Female Feature Friday: Sarah Buchanan of Kula Project
We are back at it, bringing you another Female Feature Friday. We are so excited to be sharing a new amazing Girl Boss every week. The inspiration behind this series was to highlight the brilliant women running small businesses in an effort to inspire other women to bring their talents to the table. We can do it all, ladies!
We are so excited to be highlighting Sarah Buchanan-Sasson, the founder of the amazing Kula Project. They have been doing wonderful things in the non-profit world supporting female entrepreneurs and going them an opportunity to thrive and THAT is something we absolutely love. Keep reading to be inspired by her story!
LET’S GET DOWN TO (SMALL) BUSINESS:
Name and Occupation:
Sarah Buchanan-Sasson, Founder and Executive Director of Kula Project.
Briefly describe your business:
We are a non-profit eradicating poverty through the development of female entrepreneurs in Rwanda. We do this through a 15-month business fellowship that provides industry training, life and leadership skills, and business investment. All of our fellows are either coffee growers, artisans, or both.
We are developing entrepreneurs because we know that if we really want to change things, our work has to outlast our organization. Empowering women to build their own businesses, send their own kids to school with their own hard-earned money, that affirms their inherent dignity. And that creates a lasting impact.
How did Kula Project come about and what were you doing before its creation?
After spending time in East Africa, I realized that poverty wasn’t just a lack of money, it was a lack of access and opportunity. I saw women doing everything they could to build businesses that could support their families, but because they didn’t have the right resources or connections, their businesses would never succeed. I wanted to start something that would bridge that gap. The first couple of years were really difficult, and it took a while to develop a strong model, but we never quit.
Prior to starting Kula, I was in college majoring in Pre-Law. After traveling in Kenya, I changed my major to focus on international development with a focus on African politics. In the gap between graduating and starting Kula, I was bartending, and I kept bartending for about 2.5 years after we launched Kula, so I could pay my bills.
What drew you to the nonprofit industry?
Seven years ago, social enterprise wasn’t what it is now. It seemed like the only way you could help people was by running a non-profit, so that’s why I started one. Now, it’s a bit different, and I honestly wouldn’t suggest starting a non-profit. I’d say find one that aligns with your values system and harass them until they hire you, or, start a business with a revenue stream that enables you to give back in a more sustainable way. Starting something that is dependent on donations is really, really hard, and you have a ton of competition.
Why is small business and nonprofit so important to you?
As Kula has grown, and giving trends have changed, we are looking at how we can operate more like a small business instead of a non-profit. Essentially, we want to do for ourselves what we are trying to do for our ladies in Rwanda- survive on our own instead of having a complete dependence on the generosity of others. Kula’s entire theory of change counts on the fact that charity isn’t going to holistically and sustainably change lives, but local businesses can - started by locals and led by locals.
What was your first real job?
I worked at the W Hotel in Midtown, Atlanta. My plan was to grow within the company and be able to move around and open these beautiful hotels around the world. I was still in college when I started, and moving up in the company meant having to quit school, and that wasn’t something I was willing to do. Now, I’m really grateful it didn’t work out the way I had hoped.
What motivates you to keep going on the less than awesome days?
The people that believe in not only our work, but in my ability to lead it keep me going. There have been many days when the only reason I didn’t quit was because the people whom I love tremendously believed I could do it. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, part of our work is crafting household vision plans with our ladies. We help them look ahead, dream of what their lives and the lives of their family could look like in 3 years, in 5 five years, and then we work backwards to see how Kula’s work will help them reach their goals. All of this data is digitized, so on the less than awesome days, I read through them. I read the actual dreams of our ladies, knowing their names and faces and families, and that makes everything quite real.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to start their own business?
Have a hobby with measurable results. It took me seven years to learn the importance of this. There are days, weeks, entire seasons when you just feel like you are failing at everything, and you need to know that there is something you are succeeding at, even if it’s not your business. For me, it’s pilates. But having something where you can visibly see improvement will carry you through far more days than you may realize.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made and what/how did you learn from it?
We had one partnership fairly early on, and from the very beginning, I had a check in my gut about it. I really wanted it to work out, though, so we went through with it anyway. After a few months, it took a nosedive south, and we almost went under because of it. We kept going, but it was really, really hard for awhile. Years later, there are times when it’s still really hard on me and I feel this immense sense of loss.
But through it all, I learned to listen to my gut. It is a powerful thing, but I didn’t understand that inner resistance. Some things are hard because they are just hard, but some things are hard because you shouldn't be doing them, and I’ve realized that part of my job as a leader is to figure out the difference between the two.
What has surprised you most about running a small business?
That starting the business wasn’t the hardest part. Everyone says starting is the hardest part, biggest step, etc. And I’ve found that to be quite untrue. I think starting is the easiest part, building and growing the business is really hard, and sometimes, not quitting when it gets so hard is the hardest part.
