• SEAchange

Shaping the World One Fashion Statement at a Time

Sapahn manufactures fantastic luxury bags and accessories but never at the expense of its people. Co-hosts of The Stream of Conscience Podcast, Kyle Cartwright and Graham Pansing-Brooks, meet with Sapahn’s founder, Brooke Mullen to discuss Sapahn’s strive to honor and enhance basic human rights throughout their value chain. An adopter of the regenerative business model, Sapahn has brought happiness and empowerment to people across the globe.


During times of increased COVID-19 cases, Brooke never found her supply chain suffering because she built strong relationships with each and every person involved in manufacturing Sapahn’s products. Even though the company’s mission is far from over, Sapahn has set a fashionable example for all, reminding us that equality within the supply chain never goes out of style.



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If you haven't noticed the world is changing. Consumer and talent demands are evolving and businesses are being held accountable to a broader purpose. This is The Stream of Conscience Podcast, where we celebrate the businesses that are prioritizing purpose to achieve both financial returns and greater impact.


These stories highlight business as a force for good and good as a force for business.

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[Kyle] Hey there. It's your cohost Kyle. We are again with another episode of The Stream of Conscience. And as always, I am joined by my co-founder, co-human, co-host, Graham Pansing Brooks, indeed. We are co-hosts of this podcast and co-founders of SEAchange a consulting firm for purpose-driven businesses.


Today, we are visiting with Brooke Mullen, founder of Sapahn. For those that don't know Sapahn manufacturers, fantastic luxury bags and accessories, but never at the expense of its people. In fact, my wife owns one of her bags, uh, as we speak it's upon strides to make the world a better and more fashionable place by honoring and enhancing basic human rights throughout their value.


And adopter of the regenerative business model spawn has brought happiness and empowerment to people across the globe. So we're really excited to have Brooke Mullen in here with us today. Thanks for joining us.


[Brooke] Thank you. This is super exciting.


[Kyle] So do you want to start off just by giving us some background on the company, the founding values, uh, what brought you to where we are today?


[Brooke] Awesome. Yeah, I'd love to, um, well Sapahn is an ethical fashion brand that creates luxury leather, buttery, soft bags and accessories. Um, but where we're really unique is that our business model really advances human rights. And so it's upon was built with the foundation of human rights. And almost if you will, like, think of.


And then a way of like we're using fashion as a vehicle to promote human rights globally. Um, and really it's upon became like the got on this mission to create opportunities for people that were really in tough circumstances. And so our origin story really actually is about human rights, as I mentioned, and not so much fashion.


Uh, but we use that fashion, you know, to, to create more of a just world and, um, want to create change along the way. And that's how we do it through fashion. Um, And yeah, that's kind of a little bit about, um, the, the crutch of the business, but interesting enough, like I think people get pretty interested in like the backstory, um, did start out to be a fashion brand, but in 2008, my husband and I both from Lincoln, Nebraska, um, decided to move to Thailand to study human rights.


Um, and so at the time I was also working at the United nations on human trafficking. And in that experience, I can understand that, you know, again, these lack of job opportunities that women, primarily men and women. We're experienced, then it would push them into high risk from migration. And this resulted in a lot of increased vulnerabilities and instance of human trafficking.


And so I was just really fascinated by this and started partnering with them and traveling out to really rural communities throughout Thailand and learning from. These women led co-op groups and small businesses in these villages who were also having their own struggles to make sustainable choices and make their business sustainable.


And so there was this amazing gap and that was kind of my call to action. Um, at that time to produce, you know, to what we have now, does these butter soft flatter bags, but they really come from this, you know, that was as of miles and lots of hours on the road. Um, and you know, to these remote villages, um, and you know, this next month we'll celebrate 12 years in place.


[Graham] So well congratulations, on, on 12 years, that's an amazing mile marker and many more to come. Uh, Brooke, one of the things I really think is powerful about what you're saying here is that the, the human rights element of the work that you do, uh, is the main focus and, and that the, in a sense, the, the bags are, and, and the products.


Uh, by-product that you're truly here in the business of people. And so can you unpack that a little bit more for our audience to get, uh, you know, a deeper sense of what that means to be running at this, this purpose of this mission era that's centered on people, uh, but still trying to maintain the notions of, of building and growing a business.


