Career & Finance

31 Bits International Director and Founder Kallie Dovel


Kallie Dovel is not the type of person to take the road most traveled. For starters, she runs a bicontinental business. And that business? Kallie started it while she was still a college student. That’s pretty impressive, if you ask us! It all began when Kallie travelled to Uganda and spent time working at an after school program and connecting with the local people. Kallie met women who were using old posters to make beautiful jewelry, but were unable to feed their families. These women gave Kallie an idea, and that idea eventually became 31 Bits.

Five years later, 31 Bits is a growing business that not only sells beautiful jewelry, but also provides support to women in Uganda through a holistic development program. Kallie and the other four founders—Alli Swanson, Anna Toy, Brooke Hodges, and Jessie Simonson—started 31 Bits while still undergraduates and have worked hard to turn it into the thriving business it is today. 31 Bits uses fashion and design to empower people to rise above poverty, and today Kallie and her team are launching a new line of bracelets with Joy Cho of Oh, Joy. To say Kallie has accomplished a lot in the past few years would be an understatement.

Today, Kallie shares her story and the story of the business close to her heart. Read on for the full account of how she started her own business and lessons she’s learned while building it from the ground up.

Full name: Kallie Dovel
Age: 27
Current title/company: International Director, 31 Bits
Educational background: Cultural Anthropology, Vanguard University

As an undergraduate you travelled to Uganda, which ended up being the catalyst for what would become 31 Bits. Tell us about your experience! Why did you decide to travel to Uganda?
My first trip to Uganda in 2007 was based on the desire to work in nutrition for orphanages after finishing my degrees. The previous summer I worked in an orphanage in Haiti, where I had the best experience! It spurred me on to continue whenever I could. So in the summer of my senior year of college, I chose to go to Uganda; I found an orphanage to work with and some other connections that would be helpful for my trip. The orphanage quickly did not turn out to be what I had expected so I was left in Uganda with three months of nothing to do. I found an afterschool program for work while I spent my days visiting with the local neighbors. This is when 31 Bits was born. I got to know women that were not able to provide for their families even though they were making beautiful jewelry. I loved this trip because it was such an eye opener for me in so many ways and with such beautiful memories.

What were some of the lessons you learned while abroad? What was your thought process after returning from Uganda?
Some of the biggest lessons I learned from this trip were to stop being busy and to just watch and listen. I spend so much time on my own agenda and not taking in what is around me. There was so much complexity in each woman’s situation and back history to why poverty existed. I was able to learn so much and take back with me stories of women. When I got back home I didn’t really want to start 31 Bits. I wanted to stay working in orphanages. But as time passed I saw that this was more than just sticking to my plan. This was enabling women to provide food, housing, and education for their children instead of sending their kids to orphanages. I was inspired and energized with new possibilities to help.

31 Bits has five founding members—yourself, Alli Swanson, Anna Toy, Brooke Hodges, and Jessie Simonson. How did the five of you come together and decide to start the business?
This is actually very blurry for me! I feel like it all was such a flurry of emotion and energy that I rely on the other girls’ viewpoints on how we got together. Anna was my roommate during college and she watched it all happen. I knew I couldn’t do this alone, nor did I want to. So why not ask your close friends to join? It has been the best decision I have ever made. Each of us is so different from one another which created a beautiful and well rounded team; not to mention, we have a blast every day.

31 Bits started while you were still in college. How were you able to manage school with running your business?
When I got back from Uganda, 31 Bits was just a baby and we were only dreaming of what it could become. I graduated and went straight to Uganda to start working the Uganda side while the others finished college and started setting up all the logistics on the U.S. side. It was really a crazy time! We had little money and little time but somehow we found a way to grow 31 Bits into what it is now. We look back to those years and just laugh at how crazy, hard, and youthful those times were.

From securing funding, writing a business plan, managing employees, and operating the day-to-day aspects of the company, running a business is hard work! The fact that your business is based in two continents must make the process even more complicated. Can you take us through the launch details and running 31 Bits?
Wow, this is a loaded question! I could write a book on this. To make my answer short, it’s been a lot of learning. We’ve all had to take the position of learner and go after every aspect of the business ahead of us. In Uganda this was even more true. All the development work we do comes from learning what the women in our program need. It took us about four years to get our program where it is now. I am so proud of every one of us. We had no experience in what we do but we worked hard to learn and to do the best we possibly could. The hard work paid off.

