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Soul Deep, Chapter 5: Sophie Wiseman-Floyd

When one meets Sophie, something unusual happens. Everything seems to move faster; some sort of inside-out Matrix effect occurs. When one meets Sophie, something enlightening happens. It becomes more obvious that exposure to different ways of thinking within dissimilar ecosystems cultivates altruism, creativity and spunk. When one meets Sophie, one gets a curious sense of wanderlust. One wants to know what it is like to exist inside of her microcosm. When one meets Sophie, one is overcome with the desire to do more, exude more and exist more fully.

Sophie possess a breadth of traits that are difficult to sum up in concise paragraphs. Her light is bright, her story is captivating, her mission in life inspiring. She is the woman behind two jewelry brands, Heir Raleigh and Haiti’s Jewels. From delicate pieces that exude femininity to eclectic designs that tell a story deeper than what meets the eye, Sophie’s lines are everything you could want in accessories. But most importantly, in the words of Khalil Gibran, her “work is love made visible.” Dearest eyeballs and minds perusing these words, kindly be forewarned: This is not a white picket fence, lollipops and rainbows interview. This will be a raw, thought-inducing and revealing Q-and-A. Grab your metaphorical scuba gear: We’re going soul deep.

KR: Please introduce yourself briefly. Who, in your own words, is Sophie Wiseman-Floyd? SWF: I am a work in progress, yearning to mold myself into a better listener, speaker, writer, creator, lover, and friend. KR: You were raised in North Carolina and moved to Haiti in your teenage years. How did that multicultural experience influence your identity and life perception? SWF: It’s actually even a bit more complicated and multicultural than that: I was born in Vancouver Canada, raised in Champagne-Urbana IL, moved to NC when I was 11, and then almost immediately moved to the Dominican Republic and later Haiti — returning to the states for three months in the summer and a month over winter break. Growing up we called kids like me “Third Culture Kids” — children who come of age outside of their initial culture and who create their own subculture with other internationals/misfits. It’s virtually impossible to be fully welcomed into a society where you’ve only been for a year or so. I remember returning home during the summer and noticing how much more attached my peers were to their homes, friends, town — how they experienced homesickness and yearned for consistency. I couldn’t relate at all. I never lived in the same place more than three to four years, so I learned to adapt, entertain myself, and I had a unique opportunity to iterate on my personality and recreate myself in each new place — exploring different aspects of my nature. KR: And how has that influenced your work? SWF: I think that the constant change of environment growing up made me adaptable to circumstances that I can’t control. I strive to remain opportunistic and open to new challenges and environments because I know that’s what keeps my businesses evolving. Perhaps even more importantly, the diversity of culture that I experienced made me yearn to understand humans of all walks of life and has made it easier to connect authentically to people with whom I have nothing in common. Adaptability is a powerful thing and I wouldn’t have an ounce of it without the uncomfortable situations that come only from moving every few years. KR: What advice would today’s Sophie give to young Sophie who started Haiti’s Jewels at age 17? SWF: I would encourage her to be the sole definer of her worth and to never allow her value be determined by those who can’t see it. KR: You’re an industrial designer by trade. That seems to be a male-dominated industry. How do you think women in the industry challenge it as a whole? I think there was a small part of me that chose this industry because it would give me an opportunity to redefine it — both for myself, my peers, and anyone who was influenced by my work. Traditionally, industrial design curriculum is structured to push graduates into mass manufacturing of appliances, cars, household products, etc. We were taught extensively about high-powered mechanical manufacturing, spent hours modelling in SolidWorks, had to do free design work for massive corporate tool/hardware companies, and the jobs that were recommended to us kept us behind a computer screen communicating with factories across the planet.

I approached design from a totally different perspective that I had gained in Haiti and grown to love: that of slow design, small-scale production, sustainability, dignified labor, and familial relations between workers, designers, owners and managers. It was impossible for me to imagine designing microwaves for home goods stores for the rest of my life… and I refused to let my design education put me in a box. I came into school quite cavalier. I had confidence thinking that if I was good enough at what I created, that I could do anything in my program. Although I maintained that mindset, and still do today, it was an uphill battle in which my professors (both male and female) consistently tried to define design for me. I think the issue in Industrial Design is not that it’s male-dominated (it is) but that there aren’t enough people, both male and female, that are willing to challenge the direction this industry has taken. It would be wise to ask ourselves how consumerism is affecting the planet and be willing to explore other means of production. KR: What is that which you call design? SWF: Design, to me, is in everything I do. It’s a matter of choices really. The clothes I wear, the food I eat, my home, activities I choose to participate in, whatever I do, say, and create. Each of our lives is an empty palette, and the things we fill it with help define who we are and what we create.

