Billboard Bags: Employer, Vocational Training Program and Social Enterprise

Billboard Bags is an innovative start-up social enterprise that up-cycles outdoor billboards into super cute bags that come in all shapes and sizes.  100% of their part-time employees are refugee women, who graduate from a year-long training program with stronger English, marketable hard and soft job skills and basic household financial management. Higher is entering the first 50 people to like us on Facebook in a drawing to win one of these great bags, each signed by the refugee woman who made it.  You can, too by clicking here!

bag at crabHow They Got Started

The team behind Billboard Bags in Atlanta, GA became increasingly aware of refugees’ struggle to make ends meet in their neighborhood.  “In our very own backyard, we had 3,500 refugees a year being resettled. They quickly became a part of our lives, and we knew there might be a way we could work together”, says Gisele Nelson, Execution Specialist for parent organization, Plywood People.

For a year and a half, they tested the idea of creating bags from old billboards given by a supporter glad to provide the raw material. (Blank billboards are covered with heavy printed banner material.)  They had a shed full of billboards before they knew what they were going to do with them.  In 2011, before any of the details had been solidified, an order of 5,000 bags propelled the project into high gear.

“We didn’t have a well thought out business plan or even a sewing machine”, Nelson explains.  What they did have was billboards, people to do the work, and orders to fill.  12 Burmese women and 12 sewing machines later, the first order was underway.  The learning curve was pretty sharp in the beginning.  According to Nelson, “the women we hired didn’t know how to sew.  We didn’t even know how to sew!” It took the team four months to complete 5,000 bags.

How it Looks Today

After just two years, Billboard Bags has sold over 50,000 up-cycled billboard products and has graduated 25 women from their training program.  The project has been sustainable through bag sales since the beginning and they hope to double in size by next summer.

bag woman sewing machine smallerThey currently hire 6 women, including an Iraqi manager.  They learned that new hires should be from different backgrounds, so that English is the common language that everyone can use to communicate.   They have also learned to hire in pairs (from similar backgrounds and language groups).  Each woman works 30 hours a week from 8am- 2pm each day, which is the schedule that works best for the employee trainees.

 

Billboard Bags is the first of four social enterprises making cool products and employing refugees that Higher will feature with a success story and product promotion for our readers in the coming months.  Like us on Facebook or check out our website to learn more and maybe get some great swag! 

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