DREAM CATCHER: SARAH CONTRUCCI SMITH
Sarah Contrucci Smith grew up in the Midwest, Indonesia, and California, making her a lover of Green Bay Packers football, bold red wine, endless traveling, and the ocean. After fulfilling a post-collegiate commitment to herself to do three different things in three years (during which she worked for a marketing company in Los Angeles, taught English to kindergartners in Mexico, and revamped a website for a college in Kansas), she earned a Master’s in International Development and set her sights on getting back to international living and using her business skills in a meaningful way. Part of her Master’s program took place in Uganda, which is where she was first introduced to projects that design and sell goods as a way to provide market access and develop impoverished economies. She stayed in Uganda for three years, working for a for-profit company and non-profit organization and meeting her husband Blake in the process. A month-long backpacking trip they took to Central America introduced her to local artisans with whom she began collaborating, and she founded Ara Collective to create beautiful textiles that utilize their traditional techniques and designs, preserve their rich heritage, and appeal to the modern home and traveler. Ara Collective donates 10% of each sale to community development initiatives the artisans already have in place, including literacy classes for adults, youth scholarships for children, and health care. Sarah now lives in Austin, Texas, enjoying endless tacos, traveling to Central America regularly, and working from her home studio with her sweet Rhodesian Ridgeback fur baby, River.
The three words that best describe me are… Driven, zesty, endlessly curious.
How did your former career prepare you for running your own business? In every way. There are moments in life when you realize you are using every single thing you’ve ever learned or done, and building Ara Collective has consistently been one of those moments for me. It makes me incredibly grateful for the crazy journey that brought me here. The biggest experiences I’ve leaned on from my previous work in business and international development are how to create a solid business strategy and efficient processes, and how to approach and work with all the unknowns, miscommunications, and differences in cultures.
What was the biggest obstacle that you had to overcome before launching your business? Myself. It’s frightening to take the biggest idea you have, the thing that you keep so close to your heart, and to let it out into the world to succeed or fail on the public stage. For me it took gaining confidence, hearing unending support from my community, and just getting sick and tired of having a dream that I was always thinking about but never doing.
How long were you in business before you started to see real growth? What do you attribute that to? I launched my first collection in June 2015 so we’re still in the infancy stage, but I saw a huge shift in momentum and attention to Ara within just a few months. I started having shops and publications reach out to me about collaborations, rather than me cold-calling them. I attribute this shift in momentum to three things: Time, the Yellow Conference in LA, and my move to Austin. Time because no matter how great your product, branding, or messaging is, it takes time for people to notice you. The Yellow Conference because I was able to network with incredible people and was armed with a lot of good tools to fine-tune my company and leadership. I also moved to Austin, a melting pot of professionals who are entrepreneurial and friendly enough to want to connect you with anyone they think can help build your dream. This city is the prime place to network with people and companies across the country.
How did you fund your dream? My husband, Blake, is amazing and fully believes in my dream and the purpose behind the company. We’ve funded Ara Collective with our savings but I’m starting to be able to fund it with my sales. Even if I’m not paid for awhile, I want the profit from our sales to sustain orders to the artisans, traveling to meet them, and cover operational and marketing needs.
Describe a day in your life. How do you organize your day to best optimize your time? Are there any organizational tools you can’t live without? I travel at least every other week so my days vary quite a bit. If I’m in Austin, I’m up by 7:00am and spend about an hour fueling up on coffee and avocado toast, sitting outside, reading the Bible, and writing down my concerns and gratitude. Getting centered in the morning with my mind and soul really helps me in my goal to be both driven and kind as a leader, creative, friend, and wife. After that, I tackle my always-too-long task list using my Day Designer to keep me focused on the big things, the little things, and appointments throughout the day. Around 6:30pm my husband takes River to the dog park and that’s my time to power through the last of my tasks, start cooking dinner, or grab a glass of wine and sit outside for some “me” time. As an entrepreneur, I find it very difficult to fall asleep and to shut off my brain from all the brainstorming and tasks and email responses, but I try to get into bed by 11:00pm and read something non-work-related with some chamomile tea.
Lately I’m inspired by… Peru. I’ve been designing with some artisans there for my 2016 collection and am just blown away by what they’re doing and the way they’re doing it. I love seeing age-old techniques that artisans practice with such skill and pride, and seeing how different it is all over the world. I just booked my ticket to go down over New Year’s and I can’t wait to be down there to meet with the artisans, wander the markets, and explore the country!
If I weren’t doing what I do, I would be… Miserable. I took a long time, a lot of jobs, and many moves to figure out where my passion, purpose, and strengths met. I can’t think of anything else I could be doing that would be more rewarding, challenging, and significant.
A teacher or boss who influenced me is… My mother, Nancy Contrucci. She’s a professor so when we were Indonesia she was able to start a small school for the international students. Not only did she teach me the value of being a forever learner and seeing people as the unique and dignified individuals they are, but she modeled what it is to be a woman who is excellent at what she does, lives by her passions and strengths, has a strong marriage and family, and is up for whatever adventure comes next.
Five years from now I see myself and my company… Working in six regions of the world (wait to see what’s in the works!), traveling every quarter, working with a team of dynamic professionals who are just as passionate about this work as I am, and putting in six hour days so I can spend time with my husband and children every day. As a young professional, I try to keep this five-year vision in mind as I shape my company. We want to have kids soon but I also want this company to be strong and growing so I am building it with intention. I think this is something female entrepreneurs have as an advantage. Who says we can’t have it all? Let’s figure out how to build and run things differently.