Since launching her own line in 2003, the Irish American jewelry designer Kara Ross has had an illustrious career, with clientele including Oprah Winfrey, Demi Moore, Anne Hathaway; she has even designed custom pieces for Barack and Michelle Obama, incorporating materials from a Magnolia tree on the White House lawn.

Now, Ross is making the deliberate and inspiring choice to shift focus away from her personal brand and onto a new social impact brand, Unleashed, which aims to create jobs and educational opportunities for women and girls around the world.

“I’ve been in the fine jewelry world for quite some time and I feel like I’ve achieved a level of success I wanted to achieve. I’ve sold to the best stores, I’ve been in different magazines, I do things for the White House, I’ve had pieces in museums,” Ross, a certified gemologist, told IrishCentral in an interview in her Manhattan office.

“I love what I do, and so it’s not like I wanted to stop it, I just felt like I wanted to do more and I could use what I had built as a platform to do that.”

Ross (née Gaffney) was raised on the Philadelphia Main Line, the eldest of five children. Three of their grandparents came from Ireland – her father’s family was from Roscommon, with his father coming to the US when he was 15, and his mother arriving shortly after. Her maternal grandmother was one of eight children who all emigrated from Ireland when they were very young.

Ross in one of the designs from the upcoming Unleashing India collaboration

Ross in one of the designs from the upcoming Unleashing India collaboration

“She made the journey by herself, to meet a sibling who had already immigrated,” Ross said. “There was no opportunity there. It’s hard to compute that story, and it was just a couple of generations ago.”

One of her brothers recently got his Irish citizenship, something Ross herself wants to do as well. “I think knowing from where you came is important,” she reflected. “It helps create who you are. I always say I’m a proud Irish American. I’m American, but most of the ancestors are from Ireland and that’s important.”

The wheels for Unleashed began turning in 2015, when Ross visited her one of her daughters on her junior year abroad at the University of Capetown in South Africa. They visited some of the townships surrounding the city, and during the visit Ross was deeply impressed to discover some beautiful textiles and children’s clothing in the Shweshwe style, made in the townships of Bonteheuwel and Hout Bay.  

She wanted to help bring their talent to the US, but she also wanted to make sure that it was done in such a way that would bring long-term, sustainable benefits to the women behind the designs. Thus was born Ross’ first social impact collaboration with SOJO, a brand formed in 2010 to identify, source, and create timeless, inspiring and beautifully crafted products for children, while providing a retail platform for the endless talent found in Southern Africa.

Unleashed - SOJO collaboration. Photo: Unleashed

Unleashed - SOJO collaboration. Photo: Unleashed

In winter 2016, the SOJO/Unleashed children’s line launched to great acclaim. As a result of the line, 83 women in the Bonteheuwel and Hout Bay townships gained full-time employment, and Ross took the extra step of donating net profits to ground-breaking educational initiatives for girls, including Girls Who Code, which teaches coding and tech skills to female students across the US, and She’s The First, a scholarship fund that sends girls in impoverished communities around the world to college.

After that, Ross was determined to do more, because “A, you’re providing much-needed jobs; B, you’re highlighting the amazing talents these women have. And it’s such a stronger story, because, you know how it was made, you know who made it.”

Now, Unleashed is set to launch a new collaboration, Unleashing India, with a collective of women in India, in the town of Bareilly, outside of Delhi.

"These women are rockstars and we are shining a light on their work and craft. The long terms goal is to have other fashion houses and brands work with this collective so it becomes sustainable,” Ross told IrishCentral.

“Our design inspiration for the ready-to-wear product is the bindi, which is the circular element that Indian women wear on their foreheads. A circle is everlasting and enduring just like women, plus I believe that everything comes back around full circle. The pieces are 100% organic cotton, which was really important to me. All of the factories involved are government compliant and thoroughly vetted.”

Photo: Unleashed

Photo: Unleashed

The stunning line, which features intricate beadwork in concentric bursts of color, will launch first with top retailer Lord & Taylor for Holiday 2017 in select stores and

In cooperation with the microfinance non-profit Kiva, Unleashed is giving the Bareilly collective a $25,000 microfinance loan. What’s more, all net profits for 2017 will go towards the non-profits Girl Up, which supports UN programs promoting the health, safety, education, and leadership of girls in developing countries, and Dress for Success, which provides professional attire and job search support to women trying to enter or re-enter the workforce.

Photo: Unleashed

Photo: Unleashed

“We are unleashing women’s potential, and this work is extremely rewarding as I get to utilize my skill sets in a new sector that has purpose and passion,” Ross added.

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