This November, I had the privilege of not only watching Shannon Keith, Sudara’s CEO and Founder, deliver a powerful pitch to win BVC’s first Social Impact competition, but I interviewed Shannon in Sudara’s home office and collection center right here in Bend, Oregon, Think Tanky’s own backyard. Sudara sells beautiful pajama pants for adults and kids that are sewn by girls and women in India who have escaped the sex trade. Each pajama pattern tells a story of survival and each purchase supports freedom and a new life. It’s with great appreciation that I was able to interview Shannon about Sudara’s current season (Bold Journey) and learn more about impact shopping and, of course, what size I should order.
According to the United Nations, human trafficking is the third largest organized crime behind drugs and arms trading. Yet, there’s resistance around sex trafficking awareness and surprise that it’s so prevalent in India. What’s your take and what’s your message here?
I don’t think that it is overestimated and, if you think about it logically, not justifying it of course, but if you think of those other crimes, there are many penalties and laws for fighting drugs and arms trade, whereas trade in human flesh is more of a cultural norm in India that’s pretty widely accepted. Although prostitution is illegal on the books in India, the caste system sees girls in the lower caste or “untouchables” as less. For example, there are temple prostitutes, girls from that caste system, young girls, who, as a part of the Hindu religion that feeds into it and normalizes this injustice within this cultural [framework], their lives don’t matter. It’s a highly complex and difficult culture for Americans to understand. Certain groups or “untouchables” are the lowest caste and aren’t considered equals of the higher castes. For instance, there’s the Dalit caste who are the lowest level and therefore given the worst jobs like sex trade or sewage cleaning that no other person in the society is signing up to do. Again, it’s a cultural norm so people aren’t changing systemically, but this is certainly part of the challenge. Sudara isn’t trying to change culture but some aspects of Indian culture are changing, especially with the growing global awareness of human sex trafficking.
Would women’s rights be different based on where you fell in the caste system?
This is such a complicated culture, as you know, and so there’s not a pat answer. But I think so, although there are no easy answers to that, especially in a complex culture like India.
The Indian culture we may be familiar with, those from the highest caste can become physicians, architects, doctors, these women seem to be liberated and free to choose. However, that’s a small percentage of the 1.3 billion population, so there aren’t low caste women holding these positions or getting these opportunities. It’s tricky to comprehend from our western perspective where women have more choices and we see these higher caste women who are Bollywood actresses, lawyers, etc., but they are the exception. It’s not the Cinderella rags to riches story, that’s not a possibility in Indian culture. Riches beget riches, especially in Indian culture.
Sudara operates in the four major cities: Mumbai, Calcutta, Hydrobad and Chennai, where the largest concentration of sex trafficking takes place. Our partners are working in these larger cities, where we also focus our efforts. The women and girls have often been trafficked from all over India but the vast majority are from smaller rural communities. They’ve gotten duped or stolen into the sex trade because their families may not have been able to care for them. These girls are from hard or poor backgrounds. For example, their father dies and the mother is struggling to support her kids and someone says there’s a job opportunity in Calcutta in this hotel, etc. So the girl leaves and is never heard from again and no money is exchanged. It’s truly tragic. These families are getting duped easily, it’s prevalent, and it is the most common way for girls to end up in these brothels.
In 2005, my family and I worked with an NGO that builds water wells in areas where there was need. It was on my second trip that I discovered an area where children were running around everywhere in the middle of the day, they weren’t in school, and I asked about them. We began asking more and more questions, this was before sex trafficking was a known term. Since then, there has been more exposure, the media and investigative journalist networks have started to expose this harsh reality like in the documentary film Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light District, or Slumdog Millionaire. Slowly there’s been more exposure to what IS happening – there’s organized crime behind much of this – the system is broken when it comes to child welfare and it’s the worst for women. A woman has a brick wall over her head, not just a glass ceiling.
Where do you see the consumer (in this case the Westerner) interacting or connecting with the source of the products they buy? You’re working with girls who were sold by their parents or stolen into a horrific nightmare and giving them the opportunity to make real wages and receive the dignity that comes from work – the empowerment. What’s the lesson here?