KR: How do you think design impacts society and ultimately the people you design for? SWF: Design helps us feel like we have a unique place within our community, gives us freedom to express what cannot be spoken, and most importantly, gives us purpose. Everybody creates a persona for themselves within society and the people that I design for, while diverse, all strive to subtly push the boundary — make statements that don’t have to be loud to be heard. KR: What emotions do you feel when you create and how do those emotions physically come into existence through your designs? SWF: I feel really strong and excited… often getting butterflies in my stomach as something new unravels — it feels like the whole world is an endless, wide-open field where I can define my reality and every time I create, I’m tapping into it. I think women who choose to wear my jewelery, bags, or clothes are invited to feel empowered to start tapping into a similar well of opportunity in their own lives. KR: Are you smart or do you work hard? SWF: I think the biggest thing I’ve learned since graduating from design school (this past May) is that busy-ness does not always equate with progression. For the longest time, I would over-fill my plate, commit to wild-goose chase projects, and try to keep my days packed with conference calls, meetings, trunk shows, designing, and whatever else kept me busy. But in the end, I was just spinning my tires, not realizing that while the engine was engaged, my vehicle stood still. I’ve started prioritizing quiet time during my week, setting aside moments and sometimes days to just read, meditate, think, and exist. Don’t get me wrong, I still work hard for what I want… but I’ve made a conscious effort to start saying NO to things that do not directly serve the development of my design projects and YES to peaceful time that refuels me. That’s the smartest thing I’ve done since starting my business. KR: How would you describe the color yellow to a blind person? SWF: Like the warmth of the sun hitting your face on a summer afternoon KR: They say curiosity killed the cat. I think that’s not a well thought-out saying. What if curiosity introduced the cat to more power than it does peril? In my mind, curiosity usually beats common sense. What are you most curious about in life? SWF: I am most curious about what drives people to do the things they do. Life becomes less complex when we are able to look beyond others’ actions and into their motivations. KR: Everyone seems to have a different definition of courageous. I find it both revealing and informative to have people share theirs with me. I’d love to hear your take on courage. What is the most courageous thing you have done in your life? SWF: Although I didn’t see it at the time, the most courageous thing I’ve ever done was buying that one-way ticket to Port-au-Prince (Haiti) three weeks after graduating from high school. My parents had moved back to the States so this meant I was completely on my own with a small business I had started a year prior and a few contacts. I think the idea of starting over in a new country is far more daunting to me now at 25 than it was when I was 17. KR: Talk us through your journey from Haiti’s to Heir Raleigh; describe the scenery. How did you get there? SWF: A gap year in Haiti turned into three before I realized how important it was to go back to the states and get an education. So I spent my third year in Haiti training the artisans to do my job so that Haiti’s Jewels could run smoothly without me. Just after my 21st birthday, I moved back to North Carolina to start my degree in Industrial Design at NCSU in Raleigh. I quickly became interested in expanding my jewelry making skills. In Haiti, I tried to minimize how much product needed to be imported, so as a design team we limited ourselves to what we could find/buy locally like grenn majok (tapioca pearls), leather, recycled aluminum + glass, coconut husk, wood, and some found stones. When I moved back to the states, the world of new materials opened up to me. In Haiti I had focused on colorful, chunky, bohemian, craft jewelry but in Raleigh, where I had endless material options, I took a turn towards minimalistic sophistication: fine gold + brass jewelry, luxurious leather bags with wood + brass details, and eventually a fashion collection made entirely with sustainable wool, cotton, and leather. KR: The Heir woman is… SWF: Sophisticated, strong, adventurous, minimal, conscientious, self-aware. KR: The Haiti’s Jewels woman is… SWR: Resilient, bright, considerate, courageous, and outwardly focused. KR: Which one of the artisans working with Haiti’s Jewels inspires you for an unlikely reason? Tell us why… SWF: In my seven years owning a business in Haiti, I only once had to fire someone: a man who had worked with us since the beginning who kept stealing materials from the warehouse and other artisans. It broke my heart. He was one of my best friends but for some reason he couldn’t control the impulse to steal. But upon hearing the news, his wife, Néhémie, came to visit me. She apologized for her husband’s actions and then courageously advocated for herself, setting down a basket of materials and showing me how she had watched her husband make jewelry for a year and could make everything that he could. Now she is one of our highest-earning artisans and she’s able to employ her husband. Since she’s the manager of her family’s relationship with the company, we never have to worry about theft. What’s amazing to me is that instead of using the firing of her husband as an excuse to despise Haiti’s Jewels and blame me for her family’s hardships, she used the situation to make herself better and take on a role of leadership in her community and our family. KR: “Partnering with Haitian artisans to create life changing beauty” that’s the Haiti’s Jewels slogan. Break that down for us. SWF: I started Haiti’s Jewels before I was a jewelry designer. It was entirely motivated by a desire to empower women through design + business. Haiti has a high unemployment rate and those who are employed are often paid little and it’s difficult to get a leg up in society. The name Haiti’s Jewels is not about the jewelry as much at it is about the artisans who make up our team. They have faced adversity that I will never truly understand: extreme poverty, malnourishment, abuse, loss of homes and family during the earthquake, and so much more. But despite all of this tragedy in their lives, they are resilient, have advocated for themselves and their community, and learned a skill that transformed their lives. The artisans are each independent contractors who have ultimate control over their designs and therefore their business and each have used their earnings (which at times far exceeded mine) to build homes, buy land, send their children to good schools, take online classes, and even start their own businesses outside of jewelry design. The beauty that they choose to create each day is transforming their lives, the lives of their loved ones, and the lives of women around the world buying and wearing their jewelry. It’s the most fulfilling work I’ve ever had the opportunity to experience and even as business has slowed, the artisans have all moved onto their own passions and are thriving, healthy leaders in their communities. KR: What is your affirmation for today, for every day? SWF: If today I fall short, I have every other day, for the rest of my life, to prove today wrong. KR: What can we expect from Heir Raleigh and Haiti’s Jewels in the future? SWF: From HEIR — more product development with an emphasis on a luxury line of exquisite one-of-a-kind bags and fine solid gold jewelry. From Haiti’s Jewels — new collections that push the boundaries of business design and artisan manufacturing in Haiti.

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