July 2020: "Our small businesses - they’re here for us all the time, we want to be able to support them any way we can. Let’s help each other. It's our city and we can make it vibrant."
Ember curates products from small Seattle businesses to support the South Seattle community and economy. Customers can select from a themed kit and even add on other supplies such as handmade masks, local honey, crafts or a Frisbee. In addition to directly supporting local businesses - at a time when they desperately need it – a portion of the profit (in some cases, all of it) from the kits is donated to a local non-profit doing work in the community.
When I spoke with Sarah Will and Iwona Zubrzycka, founders of Ember, they had been open for about a month, which means they were delivering kits to customers across South Seattle, just 6 weeks after they had the idea to launch the business.
***Sarah and Iwona are very much a collaborative partnership. The following interview reflects their combined responses to questions – when one started, the other often finished, or sometimes they simply merged together as they spoke. It would have been confusing, if not impossible, to parse out their individual contributions to the content. There are a couple quotes that were very much Sarah’s unique experience, which has been called out.
Community: Across South Seattle
Interview with: Sarah Will and Iwona Zubrzycka
You opened a business in a global pandemic! How’s it going?
It's still all very new.
The spark of this idea began in early May and then we launched two weeks later, so it all happened really, really fast. But we were very inspired by the idea, we knew the community needed it, and it didn’t require a lot of overhead to get started. We just wanted to get it going.
We've actually been we've been talking about starting a business together for a long time. We toyed around with a bunch of different ideas, but this one just felt like it fit us and it fit what the community needed at this moment. If felt like kismet.
We launched headfirst, so we're still learning a ton. Normally, there's a lot of planning that goes into launching a new concept but, with this concept and the pandemic, we just had to decide to follow our inspiration and get started.
What was driving the inspiration behind your design?
The thing that kept pushing us was to create something that could build a stronger community, support our neighbors, and support the businesses that we all love. We also wanted to create something that gave back to the neighborhood and solve the problem of needing to drive to multiple locations in order to check off the items on our shopping lists- which was daunting even before the pandemic hit. Really, we were looking at how we could do that whole combination - then we started reaching out to potential suppliers and they were all on board, right away. They were as excited as us - so we knew that the product was needed.
When we go back through all the ideas we had, there was always a common theme – we wanted to was connect people, provide for our neighborhood, and build something inclusive.
What is your background as friends and partners? You mentioned that you wanted to start a business together.
We met in a birth class actually when we were both 7 months pregnant and we’ve remained friends ever since.
Sarah: We are entrepreneurs at heart and the corporate world is just not speaking to us. We wanted something else, for us and for our families. For me, it started immediately post childbirth. I felt really lost. And, I had to go back to work at four months, which was lucky - not everyone gets to do that. But, there I was, trying to maintain a career in corporate America, taking breaks to pump, rushing home to be able to relieve the nanny, figuring out what we're eating for dinner and then starting over the next day. I was barely holding it together, along with the emotional toll. And then last year I was a laid off, so I’ve taken this time to consider what’s next.
Thus far, how is this new role feeling different?
Sarah: It's really been interesting. You know, it's only been a month, but even the really gritty, boring stuff we're doing with this business is still much more fulfilling than anything I did in corporate America, even though we're not making any money yet. Personally, I'm growing a lot.
How has your product line evolved since you launched?
We’ve really listened to our customers, followed what they’re interested in, and kept it fresh.
In the past month, we’ve offered about 10 different packages (they’ve since expanded – check out their current offerings).
We started with the brunch kit, which folks have loved. All of the products are from local businesses: pastry from a local bakery, fresh juice, a bag of coffee, even Ellenos yogurt, Pacific Northwest honey, a chia pudding.
A Mini Self Care kit, which really inspired us, as two white women to consider how we could support the anti-racist movement. The products in that kit represented four different Black owned businesses in our neighborhood. We paid them for their product and then the portion we normally get, we donated to Black Lives Matter, Seattle King County. 100% of the profit from those kits supported that work.
We also offered a Father's Day adventure kit, which included snacks from neighborhood businesses and gift certificate to Hill City Tap Room. We even included a custom Frisbee Golf Map of Genesee Park.
It’s hard enough for established businesses to reach existing customers right now, how are reaching new ones?
I think there are a few different factors at play that have helped us connect to customers.
A lot of our customers are already community-oriented and want to contribute to the organizations and businesses that need our help right now And, of course, we are in the middle of a global pandemic so folks simply don’t want to leave the house.
Folks want to help others thrive and there’s a bigger commitment to coming together, where we can, in order to survive this. People are more inclined to make conscious or ethical spending choices right now, whether that means moving dollars from Amazon to more local options. And I think we're helping address that need.
At the same time, people know their purchase will also support a donation. The kit that we launched - that donated 100% of proceeds to Black Lives Matter - sold out so fast. People are more inclined to use their dollars to support something that has a cause.
What organizations have you been able to send donations to as a result of the kit?
Have you started thinking about how you will continue to grow your work or your community connections, over the next year as we move deeper into the COVID era?
Our focus right now, as a new business, is to continue building our community based followers and supporters and reaching out to new folks. And we’re exploring how to support more local Seattle-area businesses.
In terms of how we might expand, we are working with some corporate partners that wanted to support their employees during this time and create a kit to support local businesses in Seattle with partial proceeds going to local nonprofits. This is a great opportunity to enable corporate America to put their dollars towards something that really matters.
We are also putting together a West Seattle kit since the community over there could really use some extra love since the bridge is out of commission.
That feels like a potential growth area and there are so many multiple layers to this. We get to support local businesses and makers and they get more exposure. The corporate partner gets to show appreciation to their employees. The main focus is the connection to local community and a strong city. And, we’ll still donate part of the proceeds to the organization of their choice.
It’s certainly more meaningful than the typical corporate swag….none of us need another water bottle kicking around.
When I started a business, it was so valuable to be able to dig into a network of mentors and advisors. That’s obviously so much harder to do right now – in what ways have you been able to leverage support to get this business going?
We spoke with Annalicia at Kerala Co. She was so helpful in working through the logistics of starting a delivery business. Oh, my gosh - the logistics - we were in over our heads, even just with route planning.
And Kamala from Super Six has been such a good friend that I know I can reach out to with relevant questions
But, really, it’s been all the little conversations we’ve had from our network, customers, and folks reaching out, who want to partner with us.
Is there anything else you want folks to know about your work?
For us, it’s important to share our commitment to bringing community together, keeping people happy, getting to know our neighbors, and providing them with an experience that supports small businesses, supports minority owned businesses, supports black owned businesses, supports women owned businesses.
Our small businesses - they’re here for us all the time, we want to be able to support them any way we can. Let’s help each other. It's our city and we can make it vibrant.
Hey, Seattle, here's how you can help!