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A podcast interview series with the people and businesses who are working towards a better future for us all.
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S01E02 Salima Visram
Jared Henriques Hey everyone. Welcome to The Possible Now, a podcast interview series with the people and businesses who are working towards a better future for us all. My name is Jared Henriques and I'm your host this season. I'm the founder of Renga, a brand strategy and design studio in Toronto. Our goal at Renga has been to help our clients become brands that matter.

In order to do this effectively, we felt it was important to better understand what sustainability looks like in practice across different industries. The Possible Now is a front row seat to a series of conversations with business leaders who are solving real world problems with sustainable practices.

We're excited to share our research with you in this way, a better future is possible, and it will take all of us as business leaders, consumers, and citizens to start working towards it.

Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Salima Visram. Salima is the founder and CEO of Samara. Salima grew up in Kenya and during her time at McGill created The Soular Backpack, a backpack with a solar panel enabling children in East Africa to do their homework every night without the use of kerosene.

Two years later in December 2017, Salima started Samara with $500, and a production run of 25 bags. She sold out in her first night. Samara is a cruelty free fashion house, focusing on sustainable materials like apple leather and recycled ocean plastics, more efficient supply chains, and creating impact in the world through fashion.

Throughout this conversation, we dive into Salima's story and how she believes the best way to make an impact is to create the best product. For context, we recorded this episode in May 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

So Salima, I just wanted to ask where you're working right now? You said that there's a mattress behind you and it's great for sound purposes, but is this a result of the pandemic? Do you normally have a space that you go to that's been kind of thrown up in the air with all of this? Just talk to us about how this pandemics been for you and your business.

Salima Yeah, for sure. First of all, thanks for having me. I've been someone who's been working from home for quite a while and I've always loved it. I've always loved kind of not having to go into an office every day. Over the last year, our team has grown quite a bit and the company has grown quite a bit. The first week of March was the first time we actually got an office space and an office. We went in for a total of four days and then had to come back to our couches. It's been pretty interesting. It's been pretty interesting having hired someone that week when everything started, but also just navigating what it truly means to be building a remote team. It's also got us questioning whether we want to keep doing this even after the pandemic is over, because it is kind of nice to be able to work from the comfort of your home and have the flexibility to just make your own day what you want it to be

Jared Henriques For sure. For sure. For this season, we're really focusing on sustainability and I would love to just hear about your journey with sustainability. You started Soular Backpacks when you were in university and I would just love to hear more about that story.

Salima For sure. I grew up in Kenya, and I think my journey with sustainability really started when, as thinking about this this morning, actually just the whole idea of sustainability and how I got interested in it, and I grew up in Kenya beside a village of 22,000 people that all live below the poverty line. From a really young age, my parents always ensured that I knew that I was extremely lucky to never go a day without food, or water. I was so lucky to be in school and I never had to worry about the small things that are the basic needs that a lot of people didn't have access to. Then, coupled with the fact that my grandfather was actually an entrepreneur and he started, he was uneducated dropped out at grade seven, and then started a resort in Kenya about an hour away from Mombasa.

My dad took it over and got into the family business and his goal was just to create this ecosystem of intricate processes that would keep the hotel running. Everything from having the biogas digesters power the kitchens, and then the steam from the laundry would power the the kitchens again, even the heating systems. We actually had a water plant, so we would generate our own water and then the entire village would come in to get free drinking water from there. We needed furniture so he just created a fibreglass plant at the hotel so that we could employ people from the village to come in and get a job. It was this entire ecosystem of: here was a business that was sustainable. It was generating money, but at the same time, it was almost like self reliant and self sufficient.

All our produce, all our vegetables would come from the farmers outside who were selling it back to us to earn their livelihoods. All the people who are employed were also from the village outside. It was this intricate system of just measures that we took, or that might be add to it, to try and ensure that we were being as sustainable as possible. That was where I guess it was, for me, it was just a way of life and I didn't know anything else.

