Juta Shoes: where community spirit and fashion meet
By Hanna Pumfrey
When I came across Juta Shoes last year I could barely contain my excitement. Not least because I have a thing about espadrilles and Juta’s designs are gorgeous, but also because they are putting into action a solution to something that had been bothering me since I moved to East London three years ago.
East London is home to a hugely diverse population, from your Hackney hipsters and cockneys born within hearing distance of the Bow Bells, to newer Bangladeshi and Somalian communities. All living side by side and in harmony, but very much, it seemed to me, in silo. This is what, to me, is really wonderful about Juta. They are a social enterprise that is not only creating fair fashion from reclaimed and sustainable materials, they are breaking down barriers to empower our local community.
To me, Juta are a wonderful example of a new way of doing business. Here F + C speaks to their co-founder Joanna to find out more.
Tell me a bit about you. How did it all start?
Juta is run by myself and my co-founder, Sabeha. We met in late 2015 when I was working in community consultation in Bethnal Green as a Year Here fellow. I was working on a project to bring GP surgeries and community projects closer together, and met Sabeha, the Women’s Project Coordinator at the amazing St Hilda’s East Community Centre.
About six months later, I sent Sabeha an email out of the blue, asking if she wanted to start a shoemaking company. I only found out later she thought I was completely crazy and nearly deleted it!
I’d just made the decision to turn down an offer to go to medical school in the US, and started a dream job working at Wellcome Collection after finishing my Year Here fellowship. On the Year Here programme, they support you to come up with ideas for social enterprises – sustainable companies that create social good. I hadn’t really considered running a business before, but I also hadn’t thought I’d end up in London not studying medicine, so I figured it was worth a shot!
What motivated you to start a sustainable social enterprise?
Sabeha and I both arrived at Juta from personal love of craft and professional experience of community empowerment – though Sabeha has much more experience than me! She’s run projects at St Hilda’s for local women for over 12 years, and has a BA in Social Enterprise during which she wrote her dissertation on how crafts-based social enterprise can help socially and financially include marginalised women in the British-Bangladeshi community.
We both know how important it is to have accessible, supportive, safe spaces for women, and also how difficult the funding landscape for charities is at the moment – neither of us wanted to fill in more grant applications or reports! Setting Juta up as a business allows us independence, sustainability, and the ability to make sure we’re available to anyone who needs us.
We also chose a crafts-based business because making things is close to both of our hearts. Craft is a discipline that allows people to reconnect with their creativity, and when done in a group, it can build a strong sense of community. Knowing how things are made empowers people to feel more connected with their belongings and more capable of taking care of them, and we wanted to highlight the value of the incredible crafts skills of our makers.
What are your plans for Juta? Where do you want the brand to go?
We started off as a shoemaking company, and our focus has since expanded. Last year, we also started offering shoemaking experiences, which have really taken off. We’ve run workshops through AirBnb, with Anthropologie stores, and at Spitalfields City Farm, among others. We’ve also got some exciting workshops outside of London coming up this summer, including at the gorgeous Daylesford Farm in Gloucester. Last month we ran our first wallet-making workshop, and we’re planning to broaden our offer of craft experiences to include even more – keep your eyes peeled for leather-bound journals!
With our products, we’re doing more bespoke commissions, both direct and wholesale to shops, which gives our makers more opportunity to get creative and show off their skills. Of course, we still make our made-to-order shoes!
The big dream for Juta is that we become a nationally-known company (or days when we’re dreaming big, internationally-famous!) that provides free training, support and community for women who face barriers to work, creating bespoke products from reclaimed materials and teaching a range of crafts workshops – including birthday parties, hen dos, teambuilding workshops and more!
What advice would you give to other women entrepreneurs looking to start their own social enterprise?
It depends where you’re coming from, but if you’re like me three years ago, my advice would be that it’s not all men in suits in boardrooms! There are so many different ways to run a company, and so many different business communities you can be involved in. I always avoided anything with the word enterprise in it at university because I thought it was only for people who wanted to be CEOs.
In the last year, I’ve found that business models are actually really creative ways of figuring out how you can make a living doing what you think is important, and that plenty of business communities – especially those run by women and those in the social impact sector – are very friendly and welcoming, and value collaboration over competition.
Also, you don’t have to do it all at once - you can take so many small steps to test things out! For the first year we ran Juta, I had another full-time job, and I still take on freelance work for variety and extra income. If you’ve got an idea, just throw it out there. Start a website or social media account and see what the response is – when we launched our Kickstarter, we’d only made the samples in the photos, but people responded so well we knew it was worth making more!
What are your top tips for living a more sustainable lifestyle?
I love Sarah Lazarovic’s Buyerarchy of Needs – the base of any sustainable life is to better value and use the things we already have. Buying something new should always be a decision we don’t take lightly, and learning to make and mend things yourself is one of the most powerful tools you can have.
There are so many great practical tips out there for saving energy, avoiding plastic, and getting involved in bigger campaigning movements to change policy, so I won’t reinvent the wheel, but I do think one of the most important things you can do is to have fun and stay positive about sustainability. If it’s inclusive and optimistic, we’re much more likely to bring a bigger crowd along with us and make bigger changes.
Thank you so much for talking to F + C Joanna. We can’t wait to see the Juta story develop.