In addition to her work in Jerash, Noora Sharrab also worked for several years in humanitarian development with the United Nations regional Jordan office. She received her M.A. in Political Science with a specialization certificate in Forced Migration and Refugee Studies, as well as her B.A. in Political Science from York University. She currently lives with her family in Toronto, and works between the Middle East and Canada.
Ogunte: What elements of your life story contributed to the woman and the social entrepreneur you are today?
Noora Sharrab: I first came to Jordan doing primary research for my masters’ program, looking at multi-generational differences in identity and comparing the diaspora Arab identity to the refugee Arab identity. I lived with a couple of families in various refugee camps and was always greeted with hospitality and kindness whenever I met and engaged people around the topic.
One day towards the end of my stay in Jordan, I was taken to an interview by a local social worker, to meet two girls who had just lost their father. They had dropped out of school and were clearly bitter and angry. I was politely trying to ask them some questions to better understand their situation. But this was the first time that my questions were greeted with such aggression - they called me selfish and criticised me for coming to collect my questions and then leaving to a better life while they had to stay where they were.
“If this is what makes you feel better, we’ll answer your questions, but you’re going to go off and live your life. And we stay here.”
I became depressed for a while after that; the encounter triggered some serious soul searching and led me to question everything I thought was right and reasonable. But it was a wake-up call. I realised there had to be more.
Ogunte: How did you go from that wake-up call to founding Sitti Soap?
Noora Sharrab: So I finished my Masters and not long after, came back to Jordan to start an NGO called Hopes for Women in Education, providing refugee women with higher education opportunities through scholarships, internship placements, training - basically everything surrounding education and learning. Our work involved a high number of women who came out of the Jerash refugee camp - a camp that’s known to be more vulnerable because a lot of Gazans live there who don’t even have IDs and therefore cannot integrate into the formal economy very easily.
One day, we were approached by a volunteer, who lived at the camp, to help a local group of women figure out what to do with boxes of soap they had left over from a training workshop by the Italian Embassy.
Ogunte: What had these women been doing with the soap up until then?
Noora Sharrab: Well, they had been trying to sell their products, but without any business acumen - they didn’t understand the concept of cost-profit margin, of supply chain, of sustaining their work in different ways. They were just selling in tiny orders to other families. So my co-founder, Jacqueline Sofia, and myself, decided to put our minds together to help these women make their soap into something more, mainly by figuring out how to tell the stories behind the soap, emphasizing to a wider audience how artisanal craft can create employment opportunities. If people were going to buy these products they would be conscious consumers and care about the women behind the product. So we called the product ‘Sitti Soap’ - 'My Grandmother’s Soap’ - which placed these women, in the eyes of the buyer, at the heart of the work.
Ogunte: A lot of NGOs sell soap, food and crafts produced by vulnerable communities. How did you compete?
Noora Sharrab: We knew this brand was clean and had the potential to be completely up-to-par with commercial market standards, so of course we needed to differentiate Sitti from your average NGO that markets products because people feel sorry for their beneficiaries. We wanted to break the stigma that says because a product came from a camp, it isn’t very good. So we decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign, to promote this kind of messaging and to build brand recognition based on both product story and quality. But the campaign was not just to help with brand perception and visibility, it was to raise money to give the women a regular salary as they built and tested the product going forward. With the support of generous individual donors and businesses across Jordan - we were able to pay for an old shack of a home in the camp and renovate it into a full-fledged centre. A centre which gave Sitti soap women a proper working environment, professional equipment, and a space for more training.
Ogunte: From a refugee camp to a luxury boutique...
Noora Sharrab: Yes! My co-founder and I moved out of Jordan, but stayed with the mission and started introducing the product into the North American market. By giving out hundreds of samples, attending dozens of farmers’ markets, it slowly started to build up. And now - I’m proud that these products are in a luxury boutique in Canada, next to the likes of Burberry. It shows that tides are changing, and consumers want to see ethical brands stocked in commercial spaces.
Ogunte: Where do you draw your energy from?
Noora Sharrab: I get really excited when I see something work and then I really want to do it more; it’s a way to prove it worked once we can do it again. We constantly get bigger sales or orders, and sometimes I’m shocked by who contacts us - the potential in this product drives me.
Ogunte: What is at the heart of your work?
Noora Sharrab: I definitely believe in the product - I’ve tried a lot of soaps and I prefer my own - maybe because I know what’s in my product, I trust it and I truly love it. My own house is stocked with Sitti Soap. In any startup, you always have ups and downs. But I always have to come back to questions like “What is our intention? Who are we serving?”.
It’s all about the women.
Ogunte: How do you close the gender gap in your day to day activities?
Noora Sharrab: All of our artisans are women. It’s a women’s centre operating in a conservative environment, so it’s important we create a space in which our women are able to work and not hide who they are. From our printing press, to our designers, to our photographers - all of them are women. That said, the men we do hire are sent to us through our partnership with the local rehabilitation centre to produce our wooden products like soap dishes. They all have some kind of disability but are able to use their hands in a way that makes them feel useful again.
Ogunte: It’s half soap-half empowerment.
Noora Sharrab: Yes, exactly. People are tired of charity - and the women we work with want to feel dignified. When you put the power in their hands through economic empowerment, you really see how the conversation around them changes, how their position in their households change, how their mental health changes.
