Bonnie Naua standing next to women's outfit on mannequin (State Dept./Amelia Shaw)
Entrepreneur Bonnie Naua, of Papua New Guinea, displays her designs at the first regional U.S. Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) Summit in Malaysia in March. (State Dept./Amelia Shaw)

Bonnie Naua has felt a connection with clothing since she was 19 and earned runner-up in the 1992 Miss Papua New Guinea pageant. Now, as owner of Saroni Tailoring Services, she designs clothes that reflect the vibrant cultural heritage of her island home.

The world’s third-largest island nation, Papua New Guinea is home to over 1,000 different culture groups who speak 839 known languages. Naua is from the Koke Gubarei Idibana 1 Clan, known for canoe building and clay pottery. Incorporating traditional patterns into her designs is a way to help keep her cultural heritage alive, she says.

Naua, an alumna of the U.S. Department of State’s Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE), credits the training with helping her to grow her business despite the economic pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Launched in 2019, AWE has provided over 25,000 women in 100 countries the knowledge, networks and access they need to start or expand successful businesses. AWE incorporates the Thunderbird School of Global Management’s online DreamBuilder course, which teaches participants to focus their business idea and plan strategically.

Naua is among the roughly 1,200 women from Pacific Island nations who have participated in AWE. Others are from Fiji, the Solomon Islands, New Zealand, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Niue and Samoa.

Model on stage at fashion show (© Silver Soul Studios)
One of Naua’s designs is shown at her fashion show at the Hilton Hotel in the capital, Port Moresby. (© Silver Soul Studios)

She began making clothes with a sewing machine she received as a gift and honed her craft at the PNG Garment and Textile Training Center in Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby.

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Naua closed her shop and now works from home, where she has several sewing machines and an overlocker for making seams to connect fabric.

“Although it’s been hard, I’m actually a believer of the American saying ‘making something out of nothing,” Naua said, “and that is exactly what I have done.”

Money she saves from working at home Naua invests in training programs that teach women from rural areas to make clothing from scratch. And she passes along knowledge she learned through AWE to help other women start their own business and become financially independent.

“These U.S. government programs really made me dust the cobwebs out of my eyes and focus on reinvigorating my business,” she said.

Six women posing at table for group photo (State Dept./Amelia Shaw)
Bonnie and the other AWE alumnae from Papua New Guinea attend the academy’s summit in Kuala Lumpur in March. (State Dept./Amelia Shaw)

Naua hopes to expand Saroni Tailoring beyond Papua New Guinea and share her traditional designs with the world. She took a step in that direction during the first regional AWE Summit in Malaysia in March, where she shared her designs with the nearly 200 AWE alumnae, as well as with business experts from 10 countries around Asia and the Pacific.

The summit also offered access to U.S. experts in business technology and opportunities to network and share business ideas with other women entrepreneurs from across the region.

“I’m turning 50 years old this year,” Naua said. “It’s time to showcase my designs.”

This article was written by freelance writer Naomi Hampton. A version was previously published by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.