Sumeera Rasul was raised with an appreciation for all things handmade. In her native Pakistan, her father made his living exporting handmade furniture and clothing, and her grandmother taught sewing, knitting, and embroidery to underprivileged girls.
“We grew up around that; it was part of our culture,” Rasul says. “We were always watching my grandmother and learning from her. We had respect for people who work with their hands, as well as for the quality of the things they made. I remember my grandmother looking at certain textiles and saying ‘No, I don’t want that, it’s machine-made.’ To her that meant it wasn’t of good quality. Something made by hand, even with imperfections, feels so much more valuable.”
Throughout the years, Rasul never lost that appreciation for handmade items or the people who make them.
When it came time for her to go to college, Rasul left Pakistan to attend Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. She majored in management and information systems, which she describes as a hybrid degree between business and computer science. She loved technology and went on to hold several prestigious and well-paid jobs at companies like Google, Apple, and HBO.
It was while she was working at HBO Go as director of products that she began the company that was to become her passion. “I learned a lot at my jobs. But you need to continue to learn and grow. For me, finding a job to stay in for the long-term was never the end goal. I changed jobs a few times during my career because I needed to be excited to get up in the morning, to grow, contribute, and be present. I see people in corporate jobs who are not engaged. Actually, much of the workforce is not engaged. That’s a sign that you need to find things that really interest you.”
And what really interested Rasul, after all, was people who worked with their hands to create beautiful and functional objects. So, along with her husband and sister, she created Madesmith, an online marketplace that offers well-crafted, made-in-the-USA products together with the stories of the artisans who create them. Photographs of the artists, their work, and the creative process accompany each story.
Rasul explains, “Through connecting with the makers we’re able to support our local communities and preserve the craftsmanship that becomes part of our everyday culture. We believe in the concept of buy less, buy well.”
By late 2012, Rasul was ready to leave HBO and devote her time to the fledgling company and pursuing her MBA. Quitting the corporate world was a tough decision, she explains, because she had worked her way to senior levels on the corporate ladder, was well compensated, and had much admiration for the people she worked with. But she knows it was the right decision for her. “I came from a very entrepreneurial background. My father always worked for himself.” The Madesmith website was officially launched in March 2013.
“People have responded really well to the storytelling and the collaboration element of Madesmith. Consumers are starting to understand the importance of handmade and things that are made sustainably and locally. The awareness of why a handmade item costs as much as it does or where it comes from is not as far along as I thought it would be, but that’s the challenge. We’re working on educating people through the stories we tell.”
Rasul particularly values the relationships that are forged with the artisans and designers. “I love meeting the makers. Many of them are shy or humble or may not see the importance of what they do because they do it every day. But when we share their stories they’re very grateful.” Madesmith not only showcases their work on the website but also supports and promotes the artisans through a variety of channels.
In addition to the marketplace, Madesmith has also launched an online academy that offers courses designed specifically for makers and product designers who want to build a strong foundation in business skills such as marketing, branding, and growth strategies. Madesmith Academy also offers design and craft classes in areas such as fashion design and sustainable jewelry making.
Rasul expects that Madesmith will continue to grow. “We are getting bigger, but at the same time we want to make sure that the quality is controlled and curated. We don’t want to lose the essence of who we are. I want everyone to be proud to be part of the collective. I don’t want us to become another eBay or Etsy where the nice work gets lost in the mass-produced stuff and the sheer volume.
“When you have your own business there is always so much more to do, always something else you need to tackle. We’re moving in the right direction and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved. To me there is no such thing as failing. It’s always about learning and morphing what you’ve learned very quickly from something that doesn’t work into something successful. We always work with that philosophy.”
- You just have to jump in. Once you can tell people you’ve started, it’s amazing how many people come out to help and support you and push you in the right direction. Have a plan and keep moving and keep taking steps.
- A lot of building a business is building mutual relationships. You can barter. Form relationships with up-and-coming bloggers, and give them something in return. Circular relationships are very important when you’re starting out.
For more tips on starting a business, check out Sumeera’s blog: Roadmap to Leaving Your Corporate Job and Starting a Creative Business