Baskets, Other Goods Part Of St. Louis Entrepreneur’s Goal To Build Girls’ School In West Africa

By Colleen Schrappen St. Louis Post-Dispatch

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Social entrepreneur Sofi Seck says her company "Expedition Subsahara" is a way to practice "conscious economics" while celebrating African culture.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The way Sofi Seck tells it, the idea for her 10-month-old company, Expedition Subsahara, came to her when she was laid up with a back injury two years ago.

But the actual seed was planted much earlier, when Seck was a child in Dakar, Senegal.

Her mother -- who was single and could not read or write -- sewed dolls and wove baskets and sold them on the street, mostly to tourists. She stashed the money away so she could send her daughter to the United States to be educated.

Seck, now 30, arrived in St. Louis at age 14. While at McCluer High School in the Ferguson-Florissant District, she learned to speak English. At the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Seck studied business with a minor in photography. She worked as a wedding and portrait photographer when she graduated.

Then, the back injury: "I was stuck in bed thinking, 'What the heck am I doing with my life?'" Seck said. "My mom brought me here for my education. Education is liberation, but a lot of Senegalese send their children out of Senegal for an education."

In the West Africa nation, primary school is free, but secondary education is not.

In rural areas, especially, many children lack access to school; girls face extra barriers, such as early marriage or an expectation they will stay home to help with housework. According to UNESCO, 62 percent of boys and young men ages 15-24 are literate; 51 percent of girls and young women are.

"The idea came to my head, 'What if you brought in African goods and sold them here?'" Seck said. "I was reading a book about how we are scared to dream big. What I wanted was to build a school, a structure, for kids like me. I wanted a business that is bicultural like myself and gives back to both my cultures."

Trial and error Seck launched Expedition Subsahara last fall as a partnership with a fellow African whom Seck knew through UMSL.

But that woman, a teacher, had to step back from the time commitment a few months ago, leaving Seck on her own.

Meantime, she recruited two cousins and a friend back in Senegal to make the first batch of goods: hand-woven baskets, bags, jewelry and ceramics.

The cost of shipping, at first, proved prohibitive. Seck tried a Kickstarter campaign but fell short of her $75,000 goal -- meaning Expedition did not receive any of the funds raised.

She sank more of her savings into the business.

A self-described eternal optimist, Seck maintained her faith in the plan. She condensed her product line, focusing on baskets, necklaces and bracelets. She lowered her shipping costs by increasing her orders, renting a small storage space for inventory when it outgrew her home in Florissant.

Seck began doing some of the weaving herself, a skill passed on from her mother, and started selling at pop-up shops and craft fairs around St. Louis. She advertised on Facebook and used her photography skills to keep her website and Instagram page fresh and bright.

A friend, Karen Butterfield, took over as the unofficial communications department for Expedition. Butterfield helps write blog posts and product descriptions for the website and puts together a weekly newsletter for what Seck calls her "tribe" of followers.

"We use it as a platform to tell stories, share facts about the African continent and its people and how to use the products, with the goal of connecting cultures," Butterfield said. "The goal of opening a school is what sets it apart" from other socially minded companies or nonprofits.

Expedition is a recent addition to area shopping choices that offer fair-trade products, such as Ten by Three, which sells baskets and other decorative items by artisans in the developing world. The Ten by Three workers are paid what the nonprofit terms "prosperity wages."

Other mission-based companies, such as Smile Squared, use a "buy one, give one" model to provide items such as toothbrushes to children living in poverty, both in the U.S. and worldwide.

Still, Seck said that her company was different: She is personally connected to her three Senegalese crafters, and she understands from her own life the needs and strengths of her West African homeland.

"A lot of people with the best of intentions want to help people," she said. "But I think sometimes, culturally, the message they're sending to elicit a reaction is incredibly demeaning. You don't have to belittle (Africans') experience."

In Senegal, two-thirds of the residents live in poverty, but "I refuse to show people faces of sad, crying Africans, just because they're poor. What is the message you're sending out if that's the only image of an African that people see?"

Seck calls Expedition a way to practice "conscious economics" while celebrating African culture.

Next steps Seck herself is the brand's best ambassador, wearing a $39 cowrie shell necklace, telling potential customers about the time and skill that goes into each $70 bolga-grass market basket and the patterns threaded into the elephant-grass tabletop baskets, which run from $25 to $50.

"When I can talk to people face to face about what we're doing, they become an evangelist for Expedition Subsahara," she said.

At the Grand Market in midtown this month, Seck helped Courtney Tharpe of University City try on a multicolored Bantu necklace and steered the conversation to the school.

"This is different than a lot of stuff I see in street fairs," Tharpe said. "I wasn't on the fence about buying it, but your story would have pushed me over the edge. I'm passionate about girls' education." Seck snaps a photo of Tharpe in the brightly beaded necklace and tells her she hopes it brings good luck.

Seck has outlined a four-year plan to get the school up and running, which she estimates will take about $360,000 and serve 120 girls.

By the end of this year, she hopes to purchase land outside Dakar that is accessible to surrounding villages. Her crew of three in Senegal has applied for grants there, and Seck is planning a fundraising gala here in the fall to supplement the proceeds from her basket sales.

Also on Expedition's short list is procuring a bigger storage space, allowing for bulk orders at a lowered shipping cost. Seck wants to hire a part-time worker in St. Louis so she can better balance Expedition and her photography business. Eventually, she would like to outfit a truck as a mobile boutique.

For now, shoppers can find her products online at expeditionsubsahara.com. Seck will also be selling her wares at the Vintage Bliss Market this weekend at Westport Plaza.

"It's all been really hard," she said of the company's finding its legs. "But it has been rewarding. Every single moment, I realize there is a girl out there who is going to benefit. It's not just building the school, it's telling the story of Africa in a way that's respectful to Africans."

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