We can’t keep delivering temporary solutions for protracted refugee communities that are - let’s be honest - not going away.
Ogunte: Right. Which explains the importance of developing entrepreneurial solutions in the humanitarian sector.
Noora Sharrab: Exactly. That’s what I love about the social enterprise world. When it is designed with a long-term vision in mind, it really “moves” things - people, economies, and attitudes for second and third generations to come. I never want to get into a position where I have to tell people I can’t pay their salaries for the next three months, or until our next big order comes in. I want us to be prepared for all cases, and to have a steady stream of income to keep us going.
Ogunte: How do you measure your impact?
Noora Sharrab: As a social entrepreneur, supply and demand is my impact, and my goal in terms of scale, because our impact is directly linked to how much we can provide for these women. Ultimately, my biggest impact is human impact - it means I can train, hire and move women from a part-time to a full-time salary.
Ogunte: What was a pivotal moment in the story of Sitti Soap?
Noora Sharrab: When I first moved to Canada, I was attempting to distribute the product to companies and big retailers. I was working full-time at another job, and I had just had a baby. I’d be breastfeeding and sending emails out. It was so busy. But I was motivated by the product and the women back in Jordan.
At one point, I reached out to a distributor that I really wanted to work with. They liked our initiative but their feedback was basically that the quality of the product sucked, the branding sucked, in effect they told me, “get your shit right and then come back to us.”
I was heartbroken - I was so distraught. I was tired, I had been spending so much time on the product, managing all the operations remotely, doing the international outreach and the communications. My husband looked at me that day and said, “Are you going to let one criticism stop you? They are giving you feedback! It’s an opportunity. So just go fix it.”
That renewed me and after 6 months of revamping everything - the labelling, the packaging, the product quality - we approached the distributor again and made a deal.
Ogunte: What lesson did you take away from that?
Noora Sharrab: The value of key people being blunt with you, for the better part of you, when you first start out. All the rejections we received - especially in the early days - really shifted the way we do things. Also, you have to understand your market; in some parts of the world, they might not care what the packaging looks like but the pricing might be what sets you apart, but in other places, the packaging is ultimately what sells.
Ogunte: What do you know now that you wish you had known from the beginning?
Noora Sharrab: Selling soap wasn’t just about the soap. I never knew I needed to know information about logistics, taxation, importing and exporting, packaging and design, quality control, online marketing, running a website, running a social media platform, employment, training, purchasing things on a large scale, distributors, retail expectations… I remember when we first started to do our packaging in North America, some advisors told us we needed a barcode. I didn’t know how to do this! I didn’t even know we had to do this! I was constantly asking for help, trying to find the right expertise to help push something through. Even knowing what questions to ask was something I had to learn! There were a lot of things that were unfortunately not in my pocket book of “starting a social enterprise related to soap”... basically all the little things here and there that were absolutely crucial to get me from point A to B.
Ogunte: That’s the thing with start-ups and entrepreneurs in general: You end up trying to do a multitude of things just to get to that one thing.
Noora Sharrab: We try as entrepreneurs to do it all and it’s not realistic - admitting where we fall short, what our blind spots are, being able to say, “teach me, what we are doing is wrong, but I’m not sure how, or I know how but I’m not sure how to fix it.”
My team and I would often have to walk backwards to figure out where we took the wrong steps in the early days. I don’t give up easily, but more than perseverance, I had to learn how not to be emotionally attached to being wrong.
Ogunte: What is the biggest challenge in the work that you do?
Noora Sharrab: Sitti has been self-funded by me and my co-founder and the little crowdfunding that we’ve done from time to time. We don’t give ourselves salaries and we’ve been funnelling all the money back into the company. I’ve only recently quit my full-time job to focus more on Sitti - but I’m realistic that it’s hard to go from a double to a single income family.
Making a full-time leap into your social enterprise is a big step.
Ogunte: Are there any areas of your business that you still struggle to be confident in?
Noora Sharrab: In this market, I’m competing with brands that have been on the shelves for 10-20 years. And some of these brands are just incredible - but I think why not us too? In the end, I guess it’s about time - either these companies received more investment than us at the beginning, or they’ve been in the market longer. Either way, I really have to pedal hard. We have 5-6 products in the market, but my question is often “and then what?” But I don’t have a background in product design, so I’m searching for answers around new products we can introduce, with resources which are available locally in Jordan, and which our women are able to produce locally.
Ogunte: What does your world look like in ten years’ time?
Noora Sharrab: In my ideal world, Sitti is self-sustaining and able to grow into a full soap workshop that hires a tonne of women from the camp and allows us to become more active participants in the quality of life in the camp. I’d like to see the women grow beyond their level of expertise, to be driven by the belief that they can do more. Sitti will be known as a conscious, high-quality and sustainable brand, selling not just soap, but other products too.
Ogunte: List 3 women in social enterprise that inspire you.
1. Mary Nazzal-Batayneh - for her incredible investment and support for social enterprises and how she always leverages her position of power towards good.
2. Dina Saoudi - for believing in her dream of Empowering Through and Seven Circles and making it a reality despite any adversity she may have faced.
3. Jane Mobascher Morris - Recently published the book ‘Buy the Change you Want to See’ and also founded ‘To the Market’, an online platform that allows other social enterprises launch and feature their products on the website.
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