Monica Swahn moved to the U.S from Stockholm, Sweden in 1989. She is a professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Georgia State University and recently started the social business Tugende Design with her husband Charles as a way to extend her work in the communities of Uganda.
Tell us about Tugende Design!
Tugende Design is a small social business that I recently started with my man Charles as a way to extend the work I do as a professor. I work a lot with women and their families in Kampala, Uganda in my work but wanted a way to give back to these families in a quicker and more concrete way than my research does. I found out that the women create jewelry with beads from recycled paper and when I talked to them, they said that they needed a market for selling their jewelry.
As a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, Monica works with Makerere University in Uganda.
A lot of her work is community based, developing alcohol policies to improve the living situation.
For the last year and a half, we have worked with more than 50 women who creates jewelry and bags. We have set up an online store here in the U.S and exhibit the products regularly at markets and fairs in Atlanta. The purpose is to help and empower the women in the Uganda communities. When we grow bigger, we are hoping to be able fund community projects. We are still a start-up but I am really hopeful we can make this work. I love the jewelry and always wear it myself.
Monica has worked with more than 50 women through Tugende Design.
Besides making jewelry, the women also make beautiful bags.
What does the word Tugende mean?
Tugende means “let’s go”. One might wonder why anyone would call a business “let’s go”, but to me it made sense. For me, it means to travel and make a difference. It’s a call to action and that is why I love it. Let’s go, let’s make a difference.
How did the journey of Tugende begin?
It really began when I talked to these women and saw the hardship that they face with violence and HIV and not being able to send their children to school. We had to do something! When I saw how talented they were with jewelry, it became a non-brainer.
What are your plans for Tugende in the future?
My goal is to find a bigger market for our jewelry and to change people’s perception of paper beads, not everyone knows that it is a very sustainable material. Besides from growing as a social business, our aim is to start a non-profit to extend our help to the Uganda communities. My hope with Tugende is to help at a more micro level; to help individual families and to empower women and use that as a way to fight violence and HIV and their hardship through addressing poverty. We are working to increase Tugende’s visibility, which is something that the chamber is assisting us with. Of course, we are interested in connecting with potential partners.
One of many handmade necklaces from Uganda that are sold in the U.S
What is your most memorable moment from your operations in Uganda?
Oh, I have so many special moments. It is a true privilege to be invited to these women’s homes and to hear their stories but I think that one of the most profound moments for me has been when I met Grace, one of the women that we are working with. We named one of our necklaces after her, it is Grace and her team who make it. She is such a champion for her community, a polar of strength. Many women in her village, including herself, is living with HIV. It was Grace who made sure that they all got tested and that they will live better lives with access to treatment. Their living situation is very sad but Grace somehow represent a glimpse of hope. She is a real pillar for the community. Its inspiring and motivating to hear about these women who invest in their communities.
When I asked Grace what I could do for her, she said “Monica, if you can find a market for our jewelry, that’s enough”. It’s very humbling to me, that she is willing to work for a better life. I told her that every morning I wake up, I’m going to think about what I can do for Tugende Design that day, and that’s what I do. Every morning, I check social media and make lists. I am super busy as a mother of three and with a job that is more than full time and I do this on the side. Whenever I question if this is going to work and if I have enough time, I think of Grace. If Grace can make it work, so can I. In that sense, she is with me every day.
Why did you join the chamber?
I was really impressed when I came to the open house with Swedish semlas earlier this year and talked to the leadership. I always think of myself as a professor but as it turns out, I’m a business woman too. The chamber has developed several ideas for how to collaborate, and to get a Swedish perspective on operating a business in the U.S. has been valuable. Being a proud Swede, this is a Swedish business and I’m thrilled about this partnership and the opportunity to benefit from the expertise at the chamber.
Monica and Charles at Sweden Day earlier this year.
What has been your outcome from the SACC-GA membership so far?
We’re relatively new members but I’ve gone to several events already. The networking has been great! I’ve met some people that I think I will socialize with personally. I got to meet the honorary consul at Sweden Day and I’m very excited for our upcoming meeting. The professional network and benefitting from the expertise about starting businesses here is really valuable to me.
Text: Linn Lind