Artist and social entrepreneur, Kim Smiley recently sat down with SEE Change Magazine to discuss Sapphô, her line of wearable art pieces, and its social mission. As a social enterprise, Sapphô creates employment opportunities for marginalized populations in Toronto, encouraging women toward self-sufficiency by empowering them with training, Canadian work experience and a living wage.
On your Facebook page, part of your tagline is “Beauty for the public good.” What does that mean for you, as both an artist and a social entrepreneur?
We’re bombarded with images of beauty. At Sapphô (www.kimsmiley.com), we celebrate external beauty like the rest of the world, but we believe it’s more inspiring and enduring to celebrate beauty for the sake of something higher than itself. So we’re harnessing the power of beauty to address social problems like poverty and economic injustice. Our objective is to give local, low-income women an opportunity for economic self-sufficiency by creating beautiful, handmade jewelry. We’re also committed to giving a portion of our proceeds to charity. As an artist, I want to create wearable works of art that make women feel beautiful. As a social entrepreneur, I believe creativity can be a force to change the world.Photo by V. Tony Hauser
What inspired you to make Sapphô a social enterprise?
I first learned about the notion of a “living wage” while I was a graduate student in the United States. Students were protesting the right of custodial and dining hall staff at the university to earn a decent wage, because, as their slogan said, “Workers can’t eat prestige.” Since graduating, my work in nonprofit has largely focused on honouring the promise of empowering marginalized populations to become economically self-reliant. What I learned about a living wage in university has percolated in my mind for over a decade.
As much as I love designing jewelry, the notion of creating a simple jewelry line held little real appeal for me. But building a social enterprise that leverages the creative talents of under-employed populations, and honours their contributions with a living wage, reignites the same passion I felt as a student at rallies in Harvard Yard.
In creating employment opportunities for marginalized populations, how do you find the right candidates?
I work with nonprofits mandated to find meaningful employment for their clients, many of whom are disadvantaged. Our newest hire is a Toronto single mother, originally from Eastern Europe, whom we met through JVS Toronto, one of Ontario’s largest employment agencies. She is an extraordinary seamstress and is fastidious with detail. Promoting excellent employment opportunities is just as integral to our brand as creating beautiful pieces of art for women to wear.
How do your employees benefit from working at Sapphô versus a typical for-profit business?
Sapphô is a labour of love. As most artists will tell you, it’s rare to make a decent living out of creative pursuits. So I would say that the biggest benefit is that our employees, artists in their own right, are being paid to create works of art that help enrich the world, both because of the charitable donations we redirect to the community, and because every one of our pieces is attached to a poet and a poem. A big part of our vision is to foster a love of poetry, to help make an historical elitist literary art more accessible.
How will you define success as a social enterprise?
It’s not just about income – it’s about impact. Our goal is to empower as many people as possible towards self-sufficiency. In the process, we want to make the women who wear our creations feel inspired, not just to look great, but to do something to improve the greater good. One of the ways women can engage with our social mission is to host a “trunk show” in their home. We’ll supply the jewelry and direct a portion of the proceeds to a charity of their choice.
Where would you like to see Sapphô in five years?
We’d like to see satellites of Sapphô around the world. We’re also keen to create a men’s line, so gentlemen, please stand by. Our vision is to take our design inspiration from the different cultures in which we plan to operate. I have a strong connection to Mexico and India. I would also like to create a satellite in the Middle East. At my day job at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, I staff a committee that works to create shared society and equality amongst Arab and Jewish Israeli citizens. One of my dreams is to train Jewish and Arab women, side by side, to create Sapphô jewelry.
I think art has the power to heal, not just the individual, but the community. I’m inspired by the notion of leveraging creativity to build relationships and shared society. Perhaps that’s the ultimate expression of beauty for the pubic good. We have big dreams at Sapphô by Kim Smiley.Top photo by Jeremy Ladner
Nicole Zummach is the co-founder of SEE Change Magazine. She has worked in the publishing industry for more than two decades, and has spent most of her career researching and writing about civil society and the nonprofit sector. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.