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If you’ve ever dreamed of a career that allows you to make a major impact in the lives of others, Sarah Sternberg understands you. She created Songa Designs as a way to help women in struggling countries achieve financial independence and has managed to completely change their lives. Sarah left a safe career and created something much more meaningful. Now, Songa Designs has grown into a successful international brand. Sarah opened up about everything she’s learned throughout her journey.
Name: Sarah Sternberg Location: San Diego, CA Title: Owner + Founder Company:Songa Designs International What it is: Socially conscious, eco-fashion lifestyle brand Educational Background: MBA in sustainable management, Presidio Graduate School
What inspired you to start Songa Designs?
My inspiration came from my experience working with artisans in Rwanda. I saw first-hand how incredibly skilled the women were, but realized they had no real access to sell their products in viable markets. The women were driven, smart, talented, and had what it took to be successful. I wanted Songa to be a conduit for them to sell their handmade designs so they could earn a livable wage and create the lives they’ve always wanted. It’s typical for many women in developing countries to depend solely on their husbands for financial needs, but Songa Designs is changing this dynamic. By working for this company, under-resourced women have the opportunity to achieve economic independence by using skills acquired through everyday life to make a living.
If you could go back and give yourself advice when you first started Songa Designs, what would it be?
My advice would have been: Start small and grow the product selection in line with market demand. In the beginning, we created quite a few designs and that put a lot of pressure on our new production process. As a result, our first collection had a number of costly quality-control issues. Today, we operate more as a boutique lifestyle brand with fewer designs and more emphasis on uniqueness and exceptional quality.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
My greatest accomplishment has always been earning the trust of the women and my local staff in Rwanda to lead them into a new business venture. I am only one part of the business as it would not work without the hard work and commitment from our entire team. Another accomplishment I’m very proud to be a part of is starting a company where the women are truly making money that not only raises their standard of living but also instills a sense of pride and confidence in them that they didn’t have before.
What does a typical day look like for you?
There are no typical days! I wish there were, ha! I usually have conference calls in the morning since most of my staff is virtual and live in different time zones around the world. Most of my days are spent wearing multiple hats: Team leader, website developer, bookkeeper, head marketer, chief networker, etc. But that’s why I love what I do – I have variety in my days and no two days are the same.
What advice do you have for others looking to switch career tracks to do something more meaningful?
My advice would be to first be mindful of exactly what you are willing to accept as your definition of success. Many people associate success with a big paycheck or the type of car they drive, and that is totally OK! However, for those taking a leap into something entirely new, stumbling along the way comes with the territory. You will make mistakes! However, I’ve not met one person whom I admire where their road to success was not paved with failure.
More importantly, these people who I consider successful measure their success differently. For example, a good friend of mine who is also a social entrepreneur measures her success by tallying the number of libraries she opens in developing countries. My biggest advice for those looking to do something more meaningful is to define success on your own terms and accept that it won’t always be measured on a material basis.
How do you define success?
I absolutely love what the late Maya Angelou said about success: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” Totally agree with her. To expand a little on her thoughts, I also define success as being good at what you like to do. I know I’m good at working with the women and building an international team, so that’s where my focus remains. It’s very fulfilling and rewarding!
What inspires your Girl Off Duty posts? What do you hope to accomplish with Girl Off Duty?
The Girl Off Duty posts are still a work in progress. We initially wanted to write about lifestyle things and our musings on daily trends. But, we realized that there was no real value behind that to entice readers to come back! We’re currently coming up with a more engaging and entertaining blog strategy. Ultimately, the intention of our posts is to show Songa’s personality while giving our customers a peek behind the scenes.
What’s the biggest challenge of operating an international company?
My favorite story to illustrate our challenges as an international company is when my co-founder, Ellie Kates, and I were training the women and we showed them a potholder and then asked them what they thought it was. Their answer: they thought the potholder was a maxi pad! We all laughed but it was the perfect example of how important it is to clearly communicate across languages and cultures. It’s also why having a solid local team for accurate translations is imperative for success!
What’s your best advice for using social media to grow and promote a brand?
Obviously, the ultimate goal is always to get people to our website because once we get people to our site, we hope there is enough enticing content to get them to explore around and shop. Social media is a great tool for that, but I would advise for others to also focus on making sure you are building connections with your followers. We want to help inspire women to be fierce and free-spirited and use social media as a way to authentically do that.
How do you balance your work with your personal life?
I create balance in my life by having a routine (which I’m still working on!). With a daily routine, I get in everything that matters to me: exercise, time to myself, work on my business and time with my friends and family. I’m constantly improving on this routine but I’ve become a morning person because of it!
What are your hobbies? What do you do when you’re not working?
Lately, my thing is doing sprint triathlons and long-distance bike riding, so I’m spending a lot of time running, spinning, biking and swimming. I love it and am in the best shape of my life! Other hobbies include spending time in Baja, including Mexico’s up-and-coming wine country, and meeting other incredible people who are carving out their own corner of the world with a social impact.