Empowering Exploited Women in Bolivia – SutiSana Founder Cara Strauss
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Intro: Welcome to the Simple Switch Podcast where you'll join me, Rachel, the Founder of Simple Switch to talk about conscious consumerism and positive impact purchasing. Spending our money in a way that helps our planet and the people on it can be complicated and frustrating and we're passionate about bringing ease to your journey. Join us as we demystify big ideas about conscious consumerism and hear from amazing business owners using their work for positive change. Thanks for being here and enjoying the show.
Rachel: Hello Simple Switch Community! I am extra excited about today’s episode; it is a wonderful chat with Cara Strauss, the founder of SutiSana in El Alto, Bolivia. This episode means a ton to me because just months after recording we were able to go and visit Cara, her team, and the incredible makers in El Alto. I was so excited to get to know their culture, learn more about the Imarka people, learn more about the tragedy in the red light district, and the amazing and dignifying work that SutiSana is doing with these women to empower through employment. I am so passionate about this model and the way that it is able to bring people into better livelihoods. So, we are so excited. I hope that you will go see SutiSana on Simple Switch, buy some of their products, and support their amazing work. Here is my chat with Cara!
Rachel: Hey Cara! Thanks so much for talking to me today.
Cara: You are welcome Rachel. It is great to talk to you.
Rachel: Ok, let's start with the basics. Who are you, for those who don't know? Where is SutiSana located? Where does it have an impact?
Cara: My name is Cara, and I am the founder of a company called SutiSana. We are located in Bolivia, in El Alto, which is the slum city of the capital city La Paz. We work with women who have come out of prostitution and trafficking situations, gender violence, and different types of sexual exploitation. These artisans make bags, accessories, different kinds of clothing. We make them to sell online and in special order.
Rachel: That’s awesome. I personally have a few SutiSana items and have loved them. Big fan of what you guys do product wise, but obviously your impact is incredible. SutiSana is a really cool partner for me because I actually heard about them through one of my best childhood friends who currently works there. It is a very fun personal connection, and we are looking to visit early 2020. Personally I am very excited about SutiSana. Can you tell us, being the founder, a little bit about how it got started?
Cara: Sure. Though I am specifically the founder of SutiSana, I wasn’t really meant to be. I came down here to work with an organization called World-Made Flesh in Bolivia. World-Made Flesh had already been working with women in prostitution and in sexual exploitation situations for five years when I got here. At the time, they already had a restoration program going on and they were visiting the women in the red light districts on a regular basis, at least twice a week. It was from that that the idea for SutiSana came to be. I was doing a visit with some of the other team members and one woman, who I never met before, we’re going to call her Dora, said that when are you going to give me a job. I just kind of sat there stunned. My whole world view shifted in that moment. I had already had a deep part of compassion for them, but (phone rings) I’m sorry, Rachel.
Rachel: Don’t worry about it! I know you are in a workshop. It’s good; you are where you work. It’s great.
Cara: But at that moment, I realized that there had to be something more. Something more structured. Something that fit into the economic structure of the country that allowed them something more than simply good intentions. There was actually a team of us who worked towards the idea of what SutiSana could be. This idea of offering women who are coming out of prostitution or traffic situations dignified employment in the structure of a loving and caring community, but also withthe idea that this is actually a business that is trying to be profitable. We want these women to learn good work ethic. This wasn’t going to just be a restoration program, but a place where they could really be a part of a thriving business.
Rachel: That’s awesome. Man, I have such a heart for that. Listeners who have heard our episodes before know that I have such a heart for that. I just love the idea specifically of dignified employment. I think it was my first grade teacher who first said to me “Teach a man to fish verus give a man a fish”. We feel more dignified when people empower us to do things and it is so important and so necessary that you guys are there doing that. I love your strategy and your attitude.
Cara: Thanks. I absolutely respect all of the loan programs that are out there, but I think sometimes people believe that a small business loan is the only way that you can go. Some of these women aren’t part of communities where it wouldn’t be possible to have the support that a small business needs, and so sometimes it's better to give someone a job with structure, Social Security, and medical insurance rather than encouraging and empowering them to start their own business where they might end up failing because they don't necessarily have to support that they need.
