Out of Africa: From Law Books to High Fashion

Mississippi Magazine
March/April 2012

Most people on the outside looking in to Ashley Pittman’s life six years ago would have assumed she had it all.  The daughter of Mississippi natives, Pittman graduated from Texas Christian University with degrees in political science and business.  She quickly landed a job working for a private equity firm in New York City, later moving to Los Angeles.  Young and successful, it would appear she had life on a string.

However, Pittman will be the first to tell you that while her job was interesting, it left her feeling unfulfilled.  She later left the finance world to pursue a deeper calling – traveling to Africa.  In 2006, she became a volunteer for the Clinton Foundation, a non-profit organization established by President Bill Clinton to improve the health and strengthen the economies of countries across the globe.  Later that year, she boarded a plane for Rwanda as part of the organization’s HIV/AIDS initiative.

While in Africa, Pittman discovered locally-produced jewelry and the seed for Ashley Pittman Jewelry was planted.  Once her time in Rwanda came to an end, she returned to the states to attend law school.  However, Pittman frequently found herself reflecting on her time in East Africa.

“I knew I wanted to go back and work in East Africa, but I wanted to do something more hands on,” she reveals.

Upon graduating from Boston’s Northeastern University in 2009, she decided to use her finance and law background to develop a sustainable business model that would allow her to provide not only employment for an area ravaged by drought, but also training for local artisans.  Suddenly, Pittman found herself going from studying law textbooks to high fashion.

“I never thought this is what I would be doing,” she laughs.  “However, the people I met already possessed the skills needed to create the jewelry, they just lacked knowledge of what was in fashion and quality control.  They also lacked the infrastructure needed to sell the items they produced.”

Pittman’s company purchased a collection of jewelry crafted by a group of Kenyan artisans.  Two weeks after showing the first set of samples, the line was picked up by New York-based luxury department store Bergdorf-Goodman.

“It was crazy,” Pittman says, “and incredibly lucky.”

Today, Pittman’s company purchases goods from a woman’s cooperative that employs approximately 80 artisans.  It has expanded its line into nationally recognized retailer Neiman Marcus and the independent Dallas-based specialty emporium Stanley Korshak.  Her collection features bracelets, necklaces, and earrings made from bronze, semi-precious stones, and horn sourced from locally raised livestock.  She makes frequent visits to Africa, returning every three months for 3-4 weeks at a time to spend time with the artisans and introduce new designs.

Pittman’s success has not only allowed her to follow her passion, but it has also given her the opportunity to help improve the lives of the artisans she works with.  Through the Ashley Pittman Foundation, 10% of the profit from each jewelry sale supports projects that improve the Kenyan community of Kamboo.  To date, the foundation has been able to help support a rural health center that serves over 4,000 people who have never had access to basic healthcare.  Equipped with clean, running water, eight patient rooms, and a refrigerator for medicine storage, it is estimated that the clinic treats over 100 malaria patients every month.  The Foundation also supplies the local primary school with clean water and hot meals, an amenity that is not otherwise readily available to many of the children who attend the school.

“Many of these artisans did not know where their next form of income would come from,” Pittman adds.  “I believe in ‘Trade, not Aid.’  Rather than these people relying on donations, they now have the ability to work for themselves and create a better life.”

To read more about Ashley’s story and her Foundation:
Ashley Pittman Jewelry