People travel to Africa for many reasons. They go for humanitarian reasons, to enhance their education, or to observe the animals that roam the plains and deserts. They go to see the cradle of civilization, or to find the roots of their own heritage, but they don't, so often, go and discover their own future. Yet, this is just what Sara Starr Wroblewski did when she traveled to Kenya several years ago with a friend from college.
While this is a story about Africa, it is also one about how one thing leads to another which leads to another thing which leads to...well, you get the picture. Which is where it began. With pictures. (Several of which were recently flashing in huge electronic billboards in New York's Times Square.) It is also a story about how one person with a huge idea is like a magnet, drawing the best out of others to create something far greater than they might have originally conceived.
While a student at Hobart college, Wroblewski had the opportunity to travel to Nairobi in 2011 with her friend Becca Liggins. The trip was a lark -- a chance for the two girls to take a summer adventure for little more than the cost of a plane ticket. For Liggins, whose mother is a native of Kenya, it was a trip home to see relatives and relax.
For Wroblewski, it was a chance to hone the photography skills that she had become known for as a student at Western Reserve Academy. Wroblewski is a 2009 graduate of WRA and while there, she created and self-published a book of photographs of students wearing or displaying the iconic green and white striped tie in various poses and settings.
The book "The Tie That Binds," became an instant 'must-have' for the senior students, their parents, and many others who recognized the clever concept and budding talent in the book. The proceeds from the sale of this book funded her flight and off she went on what was to be a life changing, perhaps even a life-defining trip.
While the girls were there, they planned to spend a few days helping out in the Kitengela Hot Glass studio in Nairobi, Kenya, owned by Liggins' family friend, Anselm Croze. He appreciated them volunteering to clean out the basement, take some inventory, and work a little in the studio that makes hand blown tumblers and other items useful to Safari operators in return for glass blowing lessons.
Wroblewski was also looking forward to photographing some of the students at the Oloosirkon Government Primary School that Croze helps to support through grants from the glass company. She thought that their bright smiles and innocent faces would be rich subjects for her craft.
Over the years, Croze had been purchasing books for the students and had installed windows in the school, however, to his disappointment, local vandals had stolen the books and broken the windows. Frustrated by the waste of his contributions, he asked the principal what the school needed and was told that a fence might be a good idea. This fence, of nearly 1,000 meters, would cost $6,000 which was more than he was able to contribute. So he sent the girls to the school to see what they thought about the situation under the convenient guise of them photographing the students.
Wroblewski got some great photos of the students, but she also hatched a brilliant idea. She remembered that back at Hobart, bracelets strung with collectable metal, glass and enameled beads were very popular with students. Everyone seemed to be wearing them; adding beads they received as gifts or purchased for themselves. She also noticed that there was a certain amount of "leftover" glass from the glass blowing process at the factory. What if...?
Collaborating with Croze, she decided to make a glass bead from the scraps of glass that would otherwise be swept into the trash. The bead is a simple design, made from folding molten glass, leaving a loop at the top for stringing. One side of the bead would be thick and one thin to represent the paradox of having a little versus having a lot. The "O" stamped in the center for the name of the school also signifies the binding unity of humanity. The first hundred "collector beads" were priced at $20 and subsequent bead bracelets cost $12 and remain at that price. Back at school, she contacted teachers and students to enlist their help in selling them and so began her non-profit foundation "One Bead."
The next thing
Autumn found Wroblewski headed to England for a semester abroad. She left One Bead in the care of a friend until she returned, but fate had another plan for her and for One Bead. While she was in Norwich, England, she was contacted by Amy Forbes from the Centennial Center for Leadership at Hobart. There was to be a scholarship contest called "The Pitch" that would award $10,000 to the student with the best entrepreneurial idea and plan. Forbes suggested that Wroblewski enter her One Bead project into the contest and offered to help her prepare for the first round of the contest while she was abroad.
