Interview with Sarah Brubaker of Ekata Designs
Interview by Théa Rosenburg // Images by Ruthie Montague
The jewelry of Ekata Designs is original, elegant, and carefully crafted—everything artisan jewelry should be. Their pieces feature raw gems in settings that display the beauty of unfinished stone: nests of coiled wire cradle coral beads or anchor smoky quartz to a copper cuff. Ekata's artists mix mediums, combining marble and brass, wood and stone, gold and shell, into pieces that achieve an unexpected sense of unity.
However, the most beautiful part about Ekata’s jewelry is the way they’re made: the Memphis-based company, led by Sarah Brubaker, trains women who arrive in the US as refugees, establishing them in a new line of work and helping to ease their transition into a new culture. Ekata trains these women as artisans, not tradeswomen, by including them in the design process and fostering a sense of creative community among their employees.
The word ekata means “unity” in Nepali, and “unity” is a word that guides the employees of Ekata as they work together, despite language barriers and cultural differences, to create beautiful works out of unfinished, imperfect materials.
Can you tell us how Ekata Designs began?
Ekata began in 2011 as a collaborative effort between refugees and Memphians with the desire to create supplemental income for refugees. It can be difficult to find jobs in America, especially for refugee women. There are so many barriers such as lack of transportation, language, and connection that may keep them from finding work. Ekata has changed and adapted over the past five years, but our core desire is to help provide employment and training to women who left their home countries as refugees and are now starting a new life in America.
How does Ekata Designs differ from other jewelry companies?
I have never worked at a different jewelry company, so it is challenging to say how it differs. I think we face certain challenges but also have rewards that many other companies probably don’t have. When we hire an employee, we don’t look for the person who can do the best job, be the most effective, and get us the furthest ahead, but rather for the individual who may struggle to get a job somewhere else. While certain skill sets are important for each type of position (for example, speaking English for sales or being able to work with their hands for making the jewelry), we place more value on how this job will benefit the overall well-being of an individual than on doing what’s best for the company.
In terms of work environment, we face a mixture of both challenges and rewards. Many challenges come about because of the way our business is set up. Due to language barriers and cultural differences, we spend hours on things another company may never have to consider. For example, we train our coworkers on how to sign their names and fill out a time sheet, and we are working towards creating a weekly ESL lesson that is specific to our work environment. These things can make running Ekata challenging.
What can be seen as challenges, however, also bring forth many rewards. We laugh hysterically nearly every day because of miscommunications; we teach each other our languages, share food, and compare family photos. I think we learn many things from each other, and that cultural richness is reflected in our work.
Do you reach out to women who are interested in working for Ekata? Or do they find you?
A little bit of both. It always depends on what type of role we are looking to fill. Most recently, we needed someone to help train our two newest team members in making jewelry. I reached out to a previous team member who has since moved on from Ekata and asked if she would be wiling to help train the new members. On the other hand, around the same time, we were looking to hire for a different role and I asked our current team members if they had friends or relatives that would be interested. They quickly listed of a number of individuals and brought the friend they thought would be best for the job to work the next day. Very efficient, they are!
Most of the time, it is our current team members who connect us with individuals looking for a job. Every now and then someone will walk by my house and ask if I am hiring. In fact, just a few weeks ago I was asked multiple times by different individuals if I could hire them. Every time I replied with “I wish I could, but we have to sell more jewelry first!” Those conversations are always the big motivators to stay up late, to work at one more event, to pray more consistently.
What is the training process like for the women who work for Ekata?
The training process fluctuates a good bit based on previous skills, specific job roles, and language. In general, the majority of team members are hired as artists. The first few days are mostly devoted to learning basic jewelry-making skills and the English words for the metals and tools. During this first week, we usually have a fun welcoming event, like a shared lunch, with a time for sharing stories with each other and some silly photos. After that, the new artists learn all of the current designs that they will be responsible for from the current line.
Once an artist has been with Ekata for more than one design season, they are brought into the design process and, based on interest and skills, are trained in additional areas such as sales, marketing, packaging, photography, and training of new team members. This process happens in a very organic manner and is greatly based on each individual.
How does working for Ekata help equip women long-term?
There are a number of ways Ekata helps equip women long-term, but it is always a joint process depending on the individual and Ekata. We tend to work with two different types of women. First, there are the mothers and grandmothers who have worked hard their whole lives, often as farmers, most of whom have never gone to school. Then there are the younger women who came to America as teenagers or young adults, having grown up in refugee camps where they went to school but could not become citizens or get jobs in that country, making it hard for them to dream of a future.
For the older generation, we help with very practical skills like filling out time sheets, general work conduct, and English practice. We give the younger women opportunities to practice many different skills and types of jobs, hoping to help them dream and see that there are jobs out there beyond housekeeping, factory lines, and nursing. We seek to give each of them the option to explore what they enjoy and are good at and what they might be able to do with it one day. We definitely work toward long-term goals, but we also understand that many times, when life has been challenging, there are seasons when you just need what you need for that day.
What is your design process like?
The design process is a whole lot of fun, and I think we are getting better at it every year. We start out with a review of the designs from the previous year or season, evaluating which were most and least popular. After that, we call in our faithful design team, a group of incredible friends who have an eye for what’s cute and trending. These ladies create an inspiring Pinterest board full of possible designs. Once we have a good handle on what is in, I work with any team members who have been with Ekata for more than one season to tweak this board and file it down to our favorites. Then we spend hours scouring the internet for just the right supplies and order a bunch of samples.
When those supplies get in, the real fun starts. We stock up on snacks, fun music, and Redbox movies and start creating a wild collection of ideas. This last year was one of my favorites because my co-worker Ran and I made all of the designs together and were constantly giving each other feedback and improving on each other’s designs.
Once we feel confident in our collection of designs, we call the design team back in to vote on their favorites and give us feedback on ways to improve our designs. We make the first round of improvements and then send all of the Ekata team members and design team members out with a plethora of jewelry samples to wear as often as possible to test the feel and quality of each piece.
After this we make one more round of improvements and then move into the not-so-fun process of pricing, cataloging, and organizing everything. Most of the time, when the whole process is finished, we come up with one major last-minute idea or change that nearly messes everything up but then turns out to be amazing in the end.
What do you look for when creating new designs or selecting materials for your jewelry?
We are always trying to keep an eye out for the current trend and interest of our customers, but I think nine times out of ten we end up looking for things that we personally like. I find that when I create a piece that I want for myself, I pay extra attention to detail. The other thing we are looking into more and more is how to increase the amount of materials that support others beyond us. We have started using Fair Trade stones and metals created by artists in Bali, as well as some really fun eco-friendly materials such as wood, seeds and vines. We hope that our pieces will be marked not only by our story but also by stories of artists and families all over the world.
How can we get involved with Ekata?
Great question! There are a number of ways to support and get involved with Ekata, whether you are local or not. First of all, pray for us! We truly believe that God has carried this business to where it is. He has been good, and we never want to underestimate the power of prayer. Next, you can purchase our jewelry! That may be an obvious answer, but the impact of purchasing our jewelry is huge. We pay fair wages here at Ekata in the hope that our employees will be able to live comfortable lives here, without having to work two jobs or to work in unhealthy environments. We would absolutely love to give out raises and/or hire more women in the community, and your purchases help make those things happen!
Last of all, if you are local, we always love having new volunteers! Running a business takes a village, and we have some of the best volunteers around, I think. There are always things that need to be done and having people to help us allows us to focus even more on our roles and urgent tasks! Plus, it is always such a joy to make new friends and to be in community together.