Rebecca Brandt '10 co-founded a non-profit organization in Ghana, West Africa, that transforms plastic trash into purses, pocketbooks and jewelry while giving hope and paychecks to the women who produce them. Today, A Ban Against Neglect (ABAN) is endorsed by people such as actor Kevin Bacon and has annual revenue of more than $400,000. Rebecca says it wouldn’t have happened without the encouragement from her CUI professors and the experiences she gained in the Around-the-World Semester® (ATW) program.
The professors on the Around-the-World trip were encouragers and mentors on many levels. Professor Adam Lee, Dr. John Norton, and Dr. Norton's wife, Erica, were huge supporters and motivators for me. Before Around-the-World I had so many what ifs. ‘What if this or that doesn’t work?’ But when you see all these beautiful projects around the world and what the Lord is doing, you say it can work if done intentionally and with a pure heart. I felt much more confident that the Lord was leading me to ABAN.
Rebecca, the daughter of Lutheran educators, came to Concordia considering a career in counseling or art therapy. But she was captivated by the idea of working for social justice.
Social justice drew me into social work. It seems like it should be an innate part of our church, advocating for the inherent worth of each individual person. You see that at Concordia across the board. Everyone has value here. We’re doing this as a vocation, a life calling. So I find social work to be essential within the church, whether that means advocating, making policy changes or developing services that meet needs. It’s the truest form of the Christian life I could be part of.
Rebecca saw this first-hand during her sophomore year when she became the first Concordia student to participate in an exchange program with the University of Ghana. There she met two other college students, Callie Brauel and Emmanuel Quarmyne, and worked on a class project with them. The assignment was to create a mock non-profit organization. They decided to recycle Ghana’s ubiquitous water bags into marketable products. In Ghana, people buy drinking water in plastic bags, not plastic bottles, and streets are littered with discarded bags. The team got an A on the project, then realized they had stumbled upon a free resource which could support day refuges and sewing centers that already existed to help street children.
“We said, ‘You have a sewing center, we have a business plan and this unlimited free resource in water bags all over the street. Do you want to try this project out?’ And it worked really well,” says Rebecca.
They set up depots on campus where people could dispose of used water bags. Girls at the day refuge cut bags into flat shapes, sanitized them and used them as lining in hand-sewn purses made of batik fabric, a cloth decorated with wax and dye. Boys then sold the finished purses on the streets.
Street kids who were used to being treated as the lowest of the low were now keeping Ghana clean. There was a lot of pride and dignity there.
After that semester abroad, Rebecca and Callie returned to the U.S. and decided to see if they could secure funding for their non-profit idea. After failing to get a grant, they entered the Carolina Challenge, the University of North Carolina’s annual business venture contest. In an upset victory, ABAN won the top prize and the people’s choice award, catapulting them into the spotlight and turning their cottage industry into a viable operation. They received $16,000 in startup capital, free office space, at-cost shipping and mentors at UNC at Chapel Hill.
“Winning the contest felt too good to be true,” Rebecca says. “It took me a while to wrap my head around it. Because of that competition we became very well known quickly. We were the only undergraduates of one hundred competitors.”
Still, Rebecca was uncertain about giving her life to ABAN and taking the risk to lead a non-profit organization rather than becoming a student teacher. Her experience on Concordia's first Around-the-World Semester® trip helped make up her mind. She served as a graduate assistant and saw organizations doing the kind of work ABAN was doing.
Everywhere we went we saw people and organizations doing deep, powerful, love-driven action. That was absolutely inspiring. We saw that all around the world and it was a very humbling experience – a gift straight from God that I can keep thinking back on over and over again.
By the end of the trip she was “so pumped to do ABAN full time. I felt absolutely determined at that point to make ABAN more of my life’s work. I decided to take the financial risk of starting a non-profit with no savings to fall back on. I came back ready to hit the ground running.”
She moved to North Carolina and began spending half the year there and the other half in Ghana building the organization. ABAN became a 501(c)3 nonprofit and hired staff. The Concordia bookstore became the first store in the U.S. to carry ABAN products. Three Concordia students have studied abroad and volunteered with ABAN in Ghana.
“It was a very intense learning curve,” says Rebecca. “There were many different departments that Callie, Emmanuel, and I were ill-equipped to run ourselves: sales, donations, the legal side, figuring out payroll, website development – all these areas we didn’t have experience in, but that’s what is so powerful about the experience. We have been surrounded by people from so many walks of life at Concordia and North Carolina and Ghana. They invest in us.”
In the beginning Rebecca mostly designed the products. Then she moved into grant writing, donor relations, and program development. The most valuable experience she says has been interacting with the young women and their children in Ghana. ABAN’s purpose is to break generational poverty among adolescents and young mothers. Giving them employment and training is helping accomplish that. In recognition of this main purpose, all ABAN products are named after women or children in the program.
“They are incredibly resilient women. They are the real inspiration,” Rebecca says. “I feel very grateful to have had this experience already. In a sense I feel not worthy of it. It doesn’t always seem real to me that we’ve been able to make it happen.”
Today ABAN products are sold in small boutiques and local Whole Foods stores across the country. The Women of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) recently ordered 2,300 custom-made tote bags for their conference. In 2012, Burt’s Bees invited ABAN to co-host their employee appreciation lunch and awarded them a grant. ABAN did a co-branding project with the company and produced hundreds of necklaces in Ghana for sale in the U.S. ABAN also sells products in house parties and has received grants from Eileen Fisher, a women’s clothing company in New York City, and Lutheran organizations.
Since its founding, ABAN has recycled more than 200,000 water bags and helped nearly fifty women and children go through training and education programs. Plastic water bag products and glass recycling now account for 30 percent of ABAN’s income, with the rest coming from donations and grants.
Rebecca says she and her co-founders are always asking, “What other ways can we generate capital so we can remain sustainable? How can we create jobs and empower these women to have equitable and dignified employment?” ABAN has branched into other businesses and services including literacy and entrepreneurship classes, and training women for jobs in catering, sewing, hair-dressing and hotel hospitality.
Rebecca sees her time at Concordia as foundational to what she is doing now.
One of the things I adored about Concordia was that I was supported when there was an opportunity that didn’t exist yet, like with the Around-the-World trip. That Around-the-World leadership team was instrumental for me to dive into this with my heart and soul and future. Around-the-World was a dream come true. I could talk for hours about how powerful that experience was for me.
Rebecca is currently taking a temporary leave from ABAN’s day-to-day operations to study social work at UNC so she can better serve ABAN in the future. In the meantime she remains on the board.
“ABAN changed the course of where I was going with my life,” she says.