January 24, 2017

Q&A with Songa Designs Founder, Sarah Sternberg

Songa Designs International is a socially conscious lifestyle brand that empowers women around the world who create extraordinary, captivating, handmade designs.

by New York Spaces

Songa Designs
The Women of Songa Designs.
Sarah Sternberg
Sarah Sternberg, Founder of Songa Designs.

NYS: What is your background?

Sarah Sternberg: My background was initially in commercial real estate development, but I took advantage of the 2008 recession and moved into a much more fulfilling, yet challenging, role of being a social entrepreneur. After the recession, I lived for a summer in a village in Uganda creating safe water programs. However, I fell into this career after volunteering for a different non-profit that worked with skilled artisan cooperatives throughout the country of Rwanda.

NYS: Why did you initially decide to found Songa Designs? What was the process and timeline from idea to conception?

Sarah Sternberg: After working for non-profits, my co-founder and I decided to attempt to create a for-profit business working with the women in Rwanda—and thus Songa Designs was born in 2011. We both agreed that not all the processes that certain non-profit organizations follow fully align with our values of fair-trade and fair negotiation of wages with the women. After experiences of telling the women the prices they would earn instead of fairly negotiating with them, I decided to move into my own direction.

Songa Designs
Songa Designs.

Founding Songa Designs was an interesting process because before I could even create my business it first required buy-in from the women. They needed to trust me and know that I wasn't some flash-in-the-pan Westerner who was making grand promises without plans to follow through. We had several meetings and conversations (via a translator) with the women about how we thought the business would work and if they were interested in partnering with us. In the beginning they were skeptical, but after seeing my actions and following through with my promise to the women, they started to believe in me and our vision.

It would have been much more difficult to start the business had I not already worked with the women for a year prior as a volunteer. During that time, they knew how I worked and the foundation of trust was already building. This helped make the transition to working with them in my own business much smoother.

Songa Designs
Songa Designs.

NYS: What does Songa stand for and what does it mean to you?

Sarah Sternberg: Songa literally translates into "the path forward" in Swahili, one of the main local languages in Rwanda.

I can try to illustrate in a story what Songa means to me. Five years ago when we first started Songa, the women were not as confident or experienced in their roles as strong businesswomen. Earlier last year during a visit to Rwanda, I walked into the banana leaf cooperative and I immediately spotted some original handbags designed by the artisans that I loved and wanted to buy exclusive rights to for Songa Designs. Nervously but more confident than I've ever seen, the president of the cooperative and I had an unplanned price negotiation right in front of the other members. The president showed poise, leadership and business knowledge that I believe will inspire other members. It was one of those happy tears moments because five years ago that would have never happened. Today, look out because these women are smarter and more talented than ever!

Songa Designs
Songa Designs.

Songa aligns perfectly with my passion and deep belief in women uplifting women around the world.

NYS: How many women artisans does Songa employ and how does the company empower them?

Sarah Sternberg: We work consistently with 150 women across nine cooperatives. Each cooperative is an expert in a certain skill (like weaving or sewing) or a specific material (like banana leaf or sisal plant). We empower these talented women by employing and paying them a fair wage; a wage they negotiate directly with us and without a middleman. Items taken into account during negotiations are location of cooperative (those closer to the city require higher wages because cost of living is greater), availability of materials, market prices calculated from other similar cooperatives and the level of difficulty of a design. The money the artisans earn is often used to pay for health insurance, day care, school fees, livestock and other essentials that unfortunately many families do not have access to.

Songa Designs
Songa Designs.

NYS: What kind of materials do the artisans use for the baskets?

Sarah Sternberg: We use banana leaf, sisal plant, and re-purposed cow horn for the baskets. All of the materials Songa Designs uses are locally sourced, eco-friendly, and are items that would otherwise end up in landfills.

NYS: Why did you decide to focus on Rwandan women in particular? Do you see yourself expanding to other countries? If so, which ones?

Sarah Sternberg: While ending up in Rwanda was by chance, the decision to stay was not. After seeing how incredibly talented and skilled these artisans are, I knew we could find a way to share their talents across the globe. These women are driven. They want to earn their money and are so proud of the work they do by their own hands. They are overall happy people who uplift me every time I see them – it was easy to make the decision to invest in and work with these women.

It would be nice to expand to other countries, but as I explained before, I'd have to do a lot of due diligence

Songa Designs
Songa Designs.

before considering expansion. Things I'd need to consider are how the local governments act, traditional skillsets offered in the country and the time it takes to train artisans to the level of quality Songa Designs requires.

NYS: What kind of accessories are offered at Songa Designs? Do you see the company offering a larger variety of product in the years to come? If so, what type of products are you considering offering?

Sarah Sternberg: Songa Designs provides jewelry, handbags and baskets collections. We'll never say never in terms of more variety, but at the moment we will focus on the current product lines, with special emphasis on our new handbag and basket collections.

NYS: Where can we purchase the designs?

Sarah Sternberg: You can purchase any and all of our handcrafted pieces online.

Songa Designs.

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