A recent study by the World Bank and Lebanon’s Central Administration of Statistics revealed that over one in four residents of the country now live below the poverty line. This translates into almost one million individuals living without enough to meet basic livelihood needs—sacrificing healthcare, education, shelter and even food.
Predictably, this plunge into poverty has had social consequences. Incidents of crime are on the rise across the country, according to various reports. For some women, it has meant turning to prostitution.
Sarah Beydoun had her first encounter with such women in 1998. Studying for a major in sociology, research saw her volunteer one day at Dar Al Amal, a non-profit organization that supports young women in situations of violence, mistreatment, exploitation, prostitution, and marginalization.
During her fieldwork, Beydoun struggled to limit herself to view the women as mere case studies as her research required her to do. She found herself searching for answers on how best could they be reintegrated into society.
I kept thinking to myself, that if they were skilled in something useful, they would be able to survive, she tells us.
It was some sleepless nights before she thought of handicrafts as a viable option. With the support of Dar Al Amal, Beydoun was granted access to prisons in Tripoli and Babdaa. With a modest budget of $300, she bought a variety of beads and went to the prisons with a plan to have the former prostitutes make bracelets.
“The whole idea started as a social program to help ease these women back into society, teaching them a craft that would help them survive and sustain themselves,” she says.
For two years, Beydoun would pay the women for the bracelets they made whether they sold or not. Some of them used the income they earned to hire lawyers and overturn unlawful convictions, others to support their families while incarcerated.
However, the real breakthrough occured when she stumbled upon a group of women who were skilled and innovative enough to do something very different with her raw material.
She could give them a canvas with a pattern painted on it and the prisoners would bead it effortlessly.
Beydoun would then pass these canvases on to an artisan who would turn them into handbags.
“It became very contagious,” she says, adding that many other women from the prison gradually approached her to join up in that effort of hers.
A serious turn
In May 2000, Beydoun decided to register Sarah’s Bag as a company, as a first step to make the program sustainable. This coincided with some of the more skilled women concluding their prison sentences.
Beydoun started recruiting these former prostitutes as formal employees and paid them to train other women within their circles, and subsequently, become responsible for the group they train.
Beydoun says that the first few handbags that her startup made were mediocre and unimaginative. Passionate for all things design, her desire to help underprivileged women took a more serious turn. She started introducing new materials and techniques in the creative process, combining them with traditional craftwork that the firm was doing. Over time, this modest line of accessories has transformed into a collection of uniquely handcrafted purses
Featuring intricate craftsmanship of stitching, fabric manipulation, embroidery, and crocheting, the bags started garnering attention from Lebanese fashion circles.
After four odd years of selling the bespoke purses and clutches from her parent’s basement, street fairs, bazaars, and fashion exhibitions, Beydoun moved the brand into a showroom in 2004.
Sixteen years into the business, Sarah’s Bag has a staff of 200 women, 50 of whom are in currently in prison. The women bead, crochet and stitch the canvases while seven professional artisans turn them into the final products.
Annual production has reached 73,000, with items ranging from purses and clutches to bracelets and different accessories, and prices starting at $15, going up to $950.
Moreover, the brand now sells at 50 points of sale across 22 countries as well as on multiple online platforms including Sarah’s Bag’s own website.
O’de Rose, a boutique selling accessories, furniture, contemporary art and home décor in Dubai, is one such international point of sale. Nadine Kassem Khoury, managing director at O’de Rose, says that choosing to stock Sarah’s Bag in her shop was a no-brainer. “We wanted to support the regional designers while giving back to society, and we are still following in this path. With Sarah’s Bag, it was a perfect fit…her designs are beautiful, trendy, and at the same time are allowing some less fortunate ladies to work and make a living,” Khoury says.
Businesses can do what governments can’t
Despite the tumultuous situation in Lebanon, Beydoun managed to keep the business afloat without seeking any external financial support. “We never had any outside investors. The business grew very organically. This is why it took me 16 years to get to this point. I didn’t want to expand aggressively and risk failure because there are so many lives at stake.”
She also lays it bare on the current approach taken by many high street brands when it comes to where they make their products. “If I had chosen to manufacture my handbags in China or India where the cost of production and labor is much lower, I would’ve certainly made higher profits but I wouldn’t have been as satisfied as I am now. I wouldn’t have 200 women working with me,” she says, with more than a hint of pride in her voice.
Per Saxegaard, founder and executive chairman of the Business for Peace Foundation, echoes Beydoun’s views. “It is our belief that that reconnecting business success and social progress builds trust, development and peace. Entrepreneurship at the grassroots level has the potential to improve social conditions in the MENA region.”
In May 2016, Beydoun was selected along with two other honorees to be granted the Oslo Business for Peace Award. The honorees were selected by an independent committee of Nobel Laureates in peace and economics out of 85 nominees put forward by the UN Development Program, UN Global Compact and the International Chamber of Commerce.
“Businesses can make their growth targets meet with their social good targets. There need not be a tradeoff. These honorees are prime examples of that,” Saxegaard affirms.
Beydoun says that she hopes to keep growing Sarah’s Bag brand internationally in order to raise awareness and push for social change. “I want to expand this idea as much as I can but while staying loyal to our core mission of helping people.”
“There should be more social enterprises around. I believe that every business has to give back in some way to society especially in difficult times like these,” Beydoun says. “And if every business can have a social aspect to it, I think we can solve many problems. Now more than ever, businesses, rather than governments, need to find solutions.”