In this second post in the social entrepreneurs spotlight blog series, I am interviewing Izabela Sokolovska – founder of the social enterprise Esnaf. Esnaf is a Macedonia-based social enterprise which combines business with social equality. It consists of a community of artisans who create amazingly beautiful, hand-crafted products which are sold in a store in the centre of the capital Skopje as well as in an online store which ships worldwide.
I was in awe of the amazing story Izabela shared with me about her struggles to develop Esnaf as a sustainable social enterprise under very challenging circumstances, and how she has managed to provide livelihoods for historically marginalised communities. Her story is nothing short of inspirational and after reading the interview I would ask that you spend some time browsing the online store at https://esnaf.eu/. I’d be surprised if you did not find a suitable hand crafted birthday or Christmas gift there that will make someone special very happy, while being able to tell a meaningful story about how that gift contributes to providing marginalised communities with a meaningful livelihood. And if you know of any local stores who would love to store ethical, hand-crafted gifts, why not let them know of this amazing social enterprise?
But let’s start with the interview.
What is it about you that made you want to start a social enterprise?
Almost nine years ago I started to develop my artisans skill and I found myself wanting to make it my way of life, as an artisan. I wanted to turn this work into my livelihood but unfortunately hand-made products here are not that highly rated and it is difficult to survive by making them. You need to work another career and create hand-made products as a hobby. But I wanted to turn this work into my profession. I visited many bazars at the time and depending on the time of year the bazars sometimes were already full or were very expensive to take part in. So I decided to organise one of my own and rented a hall in a big hotel and accepted everyone who wanted to participate and sell their products. The first time about 60 people wanted to participate, which is quite a lot as normally the biggest bazars here have up to 30 artisans. It was like Christmas magic – it was Christmas time when I organised it.
After that, it had been several months, and I quit my day job and dedicated myself to continue in this direction. I founded the non-profit Creative Macedonia and I organised many bazaars after that. At the bazar there were a group of artisans who contacted me and asked me if I could help a women who makes candles join the bazar. This woman was a mother of two children with disabilities. I agreed to help her and let her join the bazar without charging her, so I gave her a free table. Now the word spread about this and there were lots of people with disabilities such as Down Syndrome who were marginalised and were not able to join the existing bazars. And I welcomed them free of charge and promoted them big time. And I felt that this was something that needed to be done – how to support this group of people – artisans and especially this group of marginalised people.
I did some training and attended a workshop for non-government organisations and someone there told me I could turn this into a social enterprise and help these groups of marginalised people. Now in Macedonia we don’t have laws to regulate social enterprises so it was difficult to get this set up. So how it works is as a non-government organisation we take the products from the artisans and after we sell them we pay the artisans. This is the simplest way to do it here.
I started the social enterprise to be able to do what I love – quilling – and make a living out of this. Of course, now that I am running the social enterprise I actually have very little time to do any quilling as I am very busy running the social enterprise. I am looking forward to be able to do more of that again once we become sustainable.
Now for me working with these people, and the happiness and support they receive and their gratefulness for being for instance able to pay for things like therapy for family members with disabilities, this is what makes you feel that you are doing 100% the right thing. I quit a highly paid job, and haven’t made any income for the last two years doing this. I am financing this from my own pocket but the happiness and the fulfilment is on another level. No money can buy that. So that is why I wanted to create this social enterprise. To be happy. When you make someone else happy it makes you happy as well.
What have been the main challenges you faced so far and how have you overcome them?
Since I started with Creative Macedonia, I have met many people who were in this world many years before me. They have thought me that many times the artisans have tried to unite and every time they have failed. The challenges are many. The artisans tend to compete with each other, instead of support each other. They are wonderful creators, but not all understand how to run a business. Time is changing fast and we all need to adapt and change in order to succeed.
Another challenge is how to raise the level of awareness and appreciation for hand-made work. People say, when they come, “Oh my God, this is 20 Euros? I will go to the market and buy it for five.” And it’s like, yes, but this is hand-made. I have a lot of difficulties in dealing with these customers. But then I said, OK, I’m going to try another way. So instead of convincing them that it is hand-made and it takes time, we use our content writing to explain the full process and how it is all done and how we run workshops to teach these people, so basically to raise awareness of why these products have these higher prices. So this is another challenge I have at the moment. Other than that, every day we have different challenges. I could write three books about it. It is something that nobody has done before and everyday there is something new to overcome.
What are the most important insights you have gained along the way and what tips do you have for other social entrepreneurs?
I would say to believe in your idea and any difficulty you face can be dealt with. If you can’t deal with it today, you can sleep on it and the next day you will find a solution. For instance, I didn’t receive a lot of support in getting Esnaf set up but I was lucky enough to read a book from Blaze Arizanov – he is the founder of StayUncle – a very successful start-up in India. And all his journey and all the difficulties he faced and if he can survive the police beatings and everything and still make it successful – I said to myself “Why not here? I’m home, I’m safe.” If you want to make it successful you have to make it all the way through – if you give up you will never make it. If you believe in it, it runs through your blood.
So basically I would say to never give up and to believe in what you do every day, and it will get better. No matter how difficult it is. Ask for mentors, ask for people who have been through it and who can help a lot with it.
But it all depends on what kind of social enterprise you have. For us, focusing on hand-made products it is quite a challenge to survive by doing it here. I believe that in the UK and other parts of the world hand-made products are highly appreciated. I can tell how people appreciate hand-made more than buying imported products from China.
