BY K. BINKOWSKI | February 2017
Meet Shannon Keith, Founder of Sudara
Shannon Keith is a mother, wife, activist, and social entrepreneur. On a trip to India more than a decade ago, she was struck by the horrors of modern day slavery and inspired to take action. As Shannon listened to story after story of girls sold into slavery, picked up off the streets, stuck in a life of servitude, she imagined a brand that would connect women around the world to those trying to escape modern day slavery in India. Sudara was Shannon’s solution. We sat down with Shannon to learn more about the inspiration behind this ethical fashion company, the opportunity for international consumers to connect to her work, and her life as a wife and mother as well as a business owner and activist.
INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL SEEMS TO BE THE INSPIRATION FOR SO MANY ETHICAL BRANDS THESE DAYS. WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO INDIA BACK IN 2005 AND HOW WERE YOU FOREVER CHANGED BY THAT TRIP?
I traveled often but my trip to India struck me in a way that I couldn’t ever forget. I saw firsthand the tragedy that was occurring daily to women and girls throughout the country. After visiting one of India’s many red light districts I realized what was occurring was modern day slavery. I heard story after story of young girls sold into the sex trade by their families, orphans picked up off the street by pimps, and even young mothers just trying to feed their children. Many were held against their will. Others were trapped by economic poverty. Worst of all were the stories of those who managed to escape the brothels only to return due to social stigma with no other way to survive. These realities forever changed me.
IT CAN BE SO CHALLENGING TO FIND BEAUTY WITHIN THE HORRIFIC AND INHUMANE REALITIES ENDURED BY SO MANY PEOPLE LIVING IN POVERTY. THE SEX TRADE IS ESPECIALLY UNIMAGINABLE. HOW HAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE ARTISANS HUMANIZED THE SOCIAL CHALLENGES THAT WE FACE AS A SOCIETY? AND HOW HAVE YOU BEEN ABLE TO FIND AND CULTIVATE A LOYAL BASE OF CUSTOMERS WHO CARE ABOUT WOMEN HALF A WORLD AWAY?
During that trip to India, I looked into the eyes of women working in red-light districts and I saw their children running around shoeless when they should have been in school and thought to myself - “What if I were born into this situation?” It’s easy to become overwhelmed when I think about all of the work that our world, that our country, that Sudara faces to overcome social challenges. Yet, seeing the faces of the artisans, hearing their courageous stories, and knowing their joy when they are with their children - all of it reinforces common threads of perseverance and relationship that we share as humans, as women, as mothers.
One of my favorite quotes - and one that the Sudara team often cites - is from Lilla Watson: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Sudara customers are amazing because they truly get this. They believe in empowering women because the challenges and concerns that affect our sisters half a world away, at some level and at some point, affect us all.
WHAT KIND OF IMPACT CAN YOUR CUSTOMERS EXPECT TO HAVE WHEN THEY PURCHASE A SUDARA PRODUCT?
Right now, all proceeds from purchases are reinvested back into the business (which is what employs each woman). Costs include staff and operations in the United States and India, materials such as fabric, thread, sewing equipment, development of new products etc, housing and medical care, and when applicable, school/education fees for children of women in the sewing centers. We are deeply committed to being able to help more and more women. To do that, we must constantly look for ways to grow and diversify in order to find new ways to generate sustainable jobs and bring more opportunity to India. Your purchases support this kind of continued growth.
RUNNING A SMALL BUSINESS AND BUILDING A GLOBAL BRAND IS CHALLENGING WHEREVER YOU ARE. BALANCING ARTISAN PRODUCTION WITH AN INTERNATIONAL MARKETPLACE, A MARRIAGE, AND MOTHERHOOD SEEMS ESPECIALLY CHALLENGING. WHAT DOES A DAY IN THE LIFE LOOK LIKE FOR YOU AS AN ENTREPRENEUR?
Each new days brings exciting adventures, to say the least. I am constantly inspired by the challenges and rewards of starting a social enterprise. Because I also have 3 amazing little people and a wonderful husband, I start my day with them at the center. They keep me grounded and help bring balance and perspective to my work. I am an early riser, so I start my day at the office by 6:30AM and my husband gets the kiddos off to school. It really helps with frequent video calls with India, due to the vast time zone differences. Each day is a balance of building the team & Sudara’s culture, casting vision, sales, PR, merchandising, etc. I am also committed to be there for my kids in the afternoons, so I leave the office at 3:30 pm daily to be a present mom for their after school needs and activities. We eat dinner as a family and reflect on the good things in our life and what we thank God for. My husband and I are committed to sharing a global perspective and our social justice hearts of ending modern-day slavery with our children. The mission of Sudara has really become a family mission as well.
TELL US MORE ABOUT THAT MISSION. HOW HAS BUILDING THIS BUSINESS - FROM DESIGN AESTHETIC, TO ARTISAN PARTNERSHIPS, TO CUSTOMER PREFERENCES - INFLUENCED OTHER ASPECTS OF YOUR LIFE AS IT HAS INFLUENCED YOUR PARENTING? HOW HAS IT CHANGED YOUR PRIORITIES?
I am so thankful that being in the “slow fashion” movement has really opened my eyes and changed me 100% as a consumer. I am now very aware of supply chains and the implications for the workers in everything that we consume, from food to apparel to electronics. All of our consumption has a huge impact on both people and planet, and thus we as consumers all have a personal responsibility. Here are just a few of my favorite brands:
- MULXIPLY: Modern and stylish bags and wallets made by at-risk women in Nepal. Fair Trade, eco-friendly and sourced with fabrics from the area in which they are made.
- SARI BARI: Beautiful blankets, bedding and throws sewn out of vintage sari material. Made by women either vulnerable to trafficking or rescued from it. Each item bears the name of the women who made it.
- FREESET: Fair-trade, eco-friendly jute bags and organic t-shirts made by survivors in Kolkata, India.
- iSanctuary: Hip, current jewelry made by trafficking survivors in Mumbai, India and processed and shipped by survivors in Orange County, California. We love that iSanctuary is working both locally and globally to provide income and dignity to survivors.
With the rising tide of social enterprises like Sudara and many other notable brands doing amazing things, I am hopeful that our future is bright and that consumers will begin to demand transparency and fair wages for everyone involved in bringing goods and service to the market. No one group of human beings should be enslaved for the comfort and pleasure of another group. This is modern day slavery at the core and needs to be abolished once and for all.