A Clean Slate for Refugees

Noora Sharrab never imagined she'd own a small business. Rather, she was dedicated to helping women in the Middle East achieve confidence, independence and self-determination. However, she was presented with an opportunity to do both that led to a lot of questions, a lot of problem solving and eventually Sitti Social Enterprise. Sharrab's hard work and dedication has provided dependable jobs for refugees and gift options for the global-conscious market. It all started with bars of olive oil soap made in Jordan.

In 2011, Sharrab had a career with the United Nations and was directing her own non-profit. “My focus was really working with refugee communities and then creating opportunities for women to access higher education or post-secondary education in Jordan,” said Sharrab. During this time, she encountered a group of women living in a refugee camp who had been trained by the Italian embassy to make olive oil soap. They had produced boxes and boxes of product but had no access to market. Camp volunteer Safiah Abu Shanin, who became a Sitti co-founder, asked Sharrab for help. “This was really about women trying to create self-reliance,” Sharrab remembered. “This was about a community that wanted to move beyond charity and wanted to really create livelihoods for their families. And that soap was just a mechanism to do so.”

"Sitti actually means my grandmother in Arabic. So that's why our products are really committed to natural ingredients. I always ask, would this be sitti approved?"

- Noora Sharrab

Sharrab understood on some level that marketing the soap would take a lot of work, but it all boiled down to this: she wanted the women to be able to focus on the soap making that would provide a full-time salary while she took care of the marketing, packaging, logistics and fulfillment. Sharrab was able to gather enough money through crowdfunding and donations to cover three artisan salaries and some necessary equipment, and the first soap workshop was built inside the camp. Sharrab returned to Canada shortly thereafter and began investigating how she could bring the product to North America. This included working with the third co-founder of Sitti, Jacqueline Sofia.

One major stumbling block Sharrab encountered was problems that stemmed from buying barcodes off a third-party website. “None of the barcodes I purchased were compliant and then some weren't associated to me as the company,” she said. “I thought I was saving money and I ended up losing money later.” Sharrab even had to abandon the packaging she had designed with the useless barcodes and start over. “I only wish someone told me earlier, just go with GS1 from the beginning,” Sharrab said. She often relates her experience to business associates so they can avoid a similar logistical blunder and ensure they’re retail ready from the start.

Sharrab stressed the importance of speaking up and determining what you want to achieve when working with GS1 Canada. “I watched a lot of tutorials, and I asked a lot of questions,” she said. “It's important to know and be very specific on what your goals are… for me, it was to be retail ready.” She went on to say, “I think that once you understand the GS1 system, it just helps you organize from a logistics perspective.”

With GS1 Canada barcodes secured, Sharrab set her sights on finding a target market and ramping up the business. “We know that more and more consumers are looking to purchase products with meaning,” she said. She saw that people wanted to support a cause that’s bigger than buying a bar of soap merely for company profit. “As Sitti, beyond just selling B2C, we do a lot of gifting opportunities with corporates,” Sharrab continued. She tells a story about partnering with Audi in the Middle East during the pandemic. Along with the purchase of Sitti gift boxes, Audi donated money to help the women working for the company so they could continue to draw an income through COVID. “That was a really good example of a partnership that we've done, where the company was trying to align specific STG goals internally,” said Sharrab.

At the core of Sitti Social Enterprise is a woman dedicated to helping socioeconomically disadvantaged women achieve stability through self-reliance. It’s about empowerment and recognition and the pride of being able to support themselves and their families. Sharrab acknowledged, “We know statistically that 9 out of 10 business owners that start a business will fail without the right guidance, mentorship or coaching.” She was willing to be part of a team and figure out what it took to bring a product to market, thereby giving the women an avenue to success. Sharrab believes, “… part of the journey is that you're not expected to be an overnight success and sometimes it's hard because in the social media world, you're always comparing yourself to everybody's successes.” But she reminded us that each person’s journey is different and failures are just opportunities to learn and find success in the future. We think Sitti would approve.

Sitti Social Enterprise has a mission to educate, employ and empower. Their handmade products include soaps, apparel, gift boxes and more that come from a community-based organization promoting self-reliance in a refugee community.

To shop products and learn more, visit Sitti Social Enterprise.

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