In our monthly Digital Nomad Girls interview series we will feature interviews with Digital Nomad Girls from around the world with interesting location independent jobs.
This week we talked to Stella, online social entrepreneur and founder of 22 STARS.
Introduce yourself! Where are you from, what’s your background and where are you currently living?
I was born in Germany but moved to the Netherlands at age 6. Following in the footsteps of my parents, I lead a very active life and have travelled all over the world.
For the last couple of years I have literally been living nowhere. At the moment I am travelling in a Land Rover through West Africa: Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, and DRC while working on my new 22STARS project: bridging cultures through fashion and design.
You created a social enterprise called 22STARS. Tell us a bit about it and how you got inspired to become an online social entrepreneur!
In 2008, I decided to travel around the world alone for about eight months (South America, Hawaii, new Zealand, Australia, South Africa). Wherever I went, I was regularly confronted with poverty and injustice. For that reason I decided to do a master’s in Public International Law where I learned that the best way to help people out of poverty is by making sure that they can provide for themselves. I wrote my thesis about girl child soldiers within the Lord Resistance Army and visited Uganda in 2009 to volunteer at an AIDS Information Center and do research for my thesis. This is how my passion and interest for Uganda started. I interviewed a couple of women who were making jewellery from recycled paper.
A few years later I founded my social enterprise called 22STARS. I help post war victims in Uganda designing their paper jewellery and find international and national market to sell their products. I also raise money for school fees for the children and I help women get small business skills. Travelling is a huge part of my life. Twice a year I spend months at a time in Uganda making new designs with the women and checking on production and quality.
From Uganda I ship all the products to the Netherlands in big 30 kilo boxes. Shipping costs and import taxes are always way more expensive than people expect. Whenever I’m not in Uganda, my work is a big mix of everything and I can do it all from my laptop. Designing new collections, writing product descriptions and stories for the website, social media, finding new retailers, keeping contact with customers, making special edition collections, editing videos and pictures; the list goes on.
Why was it important to run your business as a social enterprise?
I want to help people directly in improving their life and making an impact. In particular, I choose people to work with who have no other chance on the job market because they are illiterate and ill. The story of one of my artisans, Susan Laker, is very touching.
Susan was born in Northern Uganda. When she was only 13, she had her first child. Her husband was a soldier, and soon left her, never to return. Susan fled to Kampala because of the war, where she found out that she was HIV-positive, had tuberculosis and cancer. She was extremely weak. When she got better she started working in the stone quarry in the Acholi Quarter. A terrible place to work with not much hope for the future. After Susan started working with us, she was able to build a new home for herself and her three children. Before that, they were all living in a tiny room, perhaps 1.5 by 1.5 metres, with no electricity or running water. With our help she went back to school, improved her English and now helps us as a translator. Susan’s dream was always to become a fashion designer. Recently we bought her a sewing machine and are now paying a teacher so she can start making bags and clothes. In this way she will not only be making products for the western market, but also for her local market. All her three kids are in school and doing really well. It is hard to imagine, but if these women were not working with us, they most likely would still be in the stone quarry, or would be dead by now.
What advice do you have for other women who’d like to start a social enterprise?
I would recommend to just get started. Just give it a try and see how it goes. Talk to a lot of people and see if there’s a market. It helps a lot if you go to meetings with other startups and entrepreneurs so you can get ideas and follow a course, and just really talk to people.
I would definitely suggest to go out and sell the product at a market. Even if you don’t make a profit, you still get a lot of customer experience, and you can talk to your customers right there, which is really helpful for an online store. Have your own website and see if you can collaborate with bloggers or magazines.
The best marketing effort I’ve found is to partner up with bigger companies. I don’t have a large marketing budget, but what I’ve done is partner with a website called Discovered, they put more effort into marketing and have a higher margin.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your business?
It is really a challenge working with artisans who have no phone, no email address, had little education, are HIV positive, war-traumatized, cannot read and write, speak only Acholi and have very large families. So that is definitely my biggest challenge. But that is also the main point of my business. Making fashion that gives back. Part of our net profit will be used to finance our 22STARS projects, educating our designers and their children.
Back to travel and the nomad lifestyle. What is your favourite city/country/beach/mountain destination to work from? What is important to you when choosing your next destination?
I have a lot of favourite destinations, but Cape Town is definitely one of my favourites. Obviously I travel many times to Uganda and to Africa, because I need to go there for my business. The rest of the year I love to hang out with other Digital Nomads, and I have a nice group of girls who are also location independent who I see now and then in different places. I went on the Nomad Cruise twice already and will join again this year. I also joined Coboat and some other workation camps.
Do you have a funny/crazy nomad story you’d like to share with us?
Recently, I arrived in Marrakesh in the middle of the night and got picked up by two other digital nomads that I know from some FB communities. We drove to Agadir in the middle of the night, arrived around 4 am, just put a mattress on top of the land rover and some blankets, and then the three of us were sleeping there! Around 5 am we woke up because some Moroccan kids discovered that our spot was great to have an after party and played loud Moroccan house music. Luckily I fell back asleep again, but woke up around 9 am to the sound of tourists standing next to us sitting on a camel!
How do you connect with and meet new people while travelling?
Often through Facebook groups, but also by just bumping into people in bars. I also have a tinder profile which clearly states: no mating, no dating, and that I am into people who share a passion for music, travelling, love, adventure, sports & changing the world. So far I met great people through it. And since I use it more as an app to hang out with people, I would also take my male friends with me. I had already a couple of guys thanking me for bringing them along to my “tinder dates” because they became really good friends afterwards. Haha.
What item should every Digital Nomad Girl pack?
Swiss Army Knife. Babybell. Tabasco. Lipstick. Mascara. Perfume. Good luck 22STARS bracelets.
What advice would you give a girl friend who wanted to start out as a digital nomad?
Don’t prepare yourself, just go! And while falling off the cliff, you will learn how to fly. Quite often I hear excuses from people, “but what if this” and “I need to do first this”. All nonsense. Just get yourself on the plane, and see from there!
What are your future travel plans?
In October I will be back in Uganda, I will be visiting all the schools and checking how the kids are doing. November is still open, perhaps the USA or Europe. In December I will be on the Nomad Cruise for the third time, travelling to the Dominican Republic.
And last: Do you have a favourite inspirational (or cheesy) quote you’d like to share?
“What you do for yourself dies with you, what you do for others lives on forever.” I would recommend every aspiring entrepreneur to keep that in mind, and make it an incentive for starting their business. Always ask yourself whether you’re giving back with what you do and, if not, how you can make that happen. Also surround yourself with positive people that believe in you and uplift you. And try to not get distracted from your end goal, or let any setback bring you down.