When it comes to funding, I applied many times and I never received any funding. So I gave up on it. So I decided to make it sustainable. So if you believe in it, try to make it sustainable rather than making it depend on any other project. So for instance if you get funding for one year you rely on it and after it is finished you will have to close. So you will have to find a way to make it work by itself. It needs to have a long-term impact on society.
Which skills and attributes do you feel have been the most important in building your social enterprise?
For me one thing has been how to put my emotions to the side when focusing on the business. I am a very emotional person and I take everything to heart and that is why I started this – I want to make people happy because it makes me happy as well. But when it comes to the business side of things I often did not do the right thing because my emotions got in the way. And as a result I lost quite a lot of money because I didn’t understand business. So now I know that I need to put my emotions to one side when it comes to making it a sustainable business model.
And I would say that this is my life challenge because in every other job I did I took everything to heart and I work like it’s my own thing and when something is wrong I cry. It is very difficult when you work with people who are struggling every day and try to provide income for them and to tell them that this cannot be done this way because business works that way. Otherwise we will not survive and we will close the shop today. So one of my life challenges and the skill I learned is to put emotions to the side when it comes to business. Because this is still an enterprise, it is not humanitarian aid, it is not some sort of Red Cross organisation. This is something that needs to work and it needs to work for the artisans and the marginalised groups. So that is one of my main skills which I learned.
Other than that I would say since the beginning I did not have resources to do everything, like branding, marketing, creating a website and everything so I had to learn a little bit about everything, for instance how to use social media, write content, or how to use particular software, maintain and update the website. So for some time I had to learn everything myself, to build the website and by the time I had a little bit of knowledge about everything just to know how to ask people for help. And now I don’t have the time to do all of this because of administrative and operating work at the store, but yes, I needed to know a little bit about all the aspects involved in the work just to know how to promote the brand properly.
So we have a lot of flaws I would say but if I wait for everything to be perfect I would never open because every day there is something new, someone new joining coming with lots of ideas, and every day things get better. So in a couple of years’ time we will be at the top of our game I would say. Everything will work smoothly. Because it is really difficult actually to work with a hundred artisans with a hundred different characters who’ve had different challenges in life and actually I know their private lives and what they are dealing with, and I have to incorporate that into the business and to find a model that best works for them and that is hard work.
What has been your most heart-warming, inspirational or transformational experience since you started your social enterprise?
I would say the work with this marginalised group of people. So in working for instance with this mother of two children with disabilities and she made candles and she said the artisan chamber – the institution in Macedonia – they asked her to participate in the bazar but she had to pay. And the fees are really high. But since she started to come to my bazar for free. Just in front of the bazar was Mother Teresa Memorial House, and the people who worked there asked her to make 200 – 300 candles per month with the face of Mother Teresa. So it was like she went from no employment to something which was a big deal for her. She was so grateful and that is the thing – that needs to be done for them. So finding a job for her to provide for her family – for her children, basically changing people’s lives in this way. And there are many stories like that, this is just one. I cannot tell about them all publicly but they are really, really heart-warming stories. For example when we had the first lock-down during the Corona pandemic back in March-April, there was one lady with three children and one of them was autistic. And her husband was stuck in another country so she was unsupported at home for a couple of months and the lady did sewing so I asked her whether she could sew masks and I will tell your story and people will support you. So we had a big sale and she was really happy – her husband was not here, they didn’t have income but this was a way to change her and help her. So there are many stories.
What will your social enterprise look like in five years’ time and how will you get there?
I am hoping that we will operate on a world-wide level and that our products can be available to the world. So because Macedonia is not part of the PayPal community, we cannot be on Etsy or anything outside the country because everything needs to have PayPal included to provide secure payments. So this is why I opened this online store that you can buy our hand-made products from. And you can buy from other parts of the world. So I am hoping that because we are a small country the market is very limited that we can support these people and grow the community more by exporting the products outside of Macedonia. We are now going through 400 applications for people to participate in Esnaf and I don’t have the capacity to accept them because we have a small store and we have not yet developed at an international level. So I am hoping that in five years’ time we can accept all these people who need to sell their products through this social enterprise. Because 100 is a lot of people but there are still a lot of people on the waiting list who need to be supported.
My biggest vision when I started with Creative Macedonia – I wanted to create a creative centre – and I started it but it is rescheduled because of Coronavirus. But the idea was to have a creative centre where if you want to learn a skill you can go here and learn sewing, embroidery, wood-carving – any artisan skill you want to learn no matter your age – you can go there and learn and then sell your work and provide income for you and your family. So to have this place where you can learn the skills but also sell the products.
So for children back 20 -30 years ago, all of our parents and grandparents learned in school how to do things like embroidery, stitching, sewing and all these artisan skills. But nobody is doing it anymore. So I am hoping to make a creative centre where you have all these learning experiences available – and then to show the world that we have beautiful handmade products and very creative artisans in Macedonia.
And now to finish off with a slightly different question: what is your favourite (local) dish?
How can you ask this? I’ve got like ten at least. OK, I have to say it’s Ajvar. Ajvar is roasted pepper, it’s a traditional Balkan dish and it’s a competition between all these Balkan states which produce Ajvar. So we do it usually this time of year, around August – September when we prepare for the winter. And it is made of roasted peppers. When my mum makes it freshly in the yard and when it’s still hot you put it on home-made bread with some feta cheese on top and that is the best. It’s a perfect dish for me.
Jitse29 August 2020
Link from the interview: https://www.socialchangeacademy.org/2020/09/07/social-entrepreneurs-spotlight-blog-2-izabela-sokolovska/