Note From Our Co-Founder Julie

Note From Our Co-Founder Julie

This summer, I had the privilege of embarking on a journey back to a place that’s been foundational in shaping who I am today–and one that was essential in the formation of Ground Up—Uganda, a.k.a. the Pearl of Africa.


In 2013, I said yes to an opportunity to move to Uganda to oversee a jewelry business providing job skills, finances and coaching to empower women (shout out to 31 Bits Designs!). Beyond a job opportunity, I was saying yes to growth: an adventure, the opportunity to embrace the unknown and challenge myself in a new way. This yes ended up changing my life, my view of business, and my career path.


My job in Uganda was to oversee a job training program for 160 women. We produced paper bead jewelry that was sold in the US market, offering a wage, coaching and tools to empower women to start their own businesses. I witnessed over and over again what the power is in providing a woman with an opportunity—and the resulting positive impact to her family and community.

When I moved back to Portland a few years later, I struggled to readjust to the things that were once familiar. I was changed by the experience, having grown and learned from the women that I had the privilege to work alongside. I found myself uneasy working a desk job, while witnessing the homelessness crisis in my own backyard. I realized that my work in Uganda had shown me the impact that a job paired with a community of support, mentorship and skills training could have—so I set out to create a similar program in my hometown.


If you’re newer here (first off, welcome!): our mission at Ground Up is to provide job opportunities and mentorship to women overcoming adversity in the Portland, Oregon community. We do this through the production and sale of nut butters. We hire women through an open hiring model, employ them in a 6-9 month training program (where they primarily work in our production kitchen!) and we take an individualized approach to meet each person where they are at. At Ground Up, nut butters are an avenue to teach job skills—much like paper bead jewelry was in Uganda—with the ultimate goal of empowering women with the confidence and skills they need to get back on their feet.

As I sat on the plane this summer, I couldn’t believe that the day had finally come when I would return to a place and people so near and dear to my heart. It was a full circle moment, to reflect back to the age of 22 when I said yes to an opportunity that was completely unknown. Fast forward to today, where I’ve built a company (with the help of co-founder Carolyn & many others) that is growing and making an impact in the lives of women in Portland. I felt humbled to reconnect with an experience (a place and the people) that changed my life and trajectory for the better, forever.


It was bittersweet as I reunited with friends I’ve only had the opportunity to connect with through WhatsApp over the past 7 years, or friends that I’ve been unable to communicate with due to lack of technological access. As I stepped foot into someone’s home, shared a conversation over a cup of tea, received a big warm embrace and conversed over the joys and challenges of life, I felt right at home.


I also had the opportunity to do some business coaching with friends while I was visiting. In Uganda, most individuals need to be entrepreneurial to provide for themselves and their family. (As you can imagine, it’s not as easy as going online and applying to the nearest job on LinkedIn.)


Groundnut, or “Gnut” paste is their version of nut butter, and it is very common to find at the local markets. I worked with a friend of mine, Mama Immy, to develop her line of uniquely flavored Gnut pastes and baked goods, inspired by Ground Up to help provide for a girls’ home she is leading. We grated fresh coconut and found local spices to flavor her unique creations. I also worked (and continue to work) with some other friends on sewn products that would appeal to the US market. (Keep posted for a potential 2024 Ground Up Uganda product line! Ha)

I reconnected with Flavia, who beamed with pride as she took me to her thriving seamstress shop, where she now makes a livable wage and trains other women with skills for their own seamstress. I remember the first day I met Flavia, she had been in prison wrongfully convicted for a crime and came to 31 Bits with nothing. I sensed her perseverance and knew if we gave her a chance she would work incredibly hard and likely thrive. To see her succeeding 8 years later was beautiful, still grateful for that chance and opportunity I gave her years back.


Unfortunately not all of the stories can be positive; there was pain and heartbreak as I reconnected with a friend, Stella, in the village. I recall her laughter and smile when she used to come to work, and her incredible strength as she overcame a challenging domestic violence situation. It broke my heart to see her current situation and sadness, as she lamented over the lack of funds to provide for her kids and family. It was disheartening to see her strength and determination to grow and persevere from 8 years ago, had now waned from the weariness of her situation.


The bittersweet reality is that these few stories I shared above are similar to what we experience at Ground Up on a daily basis. Some graduates flourish for years to come after their time at Ground Up—and the joy that comes from the call 3 years later sharing that they’ve been promoted, got custody of their children again or just a thank you for the opportunity is truly magical. On the other hand, it breaks my heart when I hear from someone else who calls because they are really struggling, whether because they lost their job or housing. One of the greatest challenges of running Ground Up (and of overseeing production at 31 Bits) is coming to terms with the fact that there is only so much we can do to support someone, and that sometimes outside circumstances get in the way.


As I reflect back on my time in Uganda and the 7.5 years I’ve been running Ground Up through blood, sweat, laughter, joy and tears (with my co-founder and our team), I sit here today and say it’s worth it. The bitter days are harder and hurt my heart, but the sweeter days bring me joy and fuel me with the motivation and energy to continue. We work hard and strive each day to create a space where women can thrive and feel empowered—a space where they’re best equipped to get one step closer to achieving their goals. To change one life in a lifetime is a gift, to touch and cross paths with many lives in a lifetime is an honor. To have each of our customers and supporters with us on the journey making this possible, I (we) thank you.


I will continue to be motivated and inspired by Flavia and the women who taught me perseverance and strength through their life experiences every day. I hope it is not another 8 years before I return again to the Pearl of Africa, but in the meantime I’m committed to the work of empowering women through Ground Up and hope to find ways to continue to empower my friends in Uganda.


Building Ground Up has required countless hours, energy and perseverance in the moments where we nearly closed the doors as we hit challenging roadblocks. In those challenging times, I transport myself back to Uganda in my mind. I am reminded of the women I witnessed persevere and show up every day with grit and positivity despite the challenges they were facing. They continue to be a source of inspiration and motivation for what we’ve built at Ground Up. As I stand in our 5,200sf warehouse and reflect upon the 75+ women who have walked through our doors to date, I could not be prouder—and I know my friends in Uganda would agree.


                                      With love and community,

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Donna January 1 2024

Such a beautiful and inspiring story. Thank you Julie, Carolyn and everyone at Ground Up. Your nut butters are the best. Wishing everyone a blessed and beautiful 2024.

Jessica November 2 2023

Such huge impact. Been following the story of the Ground Up from the beginning but it’s amazing to hear the reflections of the co-founder. Thank you Julie, Carolyn and team for all you’ve done!!

Camille October 31 2023

Thank you for sharing your business origin story. What a meaningful experience and inspiring story! I am grateful these women empowered you to be a force for change in your own backyard. Keep up the good work!

Deanne October 30 2023

Thanks for sharing this update on your trip! It’s beautiful seeing the connections you made over the past 10 years! I love how you took your experience in Uganda and made that passion come alive in Portland!