I’d love to hear about your journey, and how that journey led to you starting Soko.
My first introduction to Nairobi was when I was studying for my Master’s degree at MIT, and I came to Kenya to develop a social enterprise that involved developing toilets in the informal settlements.
It was really through that experience that I was exposed to informal communities, and later saw the opportunity to work with the artisans there. Passing through the markets and passing through the slums you see a lot of amazing quality cultural goods, and yet there is very little money that is captured from these goods. You hear from artisans all the time, how they go to the markets seven days a week from before the sun to sundown, transport their goods using matatu (fourteen local personal vans), and then pay fees for access to each of these markets. At the end of the day, they maybe walk away with 100 Shillings, if they’re lucky. The local market does not support these artisans. And while the tourist market traditionally would be the biggest supporters, the insecurity in Kenya has caused demand to slow. Tourists do not want to go to open, public market environments due to safety concerns. Really, the artisans are the ones suffering the most of anyone. And yet there is all this heritage and amazing emotional premium put into all these products. For Soko, the vision was to set out and create a platform that would enable these artisans to capture the full value of their goods. And in turn create a more ethical fashion selection for discerning customers.
So I know you were working in architecture before you started Soko. How did you make that conceptual and industry jump? Or maybe you wouldn’t even say it is a jump at all?
I completely see the parallels between my professional architecture career and my work with artisans today. My architecture thesis work was focused around developing sustainable methodologies of construction using computer-aided design and manufacturing. I was trying to address and design for the construction methodology in the schematic phase and design within the inherent limitations of the tools and materials available at hand. It forced me to think through material quality at a micro-scale. And I would definitely say that that translates to capacity building with the artisans. We help the artisans think through master specifications; in other words, taking that one beautiful master product and helping the artisans to negotiate how they can produce this at a scaled volume while maintaining the quality that the export market expects, and of course not losing the premium of the handmade nature of each product.
I have a lot of input in the manufacturing and construction processes. Social system design, borrowed from my architecture training, is very important to Soko’s sustainable growth. We have built in mobile training tools that rely on networked learning, accessible to the artisans when it is most relevant to them, and a mentorship/recruitment model that builds on trust networks within the artisan community.
What is a typical day or typical week for you?
One interesting thing about working at Soko is that we are an international company. In the morning, the Nairobi team is checking emails from the US team. If they are still up we have meetings at 8:00AM our time, and it’s midnight in the US. Then, by the end of our day, the US is waking up again at 4:00 PM our time. We are continually passing the baton of whatever is a priority at the time, so it is kind of this back and forth every single day.
And as a new wife and mother I really embrace the second shift, working most nights from 10:00 PM to 2:00 AM. The fact that our team is in the US means I’m able to take meetings and calls at 10:00 at night and it’s midday for them, it works out perfectly.
It’s like a 24-hour machine working away.
Yeah [laughs] it really is. If you have a customer support question, we are on it! There is someone here to answer it for you. It actually works pretty well; everyone wins!
As for what those responsibilities entail on a daily basis, it’s definitely evolving. We are continually pivoting the company as to what our new focus is based on consumer feedback and as we better understand our unique value. We unlock these different elements of the business. First you focus on product, and then once you have really figured out the product, you focus on the marketing and the content around that, or you focus on the shipping and the packaging. So every single week it is a new component. We unlock that, we unlock this, and we will migrate across the whole supply chain.
Where do you think your sense of adventure comes from?
I don’t even think of it as a sense of adventure. Maybe it’s just being naïve to the fact that what I am doing is crazy [both laugh]. I’m constantly reminded by friends and family that living in Nairobi, away from everyone I know and love is somewhat adventurous, but I don’t know; I see it as more of a sense of purpose. I didn’t come to Nairobi because I thought it was exciting, I came to Nairobi because I saw there was a business opportunity to work in a sustainable way to help artisans and revolutionize the global fashion supply chain.
What are some of your favorite things about living in Nairobi?
What I really enjoy about living in East Africa is the access to the rich culture and heritage at our fingertips. It is a continual source of inspiration. Through Soko I’ll enjoy a ride to the countryside to visit a nomadic tribal community, or with my girlfriends we’ll go to a yoga festival on the Lamu coast or take a trip to Ethiopia. There are so many amazing experiences that still spark our curiosity about this continent. You get to learn so much about yourself in these really unique environments. I hope through our videos and blog on our site we can begin to share this richness with our customers and supporters.
In addition, I also really enjoy the dialogue and conversations I have with like-minded individuals here in Nairobi. The observations made on a daily basis of real-life problems and opportunities is very engaging and expands your mind in terms of the opportunities that are afoot here.
And the tradeoffs of living abroad are quickly being mitigated by the improved internet access and cheap global communication tools out there. I think within the millennial generation, we continue to become more and more globally oriented. Therefore living a global lifestyle on a day-to-day basis feels very natural. When I have conversations with my friends back home, all of them ask, “OK, yeah, when should we come visit?” Being here hasn’t really changed my relationships as much as maybe it would have for a previous generation.
We are so well connected. My mom loves FaceTime for that reason.
Yeah, I even Skype with my 97-year-old grandma.
And everyone is traveling; and they pass through Africa. We have friends everywhere in every city now because of all of the people we’ve met.
We live in a really connected society; at Soko we just take advantage of that and live it to the fullest.