Interview with founder + CEO, Shannon Keith

Our founder + CEO, Shannon Keith, has been featured on the TEDx stage, published in Conscious Magazine on the power of mothers and motherhood to change the world, and recently discussed why she left her corporate career to found Sudara. Here’s a recent chat we had with our fearless leader on what inspires her, the challenges our team faces, and the woman whose sacrificial love empowered her to become the woman she is today.

Shannon-on-beach-in-chennai{“align”:”center”,”id”:12969,”sizeSlug”:”large”,”linkDestination”:”none”,”className”:”wp-image-727 size-large”} -->

image ©PaulaWattsPhotography

We’ve shared a lot about the trip to India that inspired you to found Sudara and our brand journey from then until now. What continues to inspire your vision and the mission for Sudara?

Freedom!  Believing that all human beings are created equally and have equal value and potential. And knowing that opportunity is the only thing lacking for too many people. Because of this, all of Sudara’s work is focused on restoring dignity and creating sustainable job opportunities for women who have been victims of or are at highest risk of sex trafficking.

Sudara is very passionate about empowering women through job creation. Are there any women who have empowered you throughout your life?

My mama has always modeled hard work, tenacity, and sacrificial love through her dedication in giving me all of the opportunities that she never experienced.  I was an unplanned pregnancy in her senior year of high school; her university aspirations immediately turned into single motherhood and holding down a job to support both of us. My college achievements, world travel, feminist point of view, business acumen and personal confidence are all the fruit of my mom’s intentional drive to provide opportunities and remove any barriers…thus, allowing me to become the woman I want to be.

My mom is one of the most competent, empowering women that I know and so many of the life lessons she taught me are the catalyst that fueled my entrepreneurial journey.  Starting Sudara to empower women who lack opportunity is, in a way, a tribute to my own mother and paying forward her sacrificial love that paved the way for me to succeed.

Sudara believes in the power of women to change the world. And we often talk about the positive impact of having more women in leadership roles. What do you see as the benefits of being a woman entrepreneur?

There are so many benefits — locking arms with other female team members at Sudara and the women we partner with in India, bringing the female perspective on business and work life harmony to business discussions.  Personally, though, the single best thing is that I have the privilege to model to my two daughters and son that women make fantastic leaders and we can and will have a greater voice within the business and entrepreneurial world in the future.

Shannon with her children
Shannon with her children in Bend, OR

What are some of the challenges you face as an entrepreneur and in your role?

I’ve always known that changing the world is hard work!  This work is wrought with many challenges, but it’s all worth it. One of the biggest challenges as an organization is helping consumers understand that Sudara is not a charity that “gives back” a percentage to those in need nor are we operating under a buy one, give one model.  Our impact metrics are so much deeper and sustainable than charity.

We are in the business of creating living-wage jobs. Jobs that will allow women, who once had to sell their bodies in order to support their families, with an opportunity to make an income so that she no longer needs hand outs and charity.  That is dignity.  That is freedom. A safe, living-wage job is a game changer for so many in our world who want to work, but just need tangible opportunities.

Personally, the hardest challenges are emotional.  It’s when I get an email or phone call that one of the ladies in our sewing centers has died of AIDS because it was too far advanced by the time she escaped the brothels and came to our partner sewing centers for the antiretroviral drugs to be of much help.  Or when I am in the middle of a red light area and I look into the eyes of those still enslaved.  That is the harsh reality of the world today.  But it doesn’t have to be like that…

Are there moments that also encourage you?

Yes. Every single day.  When we get to buy more sewing machines for one of our partner sewing centers and empower even more women through living-wage jobs. When we are able to open up a new home for women in India who are seeking safe housing and an escape from sex-slavery. When our customers tell us how much they love their PUNJAMMIES®, when my kids tell me that they are proud of me for helping people get out of slavery (melts my heart!!), when customers tell us that they feel empowered to actually do something to help end sex slavery vs. just being saddened by the magnitude of the problem.

You spoke in your TEDx talk about the life-changing impact of turning towards rather than away from an issue. What advice do you have to other women who are thinking about becoming an entrepreneur or getting involved in a social enterprise?

The world needs you!  Your unique talents, passions and perspectives are exactly what will change the world. I worked in sales and as a sales trainer for nearly 10 years (though I was not necessarily passionate about the work!) prior to founding Sudara.  However, I have always been extremely passionate about helping people and serving marginalized populations.  I often volunteered in high school then, in college, I went on various service projects in the developing world.  It has been incredible to see how my skills as a sales trainer [public speaking, communication, team building, working with people, etc.] have been utilized and leveraged for carrying out and leading our mission at Sudara.  It has all come full circle in a really beautiful sort of way.

Nothing in our life has to be wasted time; all of our experiences can somehow be used for the greater good, if we allow it.

What are practical ways that people can get involved in the fight against human trafficking or other human rights issues?

Not everyone is called to start a social good business. However, I believe that 100% of us have “purchase power” and are called to be responsible with our dollars. EVERY single purchase you make is a vote for or against freedom.

  • Support social good companies, buying their goods and services. (Here are a few brands we love!) We all need to think about the supply chain.  We need to think about who is making the products we want or buy on a regular basis.  We need to consistently ask ourselves if we know (or care!) about how a product was made.  The answer to that simple question will lead down two very different life paths.
  • Demand that other retailers or businesses you patronize have a transparent supply chain; demand that they treat their people and our planet well.
  • Educate yourself about human trafficking issues in India and in the US. Then you can be more knowledgable and can speak to others about the issues from an informed position.

What is your vision for the future of Sudara?

To become a household name and lifestyle brand that is all about Freedom.  I want someone’s first thought about Sudara to be “that is one of my favorite brands because they provide FREEDOM jobs and have beautiful products”.  I’d love for everyone who interacts with our cause and wears our products to become brand advocates. I envision a collective voice of Sudara. I envision brand advocates and other social-good brands being a powerful force and, literally, changing the tide of human trafficking.

Shannon Keith Sudara founder and CEO sewing centerShannon Keith at a Sudara partner sewing center, 2016

4 thoughts on “Interview with founder + CEO, Shannon Keith

  1. Bodhi Hanna Kistner says:

    I am very much impressed from all the nice stories. As a German on the road, I stay every year for nearly 6 month in India, in the Osho Med.Resort in pune. We have many Indian Workers, and I like to take care of them in a way, that they are not slaves. Because the place is total international, we all can learn from each other. and I can see now in India, the power of women is growing. Good luck for you, and I like to spread your message!

  2. Pam Morrison says:

    My daughter just sent me a gift certificate from your company for my birthday. I love your message and what you are doing for women.
    I love fabric and the colors just make me so happy. I have been wearing similair pants like these for a year now. I live in Cal. and it so hot but this type pants is so very comfortable. Can’t to purchase a pair from your company.
    Do you ever need volunteers for your work. I am a retired school teacher and am looking for a volunteer, part time work in an organization with energy for a very important need. I have traveled with students in an organization called People to People in Europe and Australia and New Zealand.
    I am very hands on in many aspects, sewing, gardening, thinking outside the box. I love coloring with water color pencils and trying to create Indian mandellas. These colors seem to come alive, wishing there were more in the way of purses, loose blouses, ands skirts.
    If you need any help in these areas, please let me know. YOUR words are important to women in all areas! and if I can help.

  3. Beatrice says:

    Really enjoyed reading your story and knowing about the work you do with women in I dia. Here is another thing people can do related to your first point: look into your pension fund and know which companies your savings support. Learn about impact investing, socially responsible investing and what we can do to reward companies that care about profits as much as the social good. Thank you for your passion and commitment!!!

Leave a Reply