[Brooke] Yeah, definitely. Um, yeah, there's, I mean, amazing a lot to unpack here. Um, I mean, just starting out by like talking about like, you know, with what human rights really at the core is, is about accountability, about equality and about agency. And so really that's kind of a new thing, you know, not a new thing, but like, um, you know, it came out in world war II from, you know, the declaration of human rights.


Um, And so it's been around for seven decades. Um, and really it's just written more recently as to figuring out ways to apply these concepts, obviously to business, because why not? Um, you know, businesses. And so really well, this is, you know, like is really unpacking as like within human rights is that as businesses and as people, right?


We have the responsibility to write about our artisans and we take this very seriously. So when building the, our whole supply chain in Thailand, it was crucial for me to travel thousands of miles to meet these artists where they work, where they live to understand about their culture, their community, what their challenges were, but like more importantly, what their dreams are and how we can mobilize that.


Um, We're accountable to the, since we're accountable to our customers, we're accountable to employees, but what's kind of missing in a lot of businesses is like, it's a whole supply chain. We're accountable to those people. Those are sins across the world. And how will we do that? And what that looks like is kind of was really cool.


And it started from day one and one of the things. Um, we build up a relationship directly with them, like I mentioned. Um, and so we know, start to finish. Who's making it, how it's being made, um, all of our artists and set their own wages, which is like, incredible. Um, do you have that power and autonomy? Um, obviously they know if they shoot too high or whatnot.


Obviously we're not sustainable, right? So it's just this beautiful back and forth, this relationship, um, and collaboration. Um, and it's just inherently has a lot of dignity and equality built in right in that, as we're both at the seat at the table, having this conversation, it's not a top-down approach.


Um, and we solve problems together, which is amazing. So like, I mean, we've saw this a ton through COVID, um, and our experience where. A lot of people were having supply chain issues. And we weren't a minute came really from the core of having this strong foundation relationship with our whole supply chain.


Um, and so these are just some of the ways in which we built that, but how that's, you know, unique to nuts. And of course we had the whole decade living in Thailand. And so I understand that that's something that's can be challenging for some people, um, to build the whole supply chain based on that. But it really starts from, you know, these principles and these ideas of accountability, equality, and agent.


[Kyle] Yeah. I mean, you you've, you've said it a number of times, but it's really worth restating the focus on relationships. And you're in a unique position. Having developed those relationships in a cultural awareness and the needs that exist, having listened to the people that you're aiming to serve. And I think that's so important for all businesses to take, to take a note around that.


If you, if you have a stakeholder. Ensure that you're listening to them and including them in your decision-making process. So I just want to reiterate that and acknowledge that, that you've done wonderful work around that. Um, and I think that leads a little bit into a question here. Um, you know, we use the term regenerative business model.


I wonder if you can unpack that a little bit for us. And, um, you know, you've described probably a number of ways that that takes shape, but, but describe that term, uh, and bring it to light for the audience.


[Brooke] Yeah. Well, Gosh, when I think about it, it's really about fostering the ecosystem right. Where it starts with respect to humans.


Um, and really, again, being accountable to the impact that a business has on the people, environment and community. And so, um, you know, some ways that we're regenerative regenerative is, you know, um, is. It's kind of within people, especially as, you know, again, going to them directly and looking and asking them, what does empowerment look like to, you know, um, Is there a whole part of it, you know, the change in a lot of, you know, businesses right now.


It's great. Like the whole giveback of, of things. And when we thought, well, what does our give back look like for human rights and for our business model, our artisans, you know, when we're like, well, gosh, we're trying to empower artisans. We should ask them right. Ask them what does empowerment look like to them?


And for them, it was all about, um, Brooke. I know how to send my kids to school. So, you know, cause we're like, oh, well scholarship or this or that. And they know how to, um, you know, if I need a sewing machine with them business, I know how to provide for that. But what I can't create and do is, you know, the opportunity.


And so, um, and not only the opportunity for the job in that orders. We're treated along the way with dignity, respect and there's accountability within that whole process. And so, um, you know, with all still kind of unpacking that a little bit was, you know, with COVID a lot of, we saw a lot of businesses, especially in the retail area.


Completely when COVID hit, they dropped in canceled all their orders. So we saw the ripple effects now of, you know, and have in the last year of what that happened and how the local people and these communities were impacted. And even just talking to our Thai artisans and I talked to them weekly, um, 80%, they set up other leather workers within Bangkok, alone, all were sent home back to their villages with no work because.


