From its inception, SAMARA has been a brand with purpose and heart. Its founder, Salima Visram, started the company after launching a non-profit, Soular Backpack, which operates using a one-for-one business model: buy a backpack, donate a backpack. Salima launched SAMARA just a few years later — in part to support Soular Backpack's mission, and in part to fill a niche that Salima felt was missing in the handbag market: minimalist, high-quality vegan bags. In the first year of SAMARA'S launch, the brand rapidly took off, becoming a darling of the cruelty-free fashion world.
Lucky for us, we had a chance to catch up with Salima and learn a little more about her story and SAMARA's roots.
In your early 20s, you started Soular Backpack — a non-profit organization that provides children in rural parts of Africa with solar-powered backpacks. Can you tell us a little bit more about what inspired this?
I grew up in Kenya and noticed how so many of my neighbors didn’t have access to electricity. This meant that kids my age were not able to do their homework every night — or if they did, they had to use kerosene which is carcinogenic and causes so many deaths and burns every year. Kerosene costs families living under $1 a day up to 25% of their monthly income — this didn’t make sense to me. So I decided to do something about it, because I personally knew people who didn’t make it into secondary school simply because they didn’t have the grades — because they couldn’t study after 6pm every day.
Just a few years later, you started SAMARA, named after your sister. What was your motivation?
I was a personally looking for a bag that was minimalist, simple and preferably vegan, and I couldn’t find something that I liked. I started making a bag for myself and people started asking me about it, wondering where they could buy one. I then decided to put it online, and was surprised that we sold over twenty bags within the first few hours, and sold out the next day.
What was your original vision for the SAMARA brand? What did you want SAMARA to stand for?
I started SAMARA to embody the simplicity and elegance that my mother lived her life by. She has had the biggest influence on my life and I lost her to cancer in 2017 when I was 24. I decided to channel the things she taught me into creating products that hopefully will create impact and will make people happy. I want SAMARA to stand for beauty in simplicity, and living life truly without harming anything or anyone in the process.
Did your experience with Soular Backpack teach you the ropes on how to design bags? Or did you learn as you went along?
It definitely helped, and allowed me to experience the process of learning how to work with suppliers, manufacturers and how to get a product from idea to existence. I still am learning every day, and am failing every day — but that’s the most fun part. I think it’s problematic if you’re not failing every day :)
It seems like materials matter a lot to you. Specifically, you chose to work with cruelty-free vegan leather. Why was that important to you?
If we can have the same products without harming an animal in the process, why do we need animal leather? As we grow, I am trying to experiment with new plant-based materials like pineapple leather and coconut leather to bring more sustainability into the industry as well, and hopefully get into more exciting products and materials too.
In just its first year, SAMARA has taken OFF! You have over 5,000 customers and over 40,000 instagram followers (congrats!)…how did you do it?!
I think when you’re in the midst of it, it’s hard to stop and give yourself a pat on the back because there is still SO much work to be done, but I think just tirelessly working towards a goal and letting nothing come in the way of that. I also think SAMARA has been able to be a bright light for me during a very challenging year (when I lost my mom) and so every customer, every new follower, every message means so much. I know there are so many other brands and so many places to go and to choose from, and the fact that they choose SAMARA means more to me than I can describe. Every product that we sell is something that I would wear and buy, and just creating products that solve a problem for me and people I know, and that I’d be willing to spend money on is important.
Scaling up is always tricky. How are you managing the process so far?
Still trying to get the hang of this every day, but surrounding yourself with the right people definitely helps, and talking to experts who’ve done it before. Staying organized is really important and being able to manage customers — this is still something we’re learning as we go.
What’s next for Samara and Soular Backpack? Has your vision for either evolved at all?
With SAMARA, we’re planning to introduce more products and designs, and really enhance our customer experience and the impact we create. With Soular Backpack, we’re hoping to work with the UN to distribute backpacks in East Africa. My vision for SAMARA is to be a top, cruelty-free brand that is minimalist and sustainable, and with Soular Backpack it’s to provide as many kids as possible with clean, safe light at night. The goal eventually for both is to bring production in-house and truly empower people through employment.
You have such incredible passion and determination. What’s next for YOU personally?
Personally, it’s to keep prioritizing SAMARA and Soular Backpack, to stay fit and healthy, and to spend time with the people I love.
Finally, what would you say to someone who claims a single person can’t change the world?
I’ve come to realize that changing the world is a huge task and it takes a lot of people doing their small parts, in order to create a wave of change, but everyone should do their small parts and they will eventually ripple into something bigger.