(#37) ARA COLLECTIVE I Sarah Contrucci Smith
"If you want to live a more creative life, do it every single day. Creativity never dies but it does take a lot of practice. Do something creative regularly and you’ll discover that genius living in you."
Where did you grow up? Describe that place and its people…
I grew up bouncing around quite a bit. The first six years of my life were spent in the northern Midwest, mostly in Wisconsin, and then we moved to Indonesia for eight years. My dad was a bush pilot for a non-profit organization and my mom was a teacher so I spent the majority of my childhood exploring forests, bartering in local markets, and flying around some of the most beautiful and remote areas of the world. Our community was a mix of Indonesians, Danis (the local tribe in the area), and global expats from Japan to England to New Zealand. Moving back to the States at age 15 was a rough transition in the world of rules, concrete, and popularity contests but I wouldn’t have traded my childhood for anything. It significantly shaped my love for travel, my endless curiosity, and my worldview.
What were you like as a child? What did you want to do when you grew up?
As a kid, I was self-determined, adventurous, responsible, and loved vegetables. Since both my parents worked, my little brother was my responsibility a lot of time, which I loved as an excuse to be bossy (although I did and do adore him!). I loved excelling in school but always preferred to be outside on some adventure with my dad or my friends. I don’t remember what I wanted to be when I grew up but I once found a note from 1st grade that said I wanted to be a dancer, singer, and astronaut. Great combination, if you ask me!
When did you first leave home? Where did you go?
The first time I left home for longer than a sleepover was for boarding school in 8th grade. The international school I was going to in Indonesia only taught through 7th grade so I went to a larger international school on the coast of New Guinea. I absolutely loved it and found moving to college a lot easier because of this experience.
How did you end up in Austin? Was there a particular reason you chose Austin? Is there something about it that is especially inspiring to you?
We came to Austin last summer for my husband’s MBA program. We were living in California but he’s from Dallas and Austin was just about the only place he could convince me to move to in Texas. But I’ve loved it so far! From the easy access to nature, everyone being so friendly, and all the tasty food, I’m happy to put down our roots here. Austin is full of creative people that are actually for each other rather than competing against each other. That was a pleasant surprise to me and has been an amazing place to launch and grow Ara Collective.
What did you do before you started Ara Collective?
Right out of college I worked in business marketing and, although I loved the business world, I longed for a meaningful way to contribute my creativity and business mindedness to social injustice. My International Development graduate program had summer residencies in Uganda, which introduced me to product design, production management, and skills training in social businesses. I ended up staying in Uganda for three years and learned a lot about being creative with limited resources, cross-cultural communication, and the complexities of economic and community development.
How did Ara Collective come to be - How’d you get started?
During a month-long backpacking trip with my husband in Central America in 2014, I feel deeply in love with the textile art there. But - we’ve all experienced it - I loved the work and the artisans I was meeting but I just didn’t think the colors would work in our home. I started asking the artisans if they’d be open to working with me to blend their traditional designs and time-tested techniques with new color palettes and applications. To my surprise, they were open to it! There was so much talent and skill there but, without market access and the knowledge of trends in the US, they were struggling to make a good income from their work. These people didn't need skills training or new designs, they were already masters of their craft. They just needed some updated colors, the right dimensions for common pillow inserts in the States, and access to the global marketplace. That's when Ara Collective was born.
What skills did you carry with you that you think made starting your own business a little easier? Or were there any that you needed that came as a surprise?
There are so many big and small things that I done in the past that have helped me start and run Ara. And there are so many big and small things that I wish I knew how to do better! I would say the major things that I already had in my “tool kit” were experience with international production management, designing with limited resources and language, and marketing. And, a fierce work ethic that will do whatever it takes to reach a goal. The legal complexities of tax deadlines, import/export regulations, and state requirements for LLC’s has been a steep learning curve for me.
Was there a particular moment when you knew it was what you wanted to pursue?
I searched a lot for finding the thing that I was passionate about, used my skills and knowledge, and allowed my personality and strengths to flourish. Once I experienced design and social businesses I knew I was getting close but it was really my time in Central America where my love for textiles exploded and working with the artisans for my own company (vision, values, approach, etc.) connected with my soul in such a deep way. I don’t know if this will always be the thing but at this moment I literally cannot imagine caring about, living out, or working harder in anything.
What is the design process like when working with people who craft traditional designs? Are they receptive/inspired by your ideas?
The design process with these artisans is incredible. Their designs, weaving techniques, and dyeing process have been passed down for hundreds or even thousands of years so they are truly masters of their craft. They know their work by heart and watching the complexity is just mind blowing. Ara Collective specifically only works with the artisans’ traditional designs so, once I find a textile design the artisans are making, I’ll ask for modifications in brocade (design) color, backing color, repetition of a specific design, and specifications for the finished product (like the dimensions of a pillow and tassel corners). I’ve been impressed with how open the artisans have been with my ideas, since these are the age-old designs and color combinations of their ancestors after all! In cultures that love bold, vivid colors, they think I’m crazy for putting neutral next to each other but there’s been a few times where they really like the end product. I hope their experience of working with Ara’s color choices helps them as develop their work into marketable products for other customers in the future.
