Sarah Sternberg’s jewelry brand is empowering women in Rwanda
Sarah Sternberg is the co-founder of a jewelry brand which designs and produces handcrafted jewelry and is empowering women in Rwanda who are under resourced.
This inspirational businesswoman founded Songa Designs International with a mission to give women economic independence and to feel empowered.
At first, her entrepreneurial journey saw her radically change her life as she left the real estate industry and set to work helping others in need in a rural Ugandan village.
Today, her jewelry brand’s products are brought to life in the East African region by women who adeptly make each item using local and eco-friendly materials.
Banana leaf fiber, sisal plant and recycled local fabric and paper beads are all crafted into stylish pieces via skills that they’ve acquired through their everyday lives.
These women make a living creating handcrafted jewelry in the form of pretty necklaces, bracelets, bangles, earrings, belts and other specialty accessories, all of which are inspired by nature and serve to emphasize the importance of women wearing their beliefs.
Each piece of inspiring jewelry also carries a particular story behind it.
The accessories can be purchased online where women throughout the world can discover something special to wear which naturally matches their personality.
‘Nothing can replace experience. It has been an exciting, fulfilling and sometimes extraordinarily tough journey that I would not trade for anything.’– Sarah Sternberg- Co-Founder
Here, Sarah tells Nativa World what inspired her to build her brand and how her company is making a difference in women’s lives.
Sarah, how did Songa Designs International come to life?
The seeds of Songa were planted during a training session I had with a seamstress cooperative in Rwanda. Gloriette, who was clearly exasperated, said to me, “But you don’t understand. Sometimes I have to make the choice between coming to trainings or looking for tomatoes to sell in the market that day so I can feed my children.” She explained that she doesn’t have the luxury of planning for the future. My Rwandan colleague, Jadot, called this the “survivor” mindset where women only think of how to survive today. Her response inspired me and my co-founder, Ellie Kates, who now is our chief designer, to start a business that provides people with money today and skills for tomorrow.
What shape has your journey into founding a business taken?
I’m laughing because if someone were to give me a crystal ball back in 2011 and say this is your road ahead, I might have ran the other way! I’m only joking. Nothing can replace experience. It has been an exciting, fulfilling and sometimes extraordinarily tough journey that I would not trade for anything.
The number one thing I’d do differently is highlight the women’s stories instead of only emphasizing their handmade product. I wanted to prove the artisans could compete directly in the global market purely on quality alone. What I’ve learned since is the artisans’ stories are very important to feature in a saturated jewelry market. By highlighting the human stories behind a product in an industry where similar products are mass-produced, we make connections beyond the product itself. Additionally, targeting a niche market of socially-conscious buyers is much smarter than casting a wide net. It keeps you aligned with the core values of why you started your company in the first place.
Have you a particular connection with women in Rwanda and why this area specifically?
Freshly laid off from my job, I found myself in Rwanda after a recommendation from a friend. Eventually I was running a non-profit where I was introduced to highly skilled artisans all over the country.
My connection with the women grew naturally after I started visiting their homes in the villages. It is customary to drink milk as a guest and I’d enjoy a delicious glass while sitting next to the cow it came from! I hosted women at my house to taste their first spaghetti dinner (they liked it!). The combination of bonding experiences united us on a new level.
How does the process work logistically and how are you empowering women?
Songa works because we have a smart team employed with local people. In collaboration with the artisans, they have created processes that I would never even think of in a million years!
Our first year solely focused on training the women on techniques and quality control. We directly tied performance to payment; which has been very effective. We have ongoing training at the cooperatives or we train certain artisan members who return to her cooperative to teach the rest of the women.
I stay connected to the women by occasionally calling them and making annual visits to Rwanda. I remain genuinely interested in their lives and they know how much I appreciate them.
Have you had to overcome any hurdles?
A big hurdle we overcame was losing star employees to one of the biggest fashion designers in the world. Although, I viewed it as a compliment because it meant I was training employees to gain skills that made them desirable in the marketplace.
I was fortunate to have a solid reputation that attracted experienced people when I needed to re-hire. When my current Country Director approached me to join my team and I learned of his background in international exports and training of artisan groups on a mass level, I knew it was the perfect partnership!
What has the reaction been so far?
We are in a re-branding phase and attended conferences in New York City and Washington DC that are focused on growing the artisan sector. The reception has been fantastic and we are having conversations we’ve never had before with potential buyer partners. We are investing heavily in marketing and we want to keep up with the growing momentum. It’s an exciting time!
What’s behind the brand name?
Songa means “the path forward” in Swahili and “summit” in Kinyarwanda, the native language of Rwanda. It captures our mission of moving people forward on their path in life whereby we are also empowering women.
What are your best selling products?
The top selling products are our necklaces. The feedback I get from customers is that they are bright, unique and bold designs. They have a modern, multi-cultural look and women like that are one of a kind.
What feedback have you had from the women who craft the accessories?
Not surprisingly, the women are always happy when they are making money. Their biggest frustrations are inconsistent orders. I’m trying to change that by building relationships with buyers and investing in higher quality marketing.
Each time I visit Rwanda it’s encouraging to see the women spend money on themselves, like getting a new hairstyle or clothes, because it means all the other basics like food and school fees are taken care of. I’ve also seen greater lasting impacts such as Thamar, Songa’s Production Assistant, who bought two plots of land to build her own house. This will bring her true wealth.
You travel, what items do you always have in your suitcase?
I travel lightly! Mainly a good pair of cargo pants, soft t-shirt and a comfortable pair of walking shoes. The greatest gift of traveling are the fascinating people I meet. I absolutely love listening to their stories, where they’ve been and where they’re going. It’s also given me opportunities to be introduced to incredible business mentors or advisers around the world who I would not have met otherwise.
Photography courtesy of Songa Designs International