the beauty of empowerment

Happy Birthday Mathapelo

Isabell Bernal

Today we are celebrating Mathapelo's birthday.

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She's outgoing, joyous, funny, and loves to entertain everyone she meets.  She's also brilliant. After a couple months of working in the studio with her, I realized that Mathapelo has a photographic memory. She's extremely smart, hardworking, and loved by all.  Today I'm excited to be sending her some birthday love.

Celebrating One Year

Isabell Bernal

We are celebrating one year of neela by taking a trip down memory lane and sharing some of our favorite memories so far!

Beginning with the ladies completing sewing machine school May 8th 2018.


To my favorite day of life so far aka the neela photoshoot.

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To all the fun days spent in the studio in between.

All the french pressing you can imagine

All the french pressing you can imagine

Trying on wigs while waiting for a taxi at the end of the day.

Trying on wigs while waiting for a taxi at the end of the day.

The first neela bag ever made. Look at the smile of pride <3


I’d like to thank these ladies for giving me the best year of my life. And all of you for your endless encouragement and support.  Thank you so much to everyone who has been a part of this fun, beautiful, and impactful story. 

So much love,


Guide to Weekend Bags

Isabell Bernal

We may be sold out at the moment, but here’s my personal weekend bag shopping list to try to make up for it.

Woven Bucket Bag

For a weekend in town full of brunch and other cute stuff where you need a bag as Insta worthy as they come. Made in Rwanda by Indego Africa, this bag makes me want to wear a sundress and spend Saturday at a flower market and sip lemonade from a paper straw.

Classic Mint Trunk

Am I planning a road trip up and down the coast of California in a vintage convertible? I wasn’t until I saw this. Made by empowered artisans in India, this mini trunk is the only excuse I need to take off for the weekend.

Tropical Pouch

For a low key weekend full of errands (because that’s what I honestly do on weekends). This large pouch is perfect for throwing in a tote bag or for ditching the big purse and using this clutch to carry your phone, keys, and cards. Made by refugees in my own city of Dallas, Gaia, is always a go to shopping spot for me.

Pop-up Shop

Isabell Bernal

Y’all, I can’t tell you how much fun I had at the Dough pop-up shop on International Women’s Day last week. The event was put on by Dough, a really cool market place for female owned companies.

I had such a great time meeting everyone who came and grabbed their own neela bags. So much empowerment happened on #IWD it was amazing! And the reasons that our website has all the “sold outs.” Y’all ROCK! Now we are working on more bags and designs to add to the website so hold tight.

For those who couldn’t make it, neela now has a great set up for pop-ups and market places. Complete with a handbag stand (Ikea might call it a coat stand) and a SUPER cool vintage African rug currently being used as a table cloth. When we are not doing pop-ups, this blanked is folded on my couch and is my favorite (and only) piece of home decor!

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It was so much fun that now I’m looking for more events to do around the country. If you have a favorite market place in your town let me know!

educateHER: Mpho's Story

Isabell Bernal

With the start of the semester (or school year in South Africa) we have decided to launch the neela education fund in honor of a very special girl. 


Mpho is fourteen years old, she dreams of going to university and becoming a lawyer.  She has everything it takes, determination, resilience, passion, work ethic... everything except a uniform and textbooks. 


Soon after Mpho was born she was taken by members of her extended family to be raised on a farm many miles away. 


Sonto has been able to visit her daughter only a few times over the past fourteen years.  However, over this past Christmas Sonto and her two younger children went out to the rural village to see Mpho.  Mpho desperately wanted to come back to Johannesburg with them.  Now that Sonto has a job at neela, the extended family agreed. 


Mpho started high school in Johannesburg on Monday, and the night before Sonto called me in a panic.  There is no such thing as free school in South Africa, and Mpho was charged with a late registration fee that Sonto was unprepared for in addition to the tuition, textbooks, and uniform.