I mean again, the ripple effect or has got canceled. And then all of a sudden, you know, these people in a very vulnerable situation, we're out to dry. That was, I mean, that's just kind of when, when, when we're not accountable to that, like how can we work with, you know, how can as a business, we have such a, a beautiful opportunity to be a part of that change.


Um, and for the community, these communities on the ground, um, and that, you know, takes place through an open dialogue and conversation. Um, Uh, so that's, you know, for us, that was kind of one of the ways where our arsons came to us during this time, um, as an example of the regenerative and they said, Hey, w you know, we need face massive.


You know, this is two years ago, March and face masks were very hard to come by. And they said, well, what if, um, what if we meet. Uh, the line from your handbags. And we started making face masks, Ms. Thumb to your cause. It keeps us, you know, it keeps our lights on. It helps like a massive need for you, um, and the states.


And so we, you know, that was an amazing idea that came from them. And, um, again, it kept their ecosystem alive. It kept us alive, you know, serve such a great need. And so we stripped out thousands and thousands of face masks. Um, you know, if you bought five from Snap-on, like we donated, you could put. Emails of your friends and we would give them all free face masks as well.


Um, but again, this is just kind of, uh, one glimpse of what I guess, a regenerative business it's like, what is a whole ecosystem and how does it impact? And oftentimes we think about environment, which is. A hundred percent, um, what we needed to be thinking of. Um, I guess that's where the value I can add is really talking also about that human regenerative model, where they're a part of that system.


[Kyle] Well, and it's so critically important that organizations and businesses are thinking about the full spectrum of their impact and everything that they're touching, the ripple effects of supply chain of the organizations they do business with. And what's so unique, I think is, is the fact that you started out from the get-go having this deep understanding, but also this, this incredible intentionality around how you are going to grow and build your organization, keeping all of those elements and all of those steps along the way in mind, within your business practice.


Help us understand a little bit more too, about what were some of the challenges that have been presented by starting to build a business with that focused in mind?


[Brooke] Absolutely. Um, gosh, you know, I think at the end of the day, like you have to have a sustainable business, so you have to have, you know, A sustainable product and you know, now a sustainable product, but a product that people love, um, you know, and one of the things, and just the early days, um, in 2010, when I started, you know, nine, when I started with the idea, a lot of people were figuring, you know, trying to figure out income generation projects.


And how do you mobilize, you know, people in vulnerable situations. And it's, I mean, at the end of the day, it was like, wow, if we want to develop something, we, you know, to make it sustainable, it has to be quality. So first upon that's where it came. It was like, we have to, we're gonna produce this beautiful.


Fashion accessories. And with these artisans that, and it's, you know, not only that, not only quality wise. So I traveled to a ton of different companies all throughout Thailand to source also amazing leather, where it was like, you know, people who were producing it the best way and, you know, uh, hardware and all that, because to be sustainable, it's like we need to have a great product.


And, um, I started also doing the design work. And talking with our customers back in the states, what did they want? So designing a product that, you know, they wouldn't have to sacrifice quality for doing good. And so I think that was kind of the first part, right? It's like, okay, we need a great product to sell it.


And people, you know, I love to have to be an old invest in things that align with their values, but we know we want to be. We want to customers come back and come back. And again and again, because of the quality of what was going on and what they're a part of, that was the first part. Um, and of course, you know, working with, with, um, artists and communities who have just other, I mean, just like life, right?


It's just challenges that pop up that was challenging to, you know, figure out what, like, how can we consistently reliably produce quality on a timeline that's, you know, predictable. Um, and of course we've, you know, had that, um, That's been perfected and, you know, not perfect, but it's gotten better over time, which is amazing.


Um, and just getting better with our systems and our processes. Uh, the other thing, I think that we've come at one point, it was designing nine product lines in nine different villages. So it took me like 2,500 miles and to get to each of these communities. And this is, you know, as a solo entrepreneur, it was just me within the business for the first day.


I don't know, like eight years. And, uh, You know, that was the cool thing I was figuring out like, okay, cool. How can we mobilize these women? They're making beautiful products, but then I also had to go market and sell it all in the state. So I would travel back to the states in October and do it, you know, the Christmas holidays that became challenging.


And then, gosh, you know, we moved back to states in 2000, I believe, what was it? 18? We had an 18 month old at the time. So we moved back to the states and really. Um, the primarily, you know, coming back here, it was like a big aha moment of like 90% of my revenue was coming from one product line, one and community.