Rachel: Totally. Man, that's a really cool insight. Like you said I think microloans can be really important, and the organizations that do them (we work with Kevo a lot) often are given loans to people who think they can succeed. We hear in the USA that we want to create jobs, so why would we not be creating those same strategies and allowing people to just fight for that on their own? That is a very cool point. What is a favorite story for you from the impact side, from the woman you are working with or something that really resonated with you?
Cara: I think one of my favorite stories is our friend, who I’m going to call Fiona. She is from a family that is involved in multi-generational prostititution. Her sister was involved in prostitution, as well as her niece and enphew, and hermom dabbled in it a bit. This was family that was steeped in sexual violence from the beginning. She ended up coming to us and asking us for a job when she got pregnant with her fifth child. She left the red light district and was selling soup in the bus station for a very meager salary. Carrying these huge vats of soup from one area of the bus station to another, she was quite worried that she would lose her child. She was starting to bleed a little and just wanted a safer situation for her and her child. A friend mentioned that we were offering jobs to women in her situation. She came and asked for a job. It was an unusual situation for us, because usually we only offer jobs to women who had already been involved in the rehabilitionation program for a while. In this case, we recognized her need, she was already five months pregnant, and we invited her in. She really quickly became one of our best sowers. Fiona was involved a couple years when her sister died on the streets. Her niece and nephew, along with several other children, were unfortunately left without any parents. Unfortunately, her niece and nephew also entered prostitution on the street. That’s why I like being able to work so closely with World-Made Flesh with both our children’s program and our women’s program. Our women’s and children’s programs were able to come alongside and work with these kids along a very long journey to try and get them to a more healthy place and a place where they didn’t feel like they had to do that to support themselves. I think my favorite thing about what I do is that the job is important, the dignified employment is absolutely necessary, but I don’t think you can address this issue unless you address it holistically. Every part of the program we work on; we work on physical health, emotional health, and spiritually health. We make sure that economics isn’t the only thing we address. Every area of their lives is in healing; we walk alongside them in that.
Rachel: It sounds like it is such a relational thing for you guys and that is amazing. You can hear your love for these women as you’ve created these relationships with them.
Cara: They are definitely my friends for life.
Rachel: That is so cool. Man, I can’t wait to meet them. I'm getting really excited. We are planning on coming! I will get to shake their hand and tell them thank you. Personally, I use y'all's dopp kit for makeup and toiletries, and I travel a lot so I carry that thing around.
Cara: That is wonderful. We originally made that for men, but I am so glad it is unisex.
Rachel: Yeah, it's great. How about from the customer side? I am always pleasantly surprised by the way that customers are touched by the story, or sometimes totally unrelated and unintentional things happen.
Cara: What I think is interesting about SutiSana is that we sell almost as much in Bolivia as we do in the states. We sell about 40% of our products here in Bolivia. We sell at a lot of fairs here, and we have an expat customer base, but we also have a Bolivian customer base. One of my favorite instances when we were able to provide a service locally is Operation Christmas Child, an organization that sends shoe boxes full of gifts to children in countries that might not receive something nice for Christmas or for another holiday. They usually are packed up in the US and Canada and sent overseas. But in Bolivia’s case, they are not allowed to import those boxes; they have to make those boxes in the country. We were able to create 30,000 of these t-shirts for 30,000 of these shoe boxes which were being created in the country. We gave them to 30,000 Bolivian kids, who had the opportunity to not only get this gift but to also hear a message of hope from the volunteers at Operation Christmas Child.
Rachel: Wow. That's so cool.
Cara: We love working with other organizations that are also doing amazing things around the world and being able to have a double impact in that sense.
Rachel: For sure. That is one of my favorite parts for what we get to do is that collaboration, which is invaluable. We are all running for the same goal; there is no reason we shouldn’t be helping each other. Sometimes that looks like what you are talking about, more obvious partnerships, other times it looks like logistical advice, where I get to be the in-between from someone from Uganda who has learned how to make the international shipping work, and plug them in with another entrepreneur who is struggling with that same issue. It is really cool seeing those things, like the collaboration that you guys have, being the building block of making this impact on a grand scale.
