Entrepreneur, engineer, designer. Ella Peinovich fits many categories, but her current role as ‘founder’ somehow manages to encompass all. Ella, along with Kate and Gwen, started up Soko after three years working on social enterprises in and around the slums of Nairobi. This experience, as well as a background in systems design, and a desire to empower female entrepreneurs, drives her work at Soko.
Growing a business with offices in three time zones is no easy task – what’s this powerhouse’s secret to staying energized? Building value in the world, and excellent Kenyan coffee.
Can you tell us a little about your background leading up to founding Soko?
While I was pursuing my graduate degree, I decided early on that I wanted to be involved in development. I had been working in the corporate world, and decided I definitely wanted to return my focus to having a “giving back” attitude, and to make it a part of my life moving forward. I landed an opportunity in Kenya working on another social enterprise. It was thinking about how to develop technologies that can be a solution to a problem which led to the development of Soko.
What problem were you hoping to solve with Soko?
Access. I had this hobby of working with artisans, buying their jewelry and also building relationships with them, creating unique designs with them that I would bring back to sell in the US. I wanted to design a technology that could essentially replace the middleman, so I would no longer having to cart suitcases of jewelry back home to sell. Soko came from this, of thinking how I could create a tool that allows for artisans to access consumers directly. My interest was in creating a platform for artisans to post their works online, similar to an Etsy or Amazon, but bridging geography, economic, and technological barriers. Soko is one solution.
What is a typical day for you at Soko?
After starting my calls with the US team as early as 6am Nairobi-time, I often make it into the office around 9am. From there the day is filled with artisan visits and team meetings strategizing the M&E plan for our social impact goals or the next product application. By mid-day I join the team for lunch at the umbrella tables out in the lawn of our offices or have a partnership meeting at a nearby coffee shop. The coffee in Kenya is amazing! By 4pm Nairobi-time the US is just waking up and it is back on Skype or g-chat to discuss our global goals.
Favorite piece from the Kenya collection?
I love, love, love the Nusu Necklace. The horn is a beautiful natural material and Veronicah has made a very elegant and yet exciting design by contrasting the half black horn with half natural horn that marbles at the neckline with a pop of color to peak your interest. Yet the most intriguing part of the piece is knowing how it is up-cycled from butcher waste into an amazing object of adornment that supports an entire community from the street kids who collect the horn to the many artisans. It is a piece with a life that touches so many people.
If you weren’t working on Soko, what would you be doing?
Soko is really the epicenter of all my interests. As a woman, I want other female entrepreneurs to succeed. As someone coming from an engineering background, I’ve always believed in technology as being the systemic tool for flexible, widespread change. I also think Africa has inspired me with its warm environment and open, hopeful people, in such a way that I’m really trying to ride the wave with them
Favorite part of living in Nairobi?
You mean besides the great coffee? It has to be the amazing weather all year round coupled with the great cultural events. Nairobi is a cosmopolitan city with amazing food, art and music available most every genre; from Blankets and Wine on the first Sunday of each month to the container studios at the Kuona Trust, or a rough ride out to the Kitengele Glass Factory there is always something new and inspired that is coming out of Nairobi.
Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs?
Surround yourself with intelligent, like-minded people who share your values and vision. Skills can be learned, but passion and drive cannot.