When Jen Soong realized the common threads of courage and compassion linked her own dreams to those of refugee women in Atlanta, SOMA Goods was borne, intertwining them all to produce something magnificent. These gorgeous decorative accessories — created from upcycled fabrics, such as saris, and sewn by artisan women from the local refugee communities — tell their own story, bringing a reminder of our global community right into the home. Jen lives her own convictions, making her an inspirational FACE of Atlanta.
You’re not originally from Atlanta; how did you make your way here?
After living in NYC, Boston, and London, my husband and I moved to Atlanta. I admit that I originally came kicking and screaming because I didn’t know a soul here. We were just planning to stay for a few years, but plans have a way of changing. Nine years and two kids later, I can say Atlanta has really grown on me.
As a relative newcomer to the region, how do you define Southern Hospitality? What do you see as being the signature of Southern culture?
Warmth, friendliness, and a laid-back pace. It took me a while to get used to it all. I would walk into a store and not realize that pleasantries like “How ya doing?” were directed to me. I thought they were talking to a friend or someone they knew.
You have such a diverse professional background, from a Cornell degree in psychology to an extensive editorial career and freelance-writing business. How did years of experience in writing and communications lead to the launch of SOMA Goods? That seems like quite a jump!
The common thread for me is a curiosity and passion for things I really care about. As a freelance journalist, I traveled in Africa and Asia and was inspired by grassroots projects I saw that gave women living in slums (in Kampala and Bangkok) the opportunity to work and help support their families. When I came home, I wondered if we could do something similar here, to create a company that could do good right in our own backyards. When I learned about the large number of refugees that come to the Atlanta area (3,500 every year) that have already overcome great obstacles, I knew I had to take action. On a more personal note, my parents are Chinese immigrants and I believe that everyone deserves the chance for a fresh start.
This is truly a passion project. What’s your greatest source of inspiration?
I have two young kids (they’ve got a lot more energy than me!), and I want them to grow up believing that they can change the world around them and make a positive footprint.
The SOMA Goods products are phenomenal, and their creation process is just as incredible. Tell us the story of who makes these fantastic pieces.
Glad you like our goods! We team up with talented seamstresses from the refugee community who are striving to create better lives for themselves and their families in the USA. Rahnuma and Nasrin, sisters originally from Afghanistan, left their war-torn country when they were young and learned to sew in India, where their father could find work. They never had any formal education until they came to the USA and enrolled in the Global Village Project in their 20’s. They dream someday of running their own alteration business. Rana, originally from Iraq, studied at university and learned to sew from her mother. Her 3-year-old daughter loves to pretend that she is also designing and sewing with her mom. With every sale, we also give back to Fugees Family and Global Village Project, non-profits working to educate refugee boys and girls.
Describe the Project Sari campaign.
Project Sari collects saris and other fabrics that are sitting around unused in closets and gives them new life as home and gift accessories. We started with saris because they are so beautiful and colorful and can be turned into radiant new designs.
What does the name “SOMA” mean?
The name SOMA comes from the idea of sewing – SO – or threading together a brighter future and MA – for mother of invention, or creating something out of necessity.
We’ve heard some serious buzz about SOMA goods recently. What is your overall vision for the growth of the company?
We can be found in 3 Atlanta stores: Atlanta MADE, Trinity Mercantile and Design, and Verde Home. We want to expand our distribution nationally. We are proud to be part of the American Made movement and recently launched Root City Market, a quarterly pop-up market in Atlanta to support local artisans. Our vision is to be able to support a network of seamstresses in metro-Atlanta and become a model of social enterprise for other cities.
What have you been most surprised to learn about yourself as you’ve developed the business?
Tenacity. As an entrepreneur, you have to constantly problem-solve and even on tough days, you have to press forward.
What’s turned out to be the best piece of advice you’ve received along the way?
Gandhi said: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” This doesn’t have to be anything drastic like changing your career, but taking steps to make your own community a better place within your comfort zone.
You’re quite a globetrotter. If you could click your heels and magically visit anywhere in the world, right now, where would you go?
Thailand. It’s a magical place and everyone thought I was Thai, so I felt right at home.
Now that you’ve settled in Atlanta, what are some of your local favorites — restaurants, shops, sights?
Hands down Miso Isakaya is my favorite restaurant. Get the duck bun and thank me later. Bell Street Burritos is also a must. Let’s see, I just took an indigo-dyeing class with Homestead Atlanta at Brightside Farm. Atlanta Botanical Gardens is one of my favorite places to take visitors.
What are you reading right now? What book are you most likely to give as a gift?
Elliot Holt’s You Are One of Them. I love Haruki Murakami’s novels. They transport you to another place.
Do you have a special hobby or secret talent?
Hmm, I joke that I’m a super taster. Right after I had my first child, I went to a blind wine tasting and was able to guess all of the varietals. I also love good food, but I’m a terrible cook!
Other than faith, family and friends, what are three things you could not live without?
Thank you, Jen, for sharing the story of SOMA with us. Learn more about SOMA goods at somagoods.com.
Once again, we send a big thanks out to our FACES photographer, Catrina Maxwell, for today’s beautiful pictures!