It was a beautiful, hot Indian day in 2005 and Shannon Keith was at a freshwater well dedication ceremony. She was surrounded by little thatch-roof houses and Indian women draped in ordinate saris, with the sounds of children's laughter lingering in the air.
It broke her heart knowing that come nightfall, when the children were asleep and the world belonged to adults, this picturesque scene would be transformed into one of India's most popular red-light districts.
“I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror and go on living my life, knowing that fellow human beings were suffering with little to no option of ever escaping.”
These women don’t have a choice. They’re born, sold, and tricked into prostitution.
They’re ostracized, left without a support net or a way to get out of their current lifestyle (or a way to feed their children, once they got out).
Shannon was overwhelmed that these beautiful fabrics cloaked such horrific stories. With every story she heard, feelings of anger, sadness, and hopelessness penetrated her core and altered every fiber of her being. She was presented with a choice: be overwhelmed into inaction, and go back home. Or, she could do something to make a difference.
She took route number two. From here on out, she made it her mission to empower these women, helping them find a way out of this world they’d never asked to be a part of. That day, the seeds of Sudara were planted.
She knew American women would delight in the sumptuous, brightly patterned fabrics, but were unlikely to wear a traditional sari. They might, however, be interested in lounge pants and pajamas, and that’s how the concept of PUNJAMMIES™ was born.
"It wouldn’t match my personality to go into the cutthroat part of the high-end fashion industry—I wanted to create our own niche apart from that.”
Testing the Idea
She filled her suitcase with fabric, and when she got home, gave a shout-out to women at her church, setting up a sewing night. After turning the raw fabric into luxury lounge pants, she asked people if they’d buy them.
Like many a business before her, Shannon started by operating out of a garage for a while. With her friends help, she was selling their signature PUNJAMMIES™ out of plastic bins in her garage. She knew if she could validate the concept, she’d eventually find a way to provide the women with an alternative way of making a living without having to resort to prostitution.
“I know I’m good at sales—I thought, if they can make something, I can sell it. That way, they wouldn’t have to sell their bodies any more, they could support themselves and their kids. They need so many things: counseling, medical care, housing, but to get it all started, they need a different way to make money.”
It’s also important to note that Shannon believed in paying the women a living wage, which is 2-3x more than average fair trade compensation. “We wanted to pay more than a fair trade wage so that each woman had sufficient income to clothe, feed and educate her children with enough leftover to save for the future.” She also made allowances for additional funds to be available for community services like medical care and counseling.
Because of that additional cost, they couldn’t get the rates low enough to justify a wholesale model. Instead, they started selling the PUNJAMMIES™ online, with a—you guessed it—Shopify store.
The very core of me feels like business is the best platform to help people long term.
Over the next few years, the business grew. What started as selling out of plastic totes in the garage became a full-scale nonprofit, complete with a board of directors. During this growth stage, they moved off of Shopify, but found their new solution to be clunky and expensive.
In 2014, the board came to Shannon and asked her to step up as the CEO, turning Sudara into a “real” business (vs. a nonprofit that raised funds via e-commerce). One of Shannon’s first moves? Switching back to Shopify Plus.
“When we decided to become a real business, we came back to Shopify. The reason that we exist as a business is so that we can execute the mission and have the tech get out of the way.
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We need it to be easy—I didn’t get into this business because I’ve got a high tech background, I got into it because I come from a sales background and I have a heart. I need to be able to look at conversion rates and reports easily so I can figure out what to do next, and I can do that with Shopify Plus.”
In April of 2015, they relaunched on Shopify Plus and they’ve already seen 4x growth compared to the previous year.
Freedom Without Handouts
Sudara’s big “why” revolves around freedom. “Our whole goal is to create freedom for the women we employ to get out of sexual slavery, and freedom of ethical consumer choices for our customers,” notes Shannon.
“So much of it boils down to, we can give ourselves a pat on the back when we give handouts to people. This 1:1 model, it’s good, but at the same time, it often boils down to charity—does that offer people dignity?
We don’t want to keep giving people handouts and patting ourselves on the back, thinking we’re changing the world. We want to transition from charity to development, sustainability, empowerment for these women.”
You Have a Choice
This is what it all comes down to, as far as Shannon is concerned:
“We all have choices we make with our dollars. We live in a global community, and we have a responsibility to that global community.”
“If consumers demanded a transparent supply chain, and took their money away from companies that didn’t have one, the companies would get in line or collapse.
“We want to be an example of how this can actually work. Our lives can be embedded with what we're passionate about and we can feed our families at the same time.”We all have choices—this is their choice. What’s yours?