Of Felt, Feet and Families
Susan Bell ’99 turned a pair of slippers into a profitable home business that helps keep Mongolian families togetherBy Eva Saviano
From the moment she saw them in 2005, Susan Bell ’99 was in love with the pair of slippers. They were small and dainty and hand-felted and made from seamless wool — the perfect gift for first-born son Solomon, just a toddler at the time.
Then Bell heard the story: Her in-laws were visiting Mongolia on business when they came across the slippers, the product of a local group of enterprising women who used only natural materials. It stirred something in Bell, a longtime environmentalist and a green-minded mom. By 2008, Satch & Sol, Bell’s eco-friendly, fair trade online store, was born.
From that one item, Bell has developed a national market lucrative enough for the mother of three to leave her job as marketing director for fitness equipment manufacturer Precor and operate her five-year-old home business full-time.
Amazingly, most of Satch & Sol’s marketing comes from word of mouth, though a little exposure in Bell’s hometown of Seattle got things going.
“I did a few local trade shows, and that’s how I found my niche consumer group: Waldorf schools,” says Bell.
A small-but-loyal base
A phalanx of humanist schools with satellites in more than 35 states, Waldorf schools usually have students wear natural fiber slippers from pre-kindergarten through high school. A relatively small group, maybe, but Bell says she sees a lot of customer loyalty. “I recognize the names of returning customers,” she says. “The sizes just keep getting bigger.”
An undergraduate economics major, Bell always has been interested in sustainability and health, both for individuals and the globe. And while at Kellogg, she learned the mechanics behind economic and ecologically responsible business practices.
That enabled Bell to establish a successful relationship with Global Communities, a Maryland-based international development and humanitarian aid organization, and its GER initiative. The program promotes entrepreneurship in Mongolian women, many of whom create and sell handmade goods.
Operating out of large, woolen, live-work structures called “Ger cities” in the capital of Ulaanbaatar, the women — who Bell confers with via Skype and email — collect natural ingredients from the Gobi desert they call home, including suede from their own goats and wool from their own sheep.
Using only two natural dye sets, they craft shoes, clothing and accessories without the use of electricity or chemicals of any kind. One dye, imported from Sweden, is the only non-local item they use.
The plight of the Mongolian women, whose husbands typically leave home to find work, touched Bell. Through Global Communities, Bell made a fair-trade deal with the cooperatives that helps the women generate income, support their families and keep the men home.
“Fathers seek work elsewhere,” says Bell, who named Satch & Sol after Solomon and her other son, Satchel. “They may or may not find it and send money, then mothers have to leave to find work, too.”
Those families may not have to look far much longer. Satch & Sol plans to expand into New Zealand later this year, offering new product lines and more fashion-forward designs.
“I wasn’t reaching out to them,” Bell says of the New Zealand market. “Someone from a Waldorf school there noticed the brand, and now I have costumers there.”
Still, Bell says she won’t lose sight of her sustainability priorities. Her business, she says, is one built on “love for family and earth.”