Making Lasting Social Impact with Songa Designs’ Sarah Sternberg

August 26, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have with us this morning Sarah Sternberg. She’s the co-founder of Songa Designs. Welcome to Green is Good, Sarah. SARAH STERNBERG: Yes. Hello. Thank you for having me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Oh, we’re so happy to have you on today and for our listeners out there that want to see your great work and what we’re doing, I’m on your website right now. They can pull up www.songadesigns.com. Sarah, this is a beautiful website and you’re doing amazing work, which we’re going to get to in a second, but talk a little bit about your journey. How did you become the co-founder of Songa Designs and what was your inspirational moment to make it come to life? SARAH STERNBERG: Yeah. I kind of stumbled on to Songa Designs. I was actually in commercial real estate development for about 10 years and then in 2008, with the recession and all that, I think I lasted about two rounds of layoffs and then I got my pink slip and at that time, I kind of was at a crossroads where I knew I wanted to do something very different than real estate and I started doing some volunteer work over in East Africa. I started in Uganda and then I headed over to Rwanda and it was in Rwanda where I started working with a number of women’s cooperatives and helping them build their own independent businesses and that’s where I just got my fulfillment and I knew that this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life and so my business partner, Ellie Case, and I, we both were volunteering together and we just decided you know what. Let’s try and find a way how we can make lasting social impacts in a for-profit business and we put our heads together and Songa Designs is what came of it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, that’s a lot different than real estate. That’s for sure. SARAH STERNBERG: It sure is! It’s more fulfilling, too. JOHN SHEGERIAN: No kidding. So, then talk a little bit. Now that you shared your journey, talk a little bit about what it is. Explain what you’re doing with your great organization and also with your Web property and what’s the ultimate goals that you’ve got here? SARAH STERNBERG: Sure! Okay. Well, so we are a for profit handmade jewelry and accessories company that was started in Rwanda, as I just said, and we have contemporary designs that are using only locally sourced materials so that includes like banana leaf or scythe leaf, cow horn, recycled paper, and recycled steel and Ellie is our head designer and we put these designs together and we work with about 150 Rwandan artisans right now and our staff is exclusively Rwandan, which we’re really proud to say because we do believe in cultivating local talent and we have now about 10 staff members locally and so our main goal is to create contemporary designs that women in the U.S. and all over the world really find fashionable and so right now, we’re starting slowly and we’re selling in our web store and we have a number of people that we’re talking with for some really exciting partnership and hopefully, we’ll expand through retailers and internationally. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, I’m on your website right now and it’s a gorgeous website and again for our listeners out there, please go check out the website because the materials that you’re selling, Sarah, are beautiful. It’s www.songadesigns.com. One of the great questions for young entrepreneurs with brilliant ideas like yours is money. How did you raise the money to even bring it to life? SARAH STERNBERG: Well, this is one of the best things I’ve learned is that when you’re starting a company like this, go to people who believe in you first and that’s exactly what I did is I talked to some people and some of them didn’t even know where Rwanda was. We could be selling, not jewelry, but anything and they just said, ‘Sarah, we believe in you and we think this is a great idea and here’s some seed money to start your business,’ and that’s where most people start. Most people start from friends and family as well but it’s also the people who believe in you and think hey, you know what, even if you fail, which I have a strong belief in failing is a good way of learning, this is someone who believes in you and they will invest in you as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, you’re right about failure. Take it from me, Sarah. You learn more from one failure than 1,000 success and you’re right. I’m on your site now. The necklaces, the earrings, the bracelets, the belts, the headbands, they’re beautiful. SARAH STERNBERG: Thank you! JOHN SHEGERIAN: They’re beautiful and I want our listeners to go out there, look at them, and buy them, and support the great things you’re doing here. Talk a little bit about the indigenous materials that your artisans are using and what these line of products mean to you and to them and why you had them create these. SARAH STERNBERG: Yeah, okay, so we used scythe plant, banana leaf, cow horn, recycled paper, and steel and we intentionally use that because all of it is locally sourced or naturally renewable so literally, the artisans can go into their back yard and get banana leaf or they can get scythe plant so it’s all abundant in Rwanda and also, for exporting purposes, it’s very light so we keep it somewhere where it’s cost effective as well. Ellie is the head designer so most of these designs come directly from Ellie but we also encourage the women to come up with their own ideas as well and in fact, one of the pieces, the Madilynn Belt, originally came from one of the cooperatives we work with, the banana leaf cooperative, and so we have emphasized with the women that you’re not just producing these products. You’re also part of the business. We need your feedback. We need to understand how it’s best to work with you and your life because ultimately, you’re the heart and soul of our business so we have a lot of cooperation that’s going on. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s a great point. You’re in San Diego. Is Ellie, your partner, in San Diego or is she in Rwanda? SARAH STERNBERG: Yes, she was based in Rwanda and now she’s in Thailand, but before Ellie left, this is again, part of our vision was that we wanted to build a local team so she trained our local team. Again, we have 10 staff members and then they are the ones who work with all the cooperatives. We work with about eight cooperatives, in total, about 150 women so it’s been wonderful because we definitely believe in helping Rwandans, of course, and it helps with the language barrier, the cultural barriers, all that kind of stuff and we also believe in having our staff understand how business works in the United States so we brought Judo who is the Director of Operations in Rwanda to the United States to just see how business works here because it’s so different from where it is in East Africa. