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.

Sudara founder and CEO Shannon Keith in India
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 Keith and her children
Shannon Keith and 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