New York native Elizabeth Suda founded ARTICLE22, a brand that designs accessories out of Vietnam War bombs, after asking one simple question: "how and by whom are the goods we consume made?" While Elizabeth started her fashion career in the Coach merchandising department, it was during a 2008 trip to Laos (the most heavily bombed country in history), that her desire to create a social business was born. At the time, she was volunteering with a woman-led textile business, and consulting for the Swiss NGO Helvetas, on a textile research assignment in four rural farming villages in the north of Laos.
In one of the villages, she noticed artisans were making spoons - the same spoons with which the Lao citizens eat noodle soup with each day. Upon closer examination, she noticed the spoons were made from a pile of scrap metal being melted contained shrapnel from US bombs that read "ROCKET MORTAR". Watching these artisans melting old US bombs to soup spoons, Elizabeth was inspired by the idea of turning something so negative into positive impact, and began collaborating with the artisans on her first ARTICLE22 design: the peacebomb bangle.
Recognizing that market linkage and design are major constraints on artisans, she founded ARTICLE22 to create a traceable link between producers in the East and consumers in the West, all while telling their stories through fashion. Motivated as much by contemporary art as by authentic know-how, Elizabeth is at the head of the design convergence in Vientiane and New York, merging the expertise of artisan partners in Laos with the talent of craftsmen in New York City. She aims at redefining the codes of luxury; ARTICLE22 is about designing objects that tell stories and give back to the people that make them. When considering her designs Elizabeth says:
"Fashion, which is extremely influential and defined by continuous innovation. For me, innovation is defined by both aesthetics and ethics--how and by whom something is made. The fashion community has an incredible business opportunity to harness its influence and create beauty intrinsic to the design while also extrinsic to the world of its makers."
Under Elizabeth's leadership, ARTICLE 22 has been recognized by global consumers and press as pioneering the transformation of weapons into jewelry. ARTICLE22 collections are still produced by local artisans in Laos and 10% of the overall product cost associated with each A22 item is donated to clear Lao land, which averages to be about 3m2 or more, depending on the cost of the item. (At the current rate of removal, it would take 800 years to clear the unexploded ordinance in Laos.) Artisans are also paid at least four times the local Lao market rate and an additional 10% of the cost of purchased material from the Lao artisans are provided to the local community in order to support village development.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
From an early age, I had this sense that the future is not fated and that a life is largely a collection of our own choices. In third grade, I was obsessed with my teacher, Mrs. Twyman, who taught us about Martin Luther King, Jr. I think his "I Have a Dream" speech reinforced this sense that, against the odds, we can dream and build the world we want (or at least try). My generous parents cultivated this desire to change and create by providing me with the tools whether through a tape recorder, palette of watercolors, the habit of questioning and reasoning, and an education.
How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at ARTICLE22?
My experience working in the Men's Merchandising Department at Coach, Inc. was crucial to starting a retail business. The Men's team was small which meant I engaged in high-level meetings on all aspects of the supply chain from design and development, to production and quality assurance, to sales and analysis. Working with all the cross-functional teams made me realize how everything is connected and how important each department is in bringing what seems like a simple product to market.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at ARTICLE22?
Entrepreneurship is multidisciplinary. The daily mix of numbers, impact, aesthetics, and storytelling in our social fashion business is so engaging. I love that I have the opportunity to collaborate with talented artists, travel to work with our artisan partners, and hear stories from customers across the world ranging from US Vietnam Veterans to Australian boutique owners who are all passionate about contemporary design and conscious consumption. But the multidisciplinary nature of entrepreneurship is also full of the unknown and unexpected. Every time we need to order new business cards, I think about putting "firefighter" as one of my titles because I'm constantly extinguishing fires big and small. And you have to find the spark at the source. When a huge holiday delivery got stopped in customs, I first had to understand why it happened, who I could ask for help, how to fix it, and balance cost against time. So, one of the biggest challenges is definitely executing tasks and making efficient decisions in areas where our small team lacks expertise.
What advice can you offer to women who want to launch their own business?
It is hard, so make sure to prepare yourself with mentors, partners and funds.
Put it out there before it is perfect because a business is dynamic and ever evolving anyway.
Don't wait too long to ask for help. Prove your concept, but anticipate when you will need additional external support.
What is the most important lesson you've learned by starting your own business?
It took me too long to realize that you can be shameless and still polite! Like me, if you did not go to business school and gain a network from that experience, don't hesitate to introduce yourself to leaders you admire in order to build your network and find the right mentors. People are busy, so follow up tenaciously if you don't get an immediate response.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Honestly, it is hard! Luckily I have a French husband, so things like wine, cheese and taking a lot of vacation run in his blood. He's a good influence! We vacation in France every summer and always tack on a few days during work trips. Also, my office is three blocks from my apartment, which separates work from life without the grueling commute. The bonus is I can go home for lunch when I want.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Speaking from my own experience, I am starting to think about having children and realizing the new challenges ahead. It is intimidating to scale a business and start a family simultaneously! I wonder if I could have staggered the timing if I had spoken up earlier to find those mentors and strategic partners. Perhaps women are more inclined to try to do everything themselves instead of shamelessly asking for that raise or pitching for that investment.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
It's a huge boost to have industry leaders inspired and motivated to advise and introduce. Our mentors provide immeasurable insights and connections, which accelerate the pace of growth. And it's great to have the additional credibility during the business development process.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Hillary Clinton. She is super smart, tough as nails, knows how to reinvent, and does not give up until she wants to.
What do you want ARTICLE22 to accomplish in the next year?
In one word: growth. Working in the business, we will launch a new story-collection. Working on the business, we will secure a strategic partner.