You’ve heard the phrase ‘first world problem’ and that plays in here because what Sudara is doing is new and different. It’s a different way to shop, it’s awareness of supply chain. And that supply chain is a crew of highly sexually traumatized girls and women living in India. But also, we know our supply chain, we’re very aware of the source and that is a new model. Most companies, such as large retail stores, could not tell you much about their supply chain or source. Part of that is because it’s cheaper for the consumer if it’s cheap to make and if the workers aren’t being paid or looked after well. And this isn’t a judgment call, it’s a fact. Sudara is pushing the envelope when it comes to supply chain and exposing our customers to the women and girls – the people behind the product. Sex trafficking is not at all an easy conversation but it needs to happen for anything to change. When people sitting in their living rooms in Bend, Oregon can make a purchase that gives a girl in Mumbai money to pay for basic needs and receive therapies and support on many different levels, that transaction is powerful and it’s a shift. Change is never easy and Sudara has moved away from the traditional business format, and that shifts the consumer’s responsibility in all of this as well. Suddenly, your ‘first world problem’ falls into perspective when you are exposed to the realities and horrible conditions that people are experiencing around the world. So why not shop somewhere that makes a difference directly? It is not the easy way to go. This has not been easy and was not the easy route, this is the challenging route, but it’s worth it when you go to India to hear the stories of the girls it affects and realize purchases do have power. There IS a better way businesses can do business.
Sudara’s business plan is the harder path and yet, we have customers who call and are furious that their package is late when there was a monsoon and things were slowed down. Our customers are freaking out on us and have yelled at some of our customer service reps – this is the first world problem – that their pajamas are a few days late. It’s a larger call for slow fashion to have a bigger place at the table.
Slow Fashion...that’s a term now?
Yes, it’s a growing movement. Slow Fashion is a return to artisanship and handmade products much like locavore and movements that ask consumers to be aware of source. Change is difficult, though, and some consumers are still slow to make this shift. My staff understands that this change is slow and that Sudara is part of a new consumer experience; we would also ask shoppers to show a bit more humanity when dealing with social impact companies. Our cause is in the DNA of everything we do, on our walls (see pics) in our fabric – everything. We’re redefining the norm and we want to create change that’s much larger than Sudara. We don’t want people to buy their slave sourced supply chain products – chocolate, coffee, technology – everybody chooses the cheaper way which is to pay cheaper wages. This is a call for a unilateral shift across all businesses.
The Fall/Winter series is Bold Journey. Why?
Our marketing is about impact messaging and not convincing people to just buy pajamas. We put a lot of effort into what we are offering and selling, as well as putting social justice into this equation, to make it accessible and a part of their lives. This kind of shopping is an opportunity to make a huge difference. The intensity of India itself is bold – it’s noise pollution and color, there’s open ditches, diesel lorries, and the food is bold and amazing and full of spices and, yes, it’s an assault on your senses – it’s the definition of bold.
The heart and soul of Sudara is that slow fashion. These items are for people to have for a long time because it makes you feel good inside and out as opposed to buying cheap products that end up in a landfill. The products themselves are on a bold journey.
When we consider a campaign, we want to have it mean something on every level of our company. Our women are on a bold journey out of slavery and our consumers are a part of this bold journey because of how and where they choose to spend their money. We have a large fan base of cancer survivors who love our jammies because they need comfortable pants; even in their moments of suffering, they can help someone else. They’ve been intentional about supporting Sudara.
The Sudara Freedom Fund – tell me more.
It’s a 501c3, I sat as a founder, executive director and now I’m a board member, and it’s where this started until I felt a greater push to make a difference from a corporate perspective instead of as a non profit. But the Freedom Fund is hugely important for the girls in India because, as you know, companies pay our wages and insurance but can’t cover everything that employees need. The Sudara Freedom Fund provides more than just a job – these women don’t have a family unit. They need wrap around services, group therapy and counseling, antiretroviral meds because they’re HIV positive, help with their kids while they work – there’s no family or husband to help. The Freedom Fund helps fill in the blank for these additional services. We also give grants with capacity building to our other partners in India which helps with many things like new sewing machines, etc.
