For pastors Zane Wilemon and Jeremiah Kuria, 2020 wasn't all bad.
In November, their Ubuntu Life company's espadrille—a fabric-topped, rope-soled shoe—earned a coveted place on Oprah Winfrey's Favorite Things List and was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine's last print edition this month before the publication continues digitally in 2021.
"We've found dozens of gifts from Black-owned businesses that deserve to be celebrated," Winfrey announced. Fifty of the 72 products that made the cut were created by Black-owned or -led companies.
Ubuntu Life is in good company on the list that also features designer Telfar Clemens whose bags are used by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Grace Eleyae's silk and satin pillowcases; foot care products from Foot Nanny that's making its seventh appearance on the tally; Ayesha Curry kitchenware; and gold door-knocker earring hoops created by Simone Smith.
The word "Ubuntu" represents the interconnectedness of people, and means, "I am because we
are." It became popular in South Africa after being cited by Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu at the end of apartheid.
Detailed beadwork made by Maasai women is featured on bracelets produced by Ubuntu Life.(Ubuntu Life)
Kenyan Kuria and Austinite Wilemon met in the Republic years ago, eventually creating a Maai Mahiu center to provide education, pediatric therapy and medical care for children with disabilities. Once the facility was up and running, in 2011, nine mothers of the enrollees staffed manual sewing machines in a small, rented room and created shopping bags, coffee sleeves, bandanas and coasters for sale. Seeing success, the pastors bought and rehabilitated 11 acres nearby, transforming the property into the group's Maker Mum Sewing Studio that enabled the workers to produce more sophisticated products.
With a 2012 expansion in the Ngong Hills, Maasai women crafted beaded work, gaining income in the process. A cafe followed in 2013 and a water bottling plant in 2015. Their first shoe, a colorful espadrille dubbed the Afridrille, launched in 2018 on entrepreneur funding site Kickstarter and was soon accompanied by handmade bags and bracelets offerings, products sold under the public corporation Ubuntu Life formed in 2019. The stores are in Kenya as well as internationally, and the Ubuntu Life Foundation is a partner, a charitable organization that provides pediatric health and special needs education across the region.
In her magazine, Winfrey brings attention to the company's suede Lamu Mule, or a flat espadrille without a back piece, that sells for $95 and is available in assorted colors. The celebrity elevated the shoe as one she "can just slide on" when she's rushing out the door.
Mules produced by Ubuntu Life were featured on Oprah's Favorite Things 2020 List. (Ubuntu Life)
Wilemon said he found the recent accolades "amazing."
From the Nov. 6 launch of Winfrey's list through Dec. 13, the business reported a 90% increase in its sales, year over year. Currently, Ubuntu Life has six full-time and two part-time employees in Austin, with more than 200 full- and part-time employees in Kenya along with 300 Maasai Maker Mums who create the company's beaded products, he said.
But even that wasn't enough for the rise in public interest in the company following Winfrey's announcement.
"We hustled hard to prepare for the Oprah bump," Wilemon said.
Although he said the team was "totally caught off guard" by the list, they were notified about the selection a month prior to the publication. Staff expanded its production facility to allow for more shifts to manufacture shoes, increasing its volume from 120 shoes per day to almost 200 shoes per day, Wilemon said. The business worked to ensure that enough capital was available to buy the raw materials needed for the final product, he said.
"We are incredibly grateful for the opportunity, and what a way to end 2020 than saying we were selected as one of Oprah's favorite things in her last print edition of O magazine," Wilemon said.
The U.S. headquarters for Ubuntu Life is in Austin and offers a showroom for its bags, bracelets and shoes.(Ubuntu Life)
Last December, in conjunction with Austin-based CBD company Canvas 1839, Ubuntu Life launched a line of products available in its local showroom as well as online, with part of the proceeds supporting its pediatric health programs.
This past year, more of Ubuntu Life's full product line has become available on Amazon and local stores, including its U.S. headquarters and showroom at 908 West Mary St., Austin. Retailer Nordstrom picked up the company's woven beaded bracelets depicting positive sentiments such as "peace," "believe," and "love," and, recently, the company added masks to its repertoire. Although Ubuntu Life transitioned to a for-profit business at the beginning of 2020, the Ubuntu Life Foundation remains a non-profit organization, Wilemon said.
In 2019, funds from the Foundation enabled 372 patients to be seen in medical camps; 486 children to be treated by the group's health program; 120 students to receive individualized education programming and/or physical therapy; and 103 full-time jobs to be generated.
But, Oprah isn't the only celebrity who has noticed the burgeoning business.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees became an ambassador for the brand and organization following his family's 2019 trip to Kenya. He donned a pair of custom-designed Ubuntu cleats on the field as part of the National Football League's #MyCauseMyCleats to bring awareness to the charity.
Television host Jimmy Kimmel, professional beach volleyball player and U.S. Olympian Kerri Walsh Jennings and rocker Bono have supported the program, further expanding the brand's popularity, Wilemon said.
"We are thrilled when we see new people coming to learn about Ubuntu Life," he said. "Every new customer brings more opportunities for our team and we can't wait to share what we have in store for everyone next year."
It may not come as a surprise that dating app use surged during the pandemic when many had to swap the benefits of in-person dating for on-screen connections. Bumble revenue swelled to $337.2 million in 2020 compared to $275.5 million, Hinge revenue tripled in the same period and Tinder users broke two records from January to March of 2021.
What may be more intriguing, however, is that many apps anticipate more growth into 2022. Hinge expects to double its revenue by the end of 2021, while Tinder has announced several new features to meet new demands in time for what some are calling a "third surge" of COVID-19.
Vaccinated Austinites who had been eager for "Shot Girl Summer"—a season of in-person dating, going out and making up for time lost—may have to get back on the apps, at least partially, as cases rise higher than they've been since February and mask recommendations reenter the picture.
