Being businessworthy in Beirut: Interview with CEO Sarah Beydoun
Thursday, 30 April 2020 14:32
Sarah’s Bag is a Lebanese fashion house and social enterprise that empowers women, employing over 200 prisoners, ex-prisoners and underprivileged women. Their artisan handbags have been spotted on the arms of Beyoncé and Amal Clooney, but now the company is navigating a dual crisis.
In many parts of the world, the economic and political situation was already precarious before the pandemic outbreak. Producing and selling products in Lebanon has not been easy since the revolution began several months ago. This means that the current pandemic forced 2016 Business for Peace Honouree Sarah Beydoun to take on the complexities of a crisis on top of a crisis. We talked with the fashion designer and entrepreneur about how her company, Sarah’s Bag, is responding.
What’s the situation in Lebanon?
For us, the pandemic has been able to inflict maximum damage on a country already going through one of the worst crises of its history. By the time we started quarantine in March, Lebanon was already months into the worst financial crisis the country has seen since the Civil War ended in 1991.
As a social enterprise, the human element of our work is at the heart of what we do and everything that we create. We are involved in local initiatives to support the creative sector in Lebanon, because this feels like an existential crisis for all of us here. We don’t know where the country is heading.
Sarah’s Bag has been in crisis mode for the past five months. We have been in business for 20 years. We have already weathered war and political and economic crises, but what we are experiencing now is unprecedented. I am in a crisis within a crisis.
How has the pandemic affected your business? How have you as a leader responded?
I had to be honest with my team and tell them that things are tough and are going to be tough for a while. We had to make difficult decisions as a team and a company.
During the past five months, hundreds of businesses in Lebanon have gone bankrupt, or cut hours, salaries and jobs. Unlike others, I wanted to avoid lay-offs as much as I could. Now, we are operating at 10% of our capacity, so some of the team and I are on half salaries. However, for employees who are in the lower wage bracket, the salary cuts were less.
We worked on a strategy to compensate for the local loss in sales by focusing on our online boutique in addition to focusing on the international market. The type of products people are buying are essentials and things for the home. We therefore plan to work on big pieces for home décor rather than for handbags. This way, I can keep all these artisans employed.
What would you say to fellow business leaders about how to act during these times?
Consumers are more aware than ever of how brands treat their workers. Companies have to be careful not to be tone deaf during a crisis. People will be watching to see how these companies will react, and business as usual will no longer work. I do not think people will go back to this. This is the right time for businesses to think of the kind of impact they can have, and I hope this means an increase in social enterprises.
Businesses have to find ways to protect their workers, especially in crisis. This means we have to focus on saving jobs as much as possible. This is more important than shareholder profits; these are the people behind the successes of the company. It would be incredibly sad and disheartening if there isn’t any kind of reevaluation of business values after this global disaster.
I started from scratch. When you start from scratch, you can always do it again. A lot of businesses also are going to start listening to social demands, and other businesses are going to emerge as a response to social needs.
Many people worry that this crisis will have a disproportionate impact on underprivileged groups. At the same time, there might be an opportunity to create a ‘new normal.’ How do you hope the world changes in the aftermath of this crisis?
We have to be in tune with what is happening around us. The crisis will impact a lot of underprivileged people. Everywhere in the world, this is going to impact those who have the least. There will be an opportunity to create a new normal. I hope people will emerge from this crisis and extract from it a new way of acting and living.
A lot of nice things come out of a crisis. This pandemic has brought the world closer and people are looking for instances of hope, kindness, solidarity and humanity. These should also be business values and consumers will be watching to see how companies stepped up and had a positive impact during a crisis and these companies will be rewarded for it with loyalty after this difficult time is over.