• Ariel Green

Sustainable Business Chat with SaVonne Anderson, Founder of Stationary Brand Aya Paper Co

Updated: Oct 18, 2020


Women of color are starting business faster than any other demographic. It's so exciting to see women of color starting businesses, and more specifically, starting sustainable businesses. Today's featured sustainable brown girl is SaVonne Anderson, the founder and creative director of Aya Paper Co, a sustainable stationary brand. I'm so excited to talk to SaVonne to learn more about Aya Paper Co and how she's building a sustainable business.


Shop Aya Paper Co.: https://ayapaper.co/

Follow Aya Paper Co on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ayapaper.co/

Follow SaVonne on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/simply.savonne/


LISTEN HERE: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Play

Transcription:


Ariel:

Hello and welcome back to The Sustainable Brown Girl Podcast. This show exists to connect black, brown and indigenous women who are interested in sustainability. Our goal is to inspire, encourage and educate each other. From gardening to thrifting, to minimalism, to veganism and everywhere in between. We're all on a journey to taking care of our bodies and our planet. I'm your host, Ariel Green. 


Ariel:

Before we get started with today's episode, I just want to let you know that this is the last episode for season one of The Sustainable Brown Girl Podcast. Thank you so much for listening to, sharing and reviewing the podcast this season. We've interviewed some incredible women and I look forward to sharing new episodes in October. In the meantime, be sure to follow us on Instagram and join the Facebook group to continue the discussion. 


Ariel:

Women of color are starting businesses faster than any other demographic. It's so exciting to see brown women starting businesses and more specifically, starting sustainable businesses. Today's featured Sustainable Brown Girl is SaVonne Anderson, the founder and creative director of Aya Paper Co.; a sustainable stationery brand. I'm so excited to talk to SaVonne, to learn more about Aya Paper Co. and how she's building a sustainable business. Thanks so much for joining us. 


SaVonne:

Thank you for having me. I'm so excited to talk with you. 


Ariel:

Let's just start at the beginning, before we get into your business. Tell us about yourself and your journey. How did you become interested in sustainability? 


SaVonne:

I'm from Newark, New Jersey, that's where I was born and raised and I didn't really get on a sustainability journey; what I like to describe it as is, a relationship with the earth, that's how I think of my sustainability journey. And I really started that journey when I was living in New York. I went to college in New York. I started there in 2013 and when I graduated in 2017, that was when I started to really take my relationship with the earth seriously because it was the first time that I got to make decisions about what I wanted my life to look like. Growing up, I was doing a lot of things like whatever my parents were doing and I didn't really question many things and it wasn't until I graduated school and it was like, "Okay, this is my own place and I can live how I want to live", that I started to think with more intention about, "What are the things that I'm going to buy? How am I going to furnish my home? How am I going to take care of myself? How am I going to nourish myself? What I want to spend in free time?" And it was during then that I realized that I wanted a respect and for the protection and a relationship with the earth to be at the center of that. That's what started my journey. 


Ariel:

Absolutely. What were the first steps that you took when you started your sustainable journey? 


SaVonne:

Like any good millennial, it was definitely being a plant mom.


Ariel:

Yes!


SaVonne:

When I was getting my apartment, my two big things when I got my own place, we're natural light, white sheets, plants, those are the things that I need. And even still now, in my room; white sheets, natural light plants, those are my top three. I went around buying plants and was taking more time to figure out, "How does this grow? How do I take care of this thing?" and that was something that I was excited about doing. Because growing up my grandmother, she had plants and I never really paid attention to it, but she always loved to have her plants and take care of them and she had passed at the time so it was something that I was doing that reminded me of her and something that I just wanted to pour time into it. And the more that I did, the more I got interested in like, okay, because I had an aloe plant, so one of my plants was aloe and I got a cut one time and I was like, "Let me just cut my plant and see what this does". And I was like, "Oh my gosh, I love that I can do this". And that was the slippery slope into making my own rosewater and all these other things that started to help me to think about the way that society has commercialized earth in a lot of ways and we use rosewater and we use aloe vera gel, but it's usually packaged and has preservatives that someone else did. It just made me start thinking about the world in a whole nother way and wanting to get rid of the middleman and the excess in a lot of different ways and get to the source. 


Ariel:

Yeah, definitely. I think consumerism is one of the biggest things that helps to separate us from the earth. Because it's like you said, you have all those middlemen and stuff and it just takes you out of the process. 


