Shannon Keith put $25,000 of her savings into a business that employs women in India who had been or were at the risk of being trafficked. By creating an alternative option for them to make money, Keith, now based in Bend, Oregon with a team of 16 full-time staff, hopes that she can offer these women a safer, more reliable way to make money. In 2015, she converted the organization from a non-profit to a B corporation named Sudara. To date, they have not taken on any investment or outside funding.
Sudara sells a variety of clothing from robes to loungewear to trendy bottoms in vibrant prints, reminiscent of India. The clothes are sewn by women in centers throughout India. So far, they’re selling enough to keep themselves in business. For a first-time entrepreneur in apparel, it’s been a learning lesson. The female founder shared her entrepreneurial journey with me.
Esha Chhabra: What compelled you to focus on this particular group of women?
Shannon Keith: In 2005, I traveled to India on a trip to donate a freshwater well as a gift of my in-laws. Unbeknownst to me the well was to be placed in the heart of a brothel community. While I was there, I heard stories of sex trafficking and witnessed women being forced to sell their bodies in order to feed their families. When I returned home, I was compelled to create an organization that at its core would create jobs and provide jobs skill training options for women who wanted to leave the Red Light Districts.
Did you have any background in textiles?
No, but I have always loved to travel and have found myself drawn to beautiful global textiles when traveling internationally. I feel that textiles often hold so much meaning, history, and represent culture well–especially the vibrant fabrics and traditional patterns found in Indian markets.
Over the first few years, I spent about $25,000 on travel, creating prototypes, buying fabric and materials from the markets. When we had a nonprofit status, we received donations and grants to continue our work. Since 2015 we have been a benefit corporation and as a social enterprise, we are now self-funded, to date we have never done rounds of funding for our business.
How many women are working with you now?
Currently, we have about 200 women working to sew punjammies with our partner centers. This is somewhat of a difficult question to answer because we work to fund programs far beyond just seamstress work and frequently, the women sewing our pants move on to start their own businesses, work in different sewing centers, or move on to work in a training capacity. For many of the women at our partner centers, this is their first formal job and is a huge confidence builder–but not the only job they will have for the rest of their careers. We also support jobs skills training for women who never choose a seamstress path and opt to be trained for a different career in nursing, IT, cosmetology, custom tailoring, and more. One of our partner centers, for example, trains about 200 women every 4 months and has an 89% job placement rate.
Do you have any men on the team? What role do they play, if so?
This is an interesting question, yes, of course, we do employ men (and believe men are very much needed as partners to address the issue of sex trafficking). Men serve in a variety of roles throughout our organization from warehouse employees to upper-level management team members. We are committed and intentional, however, in making sure that women have a prominent place at the table. As a female entrepreneur, I am constantly looking to hire and nurture the talents of strong, passionate women.
When you started the company, what was the biggest challenge?
Quality control of our patterns and sizing was a huge issue at the beginning. I did not have a fashion or pattern making background so this was me and my friends with sewing machines trying to make prototypes and get our pajamas US market ready. We all had big hearts, but not a lot of skill, there was a lot of trial and error when it came to getting our quality right.
Another challenge we faced was educating consumers on why conscious consumerism is important and what it even was, explaining why clothes need to cost more to make sure everyone in the supply chain is treated fairly and understanding why that is important in a global economy.
Since it’s all handmade, can you scale this operation to compete with larger fashion brands or are there inherent limitations?
At this point, we are only limited by consumer demand and appetite. Our model is built on the principle that we want to create jobs and there is no shortage of women who want good jobs and to leave the brothel community. We are designed to keep growing with demand.
Do customers care about the story or the product?
Both! It is our goal to make a handcrafted high-quality product that customers will want to buy and give as gifts. We also work hard to tell the mission behind our business and show that social good organizations are capable and needed to resolve issues and create a better world.
What have sales been like? Can you compete with the fast fashion companies?
Sales have been good, and at times challenging. We are in a competitive fashion space where there will always and other lower price points and competing brands. No matter what, we keep the belief that that value of our product is in the handmade quality and the mission behind it.
Where do you see yourself going with the company — continuing in a niche space with the bottoms or branching into more categories?
We always want to make really great, fun, high-quality pajamas. However, we are continually thinking about growth and will continue to expand as opportunities that make sense present themselves.
Which entrepreneurs inspire you?
Tony Hsieh, Safia Minney, and Eileen Fisher.