In the Business of Change
Melissa Sevy (BS ’04, MPH ’09), finalist for the Sego Award for Female Entrepreneurs and one of Utah Valley Business Q’s “40 under 40,” is a powerhouse for change. Born and raised in St. George, Utah with four “rough and tumble” brothers, she had no time to be a “sissy.” She says, “I actually attribute a lot of my character to growing up with them. They didn’t let me get away with what was easy, and they were always challenging me. They got nicer as they got older, but it was definitely very formative for me.”
Sevy grew up in St. George, Utah and, although her surroundings weren’t particularly diverse, her parents made an effort to invite people from other countries into their home in order to expose their family to different cultures. Sevy’s mother suffers from chronic illness, so travel at the time was limited. “But my dad,” she says, “would always take us on adventures throughout southern Utah. He made sure we had a healthy sense of adventure and exploration, something for which I’m very grateful.”
When the time came to go to college, Sevy’s decision to attend BYU was already made. Fulfilling her childhood ambition, she arrived on campus and began her academic journey. “I actually felt the real power of BYU when professors were able to integrate gospel topics into secular subjects.” The Special Education undergraduate program Sevy chose was small, but the limited numbers allowed her to become familiar with the professors and take advantage of the program’s support and opportunities. Similarly, her small graduate program in Public Health let her study in China and create a project in a Chinese orphanage for kids with disabilities. “I got to integrate what I had learned in my Special Education undergrad with what I was studying in the Public Health graduate program. I can’t think of a better way to start a career.”
Sevy graduated from BYU and dove headfirst into a career of managing humanitarian organizations. She says, “I was doing all kinds of side-hustles when I first began working full-time on Mabira Collective because I wasn’t getting paid. That’s a common situation for non-profits, so I was in my late 20s with a graduate degree donating plasma to pay for groceries. Times were rough.” But, over time and through modifying her business model, Sevy’s organizations have blossomed. She developed two for-profit organizations, Fairkind and Ethik, which work to break the cycle of poverty by providing ethically-sourced artisan products for retail sale and corporate gifting.
A career in charitable work, however, isn’t always roaring success. “I remember we held a gala in 2014 and I had put so much work into it. We flew in one of our artisans from Uganda to speak about the impact of the organization and it was a beautiful event with musicians and a live silent auction.” Sevy and her team projected raising $100,000. By the end of the night, however, they had only raised approximately a quarter of that. “I was devastated; we had put months of work into this event and I had failed. I remember talking to my dad at the end of the night, just crying. My dad told me that I had created an incredible event where 100 people came and were inspired, but in my head, I just thought ‘I’m not in the business of inspiring people. I am trying to put food on the table for women in Uganda, but we didn’t get there tonight.’”
Sevy now oversees three different organizations: Mabira Collective, Givv Consulting, and Ethik. Mabira and Ethic promote ethical sourcing and provide work for women in impoverished communities, and Givv consults with companies to help them do sustainable charitable work. “This past year, we worked with a company that wanted to offer wool dryer balls as a product. So, we had the dryer balls handmade by impoverished women in Nepal and the bags we package them in were sewn by Nepalese women that have come out of sex trafficking. Just with this one product order, we were able to offer work to about 300 women.” In Uganda’s Mabira Collective, women work to create artisan jewelry to be sold around the world. Above-average wages for workers and first-generation high school graduates are just some of the fruits produced by the organization’s employee benefits.
Today, Sevy collaborates regularly with BYU’s Ballard Center to offer current students new opportunities to enact social change. She says, “BYU has gained international status as being a social impact hub and I think that aligns nicely with the teachings of the gospel. It’s exciting to see students coming out with new ideas and tons of experience; it’s going to make a big impact in the future.”
The road to creating long-lasting change is rarely easy, but it is gratifying. Sevy says, “Sometimes people will ask if they can talk to me about starting a non-profit and, a lot of the time, I say ‘Yeah, if you want me to talk you out of it.’ It’s not that I don’t want them to do it, but I try to give them a more accurate picture of what it’s going to be like. I never want to start something and get people’s hopes up in Uganda to then later close it down and take their hopes down with it when they already live in a society where they’re getting their hopes crushed all the time.” But despite the difficulty, Sevy’s efforts over the years have shown significant results and brought about lasting change to struggling families and communities. Her journey may not have always been “a rosy path to success” but overseeing these organizations has brought deep satisfaction and genuine happiness as she brings to life the BYU motto Go forth to serve.