SaVonne:

Exactly. And it's really exciting for me to put myself back into that process and to see how by me doing that and sharing parts of my journey that it encourages people around me to do the same thing. 


Ariel:

Yes. That's so important. I love all of the designs on Aya Paper Co. I like the neutral earth tones and the minimalist illustrations of brown people, the women empowerment messages, it's all just so perfect. Can you talk to us about why you started your company? 


SaVonne:

Yes. This question... I'll always give a different answer because there are so many reasons. I'm a graphic designer before I did Aya full-time I was a graphic designer in an art museum in New York. I was designing there for a while and I always knew that I wanted to have my own business growing up. My dad's an entrepreneur and has been for most of my life, so just seeing the way that you can live your life when you're in control of your career in that way, it was always really appealing to me, so I wanted to do that. And when I was at my job, I've only been there for maybe 2 1/2 years, fresh out of college, my first job and I was already feeling like, "I've reached my maximum capacity here." And it was a great job, I really enjoyed it, but it was like, "I need to be challenged. I want to do more." And I've always been a bit of an overachiever growing up so it didn't really surprise many people. I was like, "I'm going to start another thing to do". 


SaVonne:

I was thinking about what it was that I wanted this business idea to be and I wasn't in a rush necessarily to just start something, I wanted it to be something that came to me authentically and something that I had started doing probably around 2017 was, if my friends sent me a text or something that I thought was really nice, I would write it down and I'd take screenshots and a list in my notes of different messages. I didn't know what I was going to do with him at the time, I thought maybe I would design some graphics for social media or something. But, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with them. And at one point, I can't remember what the exact impetus was, but I said, "Let me make some cards and just sell them on my design website, just to see if people are interested". The first few, those messages are still actually on card. So, "Women like you make life so much sweeter" and "You are so smart, strong and beautiful" and "The world is lucky to have you". Those were the two original ones that I just did. I printed them on some website with my name on the back and they sold out in a week. 


Ariel:

Wow!


SaVonne:

I was like, "Oh my... People want this, people want to see stuff like this". That made me feel like I should take it more seriously. That was in fall of 2018 when that happened. In December I was like, "I'm going into a new year, what are the things that I want to do? I want to start a business and I want to stick with this stationery". But in order for it to be a real business I was thinking, "What is going to make me different?" or "What impact do I want to have?" Because I'm all about starting businesses to do something with it, not just for the sake of producing something. As I said, really getting into my relationship with the earth, I was like, "How can I bring these two things together?" Stationery is made from paper, paper is made from trees, trees come from the earth. Thinking about, "How do I create this product without depleting that resource that is helping me to create it". That's when I decided that everything would be 100% recycled. And then I was like, "But a step further, then all of the packaging is also going to be sustainable. There's going to be no plastic in anything and through the marketing and social media, we can help people to understand why it's important to be a conscious consumer and to know where the products that you have are coming from." I think it was the perfect merge of my design mind and my desire to be a business owner and to make a positive impact on the earth and they just came together for the perfect storm. 


Ariel:

Yeah, it is perfect. And I like that you said that you want it to benefit the earth and to help other people see the sustainable aspect of it. Because I noticed a lot, especially with the older generation of black people, they don't really think so much about that. But, I think by seeing it, seeing how beautiful your cards are and then seeing that they're sustainable, it's a good introduction to it and helps them start thinking further.


SaVonne:

That's exactly what it was. When I started the business actually, I was thinking about it in the opposite way. It was like, "Oh, these are sustainable cards, sustainable, recycled; that's what I want to push." Early on, I realized that I had to make a switch in that because the reason that people would come up to my table at marketplaces and events was because they loved the designs, they were so beautiful and it made them feel seen and it made them want to send it to somebody and spread that joy to others. I was like, "That's what people love about it and this is just something else that I can do to sneak in this extra knowledge until I get to them to be more aware". Because that would happen. They'd be like, "This is so great". And I'd be like, "Oh yeah! And it's 100% recycled and then they'd be sold. That was definitely something that I didn't think about early on, as far as, which one had to take the forefront, but I'm definitely noticing now. And it makes me really happy to see how many black people and women and queer people are able to see themselves in the cards and be able to share that with others. 


Ariel:

Yes. So, perfect. I saw a video on Instagram when you were first starting out last year. And, you talked about having to change the size of your cards based on the recommendations of your printer. What factors have you had to consider as being a sustainable stationery brand? 