The six months that followed were a flurry of strategic planning, marketing development, and public speaking practice during which Wroblewski sought the guidance of an alumni mentor and some family friends who helped her hone her concept and presentation. One very creative fellow student, Sara Hulver helped with the circle logo and other graphic designs. "I ate, breathed, and slept 'One Bead,'" Wroblewski recalls. And it paid off. With their advice and some very hard work, Wroblewski won the competition and the $10,000 award.
Before long, One Bead had branched out to other colleges. First, with the help of a few more friends and cousin Quinn Cutchin, representatives were added to other college campuses. The simple concept of "sell a bracelet, make a difference" was catching on. By the end of Spring 2012, a stop-motion video was completed and launched on the OneBead.org website with additional exposure on Facebook. That video went on to win a gold medal at the national Addy Awards in 2012. One Bead received its 501c3 status and Wroblewski also formed a board of directors, comprised mostly of young women with talents in art, finance and public relations.
Wroblewski returned to Africa in the late summer of 2012 for a visit. Again, tapping the talents and generosity of those in the Hudson community and beyond, she amassed 400 pounds of school supplies to bring with her and held a two-day art camp for 55 students. She was excited to see that work had begun on the fence and she began talking to Croze about plans for a community center that would include a library for local children to study and an exhibition space for local artists. Between the $10,000 from the "Pitch" grant, and the funds raised by the sales of the bracelets, there was enough money left over after building the fence to consider these additional projects.
In the midst of all of the planning and executing of details, Wroblewski managed to squeeze in visits to the Clinton Global Initiative for University students (CGIU) in both 2012 and 2013. There might be no better place for someone with a talent for both entrepreneurship and philanthropy to be inspired by others and she said that "attending these conferences made everything seem possible and within reach." The organization's purpose is to 'turn ideas into action' and it draws from the talents and experience of world leaders to 'create and implement innovative solutions to the world's most pressing challenges.'
An idea that begins so simply actually requires many hands, many minds, and many talents to make it fly, and there has been no shortage of 'angels' who have been in on the deal. Many of whom happen to be from Hudson.
In December, Grey Colt owner, Katie Colton decided that One Bead would be the perfect recipient of the monies generated by her very popular annual stocking competition.
More than $4,000 was raised by the enthusiastic and talented participants. One Bead is now being sold by 50 representatives on more than 40 college campuses in the United States. Revenues vary, but since its inception in 2011, the charity has collected $50,000.
This past July, through board member, Charlotte Lysohir, One Bead was able to take advantage of free public service announcement advertising in Times Square. For a little over a week, the round One Bead logo and photographs of the children of that little town in Kenya flashed up for a few seconds eight times an hour. Pretty heady stuff.
What comes next
While watching the happy children at the art camp, Wroblewski recognized that there was plenty of need among children in her own country. Inspired by another friend, Caroline Dosky, who developed a curriculum to build leadership skills in early primary school students, Wroblewski has conceived 'One Life,' the next iteration of One Bead.
According to the Onebead.org website, 'One Life' is to be "a leadership program motivating students to live a life of purpose," Studies have shown that by the time a child is in just the second grade, they possess the skills and maturity to understand what it means to be a good citizen, to help others, and to develop a sense of self-confidence.
Working from the premise that leadership builds confidence -- that a child "doesn't have to be academically talented to make a difference" a set of educational exercises developed by Dosky will form the basis of this new program to motivate second graders to a sense of excellence and pride at an early age. The plan is to introduce this curriculum to schools around the country, inspiring children to excel in many aspects of their lives. One Life will not use any funds generated by One Bead which Wroblewski now considers to be self-sustaining. Like any business or entrepreneurship start-up, Wroblewski is engaged in the process of seeking funding, sponsors and investments.
She graduated cum laude from Hobart College in May with a degree in media and society and a minor in economics. Instead of accepting a "regular" job like the rest of her classmates, she has decided to take a year to explore the possibilities of turning One Life into a fully functioning non-profit organization.
Wroblewski moved to Boston in September and while she will work to support her day-to-day needs, she will once again be 'eating, sleeping, and breathing' One Life. It is something that seems to suit her, her talents and her passion.v