These Rwandan Women Are Shaping Their Own Independence, One Necklace At A Time
In 2008 when the housing market was in shambles, Sarah Sternberg, who had been working in the industry for ten years, found herself without a job. She had been laid off; but instead of wallowing in her dismissal from Corporate America, she decided it would be a good time to volunteer.
“I was so disengaged with my corporate America job. And I knew I was making money for already wealthy people and it was just not a fulfilling job. In addition to that, I was getting an MBA in sustainable management. So it was one of those green MBAs that was just emerging. So, I was with some really inspiring peers. And a lot of them had done volunteer work, and some of them domestically but a lot of them had done it internationally. And honestly, I said, ‘Guys, where should I go? A lot of people did South America and Latin America and a lot of my colleagues did Africa. And it just turns out that I went to Africa.”
Sarah found herself in Uganda working as a teacher in a school for children with disabilities for three weeks. Naturally, she experienced culture shock. “I mean, I’ve never been to the country, I’ve never been to the continent. I didn’t know the language. So it’s very green. But it was the most eye-opening and super rewarding experience. It just changed my trajectory of what I wanted to do.”
After leaving Uganda, she went to neighboring Rwanda where she worked with a non-profit agency, that partnered with a group of Rwandan women artisans who made traditional baskets and jewelry.
“I could see the talent that they had and the skills that they had but they didn’t have any access to viable markets. And after a year of working with them on the non profit side, my co founder and I, Ellie Kates— she’s the designer of all of what you see on our site and what we sell.— We were like yeah, we have a business. It’s just about–our main objective and mission is to raise these ladies out of poverty so they can earn a dignified living and fair wages. They’re very prideful in their work. A lot of the designs we make are from traditional skills that have been passed down from generation to generation. We were not going to reinvent the wheel, we just wanted to expand their skill set into something that would sell more than the traditional-looking designs that they have been so used to.”
That business plan was to offer these women greater financial independence using the skills they had already mastered, basket and jewelry making. And unlike other business models that give jewelry makers a percentage of the proceeds after a sale, Sternberg’s company, which would eventually be called Songa Designs, employs the women from the start so they can earn a living that is not entirely subject to the whims of a shopper in a country halfway around the world.
While Sternberg had good intentions, the Rwandan women weren’t immediately sold on her level of commitment.
“They were very hesitant. There’s been a lot of experiences from the women where partners come in and out. And I think a lot of their hesitation was like, ‘Ok, Sarah’s here but she’s going to be leaving soon. So I don’t know how much we would really trust her.’ And that is a very valid concern of theirs.”
Sternberg said that even she has been a well-intentioned outsider who sought to do good for a community but found that her philanthropy wasn’t sustainable. When she was teaching, she realized that the work she was doing wasn’t enough.
“One of the things I tried to do was– my friends and I raised money for them to buy a pig so that the school, the kids would have a sustainable source of food. So they could sell pigs to make money to buy food. And that was, again, well-intentioned. But I left. And I thought, ‘Great, we built this small pin for this pig and everything.’ It was my first experience of being well-intentioned but it didn’t work. And the reason it didn’t work was because we didn’t raise enough money to feed the pig. Six months later, I followed up with them and the head of the school was like, ‘We tried to keep the pig alive but we couldn’t afford the food to feed it.’
So I hear a lot of stories, especially being in Rwanda for so long, of people coming in, kind of injecting their own agenda, without really knowing what the culture’s like, what the people are like and then leaving and feeling great about themselves. But really if they truly stayed and asked for feedback, they should realize there are other ways that it could be done with a lasting impact rather than going in and out.”
But Sternberg can recall the exact moment when she knew the Rwandan women she’d partnered with had decided she was worthy of their trust.
“I was about to live from my long term stay there and I got a call from one of the women. They said we need to come out for a meeting. Well, I thought they wanted me to come out to train them. And I was like perfect, great. But it was just me and my Rwandan colleague and so we get there, it turns out they were having a meeting between women of all different tribes in Rwanda and they were going over their experiences with the genocide. And I was the only non-Rwandan in the room and I had my friend translating for me. It was very touching but very sad. I mean, women were crying and reliving a lot of their stories [and what they had to do] to survive. And I was just so honored to be there and to be part of that experience. And I knew that the women really considered me a true friend after that experience.”
These days, the Rwandan artisans see Sternberg’s face once a year when she travels to Rwanda from California. When she’s there, she returns to the village, speaks to them when she sees them out and about or calls their homes. And she’s still in constant, consistent contact with them in between visits.
Sternberg said it is always rewarding to hear how the women are using the money they’ve earned to improve the quality of their lives.
“I think the most inspiring stories are the confidence that it builds because with the money that they have earned in their bank accounts, they have more choices in front of them. And one of the biggest choices that they make, sometimes secretly, is to buy plots of land. And it’s just like anywhere, you invest in real estate, it’s a wealth building strategy. And then knowing that they have something to fall back on. But I think the confidence that is built from doing something that they love, they’re earning their money and they have more choices available to them and that also increases their self worth. And that’s something that is irreplaceable. That’s something that cannot be bought.”
When Sternberg and Kates initially launched Songa Designs, they wanted to focus solely on jewelry because the basket market was heavily saturated. But now, with larger profit margins and more innovative designs, Sternberg is confident that that market hasn’t seen anything like what they’re doing and that it’s the right business decision.
In the past Kates has been the one to implement the designs for the company. But during her most recent trip to Rwanda, in February, Sternberg saw that the women were expressing their creativity both personally and professionally.
“Seeing the women’s confidence and walking into a cooperative and not recognizing some of the women because they have totally different hair. That means that they have really invested in their family. The kids are in school. There’s food on the table. The lights are on in the house and now they still have extra money to invest in themselves. It’s so rewarding for me, I love that. But also I see their skill level increase as well. So seeing the women having their own designs. I walked into another cooperative and I saw a three banana leaf handbags and I immediately bought the rights to those designs because I’m like ‘Heck yeah, we’re going to start selling those too.’ So what’s really going to grow Songa and also grow the women and their skill sets is that they are now also becoming their own designers. And that means there’s so much more opportunity and choice in selection, for me as a curator, I guess. I would love to highlight other ladies who are doing their own designs. So I think that’s going to be the way that we’ll be moving forward. Seeing the women grow, seeing the skill sets increase and everybody making money from that.”
Sternberg has watched the ways in which the women have grown over the years but no doubt, she’s been changed by their work together as well.
“Every mantra I see, every meme I see online is always like, ‘Help others.’ Life is always about helping others, uplifting others. And I have actually experienced it and I’m doing it and it’s so true. I made more money in Corporate America but do I ever want to do that? No! This is so much more fulfilling. And just knowing that these women have invested their trust in me. And what we’ve been able to build together in the last 3-4 years. I mean, I’ve seen their kids grow. One of them has a nickname, it’s after me. It’s just so rewarding. If I get run over by a bus tomorrow, I’m already fulfilled and I just want to continue with that. It is truly about women helping each other and empowering each other and uplifting each other.”
You can check out Songa Designs, some of the artisans’ stories and much more here.