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Interview With Fair-Trade CEO Santiago Halty of Senda Athletics

by Dan Cassidy

Inspiyr recently spoke with Santiago Halty, CEO of Senda Athletics, a fair-trade soccer equipment company that partners with non-profits as a way to give back through soccer. Along with sharing the story of Senda, Santiago spoke about the benefits of fair-trade products, how fair-trade products can impact a community, and gave advice to would-be social entrepreneurs about how to launch a successful business.

Inspiyr: Let’s hear the story of Senda.  What is your background and how did it all begin?

Halty: I’m 28 years old, and was born in the US and raised in Buenos Aires.  When I was four years old, my parents moved back to Argentina.  I played soccer on the streets there almost every day.  It was my way to connect with people.  I didn’t watch much TV or play video games; I played soccer.  When I graduated from high school in Buenos Aires, I decided to go to San Diego to attend college and study economics. I had lived with my family and over thirty cousins in Buenos Aires, so I became a little homesick in San Diego.  Soccer helped me stay sane and connected me with my culture.  It was my therapy.  Some people go to the shrink; for me it was soccer.

While I was in school, I traveled to China, Latin America, and France, and playing soccer in those countries was a great way to interact with the locals.  It’s how I connected with people while I was traveling and how I managed difficult times.  This is how I fell in love with soccer and how it really changed my life.

After I graduated from college, I was getting ready to look for my first job and discovered that nobody knows where the soccer balls they used came from.  The soccer ball transformed my life, and I wanted to make sure that the people who were making it were treated fairly, and weren’t kids.  Nobody was making fair trade soccer balls the way I thought it could be done – changing the lives of people who make them, to those who want to change their community through soccer but don’t have the equipment to do it.  That’s when I had my “aha” moment; “I’m going to launch a company that is going to think about the people who make the product, make sure they get a fair wage and they’re treated fairly, and allow them to improve their lives through their work.  I’m also going to look to people who can’t necessarily afford the equipment but want to give people living in at-risk communities the opportunity to play sports, build leadership skills, and keep them off the street.”  That’s how I got started with Senda.  I started working on it in 2009 and really launched it full speed in 2011.

How do you help with local communities?

We support three non-profits that use soccer to improve their communities.  Soccer without Borders works with refugees who settle in the San Francisco Bay Area, including Oakland.  A lot of the refugees don’t speak English or have the chance to play sports.  They can’t afford the fees.  So they have people from all over the world and they practice three times a week and they play one game on the weekends.  It’s a way to get a community in the US, learn English, make friends, and build leadership skills.  And most importantly, keeps them from away from gangs.

Street Soccer USA works with homeless people who are trying to get off the streets.  They use soccer to motivate the homeless people by making them set goals, a skill that transfers over into their lives. For example, being part of a team, working with others, and asking for help when they need it. We give Street Soccer USA balls, bags, and other equipment.

The third organization is Defensores del Chaco, based in Buenos Aires. With the creation of their club, which is almost like a small YMCA, the whole community was transformed and people who did not have a chance to play sports now do.

Why is it important to create a Fair Trade product?

A soccer ball brings so much joy to people, and brings them together like few things in the world.  It doesn’t make sense that such a magical product could be made by a kid, or by someone who is not treated fairly.  We think the product should bring joy to the people who made it, not just the soccer players who use it.  We think it’s important that our soccer balls are fair trade, along with every product.

There are people who are behind every product we buy, whether it’s a laptop computer or a soccer ball.  Everyone should be able to make a good living.  We think there are business models where everyone can be a winner – you don’t need to have a sweatshop in order to run a business.  We think there’s a way to do it the right way – people can be proud of their work, and they can make a good living.  If we’re able to expand that model to more products and more communities, ultimately, we’ll contribute to having a better world for our kids and us.  It’s what we believe in.

Lots of consumers associate Fair trade with higher cost.  Is that true, and if so, are consumers willing to spend more for Fair Trade products?

It depends.  With any consumer product, whether it’s fair trade or not, there’s a lot of marketing dollars going to advertising, creating an aspirational experience for people to want that product.  With fair trade products, if we can use those resources to pay the people more, we don’t need to spend as much on marketing.  If we do this, we don’t necessarily need to have a more expensive product.

