Sarah Beydoun has dedicated her life to building beauty from hardship. Her 16-year-old business, Sarah’s Bag, began life as a program to help female prisoners learn a craft and a set of skills to assist with their rehabilitation upon release.
Sarah’s passion for social enterprise and helping others began with a master’s degree in sociology and six-months of field research with Dar Al Amal, an NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation) that rehabilitates underprivileged women in Lebanon.
“My time there had a profound effect on me,” says Sarah. “I wanted to start a business that would help the women I met to make a better life for themselves. In May of 2000, I decided to create a collection of handbags that would showcase the work of female prisoners in Baabda prison in Lebanon, who were trained in handwork techniques such as beading, embroidery, and crocheting. I used to go to the prison three times a week to work with them on my handbag designs, and this is how I formed my first core team of artisans.”
Fully aware of the costs involved in running this important project and social enterprise, Sarah’s knew that she had to turn a profit, and she wanted to pay her artisans. “After my experience in Dar Al Amal, I realized that the only way underprivileged women could create a new life for themselves and their families was to learn a skill that will give them a career and allow them to be financially independent. It was vital for the prisoners I worked with to earn an income while in jail and, more importantly, to have a dependable source of income once they completed their sentences to ease their reintegration into society and help support their families.”
The quality and craftsmanship of Sarah’s products means they have become highly sought after in the fashion world. But with this prestige comes a lot of pressure to produce great pieces, which is a problem that Sarah freely acknowledges. “At first, my biggest challenge was to transition from a social program to a full-fledged social enterprise and fashion label that launched two collections a year. When I first set up Sarah’s Bag, a lot of the prisoners were traumatized, so the work was not consistent. It took time and some stumbling before we formed a reliable group of artisans who could deliver beautifully crafted work on time.”
Working hard for important results
But Sarah’s strength and entrepreneurial spirit helped her overcome numerous problems so that she could build the business that would allow her to continue to help others.
“For me, the challenge was to learn everything on the job. I didn’t study design, but I had a passion for creating and for fashion; I did not know how to set up a social business, but I was extremely driven to make Sarah’s Bag a success and make these women my partners in that success. This kind of work brings joy and a sense of purpose that working for a traditional for-profit company simply cannot.”
At the beginning of her journey, Sarah needed to spread the word about the work she was doing, and as the business grew into a more mature, traditional fashion label, she had to undertake larger marketing programs. Sarah counts both Facebook and Instagram as invaluable tools for her businesses continued growth. “Being connected has literally opened up the world to us and vastly expanded our client base outside of the Middle East. The rise of social media coincided with a time when we were gearing up to go international, and being able to engage and reach not only new clients but also inspirational and influential people from the fashion industry has been priceless.
Growing businesses, growing futures
Sarah’s Bag is now an internationally renowned brand with 50 points of sale in 22 countries, along with regular placements on leading fashion eCommerce sites and feature in magazines including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle.
But despite the brilliant growth of the company, Sarah is still focused on the original goals of the company. “I am a big believer in social enterprises and the ability of socially motivated businesses to solve pressing problems in the world that are sometimes beyond the reach of governments. As a businesswoman, I am driven by my goal to build up and expand Sarah’s Bag while staying loyal to its original cause.”
Learn more about Sarah Beydoun and Sarah’s Bag