SD Entrepreneur of the Week – Sarah Sternberg
Every week we sit down with an entrepreneur in San Diego that has shown exceptional growth within their company and has innovated their respective industry. This week we sat down with Sarah Sternberg, of Songa Designs International.
- Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
Raised at the base of the Rocky Mountains, I moved to San Diego 13 years ago after stretches in Chicago and San Francisco. I traded in the outdoor beauty of Colorado for morning beach runs and endless summers. San Diego’s palm tree lined streets and laid-back culture perfectly align with who I am. Luckily, my parents were wanderlusts themselves and encouraged me to explore beyond the confines of my comfort zone. This fearlessness instilled at a young age, no doubt, gave me the courage to end up across the globe in rural villages in Uganda and Rwanda in East Africa. This was after a 10 year career in commercial real estate development that was one of the many casualties of the recession of 2008. It wasn’t until later that I realized how being laid off forced me to try different directions in life I would have otherwise never entertained. I assisted with safe water education while living in a remote village in Uganda for two months. However, it was in Rwanda where I started working with women artisans throughout the country. I discovered my passion for helping under-resourced women earn their way to economic independence so they may create the lives they want.
- Please tell us a little bit about your company.
Songa Designs International celebrates the empowerment of women around the world. It is typical for many women in developing countries to depend solely on their husbands for financial needs, but Songa Designs is changing this dynamic. By working for this company, under-resourced women have the opportunity to achieve economic independence by using skills acquired through everyday life to make a living. Songa Designs provides jobs for these women who negotiate their own salaries and earn fair wages. Trained by generations of local cultural tradition, the skilled artisans of Songa Designs in Rwanda in East Africa craft stylish, high- quality accessories inspired by nature. Each handmade piece, made of natural materials such as banana leaf fiber, sisal plant, pewter, re-purposed cow horn, paper beads and more, is as unique as the artisan who created it. Defined as “the path forward” in Swahili, Songa Designs is synonymous with the journey towards economic empowerment for women in developing countries.
- What is the goal of your company?
The ultimate goal is to make beautiful and fashionable designs that appeal to the Western woman, all while the artisans are earning their way to be financially independent and can be proud of their handmade work.
- How did you decide to work with Artisans from Rwanda vs other countries?
I truly stumbled upon Rwanda. A friend of mine in graduate school recommended I volunteer at her friend’s non-profit there. But when I landed, I discovered the non-profit was not ready for volunteers! So I had to make a decision: do I stay and figure this out or do I jump on a 20-hour plane ride back home without doing anything to help others? After pretty much becoming a piece of furniture for a week in BourbonCoffee, Kigali’s (Rwanda’s capital) most popular café, I networked enough to where I finally found a non-profit who needed to fill a spot on their team that was working with women cooperatives. It was then I started to work with the women, got to know them personally and became familiar with their artisanal skills. Eventually, Songa would like to expand beyond the borders of Rwanda and to other developing countries with skilled artisans who don’t have access to viable markets.
- How did you choose which artists from Rwanda to work with?
Before Songa was started as a business, I worked with many cooperatives around the country with the non-profit I was volunteering with. This pre-exposure to the women helped me assess which ones had the capacity, advanced skills and organization to handle orders. My founding team and I chose an initial five cooperatives to work with and trained them for a year on how to produce our designs to the highest quality standards before we began selling. Since then, it’s been a constant revising of quality control processes and cooperative-wide training so that the artisans can continually improve on their skills.
- What are your long-term goals for your company?
The long-term goals are to diversify our product line and work with larger distributors. I’d also love to work with other women groups in other developing countries. However, I know how long it takes to build operations (such as training) with new artisans. It will take a well thought out strategy and a solid, trustworthy partner in the local field to make that happen.
- Why is San Diego a good place to start/run a business?
I feel San Diego has always had an entrepreneurial vibe to it that fosters innovation. When I was working in real estate, I remember working with an emerging biotech company that converts algae into fuel. It was fascinating! There is a community here that allows for failure yet is continuously encouraging. I absolutely love the inclusionary vibes at the co-working spots I’ve been to, like Deskhub. It is so inspiring to be in creative spaces like that where other business owners genuinely want to help each other!
- What are some of the biggest setbacks you have experienced as an entrepreneur?
One of the biggest setbacks was when half of my staff in Rwanda was hired by one of the biggest fashion houses in the world. This globally recognized fashion brand opened a massive manufacturing hub in one of the villages. Being a small business owner, I simply could not compete with the salaries they were offering. Of course I wanted my employees to build upon their careers, but it was a big blow. Thankfully, my current country director who has extensive experience with international retailers approached me around the same time, so it all worked out. I also had personal setbacks including a divorce and a loved one with cancer that forced me to focus less on my business for a couple of years. If this happens, I would adamantly advise an entrepreneur to make sure you take care of your mental health first. Take time off. Grieve. Heal. You are no good to your business if you aren’t emotionally healthy and present.
- What advice would you offer to other people who are contemplating starting their own business?
My advice would be three-fold:
Be clear about your vision and know how to execute it – don’t stray too far away. Start focused and become disciplined in the beginning. In the early stages, keep it simple and manageable –it’ll be easier to execute and you’ll get to profitability faster. Once your idea begins to take off, start to add to your business.
You must be tenacious and have perseverance. Your idea could take years before it catches on. Be prepared for a long ride and know where you draw your line in the sand before you throw in the towel despite all the sweat equity you’ve invested. No one is an overnight success story. It took Amazon six years before it reached profitability.
Plan for a long financial runway. This means either have a strategy for bootstrapping or know when you need to start approaching investors for money. If you go the investor route, be very careful about how much equity you are willing to give up. Remember, no one is going to care about your idea as much as you, so you are going to be the one who works the long hours to make the business happen. Most entrepreneurs start a company to avoid working for anyone else, so don’t get into an agreement where you find yourself practically employed again.
- Where do you see the future of San Diego’s startup and entrepreneurial scene going? Have you had success working with other entrepreneurs here?
A few weeks ago I was asked to be a part of a group of business owners who have mission driven companies. By working with these other creative business owners making their own positive impact in the world, I’ve realized just how big our community is and how many people want to see others succeed in their own way. I see more business owners who want to collaborate rather than compete. It’s refreshing and it helps grow mutually beneficial partnerships, simultaneously making the world a better place.
For more information about Songa Designs International, feel free to check out their website.