When I went to university, my plan was to study International Development because I really, really wanted to try and find a way to help the idea that poverty shouldn't exist. I thought the best way to create impact would be to work at the UN after, get a nice job there and work in policy or something like that. After my third year in International Development, I really wanted to use everything that I've learned to do something about it. I remember there was one time when I was doing my final IB exams, I was at boarding school in Wales. I called my mom and I was in tears, "I'm too stressed, I can't do my exam tomorrow, and I want to come home." And she was like, "you have no right to say that. Just yesterday I was at the school down the road and there were two girls younger than you, who were impregnated through child prostitution. Both of them tried to commit their own abortions and both of them passed away." And that was again like a slap in my face. I'm so privileged, I'm in this position where I have an education, and it comes with a huge responsibility to try and find a way to give back with it. So that's when I was like, I want to make sure that girls stay in school.

I want to try and contribute to that in a little way, if I can. And really they came up with this or I tried to understand the problem that a lot of people didn't have access to electricity. So many of them would rely on this thing called kerosene. Kerosene is a carcinogenic jet fuel that 1.2 billion people rely on as their only source of light after dusk. Usually families under a dollar a day spend 25% of their income on this because otherwise after 6:00 PM, there's no light.

I was like, I want to try it and find a way to help this problem or solve this problem. After a few months, I convinced my professors to let me just not take regular classes and let me work on this for my last year, and they did. Over the last year at McGill, I was just working on this full time and ended up developing a solar powered backpack. The idea would be that they would carry it to school during the day, and then they would come home every night and do their homework without kerosene. That was actually the first time I started a proper business. It was a social business, it was structured as an NGO. and it went pretty well. I worked on it for two years after I graduated full time. We ended up working with Disney to distribute the backpacks across East Africa and we currently have a factory there that now manufactures them so it provides employment to local women.

That's how the Soular Backpack started.

Jared Henriques That's amazing.

Salima Very long answer.

Jared Henriques No, that's great. I at first, I was so intrigued to know how she would have come up with this idea. Hearing about your father who would see a need, then start a plant, and start a business to help facilitate all these things, of course his daughter would be someone that would have the ingenuity to kind of come up with some of these different elements and that's incredible.

I imagined the decision to start Samara after those two years working with Soular was a big decision, especially with not necessarily a similar product line, but at least within the realm. I'm sure there was a thought between, you know, do we just rebrand Soular and kind of move it in that way.

Do you mind speaking to exactly what Samara is and that decision between making it a separate business from Soular?

Salima For sure. Samira is a hundred percent cruelty-free fashion house. We design for the minimalist, and everything that we try and create is hopefully doing good in some way for the world.

The transition between Soular and Samara was in 2017. I had actually just lost my mom so I was at a point where I was like, I want to find a way to make sure that Soular is actually something that does good and creates impact exactly like everything she stood for. Soular was great. I think it was a really good story. It's easy for a lot of people to understand the problem and get behind the story. Ultimately, we started a one for one model and what I realized was that people want products that they need and that they want. A good story is great and it's nice to be able to say, yeah, I donated to this or yeah, this backpack helps this child get access to light. But the best way to create impact is to create this really amazing product, and the impacts that comes out of it is just a side effect of having this great product. So I kind of went back to the drawing board and I was like, what do I need in my life? I think there's so much power in building a product that people need and want because you can always channel that back into creating impact. And so that's where I was at. I was at a point where I was like, I can't keep Soular running almost on donations and telling the story every time I wanted another thousand dollars to keep it going for another month.

I want to be able to build a really successful company that's entire goal is to create impact, but no one needs to know that either, right? Everyone can think it's this really cool fashion house that is providing things that they need and that they like, and that are beautiful. But it doesn't have to be at the forefront of what we're doing.