Austin-area resident Chloe Mohr, a 22-year-old recent college graduate, had sometimes used Tinder before the pandemic. While the app wasn't a supplemental replacement for deeper connections during stay-at-home orders, it did help her stay in the dating game and continue meeting new people.
"Using dating apps during the pandemic was easy when wanting something casual or entertaining," Mohr, who now works in marketing, said.
Chloe Mohr turned to Tinder more during the pandemic to stay connected to people. (Chloe Mohr)
Sixty percent of members came to Tinder because they felt lonely and wanted to connect with people, a Tinder study revealed, and chats were 32% longer during the pandemic.
But dating during a pandemic is no walk in the park when there's fear about contracting COVID, Mohr said. She had fears at the beginning
Tinder, Bumble, Hinge and OkCupid have responded to the new dating criteria, adding vaccination badges to profiles in partnership with U.S. and British governments.
In order to meet the demand for a stricter screening process and the superficial nature of swiping, Tinder has also introduced new features that allow users to add videos to their profiles and chat with others before they've even matched.
The new add-ons could be beneficial for the app as interest continues to swell—Google searches for "dating" have hit a five-year high, according to NPR.
But the future of dating could be vastly different—and stay different—even well into the next decade.
According to a Ypulse study, 43% of dating app users said the apps made them feel less lonely in the pandemic. Even post-pandemic, 40% of Tinder users say they plan on video-chatting with their matches before they meet, and being honest, authentic and respecting boundaries have become big talk on the app in the past year.
While it's unclear how the pandemic will shape dating for good, signs show that Austin residents and those nationwide may lean on dating apps once again if social distancing returns to the norm.
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With more research done on the COVID-19 Delta variant, Austin Public Health is upping its goal of 70% vaccinated to at least 80% due to the extreme virality of the strain.
As more Delta cases are identified—up to 29 cases are confirmed in Travis County—health officials are urging the unvaccinated to get their shots to contain the spread and relieve hospitals from reaching full capacity.
Austin-Travis County surpassed the Stage 5 threshold on Friday and has reached a seven-day average of 61 hospital admissions. However, Austin health leaders have yet to make an official shift as the Delta variant calls for new guidance, APH Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said at a joint Travis County Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday morning.
The new guidance has yet to be released, but Walkes said it will take into account the viral load of Delta on both unvaccinated and vaccinated people.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed the Delta variant was as contagious as chickenpox, which has a herd immunity threshold of at least 90% vaccinated.
Although 63.42% of those eligible in Travis County are fully vaccinated, breakthrough cases—where vaccinated people are contracting COVID-19—are being identified. APH has identified 1,496 breakthrough cases of the roughly 800,000 vaccinated. Most breakthrough cases are showing less severe symptoms or are asymptomatic, according to APH.
Health officials are still asking residents to wear masks, although the city cannot mandate any masking orders due to an executive order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
"Our challenge is going to be whether we're going to stand as a community and everyone who can get vaccinated, get vaccinated, and everyone wear a mask—that's what it's going to take," Walkes said.
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Save Austin Now police petition will reach November ballot after county clerk certifies 25,000 signatures
Save Austin Now is now 2-0 over Austin City Council after its petition to add more staffed police officers to the Austin Police Department was certified, garnering over the 20,000 votes needed to make it on an election ballot.
The petition calls for more police staffing per city resident, quicker response times and more training for city police officers in the wake of increasing violent crime rates nationwide and a year of limited APD staffing. The City Council will now decide whether to implement the ordinance outright or add it to the November election ballot; it will likely do the latter.
Over 25,000 of the 27,778 signatures racked up by the public safety petition were certified as valid, well over the 20,000-vote threshold required to be certified with the City Clerk. City Clerk Jannette Goodall placed the city's seal of approval on the petition on Tuesday morning.
The petition, by the same political group that got the camping ban reinstated through a petition in May, seeks to:
- Require minimum staffing of two officers per 1,000 residents
- Require a minimum standard of 35% community response time
- Add 40 hours of training
- Require city council members, Mayor Steve Adler and other city staff to enroll in the Citizens Police Academy
- Facilitate minority officer hiring through foreign language proficiency metrics
Austin's 160 patrol vacancies have dropped its staffing rate to 1.2 officers per 1,000 residents, according to the department. APD's response time has increased by about one minute and 50 seconds in a year.
The petition comes nearly a year after APD's budgets were slashed by city council following the summer's Black Lives Matter protests, which saw several demonstrators severely injured as millions called for justice in the police-related deaths of George Floyd and locally Mike Ramos, an unarmed Black man killed by APD officer Christopher Taylor, in April 2020.
Austin and the U.S. have experienced a widespread uptick in violent crime rates in 2021. The city has reached 49 homicides in 2021, higher than the total number of murders in all of 2020 and the 38 homicides in the city in 2019. Austin police officers have seen response times rise as the department suffers increased vacancies and fewer newcomers while cadet classes are being readjusted.
Opponents argue the ordinance would ramp up a policing budget while taking away from other departments including Fire, EMS, violence prevention, and mental health care. City Council Member Greg Casar, the Travis County Democratic Party and the Austin Justice Coalition have spoken out against the organization's latest public safety move, calling out the campaign as a "right-wing petition" that misleads those who sign.
🔥 PANTS ON FIRE: Republican-front group Save Austin Now is lying about their petition!
They say their measure is about police reform, when it's really about devastating our city budget - all for the benefit of the police union. Watch the video here ⬇️ #ATX pic.twitter.com/Z6QQSfhHfH
— Gregorio Casar (@GregCasar) August 2, 2021
The latest battle between city council and Save Austin Now will be decided by Austin residents in the Nov. 2 election.
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