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By Grace Designs takes home $20K from UMKC Challenge

Kelsey Carlstedt and Emily Moon with their first place prize.

Kansas City-based By Grace Designs won the $20,000 top prize on May 5 at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s 2017 Regnier Venture Creation Challenge.

The win came as a welcome surprise for founders Emily Moon and Kelsey Carlstedt who will use the seed funding to further the reach of By Grace Designs, a not-for-profit organization with a mission to educate, employ, empower and elevate women living in poverty by providing them with careers crafting handmade clothing.

Moon and Carlstedt credit their win to how well they know the ins and outs of their business, and their commitment to its success, powering through tough spots and pivots without giving up.

“Kelsey and I are extremely passionate about helping people and we’re so passionate about By Grace, the women that we work with and the way that we’re able to make an impact. I think that [was definitely] captivating and was a huge asset to us,” said Moon. “We’ve really explored a lot of the different areas that come with starting a social impact venture because it is very hard.”

Moon and Carlstedt competed in the two-day challenge with 87 other startups. They are excited about the prize money and how that will allow them to grow their international campuses, but they say the real value is in the networking that is coming out of the competition.

“The win is technically the $20,000 and the press that you get from it [but] the mentors are going to come out of the woodwork for lots of different people,” said Carlstedt. “We ended up getting mentors that were very specific to what we’re doing.”

Moon grew up in Ghana and moved to America when she was 11. She met Carlstedt in junior high and the two have been friends ever since. As adults, they shared many of the same interests and both felt a calling to help other women.

“We knew that we wanted to do something for women overseas but we wanted to make sure that our efforts were sustainable and actually making a change and an impact in that community,” said Moon “At By Grace, we believe that the way we conquer global poverty is through enterprise, not aide, so we employ women to create beautiful products.”

By Grace provides women with education, training and physical resources such as sewing machines to create handmade clothing and jewelry. Those goods are then sold in America to consumers who get beautiful clothing while ensuring that their purchases are supporting women with fair wages to enable them in supporting their families.

“The fashion industry is a $3 trillion industry and only 2% of apparel companies are paying their suppliers and their workers a fair and livable wage, which is appalling,” said Carlstedt. “When we think about the clothes or the t-shirts that we wear, that came from somewhere. It came from a factory, most likely, where somebody was not being taken care of, where conditions were not only unsanitary but most often oppressive.”

Currently, the company has campuses in Ghana and India which employ just under 100 women. Moon and Carlstedt said their first goal is to grow the campuses they already have and then look into expanding them.

The campus in Tamale, Ghana is working to combat a cycle where girls are shipped from the city and surrounding areas in northern part of Ghana to the southern region of the country for transport jobs. Carlstedt explained that the girls are treated as human mules to transport goods between the regions.

“These girls are working to send money back to their families. Often times they’re making the equivalent of 66 cents a day, which doesn’t give them enough to feed and house themselves and give adequate funding back to their families,” said Carlstedt. “A lot of these girls end up on the street.”

Moon and Carlstedt believe that their business model has the potential to revolutionize the way women make money in those regions of Ghana. They said they want to set up workshops in places where there isn’t already work for girls so they can be employed close to their families and benefit from having a safe, healthy work environment.

“We think that if we can provide an adequate education to teach girls a trade skill and then employ them, we’re going to be able to employ 150 plus women in Tamale and then expand into other villages,” said Carlstedt.

By Grace Designs is on track to nearly double the number of girls employed in Tamale by the end of 2017. The founders also hope to expand in their India campus where they work in partnership with Daughters of Hope, an organization that works to rehabilitate women being rescued from the sex trade and out of abusive situations.

By Grace Designs is also working with the Rosebud Native American Reservation in South Dakota to bring changes to women closer to home.

“The poverty in which they live on that reservation is comparable to the third world,” said Carlstedt. “There are already artisans on that reservation that have the ability to craft beautiful jewelry, so what we’re doing at By Grace is opening up a marketplace to them.”

They are also in talks to open a campus in the Kansas City, Missouri area to address the needs they see in their own city.

“Growing up in America with the resources we’ve been given, I think that it’s our responsibility to figure out how we leverage [those resources] to help somebody else,” said Moon. “I also believe that regardless of who you are or where you are, you can turn around and within 1.2 miles there’s a woman who needs your help.”

Moon and Carlstedt have seen firsthand that regardless of where they’re at in the world, they see a consistency among women who are all looking for work valued skills and work that is dignifying.

Looking back at their win in the Regnier Venture Creation Challenge, Moon and Carlstedt are still thankful that the judges saw the potential and heart in their not-for-profit business among all the other talented tech and medical startups they competed against.

“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know if there’s any way we could ever win,’ but we did. It’s incredible what is possible,” said Moon. “After that, I feel like nothing is impossible and it doesn’t matter how small you are or if you came from nothing, change is possible.”

Christine McGuigan is the Associate Editor of Silicon Prairie News.

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