So at the same time I was looking for a handbag, I couldn't find one that I liked. I was looking for something minimalist and elegant, and I didn't want to spend $400 on it either. So I was like, maybe I'll just make it. And at the same time, I was looking for jobs in manufacturing and retail, and I actually applied to two at Aritzia because I wanted to learn everything about their supply chain and how just good products come to life. At that same time, I started playing around with a few different designs and I got one made just as a sample for myself. Then people start asking me about it. I worked at a conference and people were like, "oh, where did you get that bag from?" So I was like, okay, maybe there's something here. I started with $500 and a production run of 25 bags and I put them online, not really expecting much. They sold out overnight.

I remember I was in LA at the time, it was Christmas in 2017. I was like at a friend's house and we turned his entire apartment into a warehouse because I got our supplier to just make 200 bags after that first run sold out. We've just been going with it ever since, and we've been scaling from there and growing.

Jared Henriques No, that's, that's really, really great.

I believe that in every external action you're either selling your products, the culture or the mission. With Soular, as you mentioned, it was very much selling the mission, and going, and telling the story. People that would purchase that, were more saying, I believe in this mission, and this is my way of saying, I participate. Now, transitioning into bringing the product at its forefront with the kind of subversive and additive give back component, I believe is the right way to build a business as you have discovered as well. But customer acquisition is now an entirely different animal and all of your existing customer base, you're realizing really quick, hey, our existing customer base, very small portion are actually the target customer for this premium brand we want to build this. How did you really handle that pivot from a communications perspective? Was that a difficult transition for you to not rely on the mission as that crutch behind Samara, and really start to say our product can speak for itself, and that mission is just more about who we are on the inside?

Salima Yeah, totally. I think just the idea of customer acquisition was something so different to me. Going from, I'm here to try and make a difference in the world to actually trying to sell a product, it was definitely a weird place to be.

I think even with customer acquisition, we still consider ourselves pretty mission-driven and it'll always be there. We serve that to our customers too. You don't have to compromise on the impact that you're making, and you don't have to compromise on actually looking good. Being able to communicate that in a way that's like: you can look good, you can feel good, you can do good, all at the same time. Having those, and we've been trying to do that even more recently, where we're really trying to talk to our customers more to really build our community around that. Our customers are all people who, or a majority of them, are people who genuinely care about the world. It's been such a nice realization because in the first year and a half, you're struggling to build a business and you're struggling to stay afloat. We started with $500 and we've been bootstrapped ever since. So, it's not like we had millions of dollars in venture funding or anything like that. For the first year and a half, it was me doing it on my own.

It's definitely a challenge trying to juggle building this business, being financially sustainable as a company, also trying to sell a product and your mission. We've had this realization recently that we've taken a step back and we're like, okay, who are our customers? What do they actually care about? Because we're selling pretty handbags, but do they actually have the same values as we do? Do they understand why we're building this company right. I went back to the drawing board and I spent the whole of last month actually just talking to our customers.

One of my questions to them was, if there was a way that you could leave the world better, what would it be? Literally, there was one week where I spoke to 20 people, and 10 out of the 20 people were like, if I could just impact one person and know that I've made a difference in one person's life, that's what would matter to me.

It was cool to realize that we've subconsciously built this network or this community of people that care about the same things. I don't know if I'm answering your question in terms of customer acquisition, but I think just being true in our messaging, and being able to relay that to people has attracted people like that as well.

Jared Henriques No, I think that's a perfect answer. It is such a compelling difference. I know in my experience in running a social business, one of the stark realizations we had was our customers still expected us to compete on price. Where what we were doing was making clothing in an ethical way. We were making it locally and we had a give back component, but no one wanted to pay more than what they were paying for their normal stores. So, the realization that ethics really do cost in the supply chain, how have you guys navigated that? You have absolutely beautiful products that are well positioned at a premium level already. I don't think anyone would bat an eye at some of your prices, but has that been a challenge for you or was that a conscious decision to price in that range so that you didn't run up against that problem?

Salima Yeah, it was definitely a conscious position to price in that range.