In 2014, Deloitte interviewed Fortune 500 companies and from these results created 4 archetypes: Shareholder Maximizer; Corporate Contributor; Impact Integrator; and Social Innovator. Sudara is a Social Innovator. How do you talk to other companies about this process?
Companies don’t need an invitation to step up but they would like more conversation. It’s like we’ve mentioned in previous conversations [between Sudara and Think Tanky] about starting a revolution because this starts with conversation. There’s an assumption that work needs to be something removed from who we are. I don’t think this is true. Where we spend most of our time should and could align with our social visions and values. The conversation just needs to start and I think most companies don’t have to restart their entire business model to be a Social Innovator. They can start by talking and asking and looking at what they do and set up where they are already aligned. If you’re in real estate, affordable housing is in alignment. Employee retention and satisfaction will be better – there will be more loyalty. This will pay off, even if your intentions aren’t philanthropic. Every business isn’t going to produce something but even service industries can start to track their supply chain and uncover where things can be better, what can be improved, the people that deserve higher wages. This won’t be easy – What’s awesome is never easy.
What’s your local perspective?
We moved Sudara from southern California to Bend, Oregon because we loved this community and appreciate its booming interest in new industry, job creation and innovation. I’m not only proud to have rooted my company in Bend but appreciate the Bend Venture Conference (BVC) and how much innovation is happening in a city this size. I felt incredibly supported during my BVC process this year, especially with the addition of the Social Impact competition. Also, Oregon is such a conscientious state in lots of ways and that spirit and energy supports us in our efforts toward not being one of the only companies in this social impact space. That’s a promising and positive outcome of growing my business in Bend and we want to tap into these conversations with all businesses across Oregon.
We’re in a third space and in some ways pioneering our way forward. Traditional VC investments are a fast turn around and there’s a clear exit in five years. There’s an expected exit that traditional VC’s are looking for and with a company like Sudara, you can’t have a quick exit. That’s not how it’s going to work in this field, even though this is a solid investment and a growing financially sound company revenue-wise. There’s not the traditional big fast payout in this space, there’s so much more going on here, you’re making a huge difference and solving a social problem. It’s like slow fashion, patient capital is what is needed to fill the funding gap. You’ll get your return but it’s a longer play and they need to look at the longer view. That’s new and I get that. But at the end of the day, it’s ALL about the impact and this is a platform for large investments with large impacts and, over time, a large return, but it’s not going to be fast.
What’s been the most satisfying aspect about this entire venture?
Knowing we chose the harder path but it’s all worth it. It’s not about the loungewear but the impact. This is working! The sewing centers in India are thriving and when we visit, they tell us about their kids, what they want to do with their lives – their kids are dreaming and setting future plans.
Also, my kids know and love what I’m doing. I’m showing my daughters what’s possible in business, which is traditionally vilified (vs firefighting and teachers), that there’s a way to own a business and do business where my values are aligned and that’s satisfying on every level.
How has this company impacted your own family?
Being a mother of two daughters and a son, this company has shaped a different narrative for my girls and for our entire family. I can feed our family and own a company and still be able to improve other peoples’ lives. This framework is outside the norm, it’s not me as CEO taking on the same success as all the male CEOs before me, it’s a new framework altogether. How I’ve created this company, with total inclusion of my employees, has been intentional. It’s not Shannon Keith’s Sudara, it’s ours – all of us here believe in the soul of this company and the value that we gain by seeking its success. That’s something that I can give my daughters and it’s not at all how companies are being run. Someday, I hope this is how we work in this country but this is my part and it’s awesome but…awesome isn’t easy.
Sudara exists to create a pathway for women to escape sexual slavery and live in freedom.
Shop online or visit Sudara Freedom Fund for a 100% tax deductible donation.