Sudara provides independence from prostitution through sewing
written by Andes Hruby | featured photo by Charlotte DuPont
In the spring of 2016, Shannon Keith moved her California-based company to Bend. Keith is the CEO and founder of Sudara, a benefit corporation teaching women to sew in order to gain independence from sex trafficking and prostitution. The e-commerce company provides what Keith describes as “freedom fashion.”
The company started in 2006 after Keith traveled to a small town in India as part of a non-governmental organization to donate a clean water well. The audience, a sea of beautiful women in vibrant saris, were also the region’s prostitutes. As Keith spoke to them she had a moment of inspiration, envisioning a style of easy-to-wear, easy-to-sew, casual lounge pants from exotic Indian textiles—Punjammies were born before twilight.
After wrestling through bureaucratic red tape, Keith partnered with a collective of indigenous organizations in India that train women in numerous fields to help them acquire independence. In exchange, the companies that coordinate with them provide a steady stream of work to keep the women employed. Sudara offers a contemporary life-sustaining talent to create financial stability and escape from India’s archaic caste system.
“Every day I walk into the warehouse, I am reminded that these clothes are not just exquisite, they were created with integrity,” Keith said.
A visit to the Sudara warehouse is like walking through an Indian bazaar. It is filled with patterns of flowers, polka dots, sundials, stripes, stars and elephants: a canvas of simple white or seersucker counterbalances tassels and fringe. Gold and silver threads weave through the shelves alongside the vibrant colors of an arid sunset.
“We are not interested in exchanging the sex trade for the sewing trade,” Keith said on stage at the Bend Venture Conference last fall in which Sudara won $250,000 in the Social Impact Competition. “We want to prove and provide a model for others to emulate. Sudara shows us accountability can be profitable.”
Sudara pays employees higher-than-average wages and provides health care, a pension and assistance with child care and counseling. Some 8,000 miles away in Oregon, Keith and her growing online brand invite local high school and university students from across Oregon to serve as interns. Keith wants to build a strong reputation as a business interested in nourishing global perspectives.
“We are keen on engaging the next generation of activists,” she said.
Oregon is seeing tremendous growth in exporting its products. Bend’s Humm Kombucha has seen high demand here at home, but the next fermentation destinations are Stockholm and other parts of Europe. Lanette Fidrych, creator of Portland-based Cycle Dog, began making dog collars from recycled bicycle inner tubes in 2009. The product line now ships to Canada, Europe, and as far as Australia and Asia.
Even Governor Kate Brown is interested in expanding business beyond Oregon borders, traveling to China, Vietnam and Japan in fall 2015 to explore new opportunities and solidify old alliances.
“We know how education and cultural connections can create friendships today, to lay the groundwork for economic opportunities tomorrow,” Brown said while making spring rolls on a popular cooking show in Vietnam.
When Keith moved her operation to Oregon, she sought out an advisory board of top business leaders in Bend. The goal—use their global experience to help make Sudara into an international import-export company. The board includes Jim Schell, serial entrepreneur and author of Business for Dummies, as well as Deschutes Brewery President Michael LaLonde and HydroFlask General Manager Scott Allan.
“Sudara has a ‘for-purpose’ business model. Doing good and doing well are no longer at odds,” Tony Abena, a board member and CEO of several software and e-commerce companies, said.
Keith and her new board aren’t just asking Oregonians to be accountable for what they purchase—they believe Sudara is integrity with style.
“When we evaluate profit potential we usually look for dollars, but Keith brings a new element to success,” Schell said. “When Sudara thrives souls are set free.”