Personally, I've noticed that there's so many companies that I want to support. Even Everlane is a great example. I love Everlane, but I've never bought anything from there because I do think it is pretty expensive for a tee shirt or something that you have in your closet as an occasional thing to wear. It's was definitely a conscious decision.

When we use our apple leather, or when we use our new material that we're coming up with, which is made from recycled ocean plastics, you think that it's a lot more expensive. What we're realizing is that it's not that bad. There are ways to work with the suppliers, work with the factories to explain. This is our mission, this is what we're trying to do. A lot of people are willing to bring down their prices. In terms of factories, work with newer companies and meet them in the middle, but also we also don't mark up as high.

I think there's a fine line or there's a balance that has to be made. I'm also curious to see how this goes as we grow, because we're actively trying to look for new materials and now we're actually even actively considering just creating our own material. I'm really curious to see how that plays out and how the pricing with that works.

Jared Henriques Are all of your sales, or the majority of your sales from e-commerce?

Salima Yeah. They're all from e-commerce. Yeah.

Jared Henriques Makes sense.

As I mentioned, you have absolutely beautiful products, it's bags, and clutches, and some different device accessories. Now you keep referring to Samara as a fashion house, is the plan to expand the product offering or to really refine within that carry space?

Salima I think it's definitely to expand. We are definitely trying to get into clothing this year. First of all, our customers have asked us multiple times, "are you guys going to create new stuff in that same aesthetic, but clothing and basic essentials that every woman needs?" And that's where we're headed. We definitely want to get into more stuff. Something I've struggled with is we never want to be a company that just releases bags just for the sake of it. Once we have one or two of every style, like a crossbody, and a tote, and a blacktop sleeve, there's no point releasing five new bags every month just because we need new things in the collection. That's what we struggled with as well. We want to be minimalist design. We want to be conscious about what we're putting out there. Once we have worked on these amazing designs that people like, amazing to me, I don't know if it's amazing to everyone, but designs that we know have hit a design point with our customers. Is there a point in just creating new stuff for the sake of it? We keep coming back to, that's not why we exist.

Definitely getting into clothing and expanding the line to make sure that we can provide a line of basic essentials that every woman needs, and that she knows is made ethically, it's made from a material that's cleaning up the world rather than putting bad stuff out there. That just creates impact in one way or another.

Jared Henriques That's great.

As you mentioned, the difficulty in finding different textiles and stuff that matched with your guys' mission focus and that ethical commitment can be challenging. How have you found finding other people within the supply chain in factories? Has it become a real challenge for you guys to really find people that are aligned from a mission standpoint to work with?

Salima It's actually becoming increasingly easier. Just before this call, I was on another call with one of our factories in Asia who are pivoting to an entirely sustainable factory. They were asking us what would we want to see, and what would our ideal situation be in terms of a factory that we work with.

That was so nice because one of my dreams is to create a factory in Kenya. It's my goal to one day to have a factory there and really provide the best type of employments that the continent has seen. Empower people right from the food that they eat, the way their kids are taken care of when they're at work, and all of that kind of stuff. It was just so nice to hear from one of our factories that this is what we would want to do as well. I think it's an effort from every person or every stakeholder in the supply chain and in the industry that everyone is trying to move towards that. At the same time, there's a lot of greenwashing and everyone is saying they're sustainable as well. Sustainability is, I think it's table stakes. It shouldn't even be talked about because it's something that everyone just needs to be. It's interesting definitely to see both sides of that.

Jared Henriques For sure.

That's really interesting. I like that a lot.

Speaking about sustainability being table stakes, I'm sure you're constantly following, other brands in different spaces that are doing that. I'm curious if there are any, sustainable companies that you're really excited about. That you're seeing what they're doing and just cheering them on from the side and kind of viewing them as a peer in that, in advancing that cause.

