You’ll be greeted with the jarring question, ‘How many slaves work for you?’
After graduating from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs in 2006, Donavan Kennedy spent six months traveling through seven countries. Like Sarah Ray — who spent nine months between 2003 and 2004 volunteering through eight countries, following her graduation from Drury University in Missouri — Kennedy returned inspired to bring “dignifying and sustainable” change to people’s lives.
Ray recalls that after Kennedy’s return, they “met for one coffee and decided to fund our first start-up grant to my contacts in Uganda.”
Yobel Market was born. With Kennedy waiting tables at The Mona Lisa and Ray doing the same at Adam’s Mountain Café, the two co-founders pooled their weekend tip money and partnered with NGOs in Uganda to get about 50 subsistence farmers busy making jewelry as part-time employment during the dry season.
Yobel soon set up at farmers markets in Manitou Springs and Woodland Park. Kennedy and Ray invested their profits from jewelry sales back into the business and began purchasing goods through trusted travel contacts in Thailand and Indonesia.
By 2009, Yobel had doubled its revenues, enabling the duo to launch a boutique in Old Colorado City in 2010. They continued to provide start-up capital for various projects, bolstering their retail line with items from as many as 39 nations.
But growth for growth’s sake wasn’t the idea. Also during 2010, Ray, Kennedy and a Yobel volunteer took a scouting trip to Thailand and Cambodia, as well as to India for the first time, working inside refugee camps, red-light districts and prisons. In Bangkok, they visited a trading partner that was training women to make jewelry and emerge from prostitution.
“We wanted to see it for ourselves,” Kennedy says, “so we could accurately tell the story.”
In July 2012, Kennedy and Ray dove further into this side of the fair-trade equation and launched Yobel International, to organize business training and development in foreign countries. Whereas the market had been (and remains) secular, the nonprofit arm would be faith-based, drawing upon the business partners’ Christianity and, in the early days, a business training curriculum developed by a South African church alliance called Paradigm Shift.
Yobel led its first training that same year in Uganda, and it proved to be an overwhelming success. “We thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is amazing, we have to keep doing this!’” Ray remembers. “This is transforming communities and getting them off dependency on foreign aid.”
Last April, Ray and Kennedy shuttered the Old Colorado City boutique and expanded to a larger space under the Colorado Avenue bridge, while condensing their catalogue offerings down to goods from the 15 nations where they’ve “dug deep.” And they focused much of their energy on building Yobel International’s own curricula, which they’d have the freedom to contextualize by country.
After all, while faith messaging in their teachings works in Africa, they say, a secular version fits better in India, roughly 75 percent Hindu, 17 percent Muslim and 3 percent Christian.
“From my standpoint of faith, I can’t separate it from anything I do,” says Ray. “What we do in the business trainings is motivated by our love of God and our love for people and our desire to have them live abundant lives. Now, in teaching actual business principles, we don’t say that you need to teach that from a faith perspective for it to be effective.”
What is effective in building momentum for Yobel’s mission: having people witness it all with their own eyes.
“We’ve been so changed by global travel that we wanted to invite others to have their hearts changed and their paradigms affected,” says Ray. “Once they experience another culture … and know the real people rather than just hear these broad statistical issues or problems — when you see a person in that, then that problem becomes personal.”