Business Lesson #3: No Need to be Sweet
Eight years ago my friend, Sarah Lance, introduced me to running when she invited me to run a 5K with her, here in Omaha. After the 5K she pitched the idea that we run a marathon together. It was a big step from our first small race, but I was turning 30 that year and thought it’d be a great way to celebrate. “Let’s do it!” I said.
We trained together for months. We were next-door neighbors so Sarah could easily hunt me down for our early morning runs. Sarah always got us running, even when I tried to bail. Once we got started, I’d make sure we finished. That’s what made us a great partnership. With Sarah on my team, I didn’t need the will to start, because she brought enough of that for both of us. And Sarah knew that no matter how much she wanted to quit during the last mile or two, I wouldn’t let her.
We spent many hours together during long runs through our neighborhood in Dundee, the Keystone Trail, Lake Zorinsky, the Wabash Trail and even the treadmill sometimes. We talked about everything: our love lives, our work, our families, our spirituality, our dreams. Sarah often talked about her desire to return to India, where she’d lived for two years previously.
We ran our marathon in 2005 and later that year Sarah left Omaha to return to India and start on a path of social entrepreneurship. By 2006, she’d already started a business called Sari Bari that sells beautiful, hand-made textiles made from recycled Indian saris.
Sari Bari is not just a company that makes beautiful things; it is a chance to grab hold of freedom for many women who have experienced oppression throughout their lives. Sari Bari hires women who want to escape the sex trade. By providing well-paying jobs and the training needed to do them, Sari Bari is helping women to leave a way of life that some have been subjected to since age nine of ten.
The first two Sari Bari locations opened in red light districts in Kolkata, India. In 2010, a third location opened in a village about an hour outside Kolkata as way to prevent trafficking by providing good jobs for young women.
Sarah works with survivors everyday. She calls the women who have escaped the sex trade her heroes. But Sarah is my hero. She is one of the strongest, most courageous and generous women I know. And she can speak Bengali like nobody’s business.
Because Sari Bari is a profitable business doing a million great things for women, lots of people want to visit and learn more about what they do. Once a young woman came to volunteer at Sari Bari for a couple weeks. Let’s call her Nancy. A few months after Nancy’s visit, Sarah read a magazine article in which Nancy had been interviewed about Sari Bari. In it, Nancy claimed to have started Sari Bari. Sarah was furious. I was angry when she told me about it too! I mean, how could anyone steal the credit for starting a business where they had only interned for two WEEKS!? Sarah was the one who deserved the credit for the blood, sweat and many, many tears she’d poured into the business.
But Sarah was not angry for the same reason I was. She didn’t want credit for the work she’d done—she wanted credit to go to the women of Sari Bari.
She told me, “Nobody takes credit for Sari Bari, not even me.” The website doesn’t name her as the founder, or even the director. If you asked her about her occupation, she’d probably tell you she works for a textiles company called Sari Bari, and leave it at that.
Sarah thinks any credit that’s being handed out should go to the women who are courageously escaping the sex trade and daily choosing a new life for themselves and their families. She is adamant that nobody takes credit for giving them freedom because the women do the hard work of claiming it for themselves. Nobody has given it to them.
Sarah’s hard stand on issues like this give her a reputation for being tough.
A former boyfriend once made the mistake of calling her “sweet.” Sarah told me about it later saying, “I told him that he must not know me very well! I might be kind, but I’m not sweet.”
That might be true, but sweetness didn’t start Sari Bari. Sweetness wouldn’t have helped Sarah to brave bureaucracy and corruption in India. Sweetness may have melted in Kolkata’s heat. Sweetness would not steady her against the sexual harassment that she encounters on the streets every day. Sweetness could not stand the stories of kidnapping, violence, disease and imprisonment that Sarah experiences through friendship with the women she employs. Sarah is not sweet, but she is fiercely kind.
What does a woman with a bucketful of vision, mad administrative skills, a degree in fine arts, and a determined, compassionate, justice-seeking heart create? Something beautiful like Sari Bari. It doesn’t require sweetness; it requires exactly what Sarah’s got.
Questions to Consider:
What have you got? How do you offer it to the world?
What don’t you have? Maybe you don’t even need it! Or perhaps you need to partner with someone who has it. Who?
- - -
To purchase a beautiful Sari Bari product or learn more about the business, visit saribari.com
Sarah is on sabbatical this year. To help fund her time of rest, consider making a purchase from her vintage Etsy store, ReclaimRestore.
photo credit: Jenifer Altman