When Kohl Crecelius, CEO of KKi, decided to enter his company in the UW Business Plan Competition in 2006, he wasn’t sure how his business model would be received. In short, KKi planned to pay Ugandan women a fair wage to crochet hats for sale in the United States, believing that the profits would fund KKi’s operations and the employment would provide women with the resources to rise out of poverty. Crecelius knew that KKi’s model was different than most companies in the BPC, and while mission-driven organizations in the competition were not unheard of, he wasn’t sure how the judges would react. “We half expected people to tell us we were crazy for trying to start a business in Africa,” he recalls. “We expected them to tell us we didn’t know what we were doing.”
As it turned out, he needn’t have worried. KKi was awarded the Best Social Innovation prize and received extremely positive feedback from judges. “The BPC was very affirming,” says Crecelius, explaining that it was encouraging to see KKi’s nonprofit business model embraced by experienced entrepreneurs. One judge’s feedback sticks with him to this day. “He told us our idea was lightning in a bottle,” he remembers.
Electrifying isn’t a bad way to describe KKi. The company has certainly set out to light the world on fire. A bit dramatic? Maybe. But it has already changed lives for the better, and developed into a successful brand to boot.
In 2007 Crecelius and his co-founders Stewart Ramsey and Travis Hartanov set up shop in Northern Uganda, home to thousands living in permanent refugee camps. They started small, teaching 10 Ugandan women how to crochet hats, then selling those hats online. It wasn’t long before things took off. Today KKi has expanded its presence in Uganda and opened a location in Peru. KKi hats are sold in Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters, and Zumiez, and worn by everyone from trendy toddlers to A-list celebrities. KKi has been profiled by the New York Times, won a $500K grant from the American Giving Awards, and brought in over $1.5 million in product sales in 2012.
Much of this success can be attributed to the founders’ business backgrounds. “We look different than 99 out of 100 nonprofits,” says Crecelius. “In any given year, more than 80 percent of our revenue comes from the sale of product. We are very business minded, which I think lends to our ability to be successful in the long term.”
But Crecelius’ proudest accomplishments have little to do with revenue. They have to do with the organization’s social impact. KKi currently employs 160 women in Uganda and Peru—women who have experienced war, abuse, and the daily struggles of poverty. Women employed by KKi benefit from a reliable income, to be sure, but also from an extensive education curriculum and one-on-one mentoring from social workers. When their three years with KKi comes to an end, these women will have the skills and savings to continue their studies, buy a piece of land, or start their own business.
“The ultimate goal, says Crecelius, “is that these women will find careers and opportunities independent from KKi. We want to be the catalyst for people to realize their own dreams for the future.”