Cara: Thanks Rachel.
Rachel: I am very excited to hear that you guys are able to sell such a high percentage in Bolivia; I didn’t know that.
Cara: Yeah, it’s an unusual situation for most businesses like ours, but I think the wonderful thing is that we use local materials, so a lot of people here are really attracted to them. The unfortunate part is that our materials are so durable that I often see purses that we made 10 years ago that are still hanging around. This means that you never have to buy a new purse.
Rachel: Totally, that sounds like a great thing to keep in mind; these things will last forever. The first time Madison, who is my friend who introduced me to you, visited Bolivia and spent her time there, she brought me back a purse that is now my electronics case. That is another thing that for the last 4 or so years I have been taking with me traveling and is in my room all the time. You are right; it is so durable. It’s also really beautiful. There is a very clear Bolivian flair to what you guys are making because it is made out of those materials. How is that made? Do you know alot about the exact process of the fabric?
Cara: That is one of my favorite things that we do. We do a lot of leather products that are simply leather, and I really love that. Leather is a universal language. We use some beautiful local, distressed leather. The cloth that we use is locally called aguayo. Aguayo, in the local language Imara, is a cloth that especially indigenous women here use to carry a thing of value. They will usually carry it on their backs. So, they will use an aguayo to carry their kids or their vegetables and fruit home from the market. It has a lot of connotations of whatever is in here is what brings life, and it’s something of value.
Rachel: How incredible is that! The imagery!
Cara: Yeah, we really love it. Our aguayo is made right down the street in a factory that uses organic wool. All of our aguayo is 100% wool. We do the designs ourselves, so we always have new designs every season. This is great, but it still has a very Bolivian flair. Whether people are more subtle and want to go with the leather, or more ethnic and go with a little more international flair, we want to make sure we are hitting all of our market.
Rachel: That’s so cool. I’m always so impressed with that whole process, because I can be back here running the shop, doing the online, getting the business done, but the design process is something I’m so thankful for. I like the way that it looks and the aesthetic, but it is something I’m totally lost in. Wait to strike that balance between things that are more -- I don’t like to use the word trendy -- in demand for consumers and marrying that so beautifully to the local traditions. Love it. We use the phrase positive impact purchasing to cover, as we have so many different types of impacts from environmental to the type of work you guys are doing. What do you feel positive impact purchasing means to you, and how do you feel your business fits into that?
Cara: I think the most obvious application of that is that every product that is purchased allows for abundant life and freedom for women who are formally trapped in sexual exploitation. Our idea is that every woman who works here is also impacting her family and breaking cycles of violence and sexual exploitation in their lives. Our ultimate goal is to change society, to make sure society in the future is not one that accepts or condones gender violence. We can have a place that is safe for kids, especially girls, and a place where they can learn, grow, and impact the world with all the gifts. That would be the most obvious. We also really try hard to impact the environment positively by being as organic and low impact as possible, as well as recycling as many scraps as we can. It is hard because we still use leather and some people, especially vegans, would prefer us to use vegan leather. We do feel like we are working towards every kind of impact that we can in this moment.
Rachel: That’s awesome. We just recently got feedback, which is something I’m really thankful for, on our facebook ads from a stranger asking why we are able to use animal products and why we feel good about that. I think it is very cool for us to be able to be very clear about the impact that our company is having, and also be clear that this is a leather product. This way people can avoid that if that is what they are looking to do. It really serves the impact that you guys are making to be using those materials right now. I trust what you are saying, that you are moving in the best way you can towards those things. That’s an amazing journey, and one that takes time.
Cara: We understand people who would never use a leather product. I totally respect someone who makes that decision. But, we also understand that the leather industry in Bolivia is very different from what it would be in the States; all of our cattle is free range. As much as the leather we can is vegetable canned. We are really working hard to ensure that we are avoiding those harsh chemicals and the process of production is as clean as possible.
