As part of a generation marked by war, Sarah Beydoun, who grew up in Beirut, had to constantly move from one place to another to avoid the areas of conflict in her country. But being raised by an exceptional woman, her mother, encouraged her to believe in herself. Since then, Sarah has donned many hats. Asa mother, wife, social entrepreneur and designer, she is the brain behind Sarah’s Bag, a brand that hopes to empower the underprivileged. Sharon Carvalho speaks to the visionary who is bringing fashion and ethics under one umbrella.
Field research for a Master’s degree in sociology led to me to work with a local NGO called Dar Al Amal for six months. Dar Al Amal rehabilitates female ex-prisoners and other underprivileged women and the experience there affected me deeply. I could not get on with my life after hearing these women’s stories of abuse, violence and broken homes. Upon completing my research, the head of the NGO encouraged me to set up a business that would employ underprivileged women. I founded Sarah’s Bag because of my love for fashion and design and my aim to set up a social enterprise that would employ and empower these women.
In the beginning, our vision was to create a programme for female prisoners in Baabda prison in Lebanon and train them on different handwork techniques such as beading, embroidery, and crocheting. The idea behind it was to give them a skill set that will empower them, boost their self-esteem and allow them to be financially independent. That vision has not changed but we now work with over 200 underprivileged women, including prisoners and ex-prisoners.
The only way my initial programme could be sustainable was to turn it into a social business.I slowly realized that I had a passion for creating and while developing my passion I also found joy in empowering women and seeing them gain confidence. It had a positive impact, not only on them, but also on their families and their communities.
I have always believed that charity is not sustainable, and that it’s better to teach someone to fish rather than giving them fish to eat. And that’s exactly what we do. Over the years I have seen some of our artisans transform and make tangible changes in their lives. There was one who saved all the money she earned working with us while still myself a designer. Starting and growing Sarah’s Bag taught me a lot about the importance of hard work and perseverance. I also take great pride in the impact that Sarah’s Bag has had on our artisans. To see them thrive, become independent and to witness their journey and how their work with us changed them. While I am always delighted to see Sarah’s Bag covered by the international media and worn by some of the world’s most stylish women, the social aspect of our business gives me a profound satisfaction; it motivates me and gives me a passion for my work and a sense of purpose that working for profit alone cannot.
Yes, it’s very important to me. I think social enterprises are the business model of the future and I am heartened to see the growing strength of the ethical fashion movement.There is so much we can do within the fashion industry, at every point in the supply chain and production process. The social aspect of our work at Sarah’s Bag is built into our business model and that’s why it is sustainable. Our team at our atelier is aware of the importance of our mission and so is the design team. As a participant at the Business for Peace Summit in Oslo recently,I realized that the best social businesses will the businesses of the future, as there is a strong desire among youth today to work for companies that have a positive impact on society and that have a purpose beyond profit.
In the beginning it was definitely a challenge to form a team of skilled artisans among the prisoners we worked with, and to maintain steady levels of production. I used to go to Baabda prison three times a week to work on developing a reliable group of women who could keep up with the growing needs of the company. Many of these women were traumatized, brutalized and depressed. Sometimes deadlines were not met, the work was not consistent but eventually, with time, we built up our core team, some of whom still work with us today and produce work of exquisite quality and artistry.
This year we revamped and enhanced our online experience and boutique. We also worked on expanding our reach in the US market. We want to grow our business internationally while maintaining our core mission of empowering women.