How Soko Is Looking to Empower Women Entrepreneurs Around the World
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After recently closing a seed round, three social entrepreneurs are on the path to make the world a better place by empowering women entrepreneurs.
Through their startup Soko, Gwendolyn Floyd, Ella Peinovich and Catherine Mahugu have developed a mobile marketplace for women artisans. Launched in beta this past April, Soko (meaning marketplace in Swahili), is a platform that allows artisans around the globe to upload an image of their goods, such as jewelry, on an ecommerce website by way of basic SMS technology, or a text-messaging service. Artisans enter the pertinent information, like size and color, in the fields on their phone, snap a picture and voilà: Thousands of people have access to their pieces. Once the products are online, consumers can peruse the items, learn about the designer's heritage and purchase the product directly from the artisan. The artisans set the price and Soko adds an additional charge. No middleman required.
While the site went live a few months ago, the team of 12 has been working on Soko since 2011, ensuring logistics, supply chain, the core technology and women were on board. Its first stop was Kenya, as part of Soko's team is based in Nairobi and the remaining in the U.S.
After receiving the $800,000 round from Rio Technology Partners, Soko plans on expanding throughout Africa and launching a second market in Latin America.
At Young Entrepreneur, we think this is impressive. So for the month of June, Soko is officially YE’s Startup of the Month. With that comes bragging rights for life, along with a copy of Entrepreneur Press’s latest book: Ultimate Guide to LinkedIn for Business and a digital subscription to Entrepreneur magazine.
We chatted with co-founder Floyd about starting up, goals, and the challenges of being a globetrotting social entrepreneur.
Q: How did you three meet?
A: My background is in cultural anthropology and industrial design. Prior to Soko, I had two consultancies, both evolved around technology and social change, with the second focused on international development and information and communication technology. Basically, how you can use the mobile phone to improve people's lives around the world.
I'd been working on a few projects, one for Afghanistan. I had written a proposal that was very much like Soko, as the country shares a very similar technology, but another one got chosen. After that, I was in Kenya working with the Art Institute on a consulting projects, which is where I met Ella. She had been the CTO of Sanergy, a company in Nairobi that provides small scale sanitation solutions. She'd been using a survey technology and had already begun to adapt it to work with artisans to bring their goods online. When I met her there was this perfect synergy, because I had been thinking a lot about the business model and strategies for scaling, while she and Kate had been piloting this technology. So, we all came together and built a business.
Q: Anything surprising working as a social entrepreneur in an emerging-markets country?
A: What is interesting is that a lot of my earlier career was definitely learning from the developing world. But I now know there needs to be innovation and communication going on in both directions, not just about the industrialized world sharing their lessons. There is quite a bit of innovation and leap frogging that is happening in developing worlds that we can learn from.
An example is mobile money. Digital wallet solutions are just starting to break through in North America but that has been going strong for five years in Kenya. While there are 500 ATMs in Kenya, there are 45,000 mobile money kiosks.
Q: What is your biggest startup asset?
A: Our team. We have a brilliant international team of people that are incredibly committed to this company. It is really an innovative idea, but it is also a place where a lot of innovative thinking can shine. We have been able to create a huge amount of proprietary technology assets, innovations and are able to forge a really enthusiastic online consumer community. All of this is completely dependent on the team itself.
Q: How about challenges?
A: Running a startup half based in Africa can be challenging, because there are power outages, the internet stops working for hours at a time, and you sit in traffic for four hours sometimes. It is just that the infrastructure and access to startup amenities are not the same. However, I firmly believe this has made us incredibly agile, robust and resilient. I also believe our product is better, because we have developed it with these different contentious scenarios in mind.
Q: Why did decide to raise funds?
A: We won a lot of grants and awards, which is great for our initial product development, but we really wanted to scale. In order to hire a strategic team, be able to scale both our consumer and our artisan market, expand into new countries, as well as roll out a diversified platform of services, we really thought we could use an investment.
Q: What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs?
A: Be really bold and really humble. You got to take risks. Don't underestimate your own value, and don't underestimate the value of pure assertiveness and passion. Also, there is tons to learn. No one person can do it all and that is what is great about building a business is building a team. It is like a family. It is not about you, it is about the idea and building something sustainable. You need to let go of the ego, and let the idea grow.
-This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.