(Photo: Courtesy Sonja Rasula; illustration: Jessica De Jesus)

For This Entrepreneur, Helping Other Businesses Thrive Is the Measure of Her Own Success

Sonja Rasula is being honored by In Her Company, a campaign celebrating the power, creativity, and impact of 30 inspiring women entrepreneurs.
Oct 27, 2014· 2 MIN READ
TakePart Staff

Through Unique USA, Sonja Rasula found a way to connect independent artists and designers with an audience eager to find distinctive, American-made goods. With wildly popular shopping events that now span the country, her company has helped hundreds of other entrepreneurs take their businesses to the next level.

Unique USA
HQ: Los Angeles
Industries: Community shopping events, retail
Founded: 2008

Unique USA was created as a way to bring local-made design and art to the masses while helping to grow and support the U.S. economy and small businesses.

TakePart: How did you come up with the idea for your business? Was there a turning point that convinced you to start your own business?

Sonja Rasula: I basically created something that I thought was missing: a giant community-based shopping event that would feature curated, modern, made-in-America products. I wanted to not only create a platform for all the homegrown talent out there—clothing designers, furniture makers, bakers, jewelers, etc.—but also help teach them how to grow their businesses and take them to the next level.

The turning point to starting Unique USA was when I realized I needed a job but didn’t want to go back to working for someone else. I didn’t have a job because I had spent most of 2008 volunteering to register voters and heading up a nonprofit, so I was even more convinced that whatever I started, it needed to have purpose and make me happy and proud. I knew I needed to create something I would love forever.

TakePart: Do you see any common challenges among female business owners and entrepreneurs?

Rasula: Yes! Too often I see female business owners, myself included, being dismissed—our ideas, opinions, questions, and even our presence. It’s extremely frustrating at times that a lot of the people at my level and in the corporate world are men. Just last week I was in a meeting, and the person who was talking with us (who was a man) would only look at my employee (also a man) when talking. It was really uncomfortable. I’m not sure whether he assumed that my male employee was in charge and the decision maker or whether he was simply not comfortable communicating with me, but it was weird, and yet it happens quite a bit.

TakePart: What’s been the proudest moment that made you feel like your hard work was worth it?

Rasula: A few weeks before my grandmother passed away, we talked on the phone, and I will never forget the conversation. She was so proud of me and so intrigued with my life! She had always dreamed of being a fashion designer and would have been an amazing one, but that wasn’t a possibility back then. She worked as a nurse in the U.S. Army and was then a full-time mom. It made me realize how fortunate I am to be living in a time when, as a woman, I can do anything and be whoever I want to be.

TakePart: Who are your customers, and how do you engage and reach them?

Rasula: It’s pretty interesting because our customers are really diverse—all different ages, men and women, married and single. The common factor is that our customer is someone who is passionate about great design, and they care about supporting community and buying products that help a cause.

Because our shopping events only happen a handful of times per year, we work hard at continually engaging our customers online and through social media. We love, love, love reaching people and telling our story via Instagram. I used to direct online content, build websites, and have actually won awards for the design of email newsletters, so I think retaining people’s interest and loyalty through email marketing is essential. We interact with our customers with a great email newsletter that provides cool and valuable content, such as advice for small business owners, DIY projects, interviews with brands, beautiful photography, etc. We don’t really advertise our events, so it’s all through word of mouth and online.

(Photo: Unique USA)

TakePart: What’s one thing you wish someone had told you about your first year in business?

Rasula: Grow slow. I hired my first staff, and it was great, but then I brought on too many people too quickly, which created a lot of extra work for me. Suddenly instead of being creative and making top-level decisions, I was overwhelmed with dealing with interoffice politics and managing all the employees. Only hire who you have to hire.

This post is part of the series In Her Company, created in collaboration with Eileen Fisher and designed to celebrate the power, creativity, and impact of women-owned businesses. Check out more stories at takepart.com/in-her-company.