We asked one of the Soko founders, Gwendolyn Floyd, some of our burning questions, such as how Soko came to be and what's next for this stunning ethical jewelry brand.
How did the three of you come together to found Soko?
I met my two co-founders, Ella Peinovich and Catherine Mahugu, when we were all living in Nairobi, Kenya, working at the intersection of design, technology, and community development. The company was born out of a love of design, the combining of global perspectives, the desire to connect and empower entrepreneurs using technology, and the belief that women can change the world.
We were inspired to create technology-driven solutions to change the lives of those around us. We recognized a global need, as well as global opportunity, to disrupt the systemic patterns of poverty found across Africa’s creative economy. With Soko, we did just that.
What made you decide to incorporate a social impact element and how does your artisan model work?
The artisan industry is the second largest employer in the developing world. It is also one of the most disenfranchised. Most production happens in small, informal workshop settings, and sales are limited to the inconsistent, limited local market, trapping artisans at or below the poverty line. Soko tackles the barriers that artisans face in ways that were made possible after the mobile revolution.
In essence, Soko helps artisans make a better product, faster. The key to achieving this is our model of distributed, micro-manufacturing, that employs a vast number of small-scale, independent artisan entrepreneurs spread across a city or region.
Soko’s supply chain innovations use the pre-existing technology that’s already in the artisan’s hands – the mobile phone – to transform production at the workshop level, enabling us to match marginalized developing world artisan production with the real-time global demand for Soko’s designs. We currently coordinate over 2300 independent artisans via mobile technology into a real-time, distributed production model that we call our “virtual factory” - a mobile phone-driven supply chain that coordinates opportunity, production, and fulfillment with no centralized point of production or overhead.
This results in a model so efficient and affordable that artisans retain an unprecedented 25-35% of revenue. This increases their income, on average, by a factor of four within two months of joining Soko, while allowing us to compete on price and timelines in the mainstream market.
You describe your impact on the artisan craft sector as meaningful impact, how do you differentiate between what's meaningful and what’s not?
Soko's focus is on creating jobs in innovative, sustainable ways. To us, providing meaningful work means not just creating a job where one did not exist previously (or not a consistent one), but instead creating jobs that are both financially and socially transformative for individuals, their families, and communities.
We are obsessed with the future of work. With the onslaught of mass automation, and the prospect of millions of people losing their manufacturing jobs to machines, we are committed to creating scalable models of ethical, handmade production that can sustain communities and create incredible value.
How do you see the social impact business space changing and evolving?
I think that people are beginning to realize that positive, social impact-driven business is great business and can be incredibly successful too. An entrepreneur is someone who sees an opportunity or problem, and builds a business that addresses that opportunity/problem and also generates profit.
The greatest challenges (and opportunities) of our time are social and environmental, and I am moved to see so many great business minds stepping up to the plate to try and create positive change. Very soon I hope that social entrepreneurs will not be the exception, but rather the norm, in the business world.
What was the biggest challenge you've faced along the way? Biggest triumph?
In many ways, we’ve had to reimagine, and then build from scratch, a scalable technology and capacity building platform for ethical manufacturing. It’s been incredibly challenging (and rewarding)!
That said, the greatest challenge we face is convincing the industry to join us on this journey. Soko is committed to making fashion work for the poor and environment, rather than against it, transforming ethical fashion from a niche player in the global fashion industry to a meaningful and competitive sourcing and purchasing option for global brands and individual consumers alike. This is an intensive process of educating and inspiring retailers about the insatiable demand for ethical fashion and the opportunity it provides, and how our fashion tech platform can provide them with unprecedented business benefits.
We’ve been able to bring on some incredible mission aligned brand and retail partners ranging from Fossil to Nordstrom to Reformation and Anthropologie. That said, the industry at large is still hesitant about the scalability and quality of artisanal and ethical production.
Favorite piece of jewelry you’ve ever owned?
Honestly, the double dash choker is my favorite piece of jewelry ever. I can wear it as effortlessly with a t-shirt as I can with a gown. It is meticulously handcrafted just outside of Nairobi using recycled brass. The ancient sand casting technique they use is beautiful to witness, and the product itself is an organic, statement piece that feels like liquid metal when you wear it.
Who are your role models, business or otherwise?
As an ethical fashion and supply chain nerd, I am a huge fan of Patagonia. Their end-to-end transparency, sustainability, and values, coupled with an incredibly strong design identity, positions them as a beacon of the type of business we should all be building!
I’m also incredibly inspired by the supply chain innovations and efficiencies companies that like IKEA and Zara employ in their global, just-in-time manufacturing. I think ethical production needs to be looking at these models to learn how we can be as competitive as possible to scale our businesses and impact.
What do you think is lacking in today’s fashion and accessories market?
Too often, customers feel like they have to choose between ethics and style. I am a huge proponent of what we like to call Ethical Fast Fashion. Ethical Fast Fashion is our way of producing stylish and affordable goods with the fastest possible speed to market. In this model, consumers can shop consciously by default, never having to sacrifice style or affordability.
At our core, what we are doing is creating creative connections between people and concepts that have not been traditionally associated, to disrupt the current, broken, manufacturing standards. Soko has combined tradition and trend, fast and slow fashion, and handmade and high-tech, to pioneer Ethical Fast Fashion. We are providing close to real-time trend responsive product that is both price sensitive and socially and ethically handcrafted by marginalized creatives living and working in the developing world.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
My main source of inspiration are the incredible people that we collaborate with to produce our jewelry. Many of our designs draw inspiration from the manufacturing techniques and cultures of the artisans themselves. I am always learning age-old ways we can use the recycled brass and horn in our designs. It’s been an incredibly fun design challenge figuring out how to use heritage practices and techniques to create fashion-forward products that appeal to all women.
What’s next for Soko?
We’ll be growing our brand by including new product categories like home accessories, and working with brands that want to provide ethically produced products to their customers. We’ve built a powerful, ethical manufacturing platform, and want to share it with the world. We are excited to empower companies like FEED to leverage our ethical manufacturing to create products for their beautiful brand!