Small Business Profile: Sara Berks, Founder of MINNA
Hi Sara! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Sara Berks and I'm the founder of MINNA, an ethically made textile line with a brick-and-mortar shop in Hudson, NY. I grew up in a small town in south eastern Connecticut, spent most of my adult life in Brooklyn and I moved to the Hudson Valley about a year and a half ago with my wife Steph.
What is your background?
My background is in graphic design from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I spent many years after working at various design firms, primarily focusing on branding and web design. At times I loved the work, but I was mostly left feeling uninspired and creatively drained. Most of the design/tech world is pretty hyper masculine, and after some experiences with direct sexism and homophobia at the workplace, I wanted out.
How did you transition from graphic design to creating textiles?
It was kind of an accidental leap of faith. When I left my full-time job, I didn't have a real plan. I wanted to take some time off and focus on myself and my artwork. I began freelancing and fell into weaving. I really loved it and was building a client base for commissions. I knew it wasn't the most sustainable way to support myself, so I looked into artisan production.
What led you to begin MINNA?
Again, it was really an accident, but the best one! While researching artisan production, I starting going to Mexico and Guatemala to work with artisans there. I launched the home line with 4 blankets, 4 rugs and 4 pillows as an experiment. In the back of my head I thought, if this doesn't work out, you can always go back to graphic design, even though I really didn't want to. It's been a whirlwind three years since then. I haven't gone "back" to graphic design, but I did freelance the entire time to support myself.
Tell us more about the origins of the brand’s name.
MINNA was my maternal grandmother's middle name that she dropped when she immigrated to the United States from Germany during WWII. My family is Jewish, so they were escaping. She was around 13, didn't like name and decided to drop it rebelliously. Her father was very upset because it was his mother's name. I liked the story, and her rebellion.
You work with artisan partners in Mexico, Guatemala, and Uruguay to produce ethically made textiles. How did you find these partners and could you share a little bit about them?
I traveled to Mexico and Guatemala to meet many of my partners there, and in Uruguay I met them at a tradeshow in NYC. I work directly with two families in Mexico, and then with organizations in Guatemala and Uruguay who connect me to artisans. I am very close with the two families in Mexico — talking nearly every day or at least several times a week. We mostly communicate in Spanish, which is a challenge, but I've been working really hard with a tutor for the past two years! In Guatemala, I primarily work with one family weaving our cotton tea towels and napkins, as well as a network of rug weavers. I recently just got back from a trip there, where I met with several groups of backstrap loom weavers to begin some new product development. Anyways, these artisans are extremely skilled and experts at what they do, often 3rd or 4th generations have been weaving in the manner they do.
What do you wish more people would know/understand about buying ethically made products?
The time and energy and cost that goes into it. I recognize that buying ethically made products is more expensive and sometimes prohibitive for most customers. But, I also hope that with the shift to ethically made there's also a shift to less consumption. You don't need a million things, just a few really nice, nicely made and safely made things.
What inspires your beautiful designs?
I'm inspired by the Bauhaus period of design, artists such as Sol Lewitt, Anni Albers, Sheila Hicks, Agnes Martin, etc, traditional craft, travel, photography, maps!
You recently opened a storefront! How did you decide to make this transition?
It has been a dream for a while but didn't really feel possible! I really lucked out and found an incredible space that was still relatively affordable. It has really helped propel the brand forward I think. The shop brings the brand to life in a way that I hadn't been able to online or via social media.
Now with having a brick and mortar storefront, how do you decide what to stock that isn't the MINNA brand? Do you have some favorite brands/designers?
This was the most fun part and also the most difficult part! I started the store (and MINNA) with very little money. Mostly my savings account, and the shop I built from what MINNA was previously making. So I had a tight opening budget and had to be smart about who we brought in right away. I knew I wanted to work with brands I either knew, or knew through friends, had a similar small batch artisan model, were queer owned or had some sort of larger mission. Some of the brands we carry include Tiro Tiro, Someware, Hi Wildflower, SIN, Martina Thornhill, etc.
Why do you think it’s important to shop small and support local?
Buying local is better for your local economy. When you shop small, you see where your money is going and you know that your products were safely made.
What is your favorite thing about your workspace?
Tall ceilings — our studio is behind the shop and the ceilings are tall and beautiful.
What makes you passionate about the work that you do?
I love working directly with the artisans. I tend to burn out creatively really quick, that on top of the balancing with the business end of things, I'm pretty fried most days. I travel to Mexico and Gautemala around twice a year. I'm usually MORE than ready to get there, to get re-inspired and to work hard.
What are some of the setbacks or challenges you faced when starting MINNA?
Lack of capital and general business experience. I started MINNA with with my savings and have grown everything organically. I never got investors or loans, or took a business management class. Luckily, my dad has been super supportive and helpful with the business know-how end of things. He's given me great advice and I think I've really learned to trust my gut and intuition with the rest.
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
Honestly, I couldn't really see it any other way. Especially today, post-election, the state of this world, it's so important for women to come together and support each other. We should all be able to thrive, together.
What creative women do you find inspiring?
Virginia Sin of SIN, her line of ceramics and textiles is unreal. Katie James is my friend and the stylist I've been working with since I started MINNA. She.is.brilliant. Rebecca Crall of Territory, though we've never met, we work with artisan's similarly and have had periodic phone calls to catch up about business woes.
What have you learned from owning your business that you think can apply to any creative endeavor?
Everything is a work in progress.