Shannon Keith Is Fighting Sex Trafficking in India, One Beautiful Pajama Set at a Time
Editor’s note: Entrepreneur's Builders series interviews female leaders in different industries, offering insight into what successful women do to push through feeling stuck, frustrated and noncreative as they build incredible brands and businesses.
I’ve always admired companies with a "giving-back" component, so when I started Entrepreneur's Builders Series, I knew I had to interview Shannon Keith, founder of Sudara. Sudara is a thriving benefit corporation that creates training and jobs for women who are at the highest risk of sex trafficking.
On Keith's second trip to India, in 2005, she heard story after story of women there being sold into the hopeless, horrible world of trafficking. These are women and girls at high risk of suffering that fate because some are orphans picked up off the streets by local pimps. Others are daughters turned over to traffickers by their families -- because they lack the education or resources or skills to have a choice.
Back in the United States, Keith formed a team of family and friends to look for on-the-ground groups in India that could help women seeking a way out of the red light districts. Partnerships were set up with sewing and skills centers in Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Chennai. Keith's fashion line, Sudara, was subsequently founded to offer living-wage jobs to women in those cities who today create the line's beautiful Punjabi-style loungewar and robes.
Sudara moves beyond "simply giving back," giving these women freedom-filled choices and fresh starts. I know you’ll learn just as much about creating a mission-backed business and derive as much inspiration from Shannon as I did. Here is our Q&A:
What have you built? What inspired you to build it?
Sudara Inc. is a certified benefit corporation [B-corp] and ecommerce-based lifestyle brand of pajamas and loungewear that have an authentically relaxed and beautiful Indian flare. Sudara’s products and mission help women and children remain free from the brothels through dignified job training, placement, and creation in India. I was inspired out of a trip that I took to India with my husband.
Were you born a builder or did you have to learn to be one?
My mother says I was a born leader, but I must admit that building has been a learned process and continues to be a process of iteration: testing, failing, learning and trying again.
Who was the first woman you looked up to? Why did you want to be like her?
My grandma June. She was so strong, loving, kind and opinionated … and knew how to get shit done! ... With seven children and twenty-plus grandchildren that was not always an easy task! She taught me that life throws many curve balls, but the journey and family are worth the hard work it takes to make something great.
What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken?
Quitting my corporate job and becoming an entrepreneur. It’s an exciting a wild ride because there are no safety nets to catch you when you take the leap.
When have you broken down, personally or professionally? How did you break through?
I’ve broken down and felt wrecked by people who said they were loyal to me personally and the mission of Sudara, so I put my trust in them as teammates and friends; but they were really out to make a name for themselves at the expense of the mission and personal relationships. Pulling those knives out of my back and healing has been painful, but possible with a few trusted teammates and friends.
What makes you doubt yourself? How do you manage it?
I doubt myself when I take my focus off of my God-given mission and purpose and start listening to the distracting -- and often untruthful -- voices and “noise” in our overstimulated world.
How do you know when to leave someone or something?
[I know to do that] when the basis of trust, if it's a person, or a value if it's a thing, has gone beyond rebuilding or repair. Toxic people and situations will spread like cancer if not dealt with honestly and swiftly.
When was your bravest moment? How do you practice being brave?
I think my bravest moment was taking the first step in starting Sudara. So many times we have good ideas, passions and vision that die without any action being taken to get them off the ground. I practice being brave by saying yes and taking action around things I believe in, especially when I don’t feel adequate or up for the task.
Knowing what you know now, was it worth it?
Yes! Absolutely! I believe everything happens for a reason, and God uses it all [to advance] lifelong learning and to refine [our] characters to become more wise, kind and loving human beings. Life will help us mature our souls if we are willing and intentional participants in the process.
What can you see yourself building next?
A life of intentional adventure with my husband for our family. I want my children to see the world and cultivate hearts of empathy, compassion and action around the most important issues of our time … and also experience the wonder and majesty of our incredible planet and all of it’s diverse landscapes and cultures.
A trip to India in 2005 inspired Shannon Keith to found her nonprofit to combat sex trafficking in India. Her drive to disrupt the social enterprise space and create a lasting impact for female survivors of, and those at risk for, sex trafficking, led her to found Sudara, a thriving benefit corporation. Sudara products support training and jobs in four Indian cities. More than a give-back model, Keith's organization enables women to make freedom-filled choices for themselves and their families.
Keith has been recognized for her work multiple times: She is a 2016 Bend Venture Conference (BVC) Social Impact winner, an Economic Development for Central Oregon (EDCO) member and TedX speaker. She was selected as a Top 25 SheEO World Venture finalist. She was the recipient of the 2017 Bend Chamber of Commerce Female Entrepreneur of the Year award and has been featured in the publications The Good Trade,Conscious magazine, Real Simple and Forbes.