Interview with the Founder of Vi Bella: Jewelry that Gives Back
MEET JULIE Hulstein, the founder and president of Vi Bella, who’s all heart and business. Without taking any wage or salary, Hulstein uses the company to employ poverty-stricken and at-risk women in Haiti, Mexico and the United States so they can have consistent access to the basic necessities of life.
Overcoming the high learning curve of starting a new business with the know-how required in dealing with a different culture and the infrastructure of developing countries, Hulstein who came from a musical background, was able to create Vi Bella, or a beautiful life, as its name sweetly and accurately states.
CM: Can you give a brief intro into your background? What did you do before doing this?
JH: I am a wife, mother, and grandmother. My professional background is in music and education—I was a high school/middle school band director for 27 years, and played in area symphony orchestras and chamber groups for many years.
CM: What has been the most challenging part of running a nonprofit and specifically this business?
JH: I have had to learn so many new things that were far out of my realm of expertise and knowledge base. The challenges of starting a new business are large in themselves. On top of that, I have had to learn (and continue to learn), a great deal about other cultures in the countries we work in. Lack of infrastructure in Haiti is a major challenge. Things that seem simple to us, such as communication, transportation, shipping, banking, power and water sources, etc., present ever present hurdles to overcome.
CM: How many people are currently working for Vi Bella?
JH: We have approximately 25 full time employees in Haiti and 6 in Mexico. All these people have consistent, well paying jobs. It is important to us that these Vi Bella artisans can count on employment that is steady, and not dependent on orders of product. In addition to that, we contract with several other artisan groups in Haiti who make jewelry, bags, and metal art that we market for them in the USA. These artisan groups are all led by people we have taken the time to get to know. We are confident that they, too, work to improve the lives of the artisans who work with them. The groups vary in size from groups of 3 to over 200 workers.
CM: What are the conditions in Haiti like?
JH: Poverty is severe in the areas where we have Vi Bella centers. Many people go hungry for days at a time, lack clean water to drink and live in inadequate shelter. A large percentage of children remain uneducated because parents cannot afford to send their children to school. Even worse, many parents are forced to make the decision to leave their children at orphanages to be cared for because they simply cannot feed them or care for their basic needs because of their dire poverty. Our goal is to keep families together and to empower individuals within families and communities to help walk into a more beautiful life. (If you are asking about working conditions, our work centers are clean, secure, have meals and drinking water for workers available every day. We use generators for electricity because there is none.) Oh, and the weather is hot!
CM: How do you come up with designs?
JH: We have designers at our home office who come up with designs. We are for the most part, self taught jewelry makers. I will freely admit that our learning curve has been steep. We look at fashion and accessory trends as they are reported in the media, and “play” and experiment with our recycled products to try to incorporate as many re-purposed materials into designs as possible. We are very pleased with the improved designs and quality in our jewelry over the past two years.
CM: What is the process in making and producing recycled beads and where do they come from?
JH: We started Vi Bella with the idea of recycling plastic bottles into beads for jewelry making. The bottles are cut into strips, painted, rolled into tubes, then heated to retain their new shape. Our artisans also make beads out of recycled paper which is cut into long strips, rolled onto toothpicks, glued, painted, and varnished. Our artisans make really cool pendants our of metal bottle caps by covering two reshaped caps with paper mache’ and then enameling them. We are working on recycling glass bottles into beads for future pieces.
CM: Where is your jewelry distributed and will you be expanding?
JH: We sell our jewelry in the USA, mostly through private gatherings facilitated by our Beautiful Life Ambassadors. We also have an online store, sell to retail outlets, and have a fundraising option through which an organization or individual can sell Vi Bella products to raise money for their cause. Expansion of Vi Bella means more jobs for people in need! This is our over reaching goal! Our plans for business expansion are first to secure Beautiful Life Ambassadors in every one of the 50 states and to continue to empower them. We are developing a new and separate product line and marketing plan for organizations who do Vi Bella fundraisers. We also plan to develop separate lines for retailers. As our sales grow, we are able to hire more artisans. We have the space and management in Haiti and Mexico ready to handle that well.
CM: What is the best selling piece?
JH: Over the past year our best selling piece has been the Constance Bracelet, a wrap bracelet with multi- colored recycled bottle beads.
CM: What do you think is the greatest change you’ve seen in the Haitian and Mexican communities who are part of Vi Bella?
JH: The women who work at Vi Bella have a new found sense of dignity and confidence. They are proud that they are caring for themselves and their families, that all their children are going to school, and that they are even able to help others in their communities who are in need. I visit our centers and the homes of our artisans regularly and am frankly overwhelmed at the differences I see. There is a real impact on the micro economy of the villages where people are given jobs, because they now circulate money through that community as they purchase food, clothing, and the like from others. One of the greatest changes I am reminded about by my Haitian friends is the important element of hope that radiates out to others when they see lives changing for the better.
CM: Can you describe a typical day in the life of Julie Hulstein?
JH: I don’t have many “typical” days! One thing that is very consistent is that I spend almost every morning alone with the Lord in prayer and Bible reading. This is what fuels what I do and shapes who I am. After that, I go the home office at Vi Bella and spend my day in meetings with our excellent team here planning anything from production to marketing. I also spend a great deal of time in correspondence with people in Haiti and Mexico who are working for Vi Bella or who manage organizations that we partner with in some way. I am always looking for new connections and possibilities and for solutions to problems or obstacles we face.
CM: What are the top 3 characteristics you value in a person?
JH: Mercy, a passion for justice, and humility.
To shop and support, visit ViBellaJewelry.com