Rachel: That's really cool. I think you may be the fourth partner who has explained that to me because I have had that question, mostly for our customers who ask. My partner in Haiti, Second Story Goods, was talking to me about how it is very traditional for them to use the whole animal. If they are using that for a food source, then they are going to use the leather. It is a lot less than what we would see as factory farming for those kinds of materials in other places. It is cool to hear about the vegetable canning; I have never heard that before. Another value for us is ease without apathy. The reason that I chose this as one of our values is because I hear people talk all the time about burning out on this type of thing. They will hear “There is so much plastic in the ocean” and be like that is an insurmountable problem, so what can I do? We really focus on allowing people to engage with these amazing causes and impacts without having to work so hard or have so much emotional labour behind it. How do you feel that SutiSana makes it easy or winsome for people to use their purchasing power for good, and how do you engage people with those stories behind those products?
Cara: Well, one of the things we want to make sure we are doing is to create products that people can actually use and need. We don't want to just create a product that is another pity buy, that people would buy because they like our cause and don’t really like our product. We want to create something that is better than anything out there, including stuff that is made in China. That way when they purchase from us, they are purchasing something that they need anyway. I think a great example of this is next season we are going to be coming out with a lovely batch of wallets and new leather totes that I would just put up against any of our competitors, whether they are mass produced and sold in the retail stores or any of the smaller people who do similar things to what we do. I use all of our products, and I wouldn’t want to make a product that I didn’t think was incredibly useful for the wider audience. Hopefully the ease is because it is not hard to make an internet purchase nowadays, and the lack of apathy would come from actually loving and enjoying the product that you get.
Rachel: Yeah, absolutely. That is so great. I don’t know if you feel this way, but I feel that that is the way the industry is moving. It is so encouraging for me because I think that some people look at Simple Switch or other companies, like SutiSana, and they have this assumption in their mind that it is going tobe kitchy products or pity buys, cute things, things you might want, like a christmas ornament. I was actually just looking at you Christmas ornaments, so not knocking the Christmas ornaments. But having those practical products alongside it, like we sell toilet paper that makes an impact, is important. Having those things that are so practical, like aI said I used the kit from y’all all the time, but it is cool to see the industry moving in that direction. Like you said, it’s really changing society and changing capitalism. We can now use capitalism to connect with people and create impact, as opposed to having it be something that's numbing us out or wasteful. Love to hear that you guys are on board with that; not surprised at all. This one sometimes brings out some funny stories. Another brand value for us is illiterate often. The reason we chose this is because we want to make sure that we are not an echochamber. If we are getting feedback from people, we want to be able to change in order to make the most positive impact that we can, knowing that it is a crazy shifting industry. Is there a time since founding where you have had to shift or pivot, and how did it affect SutiSana?
Cara: Yeah, I feel like we have more stories of failure than stories of success. But that’s amazing because we get to learn from every little thing. For example, probably our biggest fail in all of our products in the past has been just getting bad zippers. We finally had to bite the bullet and use YKK zippers, which I believe are the only fair trade certified zippers in the world. They also make most of the zippers in the world. They are an incredibly durable, perfect zipper. It just took us a long time to get a hold of them. It is good for me to realize that we are always improving, and that every little change we make is towards slightly better products. But, we have also had to pivot away from entire products in the past. We worked a lot with clothes for a while, and because of where we are and the materials that are available to us, it just wasn’t a good decision. It was really hard to get the clothes that were in fashion out on time, and it was hard to get our prices down. Nowhere in Bolivia are clothing clothes made, so they were still imported and we didn’t like the fact that we weren’t using local materials in those. In the end, we decided that unless it was a specific order, we weren’t going to make clothes for our own brand. I think we will just continue to make those kinds of decisions in the future. We have noticed that even though some people love the ethnic aguayo look, the local Bolivian cloth, it actually sells a lot more in Bolivia. We are going to be moving towards more leather and a little less cloth in the States. I think we will just continue to do things as they come.
Rachel: Definitely. I just hear so much wisdom in what you just said and you guys being able to say no to things that are serving you anymore. What’s the name of the zipper?
Cara: The zipper is YKK; they are made in Japan.
Rachel: Cool. That’s just a good thing for me to know about fair trade zippers, because I do get those kinds of questions from people who are starting up. And I love the zipper on my case, so good to know. How about why do you sell with Simple Switch? Why did you choose to sell with us; what do you like about it?