That was our leather. So that was a hard, I mean, long story, but that was a hard, hard moment where I had to, we had to shut down and not shut down, but put on pause, a lot of orders and connections with artisans. To, to remain sustainable and relate to grow our mission, you know, grow mission through this product and focus really on one product at, at the time.


Fast forward, three more years, we opened a flagship store last year and have. Regroup and bring in those artisans that we once, you know, empowering worked with from day one. So, I mean, balancing, you know, the mission of like wanting to create as many jobs and opportunities for women as we can in Thailand with like, you know, this market.


And you know, what we do within a small size of a business is, is always just a challenge of resources and whatnot. Especially being a company that we haven't raised money or received, you know, we've received. Um, grant from the city of Lincoln, which has been amazing. But other than that, like it's all been, we've all, um, we've grown just, you know, from kind of the boots on the ground and kind of the bootstrap model.


So that was always, they had the challenges as well.


[Graham] No, I was just, I was going to say it's incredibly admirable, Brooke, and what you've been able to grow and accomplish and, uh, you know, the. Not only to do it in a way that is so ethically focused and mindful to, to human rights. Um, but also to grow a brand that has that, that quality, that recognition, um, and is, is seen as a premier product.


Um, there, you know, it's, it's not there. There's no, uh, cutting corners at any at any turn. Uh, and it's really remarkable to see what you've been able to grow and accomplish.


[Kyle] Yeah, I was going to mention, you know, It's it's, it can be messy and nuanced. Right. Uh, and you've kind of highlighted that there's, there's never going to be, I think, a perfect marriage, uh, and, and that you're going to have a hundred percent of your mission fulfilled and a hundred percent of your business activity fulfilled, but it's how do we, how do we blend those two in a way that, that that's in balance?


And there's probably never a perfect balance, but, um, you know, I think a lot of people will appreciate hearing that, that there are some times where, um, Yeah, those challenges, uh, rear rear the rear, their heads. And, uh, you have to make some challenging decisions, but that you can, um, maintain your focus and your values along the way.


[Graham] Absolutely.


[Brooke] And, you know, kind of, you know, there is, there's no cutting corners when it comes to human rights, but yeah, there's some things that may take like, okay, well, we might not be able to create this opportunity at this time, you know, in terms of orders, but, you know, really asking somebody to.


Reduce your wages and all that just has, you know, significant ripple effects, um, and detrimental ones. Um, and these kind of types of situations. Sure.


[Kyle] Yeah. There's, there's certain bars. You don't, you don't cross, but you do, you know, and you mentioned you, you have to find a way to market the product and make it and make it sustainable both from a business standpoint, in order for it to be sustainable from a human rights standpoint.


Right. So in that sense, we always come back to, you know, business as a force for good and good as a force for business. And I think you've shown that cycle really early beautifully here.


[Brooke] Yeah. And Kyle, you mentioned also, which is like it's something always on my mind is in what I would love to tell everyone in the audience listening, is it.


It ideally you want to be perfect and everything you want to be a little to, you know, address, like all the, you know, the stuff with, you know, your human rights supply chain. You want to make sure you're environmentally sound and impactful. And, and, you know, it's taken a lot of years and, um, you know, to kind of come to this, but we have this kind of concept in saponins called carry forward.


And it's like, we're not perfect today. But like, we are making that day by day that right. Seven the right direction. And, you know, Like, you know, it took me seven years to figure out who our supply chain was for leather. I mean, I had to build these relationships before they would take me to you exactly where our tannery was.


And, you know, I know that's, you know, one of the things that our biggest oppor, you know, tunity and we have an impact with lather and, uh, and so it's, you know, it's, it takes time and right. It's this has been 12 years in the business and it's, you know, every day there's something beautiful to work on and progress we made.


I think that's just. Well, it's easy to get if you download, it's like, well, it's not perfect. And, you know, yes, but it's, it's all about the journey and the whole kind of carry forward message is that you don't have to be perfect as you know, the intentionality and the progress for.


[Graham] So, so for those entrepreneurs and business leaders that are out there, uh, either just on, on the precipice of getting moving on their, their journey, um, or even if they're, you know, have been in an established leader in an organization for a number of years, I mean, what would you say to those organizations about, you know, why is purpose important within a business?


[Brooke] I mean, So upon day one started with like an extreme amount of purpose. And I can't imagine like doing what I have done, you know, and anyone who's poured into supine without having that rooted it's something beyond and bigger than us, for sure. And that's the exciting thing it's never accomplished. It's never like completely done.


