By Caille Millner
San Francisco Chronicle
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr)
San Francisco Chronicle
Soko, the 4-year-old international business based in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood, is usually described as a jewelry company. I got interested in it because that’s only partly true.
Soko does, indeed, sell jewelry. Since that jewelry is both affordable and high-quality, this description might be more than enough for the company’s clients, which include big companies like Nordstrom as well as local boutiques like San Francisco’s Azalea and Berkeley’s Erica Tanov.
Soko was launched by three women — two Americans, Gwendolyn Floyd and Ella Peinovich, and one Kenyan, Catherine Mahugu. It’s easy to imagine three women launching a successful international jewelry business.
If it’s a little less easy to imagine three women launching a successful international technology company, well, blame Silicon Valley.
Don’t blame Soko, which has developed a technological platform that is, in my opinion, even more important than what the company’s currently selling.
“We’d all been working in Kenya, doing international development, computer science, these totally different fields,” Floyd, who is 37, told me. “We would go to markets and talk to local artisans who had tremendous products but no way to access a bigger market. People think the Internet is everywhere, but it’s not.”
What is everywhere, even in countries with spotty Internet access, is the mobile phone. So the three women decided to gather a factory’s worth of small-scale artisans by using what they already had: mobile phones.
High-speed production from small artisans using only mobile phones, ethical practices, big international clients — Soko had a big dream. The founders spent 2 1/2 years building a technology platform before they sold a single piece of jewelry.
Now that they’ve gotten it right, they could help shift the course of retail.
“The artisans we met in Kenya are entrepreneurs; they didn’t want to be involved with a small-scale fair-trade business,” Floyd said. “So we knew from the beginning that we had to create something that would be big. Ethical fast fashion, if you will.”
Here’s how it works. When Soko gets an order of, say, 2,500 choker necklaces, the Soko team in the U.S. and Kenya looks through a database of 2,500 artisan profiles to determine who would be best to fill the particular demands of that order.
Artisans receive their assignments through their mobile phones. Because each artisan is handling a manageable assignment, the company can produce the order in the same time a large factory would — Soko routinely fills orders of 2,500 necklaces within two weeks, just as an H&M or a Zara would.
After their work has been examined, accepted and shipped from Kenya, the artisans get payments through their phones, too.
“Once they’ve been with us for two months, the average artisan is making enough products to send all of her kids to school, to feed her family three times a day and to save a little money, too,” Floyd said. “We’ve also developed asset financing, so the more experienced artisans can buy machinery as they increase their orders.”
But the key — both for the artisans themselves and for the idea of an ethical production model — is that Soko doesn’t use factories. All the artisans are working from home or in small workshops close to their homes. They’re using recycled or upcycled materials, too.
That means less pollution, less worker abuse, and — for their woman-dominated artisan community — the chance to earn a good living without leaving their families.
All this, and did I mention the products are great, too?
I’m like a lot of consumers, in the sense that I love the idea of ethical items created by artisans in developing nations, but I run far away from anything that looks as if it might be paired with a hemp shirt and Teva sandals. So I felt a little dread when I first stepped into Soko’s showroom.
But that dread dissipated as soon as I saw the pieces, which are clean and modern, mostly made of a satisfyingly chunky brass. Pretty soon the marketing representative was asking sweetly if I wouldn’t mind returning the jewelry I’d draped around my neck and wrists.
I gave it back with a sniff, understanding how Soko sold $2 million worth of jewelry in its second selling year and is on track to sell $4 million this year. Floyd, a former industrial designer, designs all of the jewelry herself and is planning to hire a design team later this year.
“It was really important to all of us to create designs that had cultural integrity but could still appeal to shoppers everywhere,” Floyd said. “Like I said, these artisans want to succeed, and they know that means learning how to make all kinds of products.”
Future plans include expanding into new product categories, including handbags and home goods, as well as new countries.
“We’re moving into Ethiopia and Uganda this year, and we’re really interested in India. Who wouldn’t want ethical fine jewelry for reasonable prices?”
Soko’s showroom is at 10 Arkansas St. in San Francisco. Their online shop is https://shopsoko.com