Who have you looked to for advice and mentorship?
I have to say the most important and influential person I look to is my husband, James. He has not only enabled Kula to grow, but he has made it possible for me to be the one to grow it. We started Kula together, but in 2014, he had to step aside and get an actual paying job so I could quit my night job as a bartender and focus 100% of time on Kula. He has been extraordinarily patient while I have emotional breakdown after emotional breakdown when I'm tired, feeling overwhelmed, inadequate, or all of those things at the same time. After I gather myself, he will walk me through actual action items to get me over the hump. He is a fixer and doesn’t get stuck on problems as easily as I do, so he helps me a ton. And, not once has he expressed frustration over my constant travel to Africa, and every time I get home, he is there with tacos and my favorite wine. Kula would've ceased to exist 4 years ago, and multiple times in between, if it weren't for him.
What does it mean to you to be a woman in small business?
Can I say it’s equal parts empowering and frustrating? It’s frustrating that it can be harder to get into the right rooms or meetings just because I’m a woman. On the positive side, empowered women in business are changing the world. Whether it’s changing the world for one woman or for millions, we’re changing things. We are standing for, propping up, cheering on other women instead of taking each other down. We believe each other, we support each other, and we are moving forward together. Even in my lifetime, it wasn’t always like that, so it’s an incredible time to be in this.
What’s next for Kula Project?
We just launched Kula Coffee. We’ve been working in coffee communities for almost six years, and now we are thrilled to get to sell it in the States. One hundred percent of the profits fund the very women that grew it, and that’s a beautiful thing. We also have some really fun brand partnerships on the horizon. We’re doing a beautiful ceramic tumbler with Uzumati Ceramics and a coffee soap with Organic Savanna. It’s so fun to do these partnerships that give our supporters new ways to support our work while also offering a beautiful product. Lastly, we will start offering coffee origin trips that will blend the awesomeness of our work and the stunning beauty of Rwandan adventure. We’ve been working for a really long time to craft this experience, so I’m so excited to launch them soon.
How can someone get involved with Kula Project?
You can buy our coffee! Or you could sponsor a woman in our fellowship, and that’s $30 per month. Helping us share our story is super beneficial for us, so we’d love to be featured on new platforms. And when they become available, sign up for a Kula Experience Trip and come to Rwanda with us to see it all for yourself!
LET’S GET THE SKINNY ON ATLANTA:
WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO ATLANTA?
I’m from Atlanta. Born and raised. My family and direct flights out of Hartsfield Jackson airport keep me here!
BEST TACO IN ATLANTA?
The Falafel Taco at BarTaco.
BEST BURGER IN ATLANTA?
The burger at Table & Main.
FAVORITE COCKTAIL IN ATLANTA?
The Matador at Superica, but I order it on the rocks.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT BEING A BUSINESS OWNER IN ATLANTA?
There is so much support here. Atlanta is growing so fast, and the startup scene is pretty incredible, but the amazing thing is that everyone wants to help you succeed, even when they are busy building their own thing. Co-working spaces are available throughout the city, and more and more coffee shops are popping up that create great atmospheres for working on your own when you need some space.
TELL US 3 OF YOUR FAVORITE ATLANTA SMALL BUSINESSES.
Refuge Coffee - Kitti, the Founder, is one of my heroes. Refuge was born out of the desire to have a beautiful coffee shop in Clarkston, the most diverse square-mile in the country, while also serving as a job training program for refugees that are resettled there.
Vesta Movement - It’s a woman-owned boxing gym that will kick your butt in the best way. It’s an incredibly empowering place that builds strength in a multitude of ways.
Perrine’s Wine Shop - It’s an amazing French wine shop on the westside of Atlanta. It’s owned by Perrine Prieur, another incredible female entrepreneur. She’s from Bordeaux, France and has incredible wine and cheese tastings on a farm table in the back of the shop. Honestly, what could be better than that?
BONUS. TELL US 3 OF YOUR FAVORITE RWANDAN BUSINESSES.
The Retreat Boutique Hotel in Kigali - It’s a stunning hotel with an amazing pool and a fabulous restaurant. It was started by Alyssa Ruxin who is a boss! She wanted to create impeccable hospitality experiences while training local Rwandans to do it, and she’s done a remarkable job.
Abraham Konga Designs - Abraham is a fantastic artist, and he designs and makes his own jewelry, but his shop also has beautiful homegoods. Everytime I’m here, he has new designs and new products, and I’m really proud to call him a friend.
Shokola Cafe - They have two locations. One is on top of the public library and overlooks the city, and one feels like you’re in the jungle. The coffee is amazing, they have a delicious breakfast, and beautiful design. It’s been a favorite for a long time.