Right. There's always amazing progress to be made. And, um, I mean, if you don't like, you know, coming back to your why, and even as a person or as a whole entity, like if you're not doing something that matters, like, gosh, jump ship, and figure that out because life's too short and there's so much to be done.


And, um, but in general, having purpose, you know, doing the right things, um, we're taught right as a child, as children, like, you know, the golden rule. And so. You know, train people the way, you know, and that comes with, I guess, human rights, but train the way, you know, treating people the way we want to be treated.


And, um, I mean, that's just a very new, like symbol way of talking about human rights, but, um, there's so much to be done and, you know, with an impact and purpose, um,


[Kyle] What's next for Sapahn. What accomplishments are you looking forward to in 20 22, 23. Next next few years.


[Brooke] The dreams are big, obviously. And so there's no shortage of ideas and dreams. Um, but some of what we have on the pipeline and the roadmap is, um, is to go down the road. Uh, we would like to, you know, to put her hat in to become a, B, B Corp certified. And so that's, you know, the next kind of, yeah. So, you know, I know when we're speaking to the right people in that, um, And so that's really exciting.


Um, so that's one big thing we have for this year. We have a new collection launching here in the next couple of weeks. And, um, so that's always, you know, a big, uh, and, um, in general, it's, you know, it's getting back to, you know, since we haven't been able to travel with COVID, um, it's really getting back to Thailand.


Um, you know, meeting again with artists and our arts and community that we work with day to day, it's, you know, about 25 or 30 women, um, primarily. And so just getting back to seeing them, um, we've got some different things like being able to do some different content and storytelling around that. The other exciting thing is one of our main unique opportunities.


That we do know the supply chain and we, I, you know, I've worked up with, you know, about 30 plus small villages throughout the country. And so really getting back to Thailand and helping other brands who want to source and do good, connecting them. And as you know, supply means bridge and tie. So we would be a liaison again.


Um, and so these communities, you know, as I mentioned, um, with, you know, with cotton, you know, with the scarves and jewelry and whatnot, we can. Collaborate and connect them with other brands to want to bring, um, a really, you know, sustainably, ethically sourced, you know, supply chain in their, in their whole process.


So that's super exciting, um, to think about and to think about the impact that we can make on that scale.


[Kyle] I love it. And I love the, the notion of storytelling. I think, you know, as you, as you develop a following for a brand and value in a brand, I think that storytelling component is so important, especially in the sustainable, the human rights.


Marrying these, these concepts along a capitalistic structure, I think that's so important to create that value. And so I just want to, I want to encourage our listeners to go visit this upon website. Um, I'll say that one of the powerful things, when, when I purchased the, the bag from the pawn for my wife was, you know, the little inserts and the stories of the people who have been involved in the process.


I mean, that. That that brings it home. Right. And it, and it's for me and for my wife, it's, it's a reflection of our values and we're aligning our values with our purchasing practices. And so, um, yeah, I just want to encourage folks to, to head to your website, learn more. Uh, so do you want to tell them where they can do that?


Yeah.


[Brooke] You can do that at Sapahn it's SAPAHN.com. And if you're ever in the chance, you know, like you're in Lincoln, Nebraska, we do have a beautiful flagship store. So we invite. Uh, to come and see us and experience all the boundary soft leather bags, all in one place. Um, yeah, it is, I will say as well as super exciting when you hear customers, you know, they'll say they're in their TSA line or whatnot, or through grocery store and you know, someone's like, oh my God, where'd you get this bag?


I need this in my life. And there's this, this immediate like synergy and connection. Um, it's not only about the design itself, but then it's like, oh, and let me tell you the back story. And there's just this kind of, you know, the sense of connection and our customers. Their name's on the bridge. Their name is, you know, part of the whole story movement.


We couldn't do it without women and people and men, you know, humans who care the way we do. And so who really want to invest in something, um, beautiful. But also that tells a beautiful story. So, yeah. We've thank you for being a part of that journey. Obviously, Kyle and your wife and


[Kyle] Yeah.


[Brooke] On the bandwagon with his fiance.


Well, give her something special. So, um, thank you so much. This is an amazing opportunity and, uh, really enjoyed our conversation.


[Graham] Thank you, Brooke. We really appreciate it and appreciate all the work that you're doing, uh, here and around the world. So thank you.


[Brooke] Thank you.

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