SaVonne:

There are so many. The production; that was the earliest challenge. I was like, "I have to find a printer that I want to work with, that is going to know... They don't have to necessarily know more than me, but they need to know just as much as me and be able to have knowledge about things that I might not know about to help me make those decisions like that about the paper size." Once I got that, it was like, "This is good" and then it was a domino effect of other things. Packaging was the next big thing which I still struggle with, like for sets. Scaling a business sustainably is where you'll have pain points. Doing the small, sustainable business, that's more manageable. Because if you're getting a certain amount of orders that you can manage, then it's okay. But for me, I started to find these challenges when my business started to grow because at one point I just had scrap pieces of cards and paper and that's what I wrote thank you notes on. And then it was like, "I don't have enough scrap pieces of paper to keep up with this and to write the long notes with all the information that I used to." It was like, "Now I need to print, thank you notes and have a different system in place". That was one way I had to scale, but it could still be recycled paper.


SaVonne:

And then with sending out orders, it's like, "Okay, what type of packaging am I going to use?" And a lot of the things that I was looking up when I saw recycled or eco-friendly mailers, they're poly mailers, which are soft, but that doesn't work well with cards that are fragile, you don't want them bent up. I had to do a lot of research to find the best way to do that. And doing packaging sets of cards without plastic is really hard. At one point, I was hand tying everything with twine. It was four cards, four envelopes, hand tied. My friend and I would be up for four hours at 2:00 AM, packing the day before events, because we can't do it on the spot. At first, I was doing it as people bought them, but then it was like, "Oh no, we need to prepare them ahead because it takes too much time". And now I have these boxes, they're made of recycled papercraft boxes, but they don't have a clear plastic film on the front like a lot of boxes do, so it's just open. Which has been fine right now, but as I'm continuing to scale, certain retailers want something that can be protected so people can return it and things like that. Definitely, it's a scaling dilemma. Every time the business grows, which is great, it's like, "How can I continue to be sustainable at this scale?" and then knowing when I might get to a point where this is the limit for it to be sustainable and knowing that capacity.



Ariel:

Yeah, definitely. You mentioned that you... Obviously, people are liking to buy your stuff and how you've done some popup shops and stuff like that. With COVID, how has that affected your business? and what has been the general response after, in this new time period?


SaVonne:

It was really concerning for me at first. I didn't let anyone know that I was concerned, but I was. 


Ariel:

Of course.


SaVonne:

 I just had left my full-time job in February of this year. I was like, "I'm going to do Aya full-time and I'm going to commit to it." Because at that point, most of the money I was making was at events. It was like, "I can't work and do events," because it was just too much. I never had a break because I was doing my business on the weekends and doing my 9-5 during the week and it was just becoming a lot and I knew that Aya had the potential to grow, so I had to put more time into it, so I made that transition and then less than a month later, COVID came and they're like, "We're shutting now." 


SaVonne:

In March, my sales were the lowest that they've been since maybe when I launched. 


Ariel:

Wow! 


SaVonne:

And that was mostly because I was trying to figure out myself like, "What am I going to do here?" And because there were no events, so it was like, "Now I have to transition to being an online business." I had a website before and people could order things, but that's not where I was getting most of my business from, it was when people came and saw me. I had to change my mindset from being a marketplace vendor to being an e-commerce shop. 


Ariel:

Yeah. 


SaVonne:

March was the time when I was doing that and it was good because I was stuck in the house. I was like, "Let me update my website, let me figure out some new designs, let me figure out who do I need to be on my team to help me do this. What are we going to talk about on social?" It was definitely a pivot moment and I always tell people, I think one of the most important traits to have as a small business owner is the ability to pivot and adjust to change. If you're too stuck on, "This is how it has to be," it just keeps you from growing. And like I said, I made that pivot in March and then April sales started to go back up and now, I don't see myself transitioning back into doing events or marketplaces necessarily. Maybe a year from now, when things are super safe, then I would do it. But now, it doesn't seem like it's worth it for me, from a time and energy standpoint. 


SaVonne:

And also, it takes a lot for me to pack up a car and drive to wherever I'm going and stay there all day, it was a real energy suck. It wasn't sustainable for me as a business owner to do all of that all the time, so this is definitely makes me feel better. And it's been really great. Being online, there are so many people around...Well, I only do domestic shipping right now, but internationally as well, there are so many people who are interested in the products and want to buy them. I just had to change my mindset to be like, "Even though I can't see people in person, which doesn't feel great, it's nice to know that I can still connect and help them connect with their loved ones because no one can see each other right now." And I think that that's been a real benefit because people more than ever... You could always send a text or an email, but there's something very special about sending someone a card in the mail or giving them something for their birthday with a note in it and I think that right now in this moment, that's what people are trying to do more of to maintain some of that human interaction with something that's tangible. 


