ANN INC.’s President and CEO Kay Krill was selected to participate in the Fortune/U.S. State Department Mentorship Program. This is a dynamic program organized by Fortune Magazine and key members of the U.S. State Department. The mentees are successful global female entrepreneurs ranging from age 30 – 40 who have been recognized in their respective industries and countries as innovators and future leaders. Kay’s mentee, Sarah Beydoun, worked with us April 29th through May 13th and we developed a comprehensive schedule provided broad exposure to ANN INC.
Sarah is the founder and owner of Sarah’s Bag, an accessories company based in Lebanon.
What was your inspiration behind Sarah’s Bag? Did you always want to start your own line?
I got Master’s degree from the Université Saint Joseph in Beirut, where I wrote my thesis on prostitution in Lebanon. My field research led me to work with an NGO that taught vocational skills to prisoners and former prostitutes. During my numerous visits to prison, I realized how important it was to teach female prisoners skills that will help them earn an income both while incarcerated and after they have served their sentence. I decided to design a line of handbags and accessories that requires work by hand and train prisoners to do the beading, embroidery and crocheting. I launched Sarah’s Bag soon after graduation in 2000, and opened my atelier in Beirut. It was a way for me to bring together my love of design and fashion with my desire to work with underprivileged women. Today over 150 artisans, both prisoners and ex-prisoners, form the backbone of Sarah’s Bag.
Do you have a favorite bag that you’ve made?
Whatever I am working on right now is the piece I love, it’s the piece I am obsessed with. Right now the focus of my obsession is on our latest bag collection, Summer Blues, which is beaded and very brightly colored: colors that make me happy and make me think of summer, such as turquoise, cobalt blue, coral, sunshine yellow.
I also have a soft spot in my heart for the first ever Sarah’s Bag: it’s a small, and has a pink rose sequined onto a black background. I had it framed and it hangs in my office.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced as a female entrepreneur?
Lebanon, and especially Beirut, is one of the most liberal cities in the Arab world. Women today are expected to have careers, we can aim for leadership positions and head businesses – we are able, if we are lucky enough to have the means or if we work hard enough, to realize our full potential as human beings. And that for me is priceless.
I think I am lucky to have been born in the 70s because my generation had so much more choice than our mothers and grandmothers did. We are the blessed generation, despite also being the generation that grew up during Lebanon’s 16 year civil war.
I am also lucky to have been born into a family that encouraged me to work. For me, the greatest challenge in setting up my business was related to the women I work with.
At Sarah’s Bag, we employ female prisoners and when I started out 13 years ago, I used to go to Baada prison 3 times a week to give them work and train them. It was and still is daunting: the prison is overcrowded, a lot of the women we work with are traumatized, they come from underprivileged social and economic backgrounds which is why many of them are unjustly imprisoned, due to family disputes or being betrayed by the men in their lives. Some of them have horrific stories to tell and almost all of them don’t know their rights before the law. We had to devise a way to train them to learn new techniques and meet deadlines, and we also had to implement a system of quality control. We encouraged them to look at their work with us as a professional career and not just a craft they are learning while they are in prison.
How has the social and political history of your country impacted your designs?
Our line of bags and accessories are inspired by so many different facets of Lebanese and Arab culture and pop culture. We like to be playful with the social and cultural references in our work and we use everything from pop stars and movie stars to Lebanese street food, floor tiles and graffiti as inspiration. We have bags featuring the 1960s pop starlet Sabah and the stars of the golden era of Egyptian cinema; we have the Manoosheh bag, our replica of the Lebanese version of the New York pretzel! It’s a large, round doughy bread served piping hot with cream cheese in the middle – delicious and filling!
We also use lines from famous poems and love songs that we embroider in Arabic calligraphy onto scarves and bags, and one of our bestsellers is a print bag of a piece of graffiti I spotted on the street once that says “Beirut never dies!” This bag was a hit, probably because our city has seen too many wars and upheavals in our lifetime
Due to this politically sensitive history, we have chosen to stay away from making any kind of overt political statements in our work.
You worked with skilled female artisans at Baabda prison to design your bags, giving them work and teaching them new techniques. What does female empowerment mean to you?
Female empowerment is just another term until you see it in action – the ripple effect of empowering one woman is incredible. A lot of artisans we work with at Sarah’s Bag are now ex-prisoners: they started working with us when they were in Baabda prison and continued once they had served their sentences.
I have seen so many of these women start off as prisoners and ex-prisoners who are stigmatized by their society for having served time, who have low self-esteem and who worry about how they are going to reintegrate into their communities. But at least they don’t start at the bottom: they leave prison with a steady job and a stable income and thus are financially independent.
What’s more, a lot of these ex-prisoners soon start employing other women in their communities and become leaders of Sarah’s Bag “knitting circles”. Suddenly our artisan is a valuable, active member of her community who provides other women with stable jobs to support their families. We have seen this happen time and time again and the evolution from ex-prisoners to proud, confident, proactive women is just amazing to see.
It’s exactly as Kay Krill told us, when you empower women, you empower families and communities.