Every day men, women and children are transported across international borders and forced into slave labour or sex work. According to last year’s Global Slavery Index, there are over 18 million people in India living in modern slavery, with some people estimating three to nine million of those people become forced into the sex trafficking system. In 2016, nearly 20,000 women and children were victims of human trafficking in the country, but in comparison to the unofficial number, this doesn’t even scratch the surface. In 2015, an average of 400 women and children went missing every day.
In honour of Women’s History Month, we’ve been speaking with female founders to learn more about their experience starting and running a business in today’s environment, including their challenges, successes, and the ways they invest in and empower other women to create positive experiences and opportunities around the world. For this interview, we spoke with Shannon Keith, Founder and CEO of Sudara, Inc. who is using her business to tackle sex trafficking head-on.
Bill Ready: When did you start your business, and how did you come up with the idea?
Shannon Keith: Sudara started in 2005 following a trip to India with my husband. We found ourselves in the red light district, working with NGOs to help improve the area, such as installing fresh water wells for the women and children who were separated from their families in the brothel community. The entire population was, and is, extremely underrepresented, so we wanted to do whatever we could to help.
While we were there, I was devastated by what I saw -- I didn’t have kids yet, but couldn’t imagine having to sell my body every night to provide for myself and my children. I felt a divine calling to help these women, but didn’t have a clue what that could look like. I tried to think of an item that’s practical, simple and ubiquitous, and landed on pyjamas.
But I didn’t want to just make pyjamas for them, I wanted to empower these women and give them an alternative job so they could sell pyjamas, instead of their bodies. When I got back home, I started hosting sewing parties with six of my girlfriends in my garage. We mocked up a bunch of pyjamas, I went back to Mumbai, and pitched the idea to one of the NGOs I was working with. Since they were already working to improve the area and were trusted by the community, we knew partnering with the NGO and its resources made the most sense in trying to help the women vs. trying to do it on our own.
Upon meeting with the NGO, they were extremely receptive and interested in collaborating to provide these women with better options for income. This was before TOMS, Ben & Jerry’s, or anything like that. Because this space was a new territory, we were advised to operate the company, Sudara, as a non-profit when it was founded. I always stayed on as a founder and advisor, but for years, Sudara was operated by the NGO as a non-profit before I officially bought the company in 2014.
BR: What were you doing before Sudara and what led you to eventually buy the business as your own?
SK: While Sudara was a non-profit,I worked both in corporate sales and continued to volunteer as an advisor. I did take a brief hiatus from corporate sales when I had my twins - it was just too much with the two of them - but I always continued to volunteer with Sudara.
When I was ready to go back to work, I realized I didn’t want to do corporate sales anymore. Instead, I wanted to continue my work with Sudara and make that my full priority but since I was a volunteer, I had never been on payroll. I tried to think of how to marry the two, and in 2014, I bought the company from the NGO, and voila! Here we are.
BR: You’ve had quite the journey, and a very impactful one. What has been your favorite part?
SK: Honestly, it’s having the power to make a difference and write my own story. Having the ability to help people around the world through work is incredible. Typically, people wake up, go to work, take care of the kids, get groceries, pay the mortgage, etc., and if there’s anything left, they make a donation to United Way or another non-profit and call it a day. And, if there isn’t anything left after the bills are paid and bellies are full, people volunteer - that’s just how people typically give back.
But, I’m calling their bluff - there IS a way to help the world and work at the same time. If you create companies where you can set your own rules, or work for companies that let you set your own rules, you can create something much more impactful.
BR: How has PayPal helped your business?
SK: I started using PayPal in April 2015. A lot of our customers were asking us to offer the platform, so we listened, looked into it, and saw it very easily integrated with Shopify - the platform we use to run the Sudara website.
When running a small business, there are so many critical things that you need to be involved in on a daily basis. My team and I don’t have a lot of time for systems or processes that require manual fixes or cause confusion for our customers. PayPal has been great for our company in the seamless way it integrates with Shopify - we don’t need to be on the phone with a help desk trying to resolve issues, because there are rarely any problems. Instead, we can focus on deepening our impact, growing our business and interacting with customers. It was a win-win for both us and our customers. We would definitely recommend PayPal to any business.
BR: Do you think there are any advantages and/or disadvantages to being a female founder?
SK: Gender bias, at times, but it’s subconscious so it’s often hard to tell when it’s happening. Securing funding was hard too - impossible, actually. The funding options for social companies are very different in comparison to tech start-ups that can easily attract venture capitalists.
Women also have this feeling that they are forced to walk, talk and act a certain way - and apologize for everything! I’m 44-years-old now, and the world is a different place from when I was 24. My brain, my heart and my soul are more mature. I’m not apologetic for being a woman, nor for taking a hiatus to raise children. Gone are the days of apologizing for what we do and who we are. This culture we’ve created of always apologizing isn’t doing us any favours. It’s time to flip the narrative and recognize what no longer serves us well. We need to be intentional about it, and create a new narrative that celebrates why we do these things.
BR: What advice would you give to other women wanting to start their own business?
SK: Just do it, and fully be your authentic self. Instead of trying to play by the old school ‘boys’ game, don’t. Women always try and think like men, but women aren’t wired to play football. We need to make our own game that’s right for our bodies, brains, style of leadership; a game that works for us. Don’t feel like you need to play a man’s game in business. Play YOUR game.
We’ll be publishing another interview with an inspiring female small business owner next week in celebration of Women’s History Month.
Bill Ready, EVP and Chief Operating Officer, PayPal
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