Mpho and Sonto shared some shocking news with me.  When families can only afford to send one child to school, the boys get priority (even if they are younger)!  Girls are already targets of rape in the community, and having them home all day puts them at great physical danger and even increases their risk of unplanned pregnancy- further driving the cycle of poverty. 


Here's how we stop poverty: EDUCATE GIRLS

Mpho, Sonto, and I came up with the idea to sell ten neela bags that would specifically target education for girls in the community.  100% of the proceeds of the navy bag are going towards sending girls in the community to school.  Each bag covers tuition, uniforms, books, and supplies for one girl for an entire year.

Sonto, Mpho’s mother and a neela artisan

Sonto, Mpho’s mother and a neela artisan

A Very Neela Christmas

Isabell Bernal

It's crazy that the holidays are almost over! For me it looked like running around on errands, shopping, cooking, eating and spending a lot of time with my family. And for the women we empower in South Africa it looked the same!

The sad truth is that for a lot of people living in underdeveloped communities, Christmas looks like any other day.  But not for these empowered women at Neela.  Because of your support, they were able to celebrate Christmas and make the holiday magical for their kids.  Neela means "gift" and by giving these women the gift of empowerment they were able to pass the blessing along to their families on Christmas.


Did anyone else go on any road trips to visit family this holiday season? Sonto did! She took her two children to visit her extended family out in the rural village she comes from.  Because of your support, Sonto was able to spend Christmas with her entire family. 


Who baked cookies? Nabuhle baked bread, fresh chicken (yes, that she bought and killed herself), and vegetables for her family.  Nabuhle lives with her two children and all her in-laws.  Nabuhle is an amazing cook.

 She always brought great lunches to work at neela.  I remember her saying "eat Bella" every day as she pulled her Tupperware out of her purse at work, always encouraging me to take the first bite.  After I tried some, Nabuhle's eyes would widen and her smile grows "nice, yes" she asks with a thumbs-up. 


Little kids are hands down the easiest and most fun to shop for.  Mathapelo and Naledi (children pictured above) each took turns babysitting for one another, while going to the shops to buy presents.  The gifts included, tee shirts, pants, shoes, a soccer ball, and a tricycle. 

Until this year, Christmas has looked the exact same for each of these families, filled with the same challenges as every other day.  But not this year! The cycle of poverty is finally being broken and these precious families got to experience their first joyous Christmas!


Isabell Bernal

Here’s how it really all started.


I had depression. Bad. So I left college in search of treatment. It was during my work with neela that I discovered that happiness comes from combining our interests with helping those in need. And I have broken it down to an equation. One which saved my life and changed the lives of four very special women in South Africa. Here’s how I went from suicidal to getting to spend my days happily traveling, empowering women, and wearing gorgeous handbags.

How To: Ethical Black Friday

Isabell Bernal

It’s a total add to cart kinda day. With Black Friday comes some pretty sweet deals but you have to be careful and ask yourself how did these companies make these items so cheap. More often than not it is because they are working with manufacturers that employ poor ethical policies and often enslave their workers. Lucky for you we found some HOTT ethical brands offering discounts for Black Friday.


$25 sunglasses designed by Demi Lovato? YES PLEASE.

$25 sunglasses designed by Demi Lovato? YES PLEASE.

Entire site up to 70% off. Diff (as in make a difference) is a one-for-one company. For every pair sold a pair of eyeglasses are donated. DIFF


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30% off entire site. HOTTT and trendy meets sustainable and ethical. Made with sustainable materials. Manufactured in L.A. and pay a livable wage.  Reformation.


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30% off athletic clothes so hot we may never set foot in a Lulu again. Made from recycled water bottles. GirlfriendCollective


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For every $150 spent a girl in India is sent to school. Artisan made home decor ethically sourced from around the globe. The Citizenry


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Free $100 plus three extra items with your first box. Subscription box that sends you ethically sourced items four times a year. Causebox


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25% off. Ethically made accessories in Uganda and Dallas. All proceeds are donated to the community they work in in Uganda. AKOLA


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Up to 80% off. Jewelry made by women in Asia formerly sex trafficked. All proceeds donated to the Starfish Project reintroducing women to the freedom. Starfish


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30% off ethically made goods from around the world. TheLittleMarket

When in Crisis: Don't Forget the Milk.

