This Incredible Jewelry Company Is Starting An Ethical Fashion Revolution
Here's what you need to know about Gwendolyn Ford, one of the co-founders of Shop Soko, a jewelry brand sourcing and empowering female artisans in Kenya.
I first visited the Shop Soko showroom in December of last year. One glance, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with the gorgeous, one-of-a-kind jewelry –– and, even more importantly, the company’s backstory, a message of women’s empowerment behind each piece.
I quickly found out that Soko is a socially conscious jewelry company committed to supporting women around the world. Not only that, but the company uses mobile phone technology to connect and employ female artisan entrepreneurs in Kenya, even going so far as to help these artisans lift themselves out of poverty. Pretty powerful stuff.
The company’s model is all about “entrepreneurial empowerment,” Gwendolyn Ford, one of Shop Soko’s three co-founders, shares with me when we sit down at the jewelry showroom in San Francisco, CA. Gwen herself is vivacious and inspired, with long curling locks that fall against her crisp bell-sleeved top. I notice that she’s wearing a pair of great high-waisted trousers.
Then we dive right in, with Gwen telling me all about her experiences traveling abroad in her college years, including a short leave from Brown University during which she started her first design company at just twenty years old. Clearly, this powerhouse found her path early.
“Back then, especially, entrepreneurship wasn’t a thing,” Gwen tells me. “There was such a division between the creative world, and creative thinking and design thinking, and business.
Thankfully those have been knitted together now in really beautiful ways that are impacting the world in phenomenal measures. I was sort of doing that in my own way, trying to figure it out, because that felt so logical to me.”
She tells me about meeting her co-founders, Catherine Mahugu and Ella Peinovich, in Kenya –– shortly after which Soko was born. “It started out as Etsy for Africa in a way, which was really fun,” Gwen says, her eyes sparkling.
“Through doing that, we realized we have a huge global opportunity. It’s not just about connecting people with a market,” she explains. “Not only transforming at the workshop level for artisans, but it’s also about transforming demand.”
LIVINGLY: Can you tell us about the smartphone technology that makes Soko’s “virtual jewelry factory” possible?
GF: We call it our virtual factory –– it’s mobile-fund driven, we coordinate over 2100 independent small scale artisans, and actually use a mobile phone to help manage P.O.s, payments, financial visibility and timelines and coordination.
I think from the market perspective, there’s been a lot of interest and enthusiasm for what we’re doing. Consumers really do care more and more and more about backstory and meaning; especially with jewelry, it can be imbued with this beautiful story. But also from retailers!
We’re hopeful that we can be a player in this larger dialogue, pushing ethical fashion forward, and also kind of breaking the historical stereotypes about ethical fashion. It can be fashionable, it can be affordable; in a way, we all say it’s like the “ethical fast-fashion revolution.”
Because we’re able to provide super on-trend affordable goods that are also socially and ethically produced. Our timeline from design to putting something into mass production is as little as two weeks, so we’re competing with the timelines of H&M and Zara, but for radically transparent and ethical product that uses up-cycled, recycled and ethically sourced materials.
Talk about a fast turnaround, wow!
That’s the thing. Also not only from a consumer perspective, but from an industry perspective, [we’re trying to] break these stereotypes. People hear artisan and they think, Oh, can’t be scaled, or it’s like, this pity project. Or it’s this small business. No, we’re a really scaleable supply chain solution.
And we’re really innovating the entire industry. It’s not just about poor people in Africa, that’s ridiculous! These are business people creating a really innovative system that other organizations can plug into. People can leverage our technology to be able to produce ethically.
You co-founded Soko in Nairobi, Kenya, and established your U.S. HQ in 2015. What made you choose San Francisco as the location for your flagship store?
That’s a very good question! It’s interesting because we now have small offices, as of this week, in SF, LA, Chicago, and New York. I think inherently we’ve always been, from [Soko's] inception, a remote organization –– we’re working across the globe. I think that’s really comfortable for us and part of our DNA. But San Francisco, we began to gain momentum here.
Also, the ethos of innovation and underpinning of technology, we were really drawn here at the very beginning when we only had presence in San Francisco. [We wanted] to have a meaningful footprint here, [with other] really awesome companies that are kind of knitting together technology and fashion in very cool ways. We wanted to be part of that dialogue.
The world of ethical fashion is still pretty niche, as you said, but San Francisco is definitely at the forefront.
We do pop-up shops all over the country and San Francisco, we always do the best. It’s definitely a combination of [the fact that] people definitely have more disposable income here, but they’re also more motivated.
What was one of the proudest moments you’ve had so far with Soko?
There was a moment in our development when my co-founders and I were just like, with each other, “Oh my god it’s working!” The technology had begun to be super robust and had great penetration in the artisan network. We figured out that we have to design our products and . . . be super authentic about it, and the design needs to reflect our values as powerful, bold women.
The market began to perk up their ears. There was a moment when we got our first big orders all in a small amount of time, [from] Nordstrom to Forever 21 –– which was amazing, because again, we’re not trying to be some niche, esoteric brand. We really want to steal shelf space, literally, from crap that’s made in ways that’s [bad for everyone].
If we can steal shelf space from things that are made in ways that are horrible for people, we’re making our mark. We want to appeal to every woman, not just a small niche woman. That month was so exciting, because the market was really starting to pick up on it!
Were there any setbacks when establishing Soko, and if so, how did you come back from them?
It happens every time you surpass a new revenue goal –– there’s just a threshold on this in the retail industry. You have to push really hard as a new proposition, or opportunity, to break through them.
Did you feel like it was super competitive to make that breakthrough?
Yeah, it almost felt like the ethical fashion glass ceiling. Like, oh ethical fashion’s great, but you can only grow this much. I do think there’s a glass ceiling in ethical fashion, because the industry at large has certain assumptions about it, so you have to work extra hard to prove yourself.
To get past that facade.
[To point out that yes, there are] constant new styles, new product, [it's] on-trend, [and it] aligns with market demand. And people do want the story. I feel like that’s gonna exist forever, near forever, in the near future.
And we’ve already broken through a few glass ceilings, which has been really hard but amazing, but we’re hoping now that we can kind of coast and continue to grow.
The company is for women at work. Be they the amazing women who make the products, incredible women who wear [them], be they super busy stay-at-home moms, or super busy professionals, whatever it is –– it’s about women embracing their life, being active, full of agency. Whatever it is, it’s about women full of agency and expressing that through pieces that are very wearable, but also strong.
At Livingly, we strive to “live life beautifully.” What does living beautifully mean to you?
For me, living beautifully means living a life full of agency, but also one with great respect for myself, the world, and other people. Just being grateful –– it’s such a great tool. I feel so much gratefulness for feeling agency in this world, and that gratefulness really helps me have appreciation for other people, for the environment, and for myself.
Want to learn more? Shop jewelry –– and discover more about Soko's message and the meaningful impact behind their pieces –– here.