Ariel:

Yeah, absolutely. I think like you said, it is so important right now since a lot of us aren't able to hang out with our friends, you want to send them something. No birthday parties should be going on right now, so it's really nice just to send them a note that's so cute and just to let them know that you're thinking of them. 


SaVonne:

[inaudible 17:21]


Ariel:

Yeah. And I saw that you were featured in Allure and E! and a couple of other online websites. 


SaVonne:

Yeah! That's the most surreal part of it all. When individual people are reaching out to you and things like... That means... that feels so good because connecting people on such an intimate level and for them to take the time to let you know that they really loved it and show you a picture and share with their audience, that feels really good. But when it comes to that big audience of press, it's good to have because I know that that means good for the business and I think it's also really important for people to see that sustainable businesses owned by black women exist and that stationery brands catered to people of color exists. It makes me feel really happy to know that I'm providing representation for a lot of people and especially for other people who want to do something similar because that's something that happens a lot whenever there's big press or people see me at events, they're like, "Oh, this is so cool. I've always wanted to do something like this, but I didn't think that I could." And I'm like, "No, do it." That's my favorite thing about the press. Sometimes it helps with boosting sales and things, but for me, it's about the visibility and for people to know that this exists so that they can do it too. 


Ariel:

Exactly. Yeah. It's so important to see other people of color working in sustainability and doing something like this like you said, it makes you feel like you can do it too. 


SaVonne:

Exactly. And just to follow your own path because, I think that people...you can only dream what you've seen. I think that sometimes seeing someone do something that you've never seen before makes your own world so much bigger and helps you to imagine different things and helps you to see what the possibilities are for you and the people around you. 


Ariel:

Absolutely. If someone was wanting to start their own sustainable business, what tips would you offer them? 


SaVonne:

Research and network. I think those are the two things. And also, this isn't just a sustainable business but this business in general. Always test whatever your idea is before like launching it. That's what I did unintentionally by doing it on my personal website first. But, if you have a great idea, do a soft launch or something to see what the interest is because sometimes you'll be surprised and be like, "Oh, so many people are interested in it," but other times you might be like, "Oh, am I the only person who likes this? Is this a hobby?" Which is fine too, but you just have to know. Or like, "Is this something nice to just do for your friends?" I think that testing the product or the business is always important. 


SaVonne:

But with research, when it comes to having a sustainable business, you have to hold yourself accountable because there's not a lot of people who might be around you to ask you the important questions and there's not a lot of formal regulations around how you can say something is recycled or natural and all this stuff. You have to be the one to be like, "What do these terms mean? What is it that I want to do? And how do I communicate that effectively?" For me, that's the most important thing with a sustainable business is knowing what your product is and knowing it inside and out and being able to communicate that to other people and networking. 


SaVonne:

When I was just starting to talk to other people about Aya, I was at some networking event and I talked to this one girl there and she was like, "Oh, this is so exciting." Her name is [inaudible 20:56] are still really good friends. And she's like, "Do you know Dominique Drakeford?. She's really great. You should reach out to her." I was like, "I follow her, but I've never reached out." She was like, "No, you should, she's so cool." I literally sent her a DM and she was like, "Yeah, let's get together." We got together for coffee two weeks later and she sat down with me and heard all my ideas and was just so affirming and asking me the positive questions, asked me what she could do to support me and that meant a lot for me to hear someone else who's in this community to listen to my idea and communicate that. This is something that people need. This is something that isn't really represented right now and you're on the right path, but this is how you can improve it from a sustainability perspective. Don't be afraid to talk to other people who may know more than you, to see what their thoughts are and to ask the questions so that you can avoid making costly mistakes. 


Ariel:

Right? Yeah. Great tips. Perfect. 


SaVonne:

Yeah. And I can be that person. If anybody has questions about sustainability or business and doing it the right way or what questions to ask, I'm always happy to answer questions via DM or email. 


Ariel:

Yeah. It's so important for us to be a resource to other people coming up, especially in the black and brown community. 


