ... she’s not afraid to be that person, and that will translate into what she wears.”

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