Salima Yeah. One of my favourites is Kotn actually, and I'm sure you're talking to them soon. It's nice to see other companies in the same space and definitely being inspired by them. I ordered something from Kotn and I just got a notification right now saying your recent delivery is carbon neutral. It's so funny because when I met Ben, he was talking about how they're able to offset the carbon footprint from every package that gets delivered to their customer. And this week that's something that we're also implementing. So Kotn is definitely one of them. I mean, I love Everlane in terms of the way they're able to be so transparent about the factories that they work with.

I've been exposed to quite a few clothing companies in the last few months that are just being more conscious about the dye they're using and the water that's recycled back into the production process. Yeah. I think we're just actively looking for ways to make our supply chain even leaner also.

Jared Henriques You are clearly very intelligent and articulate and had ambitions of working at the UN and focusing on policy. I'm curious if there's a master plan for you or if you're looking at fashion in this fashion house as a really good place to have a legacy, because it is a very large industry that will never be finished. Are there other things in other areas that really catch your eye?

Salima That's a loaded question.

I think when I had the idea of working with the UN, it was before I was exposed to this idea of brands. I think what intrigues me the most about building a brand is it's not the usual stuff that comes with building a brand. I think for me, it's more the realization that brands have so much power to create impact and so much power to do good on so many different levels. And I think it just intrigues me to be able to build this living thing that is communicating with customers and that's building this community of people that almost care about the same thing, and there's so much power within that.

So for now, that's definitely all I want to do. I would love to build a factory in Kenya at some point. I think that would be incredible. We're trying to see if there's a way that we can find a material that's, a waste material in Kenya, and find a way to clean it up and turn it into something that we can. Working with different parts of the world and finding these little pieces of waste materials or waste natural resources that are available, and turn that into a product that it is high fashion.

I think those are my two big things that I would love to work on. Wellness is definitely something that I would love for SAMARA to get into at some point. To create this lifestyle of just doing good and feeling good and looking good at the same time.

Jared Henriques If sustainability is table stakes, and even just focusing on the fashion industry, what can other brands do to actually implement sustainable practices?

Salima I think it's overwhelming to think of sustainability, and I think that's something we're realizing too. We're a vegan fashion, we're cruelty free, but at the same time, vegan leather, isn't the best thing for the environment.

We want to be sustainable, but our factories are on the other side of the world, but we can't bring our factories here for now. We don't have those resources. When you think of sustainable, it's really loaded. It's intimidating to say you have to be perfect and you have to be this perfect sustainable person or this perfect sustainable brand. It's not possible to do that. There's always ways that you can be better and there's always things you can improve on. What we're realizing is that even with our customers, they all say they want to be more sustainable, and they want to implement these sustainable practices into their lives. But it's scary to do it because you don't know where to start.

Something we're also realizing is that it's a process and it's these little things that all add up, and just being conscious about the fact that how can we make this leaner? How can we make this more environmentally friendly? Is there a better material? Is there a better packaging we can use that eliminates plastic? There are options available that are all over now eliminating plastics from your day to day. Just making smaller, conscious choices and you don't have to be the perfect vegan. You don't have to be the perfect zero waster.

Even myself, we're leading busy lives and it's a lot harder to just say, okay, tomorrow I'm going zero waste. It's a process and I think brands just need to be conscious of what they're doing and the implications of every decision that they make. That consciousness is the first step, I think.

Jared Henriques Right. I think that makes a lot of sense.

The challenge is some of that education, right? The ignorance is bliss, and then not being aware of what you're doing. Do you have any advice of, or resources that individuals could go to educate themselves on how to make some of those small steps? I think you touched on some really good ones with reusable water bottles and reducing plastics, but I'm curious to know if you have any other resources.

Salima At Samira we're actively also trying to be that resource for our customers. That's something we're working on now, because we're realizing that there's a lot of people who will want to know more.

