Answers By: Christine Souffrant, CEO & Founder of Vendedy, New York City, New York
How long have you been in business?
We are a recent three-month startup. However the learning points for sparking our business started in 1998. At that time we had a boutique shop supporting Haitian artisans until the earthquake of 2010.
Why have you chosen to dedicate yourself to this particular business/industry?
I come from a long line of street vendors who struggled to raise me during my early years. The story of Vendedy started in a village outside of Port au Prince, Haiti where a woman sold candies and sweets on the streets everyday, rain or shine, to support her children. Her daughter, Marie Emile, eventually picked up the concept and started selling cooked food in the capital. Marie Emile’s daughter, Guelma Emile (my mother), had the chance of a lifetime to immigrate to New York City. Like the women before her, she laid out a blanket on the busy street corner of Columbus Circle in Manhattan and sold all of the Haitian artwork she brought in two hours. From 1998-2010, she supported the dreams of eight Haitian street artisans, until the earthquake of 2010 cut off her connection to the country too long for her to continue the business. By that time, as her daughter, I became intertwined with the concept of street vending and was tracking the stories of street vendors across 26 countries with the support of my Bill Gates Millennium Scholarship. Street vending is in our blood. And it’s time to shake the paradigm and give street artisans the global market they deserve for the gems they painstakingly create.
What makes business/product unique?
Vendedy is unique because it is using phone app technology to connect consumers to the designs of remote street artisans. Unlike other artisan support networks, we are creating an ecosystem that gives rural street artisan more control and direct access to a global consumer market by empowering a lifestyle that is second nature to them- street vending.
Street vending is perhaps the most natural solution to poverty alleviation. It is estimated that 2 billion street vendors contribute to a $10 trillion dollar global shadow economy. Before the formalization of commerce, purchase of needs and wants were done directly and is a simple practice that can be done by anyone with a product to sell. It is no wonder that today street vending still remains the most immediate and dominant form of income generation for the urban poor. Many of the street vendors of the world are handcraft makers who create the world’s most beautiful gems with no training; just shear innate talent guided by cultural traditions. Once an individual has honed their craft making abilities, they have the power to create products and sell it to passerbyers. Unfortunately, the greatest challenge for street artisans is that they are dependent on tourists and middlemen wholesalers who leverage power on profit and pricing of their work. Street artisans need global visibility and sustained income streams. With sustained incomes, the transition from poverty to a modest standard of living becomes a reality. The success of this endeavor on a global scale will revolutionize global economies by using the street vending industry to eradicate poverty.
You could have worked for anyone and would have been successful, why become an entrepreneur?
This is a great question, because immediately after college, I started my career in banking. I performed well and was promoted three times during my two-year stay at one of the top 20 regional banks in the USA. I went from being a trainee, to a relationship banker, to an Assistant Branch Manager to a Commercial Relationship Manager. All the while doing several other cross department projects for the company. Yet as good as I was in the corporate world, my heart was heavy and my gut was telling me to nourish my entrepreneurial spirit. I was raised in a family who turned to survival entrepreneurship to make a living. Many of my family members never experienced the feeling of a paycheck. So for me, that had a huge influence on my personality and career motivations. The relentless spirit and resourcefulness that comes from being raised by dynamic street entrepreneurs empowered me to think bigger than the corporate boardroom. So pursuing this social enterprise came naturally.
What was your last, “why did I go into business for myself” moment?
Last week I felt that way because things are happening so fast that I’m low on sleep. It gets to you because the idea and the long-term vision can consume you. Vendedy is moving at a fast pace and I’m learning something new every day. There are no roadmaps or easy button in this experience. I got to take the good with the bad. My corporate life was scheduled and easy. But now, I have to be on 1,000 percent 24/7. But with the low moments, comes the internal reminder that this matters to you so much that you can embrace the hard times. You know you’ve found your calling when no matter what people say and no matter what happens, you are more inspired to push forward because you believe in it that deeply.
Every female professional should have __________.
A bag with a smart phone, five business cards, old fashion pen and paper and one item to symbolize their business pitch (for me I wear a different handmade bracelet from around the world. It attracts questions all the time, and there goes my opening for Vendedy and my mission to bring gems like these bracelets to the global consumer market).
Oprah Winfrey or Richard Branson for sure. Oprah, because she is beyond business, she is inspiring. Richard, because he is beyond business, he is daring/bold.
What is your business motto?
“Disrupt the Norm.” We are different and we want to shake the current paradigm. We candidly dismiss the hand out culture that has been created to support the urban poor. There is a clear difference between support and empowerment and we believe the latter will be the solution we’ve been waiting for to end global poverty. So for everything we do, we think of how impactful it is for our constituents and most importantly, measure its capability to “disrupt the norm.”
If you could give other entrepreneurs three tips, what would they be?
First – Focus on launching an enterprise that is alleviating a pain point from your life or a passion. Many early entrepreneurs seek market opportunity for business ideas and that road though possibly successful, does not usually go as far since the passion was never there in the first place. But when you pursue something that is dear to your heart, that has troubled you for years, the low moments of the entrepreneurial journey are dear to you – because it matters so much that you find the solution to the problem you are trying to tackle.
Second – A team is essential for any startup but a board of advisors is even more critical. Make sure you have some experienced go-to people to turn to for advice and support. The entrepreneurial roller coaster is a long journey and you can’t depend on the team to think through all of the initial stages effectively. People you can trust who understand the market, the industry or business framework are key elements of long-term success. Not to mention, the right Board of Directors are not only knowledgeable but have a phenomenal network that can connect you to partners and opportunities to move your company forward.
Third – The only validation you need in the beginning of the entrepreneurial journey are your clients/constituents – PERIOD. So many times great ideas get killed at first glance because the person turns to their friends, family or early investors who don’t see the same vision they saw. You have to be persistent and test the idea out on the clients you aim to serve. When you have customers interested and it scales out by word of mouth, the validation is already met. Investors, peers and friends will follow suit.
Has there been a piece of technology or software that has been a lifesaver to you?
Skype and G Circle! For the past six months I’ve traveled intensely due to business development efforts and speaker engagements. Many of my pitches for partnerships and sponsorship happened over Skype. Through Skype I connected with my team, partners, investors, and competitors. In today’s world, opportunities come and go and as a result seizing them is a priority. If it takes a Skype call to make a deal happen, then so be it.
What is your goal for the next year?
My goal for next year is to have Vendedy firmly imprinted on the hearts of many. At that time we would have on board artisans across 10 countries in Latin America. We aim to expand to West Africa at the culmination of the year.
When someone is telling their friend about your business, what do you hope they say?
I hope they say that Vendedy is honoring the old traditions of the past and changing our perspectives on street vending. Empowering a global network of street artisans via phone app technology has never been done before and it is our hope that they say that we are truly “Disrupting the Norm” with our efforts – one village