Flora Stationery supports college students in Eastern Europe through the sale of pretty paper products

When Ashley VanBuskirk traveled to the Republic of Kosovo during college, it's not likely she intended to leave the small Eastern European territory with more than great memories of a cool internship experience. But the Miami University grad-who studied international studies and journalism in school-returned to the States with the desire to aid young women who don't have the same access to education. Enter Flora Stationery, the start-up Ashley founded with her twin sister, Victoria.

Flora Stationery sells pastel-pretty paper products featuring original artwork created by students in Kosovo. Money raised from the sale of these products funds a scholarship fund for women pursuing secondary education in the region; the sale of 25 journals can support a woman for a semester of college in Kosovo.

Ashley was inspired by a chance meeting with a young woman named Ema-a student whose father had died in a civil war and whose mother is handicapped and unable to work. Ema, who wants to become a lawyer, is the breadwinner for a family of five.

"There's so much scholarship money in the U.S.," Victoria explained during a recent phone call. "That's not the case there. A six-year program is going to take Ema 12 years."

With barriers including a lack of access to information and financial support, students like Ema are faced with a daunting reality-and must weigh the pros and cons of enrolling in university coursework in the first place.

The sisters, who say they've long been interested in entrepreneurship, like stationery products. So, says Victoria, they decided to create a social enterprise that paired their love of pretty paper products with a worthy cause.

In the fall of her senior year, Flora Stationery was launched on Victoria's campus at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. It's launched on Miami's campus the following spring. From the sale of flower-adorned journals, the sisters raised enough money to pay for a year of Ema's tuition.

As higher education is less expensive in Eastern Europe than it is in other countries, Ashley and Victoria have been able to support more and more women as business has grown. Last fall, Flora Stationery funded the educational pursuits of six women. This past spring, that number grew to 16.

"Three of the women are mothers," Victoria says. "And about 75 percent of them are first-generation college students. The disparity of education among men and women in these poverty-stricken countries is very high."

Having received their own degrees, Ashley works for an oil and gas consulting firm in Dallas. Victoria's an aide in the Ohio State Legislature here in Columbus.

"For us right now, we both have full-time jobs," Victoria says. "But social enterprise is something we'd want to continue to do. We've just started a partnership with Keds to create shoes and accessories to sell.

"Though we can't change their lives," she continues, "we can get them the education to change their own lives."