Sometimes, however, fair trade products are more expensive, yes.  In our case we are either the same cost or a five or ten percent premium to normal soccer balls, but we’re working hard to make it easy and affordable for people to buy a fair trade product and to support and contribute to a community that is helping them enjoy the product.

Yes, people want to do good and they’re willing to pay the fair trade premium sometimes but ultimately what we want is for anybody to have the ability to buy a fair trade product.  If we’re able to grow it in this way, consumers won’t necessarily need to pay more for a fair trade product than they would for a regular product.

How much of an impact can consumers really have by buying fair trade? 

It has a huge impact.  Fair trade has been a successful model for many years.  It started in Europe and it’s been in the US for over ten or fifteen years. Charity is great and needed sometimes during disasters or when people are in difficult situations, but there’s something very powerful about allowing people to make a living off of their own work.  That’s one of the really big benefits of fair trade.

In terms of how it benefits people, one of the key things fair trade does is it creates a fair trade premium that goes toward the communities where the product is made so this premium can be used for community projects.  The communities themselves decide how to best use that premium.  They can have a child-care program, an afterschool program, healthcare clinics, anything they need.  So they decide how to use it.  It is really empowering when we can give people the resources to make a good living and then you can allow them to use those resources to improve their community without telling them how to do it.  That’s something that’s very unique with fair trade and really makes an impact in the lives of the people who are involved in making fair trade products.

You turned your passion into a successful business.  What advice do you have to our readers who are looking to do the same thing?

The first thing is to work with something you really believe in and you’re willing to spend a lot of time working on.  Everything is always more difficult than you think it’s going to be in the beginning.  You’ve got to make sure you’re working on something you’re very passionate about.

The second is to surround yourself with other people who have the same passion but have different skillsets other than yours.  If you’re really good with marketing and product development, talk to people who have done sales or social media.

The third; just do it.  There are people who talk about it and say “yes, one day I will do it,” “when the economy gets better,” “when this changes,” “when I have more time,” etc.  Ultimately, there is always something that can be better and you can always wait, but you can only learn and only see what you have once you start doing it.

So, you really need to make sure you’re passionate about it, surround yourself with people who share your passion and have complimentary skills, and just do it.

How’s business going?

Business is going well.  We have Google as a customer, selling it in the Google-plex and online.  We also have Clif Bars working with us.  We’re talking to other large organizations that are using soccer as a way to market their services.  They care about fair trade to show that they’re responsible.

We’re looking for a business model to sell directly to leagues, teams, and high schools.  For us, how do we go about a model that makes it easy to put ourselves in front of them so that they can test our product and then become ambassadors?  Schools are about building character and leadership skills and thinking about others, being part of a team, playing fair.  Our product is a good product, just as good as others on the market, and the added value is that it’s fair trade.  It’s a no-brainer for a lot of people.  For us, we need to just get in front of them.

You recently visited Pakistan.  What was that like? 

It was a very important trip because it was a way for us to meet the people face to face who make the product.  Fair trade is a huge part of who we are and it was very inspiring to see the people who make the product every day.  We spent about ten days in the community and the factories where the balls are made.  I got to visit some of the houses of the workers and meet their families. One of the best moments was playing soccer with the locals.

They have the same dreams families have here in the US.  They want their children to go to school and to do better. We saw how fair trade can help them.  Giving scholarships for children who work at the factory, or once a year giving a backpack filled with pencils and notebooks for students to have.  A lot of them are betting that education will change their lives, so it was great to be able to see that and to start thinking about other ways fair trade can be part of that solution.

We now know the people who work in the factory. In a way, we became friends with our producers.  It’s a lot more personal now.  That makes us more committed to finding and increasing the market for fair trade soccer balls, so that they can do better as well and we can help improve their lives.

What’s next for you and Senda?

We’re starting to talk to companies like Target and sports stores.  We’re looking for a retailer who can embrace the fair trade model.  We need a company who believes in our mission to treat people fairly.  We’re also seeing if we can translate the fair trade model to other products in the future besides soccer balls.  Maybe uniforms, or we’ll expand to other sports as well, but for now we’re very focused on soccer.  We’re also looking for ambassadors to help endorse the product.

Thanks Santiago, and best of luck to you and Senda…

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