Is there anything new in your line that you are really excited about? Maybe even a new community of people you have started working with?
Our new Spring/Summer 2016 line is our first collection with our new artisans in Peru. The colors and textures in the Peruvian frazadas are gorgeous and I’m really happy with this next phase of our home goods collection. I’m thrilled to be working with the Andean weaving culture and love learning about their techniques, symbolic designs, and history of the craft.
What inspires your work? What motivates to you to do what you do?
I love traveling and exploring cultures, ways of life, and ways of seeing things. I can't control myself around textiles and think the makers are absolutely extraordinary artists, storytellers, and bearers of their heritage. And I believe these talented craftsmen and women, as with all human beings, have value and the right to freedom. I think good business, that is done differently and values both profit (sustainability) and people, can make good changes in the world that empowers others, opens up global trade, and allows every person to build the future they want. Poverty is crap and has got to go. At the end of the day, I'm motivated by them. Not as a charity but as holding up my end of the deal. The weavers I work with are extraordinary artists with high quality goods. I have the market access to connect their goods with buyers and to tell their stories with dignity. I need their excellence and they need my excellence. We’re in this together and we’ll succeed or fail in this venture together.
What are your biggest challenges? Do you have an achilles heel?
My biggest challenge right now is figuring out how to scale Ara Collective up and lead it in a direction that I works for our partners, our customers, and the heart of Ara. Growth is exciting but also challenging. There’s a million ways to go and, at the end of the day, part of the freedom of being an entrepreneur is getting to decide which way you want to go for the future you envision.
My achilles heel is perfectionism. It’s one of my greatest strengths as a designer and entrepreneur. It keeps me organized and slows down my decision-making. It perfects my designs and strangles them. It catches every quality issue and drives others crazy. I want to embrace it but also restrain it.
What lessons have you learned relating to working for yourself/entrepreneurship/life balance?
My studio is on the first floor of our home so finding a work/life balance is hard. There’s always more that could be done and I really struggle to feel a sense of accomplishment by the end of the day. But I'm not sure I believe balance is possible or necessary. We all need rest and work ethic, alone time and a social life but I think it's more about seasons than balance. In some seasons I really need to bear down on a project, put in long hours, sleep less, and leave the laundry to pile up. But in other seasons work isn't as demanding or important as my family, rest, or supporting my husband in his busy season. And that's okay. Every season passes and, I find, the more I embrace the seasons the less they're stressful, guilt-ridden, or exhausting.
What are the things that you want to fill your days with? How does your work allow you to live authentically?
I want my days to be filled with inspiration, hard work, meaningful connections with others, good food from the earth, and the wind in my hair. I want to find gratitude and contentment in that. I think what I do allows me to live authentically because I’m doing something that connects with something deep in me, something I feel I was created to pour into, something that I love so much I’ll work tirelessly for. It’s work that is less about me and my image and more about human value, hope and freedom for all persons, and business that contributes positively to the world. And when I’m getting to do the thing that is the most fun, thrilling, humbling, and important to me I feel like I’m living a life worth living.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to do what you do? Or for anyone who wants to live a more creative life?
My best piece of advice is to test out a lot of ideas and experiences as you explore what you love and can excel in. Do whatever it takes to get your foot in the door, even if it includes taking a huge pay cut to start down that “dream path” of yours. If it’s really want you want to do and know you’ll be good at, you’ll be recognized and have better opportunities soon.
If you want to live a more creative life, do it every single day. Creativity never dies but it does take a lot of practice. Do something creative regularly and you’ll discover that genius living in you.
Do you have a morning ritual to you get you ready for the day? or maybe a way to find balance? escape?
Mornings are not my strong suite so my days begin slowly with a cup of coffee, some quiet time for my spiritual life and sense of gratitude, and then a walk along Austin’s Greenbelt with my sweet pup, River. I usually start working around 10:00am and call it quits around 6:00pm.
Any badass women you love? Dead or alive? Is there any woman dead or alive that you would want to have dinner with?
My current badass woman I love is Nada Jones, of Living The Dream (LTD) 365. Nada has been a huge source of inspiration and insight as a business woman, mother, wife, and empowerer of others. She helps me ask the right questions to dig deep into what I want for my personal life + Ara and then discover what my next steps are to make that happen. Her website is a great resource and tool for any boss lady with a dream.
My favorite badass woman in history is Amelia Earhart. Growing up as a pilot’s daughter, I was always enamored by her last flight, her bravery, and her absolute love for curiosity, exploration, and pushing the envelop in a man’s world. I remind myself of her words often, “The most difficult thing is the decision to act. The rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life and the procedure. The process is its own reward.”
Read more about Ara Collective's story and values here.