Life-Changing Jewelry by Soko
There is no denying that technology has always had an impact on fashion. But these days, that impact is being experienced on a global scale. Because of the connectedness of continents, trends and products are more easily traded than ever before. You can spot an outfit on a Malaysian blogger’s Instagram and shop it immediately, either online from the same stores the blogger did or by finding local retailers near you. All of this happens right from your phone.
The fast part of fashion can feel like a faceless blur. With this increase in globalism, the disconnect between producers and consumers is a growing cause for concern.
Soko means marketplace in Swahili. It is the name that founders Gwendolyn Floyd, Catherine Mahugu and Ella Peinovich chose for their jewelry line. Originated when the three women had a “meeting of the minds” while working in Nairobi, the collection was inspired not as much by jewelry, however, as by the puzzling question, “How can we create a business and supply chain model where everyone wins?”
Soko works with local artisans—primarily women—in Kenya and Ethiopia to construct its contemporary designs from recycled brass. We spoke with Gwendolyn about her business model, how it provides a scalable vision for other manufacturers to follow, and we also talked about the jewelry that is as exceptionally crafted as it looks.
How did Soko begin?
We were all working in Kenya at one time, on different community and international development and innovation projects. As an expat, I happened to be roommates with Ella [Peinovich, one of the cofounders]. Both of us had worked independently with our third partner, Catherine Mahugu, on different university-driven projects—we were both working with the University of Nairobi while we were there. So it was a fortuitous meeting of minds.
I had been working on a proposal for artisanal communities in Afghanistan, really thinking about how to leverage the mobile phone to empower the extremely talented and enormous pool of underprivileged artisans around the world. My two cofounders had been interested in the same thing, but they were specifically interested in engaging the community on the ground in Kenya. So we came together and wrote a business plan. And our first bit of funding was grant money from Microsoft, an impact grant from Microsoft philanthropy through the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition.
What was your goal?
We understood that there was an appetite for handmade artisanal goods. We understood that artisans were facing very difficult barriers in access to their products. And the infrastructure wasn’t in place to allow global consumers to access these beautiful, handmade, high-quality goods with consistency or quality or with competitive price points. So we wanted to connect these two disparate markets in a way that everyone wins, so that artisans earn way, way more money, so that we can create an innovative supply chain solution that empowers them to grow their businesses while earning five times what they do traditionally, so they can retain 25% to 35% of the revenue while at the same time empowering our retail partners and customers to access amazing artisan goods that can be reproduced at scale at competitive prices—and that are really on trend—the timeline of production can be quick. Our goal has been to be on a timeline to compete with trend brands like Zara, but to create really ethical products.
How do you design the jewelry?
I usually design when I’m in Kenya, in collaboration with the artisan community there. It’s really a melding of the two worlds. I stay abreast of the global trends for inspiration, via art, architecture or fashion. Then I combine that with the beautiful tribal designs and heritage of the artisans we work with and the manufacturing techniques of the heritage, like sand-casting, how they can actually mold and manipulate. They’re different techniques than you’d find in a big centralized factory. So it’s really about finding opportunities to combine trends with these specialized techniques.
How do you source your sustainable brass?
We use ethically sourced and recycled brass and horn. The metals come from old jewelry or door hinges or the faucet sink or whatever it might be—there’s a secondary industry of collecting trash brass, then melting it down and refining it and creating beautiful sustainable jewelry out of it.
How are cell phones involved in your manufacturing and supply process?
There’s radical cell phone penetration in East Africa. People actually say there’s over 100% cell phone penetration because people often have two cell phones or multiple SIMs. With mobile phone literacy and use being really pervasive, it’s an amazing tool to be able to leverage. We wanted to use a tool already in artisans’ hands, which is the cell phone, to be able to transform production at the individual workshop level. Instead of having to build a massive centralized factory and having people have to travel from their homes and leave their families, we wanted to create what we call a virtual factory model, which currently coordinates close to 2,500 small-scale independent artisans. Through our mobile technology, they are able to manage POs and orders in real time, get feedback on product quality, get their payment (because they work in capital as well as payment, all distributed on a mobile phone), receive help managing inventory, as well as keep abreast of the growing relationship we have with them.
Simultaneously we have asset-financing programs that help them grow their workshops incrementally: upgrade safety, improve machinery—they get loans that are tied to POs. And we also have a roving team of field officers that serve as real-time quality control giving feedback, training and support.
How have you seen your model impact the communities?
We really have a big focus on women. Of course, we don’t discriminate—we work with men and women. But we’re women founded, we’re very focused on empowering women to be agents of change within their community and participate in an industry that they’ve often been excluded from. We see a lot of women branching off to start their own businesses and hiring other women. We introduce some really high-value skills to women first so that they’ll train other women. So they’re the owners of those processes in their community.
Really, we’ve created a business model, a design aesthetic, a community and a value set that embodies empowering women—and everyone who touches the product, from the person who made it directly to the woman who wears it.
SHOP: Soko Jewelry
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