Mentorship is a two way street: You get what you give

Ariela Suster has one major goal: To disrupt cycles of violence. She’s making it happen with her accessories company, Sequence Collection, and her forthcoming venture, I Am a Disruptor. To do so, she often calls on mentors for business advice—and when she does, she’s candid and authentic. Those qualities have helped her turn her mentors into real members of her coalition, and yes, even friends.

Last fall, Ariela Suster watched the Diane von Furstenberg runway show in New York beside the legendary fashion designer herself. In addition to the flowing skirts and wrap dresses that are DVF’s signature, several of the runway pieces featured boldly patterned woven bag straps, belts, and earrings. These were designed and produced by young men in Ariela’s native El Salvador through her company, Sequence. The next day, in a small village in El Salvador, 40 young men in the Sequence workshop would sit in front of a projector and watch the same fashion show, cheering when they saw the designs they had created by hand, as Ariela joined their celebration via Skype.

Of course, it’s all in a day’s work for the social entrepreneur. The DVF show marked the latest milestone for Sequence, which Ariela launched in 2011 with the goal of creating positive outcomes for at-risk youth in El Salvador, a country plagued by gang violence. Ariela is working to disrupt the cycle of violence by offering skills training in things like beadwork, embroidery, and screenprinting and leadership opportunities to young men. Sequence now employs around 40 people who create jewelry and accessories inspired by El Salvadoran culture in a local workshop.

What’s the scariest part of starting a new business?

Finance does not come naturally to Ariela Suster. In fact, the entrepreneur says she was afraid to admit that it’s one of the areas where she needed the most help. In this video, Ariela talks about how she has become more comfortable managing the numbers, and why other entrepreneurs shouldn’t be nervous or embarrassed to identify their own weaknesses.

In its seven years of existence, Sequence has markedly improved the lives of its workers. The partnership with von Furstenberg (whom Ariela met through the women’s leadership organization Vital Voices) was a huge win for Sequence and for the men who create its products. “They were so proud that their work was getting valued at that level,” says Ariela.

Now that she knows that the model works in El Salvador, Ariela, who splits her time between El Salvador and New York, wants to try building off that same model in the U.S. Moved by the subject of mass incarceration, Ariela decided to look into how she could support a group of at-risk men in the U.S.—the formerly incarcerated, who face serious employment obstacles and little skills training upon reentering society. Last year, she met the founders of Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit that offers these men rehabilitation and job training—and spent time immersing herself in their program. From there, she did more research, met with experts, and talked to more formerly incarcerated men, to get a sense of what kinds of work they actually want to do. Often, they would mention wanting to learn technological skills like coding and graphic design.

What running two businesses at once really looks like

For Ariela Suster, managing Sequence while trying to launch her second business, I Am a Disruptor, can be taxing. “Right now, there’s not a single day I’m not working,” she says. Her strategy is to put Sequence first during the week and save Disruptor for weekends. Click through to get a sense of how she prioritizes that time, on any given week.

Come up with new product ideas and designs

“I’ll Skype with the guys at the Sequence workshop in El Salvador, to dream up new product ideas and designs. I also try to fly down there as often as I can to work with the team in person. Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time doing design research too, meeting with metal workers in New York and craftsmen in Colombia, potentially for future projects.”

Develop the business plan for I Am a Disruptor

“I dedicate weekends to working on my second business, I Am a Disruptor. I’m in the midst of developing the business strategy—the value proposition, the mission statement, the financials. There is so much to do. Thankfully, one of my mentors, Kathleen Holland, a business development strategist, Skypes me on weekends to lend her expertise. It’s nice that it’s not just me working alone all weekend. Pretty soon I’ll be doing creative briefs to actually start creative output, which is exciting."

Hone my leadership skills—and lead

“I’ve been spending a lot of time developing my own skills as a leader. I recently went through an intensive training at the Aspen Institute. It’s important, because I’m leading my Sequence team on everything from design and production to operations all the time. I want to be a good leader, and I also want to give them the opportunity to develop their own leadership skills, so they can become changemakers in their community.”

Build out retail partnerships

“For Sequence, I’m working with Diane von Furstenberg on another collaboration to develop some new products for her brand. I can’t tell you anything more just yet!"

Go to a ton of sales meetings

“I’m meeting with a lot of companies to work on Sequence’s digital strategy and to see how we can increase our online sales. I want to make sure the Sequence business is really solid.”

That yearlong process inspired Ariela’s next venture, I Am a Disruptor, which she’s in the process of developing as a business now. The first element will be a video series in which Ariela interviews other entrepreneurs who are disrupting cycles to create positive change on issues like human trafficking, gender equity, gun control, poverty, clean water access, climate change, ethical fashion, and more. Then, she wants to create an online platform that connects entrepreneurs and activists with other like-minded people to foster collaboration. “Like Tinder, but not for dating,” she says. She hopes to partner with organizations that work with formerly incarcerated men in order to launch these projects. And lest she neglect her other work, she plans to involve the Sequence team by having them produce I Am a Disruptor merch for the project.

Managing both ventures requires near-constant attention from Ariela. When she starts to get exhausted, she reminds herself of her purpose. “It’s like, ‘Okay, I have 40 people who depend on me, and we have a common, collective goal,’” she says. “At that point, it’s no longer just a lofty mission statement. I know why I’m doing this.”

What is Ariela's secret weapon?

Maximizing her time with mentors “I’ve been blessed to have a lot of great mentors—Diane von Furstenberg, Alyse Nelson, the president and CEO of Vital Voices, and Kathleen Holland, a brand strategy and business development expert, to name a few—and I know the time I have with them is really valuable. That’s why I prepare what I want to talk about before my mentor and I meet. I figure out the two most important things I want to cover, so I have a clear agenda. Then, I will discuss any problem I’m encountering right off the bat, without fear that my mentor is going to think I’m uncool or unsuccessful. That vulnerability shows that you’re very transparent and honest, so that person feels that they can be very honest with you. At the end of the day, it should be more of a friendship.”

– Ariela Suster, founder, Sequence