Jennifer Georgeson and Aqsa Khan launched the retail marketplace So Just Shop in 2015 to financially empower female artisans in less developed economies. Since then, their brand has impacted over 10,000 women, which is a step in the right direction to closing the global gender pay gap.
They tell DiversityQ their story, including what other organisations can learn from their ethical supply chain, commitment to genuine CSR, and mission to get a diverse body of women into the labour economy.
Tapping into a global female workforce
Where did the idea for So Just Shop come from?
JG: Throughout my professional experience in international development, time and again, I saw firsthand that barriers to maternal and child health and education were linked to economic disempowerment.
How can you take a child to the clinic for its free vaccinations if you cannot afford the bus fare? How can you send all your children to school if you only have enough money for one school uniform?
It is a fact repeated the world over; economic empowerment of women directly affects the education and health of the whole family, and women are more likely to invest in their family and the local community. Economic empowerment of women saves lives, increases education, and improves social indicators of whole communities.
Against this backdrop, I founded So Just Shop with a mission to transform the lives of those in impoverished communities by training and upskilling family leaders, equipping them with the education and tools to provide for their families. With this empowerment, women can drive change in their communities and beyond to improve their country’s economy.
Your business is based on having an ethical and sustainable supply chain. In the retail sector, how much of a problem are unethical supply chains?
JG: They are a huge problem; I would say most businesses do not have transparent supply chains. If you don’t have transparent supply chains, how do you know if child or forced labour is being used? How much pollution is being dumped into groundwater as a result of your manufacturing practices? How safe is the working environment for those people making your products?
The majority of fast fashion businesses can charge so little for the products they are making because they follow unethical and non-environmental practices such as polluting rivers and not paying for clean-ups, not paying a living wage to those making their products and using cheap and environmentally unfriendly materials. When resources on our planet are so depleted, they should not be allowed to act with such recklessness.
While mass-produced retail goods are cheaper, will millennial and Gen Z consumers be willing to pay more for ethically made products?
AK: Yes, many reports suggest that millennials and Gen Z consumers are more conscious of where they spend their money and are loyal to brands that align with their values and lifestyle choices. With the internet at their fingertips, they have the power to both absorb new information and research and express their opinion through social media. It’s almost an extension of their identity.
In what ways can So Just Shop be called a diverse and inclusive business?
JG: Top-down and bottom-up; the business is majority-owned by women and diverse in background, our board is majority female and has representations from the LGBT+ community alongside different ethnic backgrounds. Our employees are majority non-white with heritages from South East Asia, South Asia, Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Our artisan groups are from 20 different countries across 3 different continents (Asia, Africa, and Latin America).
Do you have any advice for other retail businesses that want to deliver social impact?
JG: Impact businesses have shown to be highly effective in delivering positive changes within communities and have shown to be profitable, impact businesses have weathered COVID-19 particularly well, they tend to be more diverse and representative of the communities they serve which is a highly effective model in good times and bad.
What does Corporate Social Responsibility mean to you?
JG: CSR is something that is wrapped within every part of the business, rather than an offshoot or charitable wing. True CSR should never be a department of a business but incorporated into every decision that a business makes.
It shocks me that so many businesses have it as a side thought, seemingly to make up for bad practices within the business such as; ‘do we pollute? Well, we’ll have a CSR project that donates to clean up water’.”
If corporates truly have a social outlook, at every point, they should be reviewing this, and that is why diversity is so important within a business. If everyone looks the same and thinks the same, then bad practices will happen, not intentionally but just because they are blinkered to the reality of most peoples lives.
How important is it for businesses to be in line with the UN’s SDGs?
AK: This is a core part of our business, we are in process of developing our transparency mark.
JG: We now track every part of our production, from raw materials to delivery against SDGs, using our transparent supply chain tracker, this is why having a transparent supply chain is so important to any business if you do not have a way of seeing how your business is performing at every level and internationally agreed on targets (SDGs) to track it against, how do you know what impact you are having on the climate? SDGs are a vital and internationally recognised way of doing this.
The Global Gender Gap Report found that COVID-19 has stalled pay equality for women where it will take another generation to reach parity with men. What is your business doing to help?
AK: We are a women-led business that sells products that are handcrafted by vulnerable women’s groups around the world. Combatting the gender wage gap is at the core of what we do. Our own brand jewellery collection has encouraged training programmes for women to learn the jewellery making skills that allow them to earn a higher salary.
JG: Economic empowerment of women is vital to achieving equality, vital to reduce climate change (economically empowered women have fewer children), vital to increase education, particularly for girls, (economically empowered women keep children in school for longer), vital to reduce malnutrition, early child death, and illness and poor maternal health. The biggest and most positive impact you can have on a family, community, country, and the planet is economically empowering women. This is at the core of why we do what we do. The biggest gap to this happening? Lack of equality, lack of diversity at every level of decision making, from government to institutions, education, healthcare, and corporations, fix this and the rest will follow.
How important is upskilling your female workforce to the success and mission of your business?
AK: To educate, upskill, and economically empower women is a part of our social responsibility, we educate women in the skills that will bring them economic empowerment. For example, sending skilled artisans into communities to train groups of women to carry out ancestral techniques, which are then developed into product lines for our marketplace. Education, up-skilling, and re-skilling over the life course are critical for women’s and girl’s health and wellbeing, as well as their income-generation opportunities and participation in the formal labour market.
You’re both women and co-founders; have either of you experienced any discrimination when getting the business off the ground?
JG: Yes! Yes! And it’s not just the fact that we are female but also that we do not come from money or have those connections, class is also an important part of the glass ceiling for any start-up. It is inhibiting constantly pitching to the same type of investor, most of who have no interest or understanding in what we are doing, many of whom adopt a slightly demeaning attitude towards us. We have bootstrapped the business to get it this far and have just completed our first serious raise. The plus point of this is that we have stretched every penny and we know exactly what works and what doesn’t, so now we have investment we know exactly how to spend it for the biggest impact.
Is entrepreneurship more liberating for women?
AK: I think entrepreneurship is liberating for women – it gives you control of your work schedule as well as capacity to earn.
JG: Building a business enables you to make decisions on the type of business you would like to be, you are not pinned down by the usual corporate structures and mindsets. Equally, the world of entrepreneurship and start-ups is still very male, so you are still stepping into a world that has tremendous bias.
Raising investment is one area that has been highly challenging, but general networking is too, I am a single parent and most networking events start at around 6:30 pm which I can never attend, it’s these seemingly small things that create obstacles and challenges where there need not be.