Bold Beginnings in the Fashion Industry: Disrupting the Supply Chain
This month, we feature inspiring and informative stories of entrepreneurs solving pressing economic and social challenges from around the world. Our first volume is entitled ‘Bold Beginnings’, marking not only our own beginnings, but also bold new ideas from Africa, Asia and Latin America. In this journal entry, we share the story of how a Kenyan-American small business is positively changing the fashion industry.
Few of us can pinpoint the origins of our favorite accessories. When we can, we discover human rights abuse issues in the wake of their creation. Suddenly, our adornments feel a whole lot less sexy.
That’s why founders Gwendolyn Floyd, Ella Peinovich and Catherine Mahugu created a “virtual factory” to disrupt the traditional supply chain. Soko (meaning marketplace in Swahili), a global fashion company, leverages the widespread usage of mobile phones to allow Kenyan artisans to sell their handcrafted jewelry around the world. It works even if artisans lack access to the internet, a computer, or a bank account. This system bypasses the brick and mortar factory model marked by grueling hours and unsafe work conditions.
The artisan industry is the second largest employer in the developing world. Also, the most disenfranchised. But since Soko began in Kenya in 2011, that’s all changing. An average of 30% of profit per piece goes to the artisan, supporting access to education, better nutrition and healthcare for their families. To date, Soko has generated over 500,000 USD in income in greater Nairobi.
“Soko has coordinated existing infrastructures in innovative ways to create more equitable models of international trade,” says founder Gwendolyn Floyd. Her career is spent finding solutions at the intersection between social systems and technology.
Here’s how it works.
An international retailer—like Nordstrom, Anthropologie and Forever 21—places a manufacturing order with Soko in the amount of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of necklaces, bracelets and earrings. An SMS message posts to a database of thousands of artisans seeking work. The message contains order details with design specifics and required materials; natural, upcycled materials are sourced locally to underscore their value of cultural heritage.
“With our tools, any talented artisan can participate in the global marketplace, becoming a driver of social and economic development in their community,” says Floyd. “Mostly everything is assembled out of our office and in the various communities. We invented the system to track products created off-site to meet timelines and demand.”
Essentially, the technology platform crowdsources marginalized production talent. It’s referred to as distributed manufacturing, and it might sound a lot like herding cats. But it’s not. In fact, Soko is an example that ethical fashion doesn’t equate to slow fashion.
Co-founder Catherine Mahugu. In 2015, Catherine Mahugu was named one of Forbes’ 30 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs in Africa
Co-founder Ella Peinovich. A graduate of MIT, Ella Peinovich has worked on social entreprises in and around the slums of Nairobi for the past three years.
Co-founder Gwendolyn Lloyd
“Our ethical supply chain is so efficient that while artisans earn more, retaining between 25 -35% of revenue, consumers pay less,” explains Floyd. “The efficiency and agility that our mobile tools afford us enable us to compete on price and timelines without needing to invest in inventory. This, along with our commitment to ethical production, has led to committed and growing demand for our products from brands such as Nordstrom and Anthropologie, hundreds of boutiques and thousands of online consumers.”
She credits her company’s ability to scale with encouraging the entrepreneurial drive in the artisans themselves. Supported by the virtual factory, artisans can manage their business practice and seek opportunities to expand. They can take more and more orders if their products continue to meet industry standards.
“An artisan in dire circumstances can work with Soko,” explains Floyd. “They get an education, develop skills, start small by a developing a few products and as they gain experience, grow their own workshops and employ women themselves. This community has a strong entrepreneurial drive. Our trusted artisan network makes the virtual factory work.”
“It’s been validating to see the success over the past year and to know the international community backs us in what we believe in,” says co-founder Mahugu. “It’s not always an easy ride, but it’s amazing.”
Soko is making statements beyond their fashion forward jewelry.
“There’s a tangible relationship between survivalism and innovation,” says co-founder Gwendolyn Floyd. “People living in what others might see as just a destitute environment have been entrepreneurs since they were four years old—finding ways to survive. Soko provides the tools to leverage those ambitions and link economic opportunities to underserved areas.”
This article from our series ‘Bold Beginnings in the Fashion Industry: Disrupting the Supply Chain’ has been syndicated from Unreasonable. Unreasonable is a resource and gathering place for entrepreneurs hungry to solve the world’s biggest problems. It publishes articles and videos focused on advice for the next generation of entrepreneurs. For more information on Unreasonable, visit: www.unreasonable.is