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s amazing, and do you communicate via phone every day or Skype or FaceTime, or how does that work? SARAH STERNBERG: Well, we do Skype when it works. The Internet is a challenge in Rwanda and sometimes, I do call them directly, but that would definitely be one of our biggest challenges is the technology. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, all the materials that are put into these great, beautiful pieces of jewelry are sustainable materials pretty much? SARAH STERNBERG: Yes. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, so let’s just think about the power of what you’re really doing here, Sarah. A-hundred-and-fifty women working for you making this jewelry, so that’s 150 families that you’ve affected so the domino affect of just one wonderful business that you’ve created is literally touching hundreds if not thousands of people back in Rwanda. SARAH STERNBERG: It’s actually really interesting the way it works because I go back probably twice a year and I see most of the kids back in school and they don’t just work with Songa. I want to emphasize they have multiple business partners so they’re getting better at their craft and people are noticing and it’s wonderful. That’s exactly what this is all about. I see new hair-dos, I see new clothes, and it’s great to see and just to give an example, each woman has on average six children so that’s about 900 beneficiaries right there just with the handful of women we are working with so that’s why I do what I do. That’s my purpose is to help people achieve economic independence through dignified income. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, for our young listeners who want to go become the next Sarah and become the next ecopreneur out there or entrepreneur, this just goes again to show our listeners the power of one, the power of a new business and how many thousands of people it can effect to the good. My hat’s off to you, Sarah. What’s your biggest challenge? Obviously, there’s lots of challenges. New businesses are always challenges, a business you’re running cross-globally in Thailand and Rwanda with partners around the world. What’s on your top of mind? What keeps you up at night? SARAH STERNBERG: Wow. What keeps me up at night is making sure the quality control is as strict as we require. There are sometimes I get some pieces when they’re sent to me and they shouldn’t get to me. The quality control on the local side should have caught it. I would say also tied into that inherently is the cultural barriers because this is the U.S. market and business. It’s so different and so we move much, much more quickly here in The States, so its getting that kind of perspective for the people we work with, like, okay, you guys, the deadline is the deadline. It’s not like, oh, you can make it in one day or a week later or whatever so those are the kinds of things that we are getting to share and having Judo here to see exactly how fast things work here and sharing that with our team and with the artisans to say, ‘Look, there are people waiting on things from us so we gotta stay on task.’ JOHN SHEGERIAN: Awesome, and you know, we’re down to the last three minutes or so, unfortunately. The name of your company is Songa Designs International. Obviously, there’s a huge international element because of Rwanda, because of Ellie in Thailand, because you’re in San Diego but do you believe you’re going to be selling these products internationally one day? Or tell us what your vision is internationally. SARAH STERNBERG: Yeah, absolutely. The international means that we would like to expand beyond the borders of Rwanda and source materials in other developing countries with artisans in rural areas and Ellie used to work in Guatemala. She knows there’s great materials over there and we have just a number of countries that we want to touch once we establish ourselves so that’s where the international comes from and also, we do sell in Rwanda and other parts of East Africa and so on a sales perspective, we definitely want to be international as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Sarah, besides the website, when you go to bed at night, what’s your vision? Where would you love to be able to sell these great pieces of wonderful jewelry on a retail basis in the United States? SARAH STERNBERG: Wow. I guess our vision is to just have retailers that align with our values. We want to make sure that yes, we want to have established retailers but also retailers that see where we are coming from and can appreciate that as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Is that gonna happen, you think? SARAH STERNBERG: Yeah. The way we’re going now, absolutely. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so wonderful. Any pearls of wisdom for the next five years? Where do you think you can take this the next five years? SARAH STERNBERG: The next five years, I would love to source materials from at least, let’s say, four or five other countries. That means we’re working with rural populations that have a huge amount of talent but have not been able to tap into that global market and then that way, they can achieve economic independence through a dignified income in their own way as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How about sales goal though? Do you dream about the first million dollars of sales or 10 million or what’s your goal? Come on. SARAH STERNBERG: Okay, first million dollars in five year. That would be wonderful. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Oh my gosh, so look backwards now. You’re a young lady. You’re doing amazing things with all these sustainable products that you’re selling made out of indigenous materials, affecting thousands of women in Rwanda. What’s your advice for other young ladies behind you? Because this is the women’s generation. I tell this to my 26-year-old daughter all the time and I really believe in this. This is your time now. We’re down to 30 seconds. What do you want to share with the young ladies listening around the world? SARAH STERNBERG: Just find something that you absolutely truly believe in and then it won’t be work. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Ah, that’s simple and it’s great. That is simple and it’s great. For our listeners out there, I want you to support Sarah’s great work here. This is a special website with beautiful jewelry, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, belts, headbands, all made out of materials in Rwanda. Go to her website, SongaDesigns.com. Sarah Sternberg, you are an inspiring entrepreneur. You’re changing the world every day. We appreciate you and you’re truly living proof that green is good. SARAH STERNBERG: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.