Tell us about your position with 31 Bits. What are your primary job responsibilities?
I am the International Director, so I have a hand in anything that has to do with Uganda. I design our jewelry, keep an eye on production, and make sure our women are being cared for holistically. It can get complicated with lots of different tasks using different sides of my brain and different time zones but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Tell us about the holistic development program with the women in Uganda. Why did you incorporate this program as a part of the business?
Our development program is the reason we started 31 Bits—not just to provide an income but also to provide a holistic program that enables a woman to live sustainably. Our development strategy uses a holistic approach—caring for a person financially, spiritually, mentally, and physically. When a person enters our program, she becomes part of our family. She is given a job, a community, and an education while developing a plan for her future. Our model is based on a five-year program to empower each beneficiary and her family while exposing them to the love of Christ. After five years in our program, a beneficiary is ready to graduate. She is educated, healthy, and confident while managing a business with a sustainable income.

Since opening 31 Bits in 2008, your business has grown tremendously. In what ways do you hope to see it grow in the future?
I would love to see 31 Bits grow with new products and a new country and to see more lives changed through fashion, design, and holistic programming.

Whatever you do, do it with passion. If you start it with that energy it will spread. People are drawn to people that are passionate about what they do.

Tell us about your team! How many employees currently work for 31 Bits? What strategies have you adopted to keep your bicontinental team connected?
I love our team, both U.S. and Uganda. We have 9 U.S. staff that work in Costa Mesa, CA, 4 U.S. staff that work in Uganda, 11 Uganda managers, 3 Uganda kitchen staff, and 150 Uganda beneficiaries who make all the beautiful jewelry. It takes a lot of people to keep this machine running! Our team stays connected through me. I Skype with each U.S. staff in Uganda at least once per week to go over each department. I also go over to Uganda 3-4 times per year to connect and work with our team. We try to do staff meet and greet a few times per year where our full Uganda staff Skypes with our U.S. staff to share stories of change. The best way to connect the two worlds is to get our U.S. staff to Uganda. The founders took a trip last September and it was amazing to see how much of an impact there was on both sides.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Definitely being able to go to Uganda multiple times a year to continue building the relationships that have been created over the years. It has been absolutely amazing to see lives change so drastically. I could not have imagined the impact 31 Bits has had on individual lives.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career and how were you able to overcome them?
Honestly my biggest challenge goes hand in hand with the most rewarding part of my job. It is hard to be gone so often and sometimes for long periods of time. I am so thankful that my husband, Adam, works with an organization that is also in Uganda so we travel together one or two times per year. We are expecting our first baby girl in November so I can foresee this becoming harder in the future. There are challenges but there is also so much beauty, like being able to bring our baby girl with us for all the women to meet (whom they have been waiting for for years) or seeing our first group of women graduate in July. I guess I don’t have an answer for any of it, but we embrace the good that comes from it all.

What advice can you give women looking to start their own businesses?
Whatever you do, do it with passion. If you start it with that energy it will spread. People are drawn to people that are passionate about what they do.

What is a typical workday like for you?
I start my workday at 7:00am in pajamas with a big green smoothie in my living room where I Skype with our U.S. Uganda staff—the favorite part of my day. I love working with our staff; they are some of the most amazing people I have met. After this my days look very different depending what part of my job needs it. Sometimes I head into the office where I work with Rosemary (our Sales Director) on keeping enough product in stock for our orders. Or I stay in my pajamas at home and work on next season’s jewelry line. No matter what my work day looks like, I can tell you I have a lot of laughs along the way with all the beautiful people I have the privilege of working with.

Best moment of your career so far?
Everyday when I realize that it’s working! Women’s lives are being changed drastically through fashion and business. I still have to pinch myself.

What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Work hard and don’t give up. Don’t think less of yourself.

Kallie Dovel is The Everygirl…

Perfect Sunday?
I’d start it off at church with Adam and then head to the farmers market to buy a ton of fresh produce. I love to cook so I’d make a yummy meal and then take a long walk in Seal beach. That sounds wonderful.

I wish I knew how to _______.

Dream vacation?

If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
My sister, Kate Dovel, hands down. She is one of the smartest, funniest, and loving people I know. We can talk for days about development and the work we do in Uganda while keeping it light hearted and laughing until one of us keels over. We would go to Habana’s in Costa Mesa—our favorite spot—and order Ahi tuna with a yummy rum cocktail.