A book that changed my life that I recently read was "Let My People Go Surfing." And I think every business owner and every person that's remotely interested in sustainability, and just working towards a better world, should read that. It's by the founder of Patagonia. So when I was reading it, there was a part where they were talking about pedagogy as values, and someone asked the founder, like why isn't having fun a part of the values. And he says, If you actually knew like what the world was going through right now, and that the devastating effects of what we've done to the world, having fun wouldn't be a part of a mission statement because there's so much work that needs to be done, and there's so much urgency to do it.

I think that's true to a lot of companies. I think brands and companies have so much power to change the world and it is in our hands to do that. And in the hands of consumers to make those right choices to support companies that are making strides in that space.

I follow a lot of fashion revolution websites and on Instagram. It's really eyeopening to see where we stand as a society and as a community of people that is trying to ideally change what the status quo is.

I would highly, highly recommend "Let My People Go Surfing." I think that's the perfect place to start.

Jared Henriques That's great.

Thank you for that. It's on my list. I haven't read it yet, but I think you've encouraged me to pick it up.

Salima It should be your next book.

Jared Henriques It will be. So you had mentioned there are a group, it's a growing community of people who really do care about sustainability. Why do you think that is growing so quickly. What is so different than even 15 years ago where it was rarely talked about?

Salima I think people are generally more aware of the implications of things we're putting into our body. Things were putting on our bodies, the foods that we're eating, where they're coming from. 20 years ago, it's kind of crazy that the big carrots and the big strawberries were what people would want more. And now we're reversing to go back to paying extra for organic stuff. Which is kinda crazy to go this full circle and now people just want natural.

I think people are starting to realize that we've been in this state of growth and accelerating the world even faster than it's supposed to go. It's time to step back and go back to our roots, and what's necessary, and what we actually really need. Do we really need those big strawberries filled with chemicals? Probably not. I think it's just this consciousness of, first of all, people realizing what is happening to our bodies and just our lives, but also then to the world. Floods happening everywhere, droughts happening everywhere. I think in North America, we're extremely lucky that we're not really feeling the effects of climate change and of what is actually happening to the planet. In places like Kenya, for example, right now with, even with the virus happening, I was talking to my dad and he was saying that, there was a flood that in our town. There were 30 deaths from coronavirus, but a flood just came in and killed 200 people.

We are very privileged on this side of the world to not have to worry about a natural disaster like that. But it's sad that the effects of what we're doing and what the industrialized world is doing is being felt by people who have nothing to do with it. I think just people are starting to realize that.

Jared Henriques You touched on a very good point there.

I'm feeling pretty good from a questions perspective. That hit a lot of my list and I would love to give you the opportunity to make a plug, make a plea to anyone who might be listening, to check something out.

Salima We would love to see people's support on our website. Everything goes back to, or part of it goes back to supporting the Soular backpack and providing children in East Africa with light every night so that they can do their homework.

We're also actively just looking for better materials and better ways to serve our customers and our communities. If you have any ideas on what we can implement or ways that we can be better, we'd love to hear.

We're just excited to keep growing our community and to hopefully all create a better world together.

Jared Henriques Okay, cool. I think you made our job very, very easy. Thank you so much for doing it.

Salima No, thank you. It was such a nice conversation and thanks for having me again.

Jared Henriques Yeah, no problem. Since our interview with Salima, Samara launched a meal program providing 18,000 kilograms of food to the people of Kenya. That is the weight of about three full-sized elephants. Samara has also launched their first non-bag item, The Castor Sunnies. These sunglasses are made with 45% plant based materials and they sold out within hours. Samara is also quickly approaching their 100,000th bag sale.

to check out all of their amazing news and products, please visit the Samara website. That's S A M A R A In our next episode, I'm going to be speaking with Ran Goel. Ran is the founder and CEO of Fresh City Farms, Canada's largest commercial city farm. Ran has an interesting background which began in investment law, now he's trying to reintroduce how real food is made. Him and his team are helping countless people consume more responsibly and sustainably from the heart of Toronto.