Jacqueline Sofia was volunteering as a yoga instructor at Jerash, a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan, when she started collaborating with a group of displaced women looking for ways to generate income. They had skills in making handcrafted products but needed customers. Sofia realized there was a market for them among ethically minded North American consumers looking for unique gifts that do good.

After being introduced to Noora Sharrab and Safiah Abu Shanin, also development workers in Jerash, the trio founded Sitti in 2016. They started out selling soap bars handmade by refugees, and the company has since grown to offer more than 20 lifestyle products, including herbs, clothing, tote bags and a recently launched subscription box service. Today, Sitti (which means “grandmother” in Arabic) supports long-term employment for 31 displaced people in Jordan and six in Canada.

Here, Sofia explains how she and Sharrab have built an ethical lifestyle brand with handmade gifts that give back.

Founded: 2016

The elevator pitch: “Sitti is a conscious lifestyle brand. We are committed to the self-reliance of refugee and displaced communities through long-term employment opportunities and skills development, all coming together through an inclusive global economy.”

The “aha” moment: “During a meeting in the camp one day, a woman approached me and brought me to a room that was filled with bars of soap. The Italian embassy ran a workshop to teach the women in the camp how to create olive oil soap. They were left with all the soap and didn’t know how to sell it. I bought as much as I could — 200 or 250 bars — and I took half to friends in Amman and half home for Easter. People loved it. That’s when I realized there was something there.”

Getting started: “Sitti became a full-time business the moment we conceptualized the idea — there was no choice to have a side hustle when women and their families were banking on Sitti as their primary means of income. Sitti has two employment channels. The first is direct employment through the company for Sitti’s team of dedicated staff members in Canada. Then we have our team in Jordan. As a social enterprise, we’re partnered with two refugee-led organizations. They employ our team in Jordan while we provide the income support to pay fair salaries to those refugee individuals.”

Growing a business based on values: “This year, we decided not to offer a discount code on Black Friday. We wanted it to be a day where instead of making a purchase based on a discount, people were making a purchase based on impact. We sent an email out with this announcement and when we looked at the clickthrough rate, it was one of the highest we’ve ever had on an email. We also wanted to expand our business model to include a product that would generate recurring revenue. Our subscription boxes offer a sustainable way to create employment opportunities for our team over the long term. Every box theme connects back to our mission as a company — we currently offer a women-owned small business box and a refugee-focused box.”

Women helping women to help other women: “We joined the SheEO venture program in 2020, which provides incredible opportunities to home in on the needs of your business. You’re in the program for one year, but you become a part of the network for life. We’re fortunate to have this network of radically generous women at our fingertips and we’ve had a lot of corporate gifting clients come through there.”

Working with refugee communities the right way: “Noora and I have over a decade of experience working with the refugee community, which has been vital. You really have to take the time to get to know individuals before you jump into an idea. You’re not going to solve people’s problems; they’re going to solve their own problems. You simply want to provide the resources they need and give them the opportunity to use them. In 2020, we became partners of the Refugee Self-Reliance Initiative and began deploying the Self-Reliance Index Survey to all households impacted by Sitti and our community-based partners.”

Growth story: “Though 2020 was difficult for us, our revenue has practically doubled year to year. In 2021, we were able to maintain our team of 31 in Jordan and our Canadian team has grown to six team members.”

What’s your favourite self-care ritual? “To wind down at the end of the day, I like to use a dry scrub brush and then hop in the shower with my loofah and soap. I just wish I had a bigger tub!”

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