Isabell Bernal

The day I met four women who would change my life. 

Three months after meeting everyone. The day of the neela photo shoot and two days before I would have to say goodbye and leave South Africa.

Three months after meeting everyone. The day of the neela photo shoot and two days before I would have to say goodbye and leave South Africa.

It was 5 a.m.  I was terrified.  Pure unadulterated anxiety had kept me up all night.  I was alone in a guest house that I had rented on AirBnB as I got ready for my first day at work.  Only a couple of miles away from me was a slum where four mothers were also getting ready for the day.  Getting the children ready for school and out the door by 6 a.m. and getting themselves ready for work.  For two of them it was the first morning they had ever spent getting ready for work. 

I took all the supplies to the studio space the Saturday before.  It was stocked with a big beautiful dining room table, office chairs, a bright blue sofa and rug.  Cute mugs and lamps and a kitchenette I had stocked with snacks, tea, and coffee. 


The office needed two things: people and milk. 

I went to the convenience store on Sunday and grabbed the freshest milk they had.  I brought it back to the AirBnB and kept it in the mini fridge there.  On the door of the AirBnB I had left one sticky note.  "Don't forget the milk."

Knowing myself, I anticipated being stressed in the morning and forgetting the milk in the fridge.  So I HAD to have that sticky note. 

Thankfully I remembered the milk. Because neela provides breakfast each morning before work. And I make the ladies coffee and tea each day.

Thankfully I remembered the milk. Because neela provides breakfast each morning before work. And I make the ladies coffee and tea each day.

I wasn't stressed as much as I was scared.  I had met the women in March and it was now August.  I told them I would be back to start the business in June and it was August.  It took me a long time to learn about making handbags, source materials, save money, and get everything together.  I was worried that they would be mad at me for showing up late. 

I was scared because I was here to empower women.  But what's empowering about being taught a business from a 20 year old? Who am I to run a women's empowerment project when I still consider myself a girl?  I was worried they would be upset about my age and find my presence offensive. 

Who am I to come in and try to help? Especially about a craft I had literally just learned.  There are so many more qualified women who are older, smarter, and more experienced.  If only they were here instead.


But they aren't I kept thinking.  "These four women are waiting for you, Isabella and you need to remember the milk and show up." 

Don't forget the milk was my mantra that morning.  It gave me something to focus on and think about to keep self doubt and fear at bay. 

I met the women at a charity organization where their children all attend.  This was the charity that introduced me to the mothers back in March.

They were standing together outside, under the mango tree where I had met them for the first time.  Each wearing bright and beautiful tote bags made from traditional African prints. They had made these bags at the two week sewing machine course I had sent them to after meeting them in March.  I ran and to them and hugged them.

feminist mug and Nabuhle working hard in the background

feminist mug and Nabuhle working hard in the background

There were only four, not ten that the NGO told me they had found and that I had met in March.  These four were the ones who by August still wanted to come and work.  They were dedicated and committed.  And a couple of them persistently asked the leaders of the NGO when work would begin every day for the past couple of months. 

I hugged everyone and we ran through names again.  It occurred to me that I had passionately worked on neela tirelessly for the past few months all to start a project to benefit women whose names I didn't even know.  We chatted for a few minutes about their lives and how they were doing and piled into a van owned by the charity. Paid the driver, and he took us on a thirty minute ride to the studio.

our first studio. Dobsinville, Soweto.

our first studio. Dobsinville, Soweto.

The Case for Empowering Women

Isabell Bernal

Growing up I was surrounded by empowered women.  I attended a school for girls with incredible role models and peers that preached the importance of women's empowerment.  But I never fully understood the need to empower women around the world.  That is until I went to South Africa on a volunteer trip when I was 18. 

