Many students dream of starting their own businesses after college, but some, such as University of Mississippi alumna Christen Edmonds, don’t waste time waiting for graduation.
And Edmonds, who completed her Bachelor of General Studies in December, didn’t stop with simply being a successful entrepreneur. She dreamed big and used her idea for a simple headband to develop a company that is helping fill the needs of women and children on two different continents.
“It’s all about helping these real people who were born into really bad circumstances,” said Edmonds, of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. “I never thought this small idea would become so big.”
It all started in 2010 when Edmonds went with her parents and brother to Swaziland in southern Africa.
“My dad created a website for this nonprofit organization called ‘Heart for Africa,’ and our whole family was inspired by their mission, so we joined one of their trips,” Edmonds recalled. “We spent a week working with orphans and vulnerable children to help them build a garden at their school. We just loved on them and played with them. I couldn’t believe how positive and happy they were even though they lived in such difficult surroundings and circumstances.”
Swaziland is a landlocked country bordered by South Africa and Mozambique. Due to the excessive mortality rates of those infected with HIV, Swaziland has one of the lowest average life expectancies in the world, 46 years old. Most of the children Edmonds met were orphans.
After returning home, Edmonds desperately wanted to return to help the people who had touched her heart. She weighed options for ways to earn travel money while balancing her college courses and hit upon an idea to create specialty cloth-and-spandex headbands. When she showed some friends the prototype, they immediately pulled out their wallets and her company, Bandiez Couture, was born.
“My 76-year-old grandmother, Velda, is an amazing seamstress,” Edmonds said. “I told her about my idea to make functional headbands that looked good, and she taught me and my mom how to sew cloth and elastic to create each piece. I chose some nice fabrics and got to work. My plan was to sell them to all of my sorority sisters, but before I knew it, other sororities and college girls were wanting them.”
Those word-of-mouth sales funded another trip to Africa in the summer of 2011, which in turn only piqued Edmond’s interest to make a legitimate business out of her creations.
“After my second trip, I found some ladies in my hometown that I paid to help my mom and me make more of the bands at a faster rate. After we started working with them, we had enough inventory to move into retail markets. We were selling them in boutiques and shops in Missouri, Mississippi and Texas. My dad helped me create a website and then they could be purchased online as well.”
Through the “Heart for Africa” and “Children’s Hope Chest International” charities, Edmonds began giving a portion of her earnings to help children in Swaziland. She even got to meet two of the children she sponsored during her third trip to Africa in 2013. At that time, she was also researching how she could employ Swazi residents to help produce the product, but shipping across the Atlantic Ocean and working through a strict monarchical government eventually proved too difficult.
“My dad visited Haiti on a mission trip, and he heard about a company run by a young lady from Texas who was helping create jobs for impoverished women in Haiti, and since we couldn’t work out a way for Swazi women to help, we decided to reach out to her to see if we could be a part of the Haiti program,” Edmonds explained.
In February 2014, Edmonds traveled with her parents to Port-au-Prince. With the help of a translator, she and her mother taught 10 Haitian women how to produce each style of her Bandiez line.
“We had a lot of fun,” Edmonds recalled. “My mom would recite the directions while a Haitian translator repeated the instructions back. All the while, I was demonstrating the technique on old pedal sewing machines. The women caught on quickly. I was impressed at how productive and hard-working they were. Providing these ladies with a job not only allows them the independence of making money to take care of their families, but it gives them hope.”
Edmonds still works with ladies from her hometown to have an American production team as well. They help to keep the product stocked in over 25 boutiques around the Southeast.
“We are really blessed to have such a great market for these right now,” Edmonds said. “Now that I have completed my degree, I want to take what I have learned in my classes and implement that knowledge to help my business grow. Then I also plan to see where we might be able to expand the brand in terms of products.”
As a BGS major at Ole Miss, Edmonds chose to minor in art, business and psychology to craft a specialty degree that fit her interests.
“I’m really lucky to also have a minor in art that has helped me tap into my creative side,” Edmonds said. “And upper-level courses in business and psychology have been invaluable as I have learned to communicate and bring about relationships with shop owners and factories in both America and Haiti.”
UM art professor Philip Jackson described Edmonds’ venture as inspiring.
“Christen is a thoughtful, caring person and a great role model for women her age,” Jackson said. “She fell right into place in our printmaking courses. She’s a natural artist who sees color very well. While she was a student in two of my courses, I found out more about her business and passion of helping others. Her commitment and faith are strongly rooted.”
Now that her degree is finished, Edmonds is channeling all her energies into the business and is looking for new merchandising outlets. She has launched an updated website and is perfecting her photography skills to show off her products. She hopes to sell through online shopping websites and also has added a shop in South Carolina to her growing list of vendors.
“Our company slogan is ‘threading to thrive,” Edmonds said. “I’m just really thankful that I found something I enjoy doing that is also helping others.”
To find out more about the Bandiez products, visit their website.
Courtesy of Pam Starling, Ole Miss News Desk