By Katie Powers

Shannon Keith, founder and CEO of Sudara, traveled all the way from Bend, Oregon to wrap up the Spring 2018 Speaker Series and give students a “behind the seams” look at her company — a social business with a mission to free women in India from the sex trade by giving them access to dignified, fair-wage employment.

Keith described herself to students as an ordinary woman who has always had a heart for poor, marginalized communities. In 2005, she traveled to India with her husband to donate a freshwater well to a village, when they ended up in a brothel community. When asked to speak to the villagers on behalf of their donation, Keith looked out into a sea of beautifully adorned women who “looked completely dead in their eyes.” Life as a sex worker is cyclical. Many of these women were born into these circumstances or forced to work in the sex trade because they have no education or other way to make a living. It wasn’t water that these women needed, it was opportunity — for a job, an escape, and a better life. Keith was motivated to do more.

Sudara started in 2006 as a small-scale non-profit selling clothes from trunks of cars, garages, and wherever people gathered. It has since become a major e-commerce business and certified B-Corp with a hybrid model. Sudara’s mantra is “let us work together,” which is embodied in all aspects of the business. The Sudara logo represents a link in a chain, symbolizing Sudara’s efforts to empower women.

On the business side, Sudara partners with Indian-run organizations that offer employment, skills training, and restorative care to women who have escaped the sex trade. Many of the women are trained to make Punjammies, Sudara’s artisan loungewear product, but Sudara’s partners offer a variety of vocational training options from cosmetology to technology. Sudara buys the Punjammies from their sewing center partners at a premium, which helps subsidize partners’ operating costs. Each Punjammies print is named after one of the women, as a way to honor their story and all the hardships that they have overcome. Sudara then sells the Punjammies online and reinvests the profits back into the business to create even more jobs for these women.

Sudara focuses a lot of energy on growing the business through its brand positioning. The cause is at the forefront of Sudara’s marketing in order to attract conscious consumers who want to “vote with their dollars” by supporting social business and sustainable fashion. At the same time, the brand promises a product that is unique, reputable, and artisan, but not at all a “pity-purchase.”

The nonprofit side, the Sudara Freedom Fund, allows Sudara to equip women and their children with education, housing, and micro-loans to help them on their path to a better life. Most women have on average two children, so Sudara’s impact is extended to future generations by breaking the cycle of poverty for their families.

The hybrid model enables Sudara to achieve a greater level of sustainability and potential for growth. The social mission is the heart of Sudara, but the business profits also have to be a priority to ensure that the social mission can be achieved. An increase in sales subsequently increases the number of sustainable jobs available to the women in India.

Going forward, Sudara is focused on growing its business and growing its impact. Keith is an incredibly inspiring social entrepreneur, activist, mother, and wife. She has all of the passion and work ethic of a traditional entrepreneur (but none of the ego), as well as a strong set of fundamental values that motivate her to distinguish Sudara as a model for other social businesses. 

She reminded students that you don’t have to be the next Mark Zuckerberg in order to start something great, but you do need to have passion, drive, and a wholehearted commitment to a cause that resonates with you. With a little confidence and courage to “take the next step,” Keith inspires the next generation of social entrepreneurs to turn their ideas, experiences, and privileges into something that fosters meaningful change.