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​ABOVE: Erin O’Malley ’13 and Njabini Apparel have affected the lives
of Kenyans — and PC students, too.
BELOW: Mary Wanjiru works on a Njabini Apparel bracelet.

​Class of 2013: Lives of Meaning and Purpose

Student’s Business Transforms a Kenyan Village, Wins Contract with Whole Foods

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story, originally published in 2012, is part of a continuing series of profiles on members of the Class of 2013, who will graduate on May 19. To read other profiles, go to the Commencement page.

O'Malley left this month for Nepal to climb to base camp on Mount Everest as part of a fund-raising effort for Flying Kites, the orphanage where she volunteered in 2011.

Sometimes, Erin O’Malley ’13 (Milton, Mass.) finds it difficult to get to class.

In late September, for example, she flew to Washington to spend two days at YouthTrade Seattle, a trade show where more than a dozen young entrepreneurs pitched their ideas to retailers. She signed a contract with a representative of Whole Foods Markets to sell her product, Njabini Apparel, made by disadvantaged mothers in Kenya, in 14 stores in the Pacific Northwest and in four stores in Canada beginning December 1.

“I still can’t really believe it’s true,” O’Malley said.

O’Malley, a management major at Providence College, and Michael Behan, a senior at Northeastern University in Boston, founded Njabini Apparel in 2011 when both were volunteers at Flying Kites, an orphanage and school in Njabini, Kenya.

They rented a workshop in Njabini and hired local women to knit and sew shoulder bags, wristlets, head wraps, and bangles from locally sourced materials to earn money to support their families and to send their children to school. They sold the products online at www.njabiniapparel.org and at outdoor markets and home parties in the United States.

O’Malley is the company’s marketing director and Behan is the chief executive officer. Under their business model, 50 percent of gross profits is returned to the women as salary, 30 percent is reinvested in financial literacy and business training programs for the villagers, and 20 percent is donated to Flying Kites.

O’Malley spent the past summer in Kenya, where the company launched a pilot credit program to offer the mothers access to loans for the first time. It also leased two acres of land so that another 10 women in the village could earn income through farming, and brought representatives from a national bank to Njabini to offer weekly sessions on personal budgeting, savings, and debt management.

The experience has taught O’Malley a lot about the challenges of running a business. For example, if you’re going to teach village women to use a sewing machine, someone must also be able to fix it when it breaks. And if you are trying to get a shipment to a consolidated shipping container at Kenya Airways, a muddy road along the way can topple the entire process.

Changing the college, too

In addition to transforming a village in Africa, O’Malley has made an impact on PC.

Last year, though only a junior, she took an M.B.A. class in social entrepreneurship taught by her advisor, Dr. Matthew Eriksen, professor of management. She wrote a proposal to make social entrepreneurship a minor for undergraduates. The Faculty Senate will decide whether to approve it this fall.      

Last spring, three marketing classes taught by special lecturer Edward Gonsalves competed to create the best video promoting Njabini Apparel. O’Malley and Behan plan to use all three — Njabini Babies, Pamoja, and Individuals Inspiring Individuals — on their Web site.

 

Eriksen said that O’Malley’s success is due to a blend of “courage, passion, compassion, love, determination, caring, vulnerability, and curiosity.”

“She takes ‘the road less traveled’ and follows her heart,” said Eriksen. “Who Erin is allows her to transcend herself in the service of others and to be a catalyst to facilitate others’ self-transformation and the transformation of our world.”

O’Malley went to Kenya after her sophomore year at PC. The fifth of six children, she wanted time to reflect and to be certain that her college studies would lead her to a career that she loved. She was teaching creative writing at Flying Kites when she collaborated with Behan to launch Njabini Apparel. 

O’Malley decided to focus on the company and switch her major to management. She remembers trying to register online in Kenya for her junior-year courses. The parabolic receiver that was her connection to the Internet blew off a roof in high winds and she had to walk through fields to find it.

Back in Providence, she sold Njabini Apparel from the back of her Mercury Mountaineer. This year, for the first time, the company’s products were introduced in retail stores in Saratoga, N.Y.; Fairfield, Conn.; Portsmouth, N.H.; Newport, R.I.; and Boston, providing a steady stream of income for the company.

O’Malley also is working to expand the product line. The company’s yoga mat bags are popular, and Njabini Apparel is introducing a line of home products. Thanks to the company’s association with YouthTrade, O’Malley also has made contact with a buyer from Nordstrom.   

“Energizing and humbling”

In May, the month she will graduate from PC, O’Malley will embrace another challenge: she plans to climb 17,500 feet to the base camp of Mount Everest in Nepal to raise money for Flying Kites. She is hoping that students in an Organizational Theory class she is taking with Dr. thomas r. king, assistant professor of management and of global studies, will assist with the fundraising.

Her company’s success brings “a dichotomy of feelings for me,” O’Malley said, calling the past 18 months “the most energizing and humbling period of my life.”

“We’ve grown from one woman knitting hats and scarves to eight women employed every day,” O’Malley said. “The children are enrolled full time in school, their path to financial literacy has begun, and their businesses are in incubation. There’s a long road ahead, and I’m thrilled to see where it will lead us.”

 

— Vicki-Ann Downing
 
 
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