SaVonne:

Exactly. Because we don't always realize how... It's not that we have a limited network, but we're not tapping into it the way that white people do. They know their network and they reach out to them when they need anything. I think that within our community, we need to be more comfortable with asking and also sharing the resources because that's how we all elevate together. It doesn't have to be a competition all the time, because the same way that I might help you now, maybe later I'll need something from you so that we can serve me. 


Ariel:

Yeah, exactly. Just keep it going. What's next for Aya Paper Co.?


SaVonne:

Oh! What's next. Right now, I'm already prepping for the holiday and I'm a little behind actually. That's the next big thing right now, internally, is figuring out holiday stuff. People really want shipping to Canada and international so hopefully next year we can do some international shipping and carbon offset. That's the next big thing that I want to do as well. My website is hosted through Shopify, there are some plugins and things that I'm looking into to see a way that we can do that because, even though all the packaging is zero waste and recyclable, I definitely want to take the step further because as the business grows, the more that we ship, it's only going to have more of an impact. I think that doing carbon offset and either building that into the shipping and handling fees or giving customers the option to do it, is definitely something that I want to soon. 


Ariel:

Yeah. That's great. I've seen some websites where they do have where you can opt-in for a couple of cents or a couple dollars for the carbon.


SaVonne:

[inaudible 23:52]Not too much. I definitely want to integrate that and some other sustainable aspects into the checkout; the shopping process online because, I think that e-commerce is such a popular business industry right now, but I don't think that it's being done as sustainably as it could. It definitely has its benefits over in-person shopping but, I think that I definitely want to figure out ways to make it even more sustainable through Aya by learning from what other people have done and doing my research again, the research never stops. So, doing more research and digging and testing different things to see how we can reduce our impacts even more. 


Ariel:

Yeah. That's great. One question before we get to our last question, where can everyone find you and Aya Paper Co.? 


SaVonne:

Okay. So you can find me on Instagram @simply.savonne and you can find Aya on Instagram @ayapaper.co and the website is also ayapaper.co. That's where you can find us and shop online. 


Ariel:

Yes, please go do it. Everything she offers is so beautiful. You won't be disappointed. 


SaVonne:

And if you sign up for the email list, you get 15% off your first order. So do that too. 


Ariel:

Perfect. Alright SaVonne, last question. What is one thing anyone can do to be more sustainable? 


SaVonne:

One thing that anyone can do to be more sustainable. My goto is always your water bottle. How do you consume water? I think that it's something that we do every day and so much, but don't always think about it because if you're used to being in a house where you get a pack of like 34 single-use water bottles, that's how you consume. But you can even get one, two-liter plastic bottle and just continue to refill it. Maybe instead of buying the bottles, you get a big jug to refill at home. There's no one solution, but I think that one thing everyone can do is just to be a little bit more analytical and think about how you're consuming water and try to make it more sustainable. 


Ariel:

Yes. So, perfect. I totally agree. That's one of the first steps that I think a lot of people can take. 


SaVonne:

Yeah, for sure and it doesn't have to be super expensive. There are lots of nice bottles you can get if you want to splurge, but a mason jar at home works, like I said, a reuse two-liter bottle works, a metal canister works. Be creative with it. 


Ariel:

Yeah, absolutely. So many options and affordable options. You can even get a water bottle from the thrift store. 


SaVonne:

Exactly. There are so many options, take advantage of them. I love second-hand shopping now, that's the thing on my 2020 sustainability journey. I wasn't too much into second-hand before, but I've definitely gotten way more comfortable with it. Especially with furniture and home goods and things like that. 


Ariel:

And there are so many options for second-hand shopping now too, it's not just the thrift store. 


SaVonne:

It's my favorite. I'm on there every day. It's really bad, but that's a great resource. I got a bike off of there, most of my office furniture is from there, it's good. 


Ariel:

Yeah. Definitely. 


SaVonne:

You have OfferUp, Letgo, if you have a Buy Nothing Group near you, all of those things. 


Ariel:

Yeah, exactly. Alright. Thanks so much SaVonne for joining us today, it was really great talking to you. 


SaVonne:

Thank you so much. I'm happy that we were able to do it. 


Ariel:

Thank you so much for listening to The Sustainable Brown Girl Podcast. Be sure to subscribe and share it if you loved it and leave a review. You can find us on Instagram @sustainablebrowngirl and check out our Facebook community, we would love to have you there. Until next time, let's continue to make healthy choices for the health of our planet and the health of our bodies. Thanks for listening.