Before launching cult-favorite lifestyle brand SAMARA, Founder and CEO Salima Visram founded The Soular Backpack — an initiative that provides solar-charged backpacks to children from her home of East Africa. The backpack charges a light so that children can do their homework without the damaging and detrimental effects of kerosene.
Today, sister Samara Visram, the namesake of SAMARA, is building a school in Kenya to support the village their family grew up in.
Those are only two of the many anecdotes that make Salima and Samara the powerhouse philanthropists and entrepreneurs they are, but the sentiment behind each is a pretty accurate summary of who they are.
Despite the massive amount of success they've had in the three years since their launch in December 2017, talking to the sisters feels like being welcomed into the Visram family itself. They text and befriend their SAMARA customers, leveraging their feedback to make products with pointed inspiration, each with a unique founder story of its own.
The duo weaves castor seeds into sunglasses, apples into chic totes, and recycled ocean plastics into backpacks. Their products are an elegant minimalist's dream — the chic tote and laptop sleeve get me compliments every single time I take them out.
Below, I talked to them about their challenges as female entrepreneurs, their philanthropic initiatives, and highlights from the past three years.
What is the story you hope to tell with SAMARA?
Salima: We use our community to design things for and with them. Everything we have keeps selling out because we know it's something people want and need. As we grow, we want to create a brand that is doing good from the factory to the way we're getting our raw materials, the way we get those materials, and how we treat our workers.
We would love to offer the people in Africa where we grew up a place to work that offers childcare one day.
The fashion industry is really bad right now, but we are always thinking about how can we take a few steps back to shift the narrative that fashion has to be a detrimental industry.
Samara: It's interesting to think about the story we want to share. I feel like every product carries a story — not just our story, but that of our community. We really take in customer feedback and use it as a basis to create literally every product we put out.
We have a call with our community every couple of weeks. They tell us about the colors and designs they want, and even the box they want their products to come in.
We had one where we talked to all of the moms in our community.
We found that so many moms find it difficult to get a bag that really embodies their personality — not just as a mom but what the essence of what their personality is outside of that.
Salima: One of the first emails you get from SAMARA is us asking you to tell us everything about your dream bag. We have thousands of emails. The whole business is very feedback-driven. We're never making things just for the sake of it.
What are some unexpected challenges you've experienced as entrepreneurs?
Salima: We literally just started a Google doc called "Wipeouts." We're four people on our team and we'll just keep track of all of our missteps along the way. The challenges are endless but they are endless in any industry you're in.
If you're trying to do something different, you're going to face roadblocks, which is usually a good sign that you're doing the right thing.
As much as things can be hard, it challenges us to think ahead for when we scale. That's just what happens when you are creating something on the path less traveled.
Now, we're honestly used to things going wrong all the time. Sometimes we just laugh at it.
Samara: Sometimes we cry, too, to be honest.
How much does coming from a marginalized community play into your life as entrepreneurs?
Salima: For us, being women of color who grew up in Kenya, we know we want our impact to go towards marginalized communities. That is a part of our DNA in every way. For example, every purchase goes back to funding Soular. Soular is fully funded now by SAMARA.
I think we've had more negative experiences based on the fact that we're women rather than based on the color of our skin.
I've had men ask me, 'How's that little project you're working on going?'. We've had so many instances like that.
Samara: We even experience it with the men we work with in our factories or with customs or doing distribution in Kenya. The work environment is very different in Kenya. The most adversity we've faced has honestly been with the men we work with. I still find it so hard to believe we still have to deal with that today.
Salima: At the same time, I wish women would support each other more.
When you're just starting out and supporting a brand it's so important that women support women.
How do you feel social media and community building have impacted your business?
Salima: Community is always at the forefront of what we do. Our grandfather was a seventh-grade dropout. Without knowing any English, he and my grandmother built a hotel from nothing.
They started with a small, seven-bedroom space and grew it into a 300-bedroom building that became the first five-star hotel in Kenya.
They were entrepreneurs trying to build a brand and community. They did it by getting the same repeat guests. Year after year, people would have family reunions there every single summer. They kept coming back because my grandma made the best Indian food.
She knew which food each family liked so when they came to visit, they wouldn't even have to order food because she knew what they wanted.
Salima: She would be in the kitchen making bucket loads of mithai for people based upon what was their most favorite.
I think about that so often because now as an entrepreneur, building community has become so scientific and it's like you have to have a brand book but if you get to the root of it, we just treat every customer as a friend.
Everyone who chooses to buy a SAMARA bag actively chooses us. It's not about how we make them want to be a part of our community.
It's about how we show them how honored we are that they chose us. Samara and I both text our customers. We deliver flowers if one of them has a baby and we just try and be their friends.
We always try to think about how we can scale our friendships. A lot of them are even becoming friends with each other. Everyone coming to SAMARA is very similar in what they want for the world and for themselves so we just cultivated a platform where they.
What can we expect from the future of SAMARA?
Samara: Well, Salima and I always talk about creating an entire lifestyle brand with SAMARA bags: a brand that really focuses on doing good for yourself and for the world.
It starts with better materials, high-quality products tackling mind and body, and then connecting these consumers to each other on a platform on which they can become friends.
What are your favorite accounts to follow on social media?
Tell us a book you'd recommend.
Samara: "Absolute Beauty" by Dr. Pratima is based on how beauty comes from within.
What charities do you support?
Salima: Everything goes back to Soular. The goal with SAMARA and Soular is just to turn it into this massive force for positive change in the world. Samara is also building a school in Kenya in the village we grew up in.
What is on your nightstand?
Samara: All the essential oils.
Salima: I usually have a peppermint oil, sage essential oil, and my SAMARA jewelry box, obviously.
Odyssey may earn a portion of purchases made via links on this page.