Zarah Juan on Rewriting Her Story and Helping Artisan Communities Rewrite Theirs
Accessory designer Zarah Juan, whose artisanal fashion brand also carries her name, still calls herself a newbie in the industry. She only began creating fashion accessories in 2016, but she had actually started her eco-bag manufacturing business in 2007. After over a decade of mass-producing eco-bags, she had to consider her personal growth and ask herself if that was the career she wanted for the rest of her life.
“I decided that wasn’t it yet,” Zarah said. “So I stepped out of my comfort zone and tried to create something that means so much to me. And that's what happened with Zarah Juan [the brand].”
It was “a terrifying turning point” for Zarah because her manufacturing business was successful and created jobs for thousands of people, but her reflections led her to seek to make a different kind of impact. Before, scaling up meant increasing the number of your sewing machines, increasing the number of your employees, increasing your warehouse size. But Zarah realized that she wanted to create an impact that was more meaningful to her co-workers and employees, even if it was small. “Impact doesn't have to be big,” she said.
Zarah recalled having so many questions, which eventually made her step out of her box and see what else she could do. Today, the Zarah Juan brand showcases unique Philippine designs in its bags, shoes, and accessories and supports sustainable livelihoods by partnering with Filipino artisans, weavers, and suppliers.
An act of kindness can change someone’s life
Zarah came from very humble beginnings. She was the eldest of four children and her parents didn’t make enough for the family.
“Early in life, my motivation was about money because I didn’t want to go back to poverty,” said Zarah. But her motivation eventually changed. “I realized it's not money that will help us sleep at night and help us realize our calling and purpose.”
As she got older and grew more financially comfortable, Zarah realized, ‘I have to make it happen for others also.’
She recalled a simple yet pivotal moment early in her life, which occurred while she was manning the family’s sari-sari store. A lady complimented her and told her she was a pretty girl. That woman, who was a flight attendant, told Zarah that if she looked after herself, she could grow up to be a flight attendant as well.
That simple act of kindness spurred Zarah on. “Sinabihan lang ako na kaya ko maging FA, nagtuloy-tuloy ’yung buhay ko,” she said. Zarah indeed became a flight attendant; she worked two years for a domestic airline and eight years for an international carrier. That career gave her a head start and enough capital to pursue what she is doing right now.
“What gave me a good head start was someone noticed me, someone said, ‘You can do it,’” said Zarah. She realized she wanted to pay that forward. It wasn’t about money anymore, but making sure her journey was meaningful for other people as well.
How thriving might look like in this pandemic
Zarah acknowledges that for a lot of people and a lot of businesses right now, the goal is just to survive the pandemic. After all, businesses that survive the pandemic will still have a chance to accomplish more in the future.
“To add the word ‘thrive’ is tricky,” said Zarah. Apart from the question of how to do just that in the first place, it can also be difficult to reconcile the feeling of thriving when you know that others are not.
But she offered up a definition of thriving during this pandemic: “If you have a clear reason, a clear purpose why you’re doing something, even if what you’re achieving is simple during this time, I can say that you are thriving.”
It’s a journey that the Zarah Juan enterprise is undertaking with its fans, customers, and community. For Zarah, so long as her brand’s audience understands what they are trying to do and what impact they want to make in the artisan communities they work with—even if it may be a slow process—then she can truly say her business is thriving.
“You cannot measure the success of a company by numbers alone. With us, our measurement [of success] is, when we do community checks, does each community still have something to do? Does each community still have income?” said Zarah. “We keep going, even if it’s slow, even if there aren’t any orders. As long as we can sustain each community we are working with, I think in that sense we can truly say that we are thriving.”
Of course, Zarah experiences being on the “simply surviving” end of the spectrum, especially amidst the challenges of the pandemic. There are days when she doesn’t want to get up and wishes she could sleep her troubles away. But she said these help her move forward: “When you get tired, rest but do not quit. When your body tells you you’re sleepy, take a nap but do not quit. When your spirits are low, call somebody and share your worries. Trouble shared is trouble halved, so share it, cry for help. And pray.”
She also realized during this pandemic that she has to take good care of herself and make sure her priorities are straight and clear. “After God, it should be me first, not my family. Why? If I put them first and I get depleted, I cannot give [to them] anymore. So I have to be okay so I can give love to my family.”
Zarah’s last bit of wisdom on thriving is that it’s really about taking things one day at a time. “What I can do today, I'll be super grateful for it. What I failed to do today, I'll list it down, put it in my journal and then the next day, it’s part of my to-do list.”
Our interview with Zarah, titled “Thrive, Don’t Just Survive: Planning and Designing Your Way to Success,” was deeply moving and inspiring. If you missed it, you can replay the full video here. (You can start at the 19:45 mark.)