Improving the lives of Liberian women
Born in America to Liberian refugees, all Archel Bernard wanted was to fit in. It wasn’t always possible. Questions were asked about the jollof rice in her lunch box and then there was her mother, who insisted on picking her up from school in traditional West African dress.
Her view has changed at 30. As the designer of a Liberian clothing line sewn by Ebola survivors and rape victims, she works hard to stand out.
The likes of The New York Times, Forbes magazine and CNN have shared her story; Grammy Award winner Kelly Rowland is a fan of her designs. The social entrepreneur and business coach arrives here today, invited by local writer and entrepreneur Kristin White.
Archel believes her talk at the Bermuda Society of Arts tomorrow will especially resonate with anyone who has a big idea but is afraid to act.
“Individuals from small countries can have such a great impact on our creative economies,” she said.
“Liberia is officially known as the poorest country in the world. It would be easy for me to leave it there — we’re the poorest country, we’re not even the coolest African country; we don’t influence culture.
“But ... what if we’re known for putting women to work and making dope ass clothes? It’s something creative entrepreneurs in Bermuda should strive for — what if Bermuda can be known for this thing I do really well?
“Especially with creative entrepreneurs selling an item; maybe somebody in London wants art made in Bermuda. I read about a skincare product made with Bermuda water; maybe it can brighten someone’s skin in Russia.
“You could leave it as, ‘We’re so small there’s no chance for us to have an impact’ or, ‘We’re so small my voice is going to be the one heard around the world’. Employment is fine but if you’re meant to do more, stretch yourself more. Don’t silence that. At any point in your day, do it. Don’t short-change your life.”
When she was 23, she moved to Monrovia, the capital city her parents fled from in 1989 to escape civil unrest.
Mango Rags, the boutique she opened there with clothes of her own design, had received international attention but she was forced to close when the Ebola virus became an epidemic in 2014.
Archel dug into her savings and travelled during what was “a crazy, scary time” for Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Once the epidemic cleared in 2015, she began rebuilding and rebranding with a kick-starter campaign designed to grow her business and help her fellow West Africans.
“When Ebola happened, I had a retail store just for me, so I could have pretty dresses and be a pretty Third World socialite in African clothes,” she said.
“I realised I wanted to have a social impact; that it wasn’t enough to have a selfish business.”
She devised a plan to improve the lot of Liberian women, focusing on their sexual health and literacy so they would have the tools to develop as entrepreneurs. She then reopened Mango Rags and built a manufacturing plant that would produce her designs on top of it, The Bombchel Factory.
Her next charge: to generate enough interest to ensure work for her staff of “unhireables” that she fondly calls “Bombchels”.
Coverage in The New York Times gave her project a huge boost — 616 backers provided $66,089.
Further interest came after she showed her designs at New York Fashion Week, and got to work partnering with “every magazine and outlet” she could. Those efforts enabled Archel to double her staff and increase garment production capacity by five.
She has given new life to 20 women; eight of whom are currently on staff with The Bombchel Factory.
“My first hire, when she came, she couldn’t write her name,” she said. “She was an Ebola widow, a mom at 13, and now she’s the breadwinner in her family and earns more than anybody in her community ... because she was given the opportunity to prove herself. Don’t count out people who are considered unhireable or opportunities that are considered impossible, because that’s where you write the best story.
“Half of our team has gone [to school] for the first time or returned to school because of income earned as Bombchels. It just started with a commitment to do something more for someone else than myself.”
She thinks the grounding she received from her parents set her on the right course.
“My parents, being refugees, let me know that I was lucky because I landed on two feet and I’ve been given education and a world view,” she said.
“They let me know nothing is impossible. I just have to stay the course.
“Harder things have come true. Women in Liberia ended the war, they protested until the war ended. So, if all I have to do is build a factory and hire women and sell clothes around the world, then that’s easy. Women fled Liberia with their children — their daughters were raped, their sons were turned into soldiers. All I have to do is build a factory and get clothes out to people. Far harder things happen within a mile of where my factory is.”
There was no electricity in the area when she considered opening her factory; she did it anyway.
“I think that where you find the hardest circumstances, that’s where you build the identity of a good brand. It would have been easy for us to say, ‘We can’t do it, there’s no power here’, but instead we said ‘We’ll use manual machines. We don’t need power’.
“Our factory has been open three years and we just got electricity a few months ago. When people see our fashion, they think everything is glamorous. They don’t picture the owner cranking a generator. When they see our pieces on Kelly Rowland, they don’t think they were made on my manual sewing machine.”
Anyone with the right drive and business plan could do as well as she has, Archel insisted.
“I believe miracles happen all the time. You just have to do the work and then look for the opportunity. By being prepared, lucky things happen all the time.”
• Shop Archel Bernard’s designs at itsarchel.com. Join her and Kristin White at the Bermuda Society of Arts at 6.30pm tomorrow for a “curated conversation on living your life’s passion”. Tickets, $35, available at ptix.bm/bombchel. Join them again on Sunday at 10am for brunch and instruction on how to make a sarong using Liberian tie- dyed fabrics. Tickets, $75, available at ptix.bm/bombchel