Cara: Simple Switch really aligns with all of our values. I think we stand for the same things, we are working towards the same vision, and we want the same things for people and our world. It’s wonderful to have that deeper understanding. And just logistically, you guys are amazing to work with. From the very beginning, you have made it very easy for us, and made it known that you are working for us and not just for yourselves. Knowing that you have our women in your heart as well brings a lot of trust to the table. It’s been great working with you guys. You’re awesome Rachel!
Rachel: I'm tearing up a little bit. I remember our first call, and you guys are one of our really early partners. It’s fun because a lot of the people I’ve done on the podcast started with us when we were really small. And we still are. I know that you have been discouraged by some other partnerships, and I hear our partners all the time talking about people taking advantage of them. This is so encouraging to me to know that you don’t feel like that is the case with us. I certainly wouldn’t want it to be. That’s great. How about your personal favorite product that you sell. Do you have a favorite? You mentioned a couple that you used.
Cara: That is so hard because I think I love anything we come out with that is new and different. The next thing is always my favorite product. I kind of have a favorite of every type of bag that we do. For example, my daily bag that I love is our Classic, which is just a very simple zippered crossbody/shoulder bag. It’s the perfect mom bag. I need a bigger bag because I have two kids and I just need to keep all those extras in there. It is just a really good medium sized bag that i can use everyday. I love our wallet. Our big, fat, chunky wallet is coming out next season. It has 9 credit card slots. It is one area that I haven’t been able to be a minimalist at all; I love a big wallet. I think one of our favorite products, it’s not popular but it is so specialized it's perfect for me. It is called our Expedition Travel Case. It is basically the perfect thing for any traveler because it is a very simple case that has slots for everything you need: your passport, your credit card, your headphones, your phone, and your kindle/iPad. It is really the one thing you could grab and have at your disposal if you are on a plane or road trip. I just love it so much. I think it is very specialized for travelers, but it is not a big seller in that respect, but it is definitely my favorite.
Rachel: I have coveted that travel case, for sure. I know exactly the one you are talking about because I just went to my 26th country.
Cara: You should definitely wait until next season because we are coming out with a beautiful new distressed leather color in that product.
Rachel: Cool! This is my favorite, and I think most important, question for the podcast. How can Simple Switch listeners support you? What are you working on right now; what else should they know?
Cara: I think in the wider sense of what our anti-trafficking industry is doing, the best thing is to continue to be informed, and continue to invest in various ways: in the different kinds of movements that are happening with anti-trafficking, anti-gender violence, and proeducation for girls and women. Any way that they can invest in locally or the industries that are working with those, I think every little bit helps towards the kind of world that we want to live in. Right now, as a business, we are working towards our next collection which we do twice a year. But, I think on a bigger scale in Bolivia, we are working towards better laws and a bigger understanding of what some of these issues look like on the local level. I think just keep us in our thoughts and buy products. Like you said, that's the ease. That’s the really easy thing.
Rachel: Definitely. Definitely go buy their products.
Cara: I think in general speaking up against the things that aren’t contributing towards equality and towards a better future for our women.
Rachel: Absolutely. This episode won't come out next week but probably in the new year. When I send it out, I would love it if you have any resources that would be great. I love that that’s your call to action. I’m always so impressed with my partners, because almost everyone is like “yes, buy our products, but here is something that I care deeply about that is going to further the mission”. I think if you have any resources that you think have been helpful to you in the learning and keeping up to date, please send those along to me and I will include them when we release the episode.
Cara: Will do.
Rachel: Awesome! Well, is there anything else you want to add?
Cara: Rachel, you are absolutely amazing and we have enjoyed working with you. I wish that Madison was here right now so that she could say hi, in a sense of the partnership.
Rachel: It is just so fun because usually I find partners through the internet, business, or all this research, but Madison was such a personal connection. It was close to my heart to get to chat with you.
Cara: Yeah, I’m so excited to meet you face to face in January. I really hope we can make that a fun visit.
Outro: Thanks so much for joining me today. If you'd like this episode, you can support us by leaving a great review, sharing with your friends and subscribing. Thanks for caring about our planet and the people on it. We'll see you again soon.