The Startup Fighting To Eliminate LGBTQIA+ Health Disparities
Building out a company that redefines health and wellness for the queer community.
Sustainable jobs and technical skills
YEVU overcomes floods, theft, bribery, and cultural misunderstandings to provide opportunities for its workers.
Ask any entrepreneur about the “why” behind their business—the reason they were compelled to start.
You may hear about their desire for autonomy in work, opportunity for creative expression, an ingenious solution to a problem, or endless financial potential. But an increasingly common response from founders today is simply “purpose." These founders prioritize passion over profit, altruism over self-benefit. Simply stated, their companies want to change the world for the better—and it's a trend we’re eager to get behind.
For most companies, it's the business that is created first, then the values get stitched in as the brand finds its legs. But for others, the script is flipped. For these select individuals, purpose is literally the ignition switch that activates their business. They discover the impact that something can have on the world, and say to themselves, "I must enable this. I must share this with others." And a business is born.
Meet Anna Robertson, a native of Sydney, Australia who relocated to Ghana and founded YEVU: a bright, bold and beautiful apparel brand whose purpose to bring sustainable, fair-pay jobs to disadvantaged individuals continues to manifest itself in surprising ways.
Tell us a little about your background and what specifically led to your founding of YEVU.
My background is in international development, which I got into after completing my Honours in Political Economy from Sydney University. I’ve been running the business now for six years, so that feels like a lifetime ago. I was only 26 when I started YEVU, so I hadn't really had a good chance to develop professionally, but I had always worked in nonprofits and knew that I wanted to work in the ‘for purpose’ sector. I was working in Ghana in development and the brand was conceived out of basically just being there, talking to people and being exposed to the amazing textiles, women in business, and their skillsets. Seeing that there was potential to create something cool for an international market whilst creating sustainable employment and building the capacity for women in need was a no brainer. I didn't anticipate I’d be still running the brand 6 years later!
How long after moving to Ghana did you start YEVU?
About six months in, I started thinking about the business, and had a vision in my head of what the first range would look like and what our first pop up would look like. Weirdly, the first pop up looked almost exactly as I had imagined it in those early days. So 6-12 months after moving to Ghana, the business had slowly started evolving and I was spending a lot of time with our soon-to-be business partner in the space that would be our first workshop.
The economic impact of YEVU is significant. Can you offer some specifics to our readers?
We pay our staff a livable wage, which is around 4-5 times what they were earning before they started working at YEVU. Lunch is provided everyday and social security is taken care of, which provides some safety net. On the job training creates long term income opportunities, and the skills can be transferred to apprentices and newcomers.
We've carried out impact evaluations and interviews with all our staff over the years, and have gained some insights on the impact of a sustainable income—school fees are paid, houses are built, mouths are fed, and healthcare is taken care of. Yevu has counted around 170 family and community members that have felt the impact of sustainable employment for their mother, sister or auntie. Some non-economic impacts have also been seen around women’s feelings of confidence and financial independence. For example, 94% of our team feel like new skills and capabilities learnt through YEVU will help them to achieve their dreams.
Give us a peek into your process for recruiting the seamstresses who bring your designs to life.
We’ve had the same core team of women working with us since inception, and all new makers that have joined the team over the years have generally been community members who have come to us looking for work with some foundation of skills in sewing. We also have apprentices who have come from other regions in Ghana and can’t afford their own machines, so they come to us for sponsorship. With that said, not everyone stays with us forever—we are a business, and like any business, we’ve all got to work together to make deadlines and deliver a great quality product.
How did the apprentice sponsorship program come to life? What are the specifics on the program?
It was really an initiative headed up by our Production Manager Felicia Adwubi. Although training and technical skillbuilding has always been a part of what we do, everyone that came to work with us prior had some level of skill, even if it was basic. But now, we've started taking on apprentices with no training whatsoever. Usually in Ghana, to become an apprentice, which is the first stepping stone in owning your own sewing or tailoring shop, a shop owner or sewing center will take you if you can provide your own machine and cover your own living expenses. The apprenticeships last for almost three years, so you need to be able to have some form of support and capital initially to get the apprenticeship. This locks a lot of women out, especially those that are coming to Accra from rural areas looking for work, as they don’t have the familial support network.
We currently have three apprentices who have come from rural parts of Accra looking for training. We've provided them with machines, a freshly cooked lunch everyday, a small cash allowance, and they stay in accommodations on our worksite free of charge. They'll graduate from the apprenticeship within a year, and then stay on with us as trainees until they are ready to become part of the core team.
Where does the inspiration for designs and patterns come from?
The wax prints and handwoven kentes are all Ghanian designs, old and new, sourced from wholesale market vendors in Accra and Togo. The designs are kind of ideations of block patterns that work really well in the prints and fabric. We tend to stick to jumpsuits, wrap and drawstring dresses and skirts, and wide leg pant staples that don’t go out of fashion and are versatile and easy to wear. The general rule of thumb is let the print do the talking.
Where is your core team based, and how much of your time is spent in Ghana?
At the moment, our team is based in Amasaman in the outskirts of Accra. It's a temporary workshop that we setup until we find a new and bigger space later this year. The rest of our team is sort of all over the place—our content producer is in Berlin, and our e-commerce partner is in Sydney. They are a social enterprise called Avenue that provides people with various disabilities a space to work. We shoot all our creative content in Ghana, so we have a big network of creatives that we collaborate with.
I live in Accra now with my boyfriend, but only moved back here in March, and we’re loving it. I've been living between Sydney and Accra since starting the business six years ago. In the first few years of setting up the business I was mostly in Ghana, and in the last few years, I've been mostly in Sydney building out the business there with ecommerce partnerships, processes, outsourcing, branding and marketing, accounting services, growing out our customer base, etc.
In which global markets are YEVU clothing and accessories most popular?
Australia is our primary market, followed by the US and UK. We also sell in a shop in Accra called Elle Lokko that brings together a lot of cool brands from around the country.
Why would you say Australia is the primary market for YEVU? Is that due to your personal connections there or because of the tastes of consumers?
Both. I understood that there would be a demand for YEVU in Australia because of my personal connection with the place. It's not a huge place, so it's easier to stand out there if you're doing something a bit different and I think people are bored with the neutral tones dominating the sustainable fashion space at the moment. Also, we're a warm, sunny, outdoorsy, flamboyant kinda place, with people from all over the world migrating and living together, so I thought YEVU was a good fit for a diverse customer base living in a place that promotes this sort of lifestyle.
What are some of the obstacles you overcame in getting YEVU where it is today?
There have been many challenges, such as flooded workshops, theft, bribery, stock delays, and cultural misunderstandings. But the silver lining to all those challenges is the amazing team we have working with us, and the amazing brand we’ve been able to build without investment, funding or compromise.
What do you see in the near future for YEVU? What does success look like for you?
We are looking for a new workshop in Accra so we can hire more people and grow our production. We’re hoping to be able to do that with another fabrication brand from Ghana, so we can all benefit from a shared space and learn from each other and support local industry.
Success for us means cultivating local ownership and responsibility, and creating greater financial sustainability by staying innovative and engaging our Australian customers.
What is your personal favorite YEVU piece?
The new Drawstring Midi Dress in the monochrome or corkscrew print. So comfy, especially for the weather in Accra!