When Ilea Dorsey decided to follow her heart, she thought it would lead her to a fulfilling career. She didn’t know it would lead her to true love, too.
After earning her BA in business administration from USD in 2002, Dorsey found practical employment: she worked in residential real estate. But she’d always had a twin hankering for travel and service, inspired in part by her faith. “I felt I was called to be doing more to give back,” she says. “I wanted to serve, but didn’t know what skills I had that could be of help to anyone.”
She confided her yearnings to a friend, “half expecting her to laugh and tell me how lame that sounded.” Instead, she was invited to come along on an upcoming trip to Africa. It took a year and a half for Dorsey to save up enough money for the three-month journey, which included a stint volunteering at an orphanage. When she got home, she couldn’t wait to do it again. She felt as if she had to continue to travel and to help others. But go where? And help whom?
After trying out new destinations for a few years, in 2006, she partnered with Restore International, an organization that works to free young women from sex slavery in India and Southeast Asia. After volunteering with them for just over a month, she accepted a post opening a new field office in Uganda, and off she went. This, she found, was the population that she’d been seeking to help. This was where she felt she could do the most good.
At the same time, a young entrepreneur named Jared Miller was starting Keza, a company whose goal was to pull women out of poverty by training them to be high-end artisans, setting them up in independent businesses and creating economically independent entrepreneurs who could then sell their wares — such as one-of-a-kind jewelry assembled from hand-crafted beads — to the high-end fashion market in the United States. When the pair met through mutual friends, sparks flew. Their passions meshed perfectly; before long, Dorsey began working with Keza. She’s now the chief operations officer to Miller’s CEO. The two were wed late last year.
They spend nine months a year in Africa, where they have a house, and camp out with family when they’re in the States making connections in the fashion industry. They’ve slowly built up a consortium of 37 women artisans in Rwanda whose creations are sold in boutiques in New York and Nashville, with more soon to come in Los Angeles, San Diego and Chicago. They did a stint with QVC last year, with Dorsey as guest host. It was a rousing success, with their first show selling out in four minutes and their second show, within days.
Growth is purposely slow, so they can be sure their businesses are up and running before moving into new areas. Keza brings in interns — fashion designers from the Rhode Island School of Design and business development interns from the University of Colorado — to help the artisans create marketable designs and create realistic business models. The current “Umoja” jewelry is a high-end version of a local craft known as paper-bead rolling.
“Paper-bead rolling has been growing all over East Africa for the last few years,” Dorsey says. “I brought it to Jared, saying ‘this is a great craft, and it sells well in the States.’ He said, ‘run with it.’” RISD students spent a year improving on the craft, bringing it up to a new level — no longer a craft, but an artisanal product that could legitimately compete in the couture fashion world. “We hone the design process and institute quality control systems, then teach them how to run their own businesses in a way that lets it grow and become profitable. Then we buy them back and sell them under the Keza label.”
Their next step is to move their base of operations from Rwanda to Kenya, where they’ll have access to more materials and a central port, which will open up a larger swath of eastern Africa. Developing their own business is the priority now, though in the future, when things are running smoothly, they both intend to return to more hands-on charitable work. Nonetheless, deliberately placing Keza offices in locations where sex tourism has a stranglehold on the local economy tends to have a positive impact. Dorsey has found her niche and honed in on the population she needs to serve.
“America wants beautiful products; these people want a way to support themselves,” Dorsey says. “We bring those two groups together to create a dignified path out of poverty. There’s too much news about Africa as a place of corruption or AIDS or child soldiers. There’s not enough about the strength and beauty that is Africa. Keza means ‘beautiful’ in the native language of Africa. That’s what we want to bring to the world.”
FEATURE PHOTO BY Jackie Wonders