Today's interview is with Sarah Sternberg, co-founder and CEO of Songa Designs International, a socially conscious brand based in Rwanda, celebrating the empowerment of women around the world by providing one job at a time to talented rural artisans who produce superior handmade jewelry accessories and handbags. Read on to learn more about this amazing brand who's mission is to employ as many talented Rwanda women artisans to help them fight against poverty while learning the ability to become financially independent and changing their lives.
Tell us about yourself, your background and what led you to where you are now?
My name is Sarah Sternberg and my passion is to employ women in under-resourced countries so they can become financially independent. I first started out in corporate America doing work in commercial real estate. Once the 2008 recession hit, I received my pink slip and decided to do some volunteer work. A friend of mine had recommended an organization in Rwanda. So I did that, but it snowballed, and I ended up running a nonprofit for 15 months from the time I landed. At the end of the 15 months, I co-founded Songa Designs with Ellie, a volunteer friend and our head designer.
For our readers out there that are being introduced to your brand for the first time, please share the story of how Songa Designs came to be and the products you sell?
It was an easy transition into starting Songa because we had been working with the women in the non-profit role for a year by then. We already had their trust and we knew their strengths and their skills.
One of the reasons Ellie and I started Songa was because, in the nonprofit world we worked in, the women did not have a seat at the table, so to speak. Although the intentions of this particular nonprofit were good, the nonprofit model is beholden to certain benchmarks. Sometimes it seemed like meeting benchmarks was more important than giving the women what they truly wanted. We thought there should be more independence for these women and that a business model would give them this independence. Today we work with a group of true businesswomen who call their own shots.
Our products are inspired by the rich, local culture in Rwanda, the natural materials available and the modern style our customers love. It’s always been our intention to not reinvent the wheel with the artisans but to combine modern design with traditional skills.
Songa means “the path forward” in Swahili which we feel is synonymous with the journey toward economic empowerment for women in under-resourced countries.
You started Songa Designs with the mission to create jobs for skilled women in under-resourced countries. Why it was so important for you to help and empowering underprivileged women in Rwanda achieve financial independence?
When I first met Mama Salim back in 2009, she had already started her seamstress cooperative in her tiny living room. Getting to her village is not easy since it sits high on a mountain top. If it rains, you're toast because the dirt roads become landslides. She is a soft-spoken woman who is so thin, I always thought I’d break her in half if I hugged her too hard. Her smile is wide and her laugh is adorable. Mama Salim knew very little English and was determined to learn so remained committed to attending English classes every night. Of course, her English improved. Her confidence grew. Soon, she was speaking directly to tourists and negotiating prices directly.
Today, her cooperative has grown exponentially with a large workshop on a main road and they work with well known fashion designers in the US. She still had that drive and emailed me in January that she graduated from what’s equivalent to our high school, while running a cooperative and while raising four boys. It was so cool to see her grow from shy, inexperienced business women starting her cooperative on the dirt floor in her living room, to starting out with one sewing machine, to six years later her cooperative has grown to 35 members. She is just one success story of many and it illustrates why I do what I do.
Seeing women in under-resourced countries become financially independent changes communities. Their children get educated, they are less dependent on their husbands and their self-confidence increases. Some artisans have gone on to start their own businesses that benefit their local communities, some have gone to school themselves, some have even bought their own plots of land. To witness the artisans create the lives that they wanted for themselves is one of the most rewarding accomplishments I get the privilege of being a part of.
Can you give us some examples on how you've witness the lives of the Rwandan women change since working with your company?
The biggest metamorphosis I see in the women is the self-confidence they’ve gained. It’s so powerful because it’s something no one can ever take away from them. With greater self-esteem and business experience they see more opportunities, are more fearless and have a greater belief that they can truly change their lives in ways they can be proud of and their family can be proud of. It’s incredible.
How do you ensure ethical treatment of your workers and a sustainable production process?
The women are more involved in running Songa than ever before. They negotiate their own prices with us directly and they help us know the kind of production capacity they have. We have a feedback loop that the women use to let me know if anything needs my direct attention.
Songa Designs values ethical and nature-friendly products. What are your standards of quality when it comes to the materials and execution of your designs?
Quality is the number one skill we train the artisans on. To ensure the highest quality, my local team monitors production throughout the entire process. We show the artisans the exact way the finished product should look like and we emphasize that we will not pay for anything that doesn’t meet those standards. Very rarely do we ever have to reject a final product.
Where do you see sustainable and eco-friendly accessories within the sustainable fashion movement?
I see a lot of women being more mindful and conscious of where they spend their money. I definitely think that fashion and the look of something will always come first but when a designer emphasizes their sustainable practices, it’s even more of a sell to eco-friendly fashionistas out there! I think the sustainable fashion movement will grow steadily and the speed of that growth will depend largely on the demand for eco-friendly designs.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Ha! Great question. I read somewhere that there is no such thing as work/life balance. That it’s mainly a life balance. I like that philosophy because it truly is about balancing life. Mainly I make sure that I’m taking care of myself physically, emotionally, spiritually every day. If I’m centered and taken care of then I can make sure I am giving my best in all other aspects of my life.
As a woman entrepreneur, what do you think is the most significant obstacle to women’s leadership in 2017?
There are skills where women are known to excel better in like communication, empathy and vulnerability that are undervalued in companies. Once these skills are viewed as strengths that add value in the professional setting, it is one less obstacle to women’s leadership.
Can you give us some clues on what's next for Songa Designs?
Look for more 100% artisan-designed pieces!
How can people get a hold of Songa Designs bags and accessories?
**Apply promo code “LIPS15” to receive 15% off your entire purchase. Promo is good through November 15, 2017. Only one per customer.**
Connect with Songa Designs:
Facebook: Songa Designs International
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