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Children being the focus of the trip, I spent my days teaching children, feeding children, and clothing children.  I spent three days at an after school care center in Johannesburg, called Tshepang.  Tshepang is bright and colorful beacon of hope that cares for over 300 children who live in Roodepoort informal settlement.  Tshepang is expertly run by a team of skilled African social workers.  Their level of dedication astounds me, many of them live in the slum by choice to look out for the children they serve during the day. 


On my last day at Tshepang, I was holding a boy in kindergarten when his mother approached me.  It was my first time meeting a parent from the slum.  Her son's name was Junior, and when I handed Junior to her, we began talking.  We started with my name "Bella" and quickly began bonding, since that was also the name of Junior's grandmother.   "Your son seems to be very smart, you must be so proud," I gushed.  Junior's mom began to break down.  "What we really need are jobs," she pleaded to me.  That was the moment I realized it.  Junior's mother loves her son just as much as any parent; yet, she was born into extreme poverty and has to watch her son suffer with her.  When she is able to send Junior to school, she waits at home all day for him to return.  The biggest issue in South Africa is unemployment- it drives the cycle of poverty. 

Junior and I, 2016

Junior and I, 2016

In my head the gears began to turn.  Was I doing what I really needed to do on this trip? Was I investing my efforts into the wrong people?  I came on this trip to give money to schools, teachers, and social workers to care for children, when the best care taker for Junior was standing right in front of me begging for a way to support him.  


melinda gates classic quote

There will be no need to feed or educate children through charity if their mother's are empowered.  I finished the volunteer trip but couldn't shake the experience I had with Junior's mom, a woman whose name I didn't even know.  I spent my freshman year of college thinking about her, powerless and sitting in her home all day unable to care for Junior. I was obsessed with the idea of doing something. 

I began researching global development and found that around the world, 80 cents of every dollar earned by women is invested in her children, compared with 30 cents by men.  - World Vision

women are the key to ending hunger in Africa.
— world food project

In March of 2018, I returned to South Africa to investigate the issue further.  I asked the social workers at Tshepang if they have ever done anything to combat unemployment in the community.  They said they had, however their projects (bakeries and hair salons) fell apart because they were trying to sell to the poor community.  That's when I had an idea- empower women to make a product and remove the burden of selling from them.

pink quote on women and economics

At neela women earn a living wage (double the minimum wage) and their families are out of poverty by the first pay check. We have found that if you give a poor woman money, the first thing she will do is spend it on feeding her children. The most efficient way to improve the life of a child, is to give their mother the resources to do so. 


It is a privilege for me to be able to work with five inspiring, vibrant, and resilient women.  To watch as our work transforms the lives of them, their children, and their communities.  I look forward to the launch of our first products in August.

why we work in South Africa

Isabell Bernal

As a result of the apartheid regime, extreme poverty is still prevalent in South Africa.  The driving force of poverty is unemployment.  Among the poor, seven out of ten children live in households with no employed members. 

 Children are the most vulnerable in the face of severe poverty.  Annually, 75,000 children die before the age of five.  When families are poor, children are often the first to die of hunger and preventable diseases.  In families with no income children are not likely to attend school, because their parents are unable to pay for fees, transportation, or uniforms. 


South Africa has the largest burden of HIV and AIDS in the world.  Over 20% of AIDS related deaths in the world are women in South Africa.  1 in 5 South African children is an AIDS orphan, meaning women are left to care for their children and the children of deceased family members. 


Neela hires the poorest of poor in the Roodepoort informal settlement.  10,000 people  live in this slum and lack access to electricity, plumbing, and running water.  Women who work for Neela were previously attempting to raise their children on less then a dollar a day. 

When we ran out of money, that was it, it was gone, we had nothing to eat and the children were always sick.
— Mfono, on life before working at neela

The solution to ending poverty is empowering their mothers, and getting them a reliable stream of income.  A family needs to earn at least $700 a month to get out of poverty, and at Neela we work hard to make that possible.