Younited Cultures is turning successful migrant stories into colorful scarves. One of the founders Andra Slaats tells us the story of how that came about.
Andra met her husband in Vienna and decided to move to Austria 10 years ago. After the difficult process of learning German she eventually found a job at an Austrian luxury cosmetics company. For six years, she got the opportunity to travel the world but at the same time she was confronted with discrimination in her own team. The experience inspired her to devote her time and creativity to the promotion of cultural diversity.
Younited Cultures was set up by Andra and her partner Iulia Mugescu in 2014. The company creates trendy scarves which tell the story of successful immigrants with the help of designers. Supported by Impact Hub Vienna throughout her career as a young entrepreneur, Andra knows what she owes to those who have encouraged and supported her in the making Younited Cultures itself a success story.
Impact Hub Vienna: What is Younited Culture?
Andra Slaats: Younited Culture is a Vienna-based social enterprise using fashion as a statement for cultural diversity. Our goal is to identify impactful and inspiring success stories for every culture and telling them through a sustainable and locally made scarf. We produce items with a simple and elegant design and the slogan “Celebrate migration”
IHV: How does it work?
AS: Creating a scarf is an intriguing process. First, we identify and approach a successful immigrant. Then, our designer is going through a process of interview and design together with him or her. When the scarf is ready, it has to be approved by the immigrant. Finally, the prototype is sent for production in Austria or Italy. Our bestseller however is our signature scarf. A very colourful design that symbolizes cultural diversity. People wear the scarf to make a statement. It’s awesome!
IHV: What is a successful immigrant?
AS: I think it is someone who is integrated, runs his/her own business or has a job where he/she can create value, and who stays in Austria despites discrimination.
Our first storyteller was a Polish woman, Adela Kuliga. She arrived in Austria 10 years earlier to be with her future husband. She left a promising career in her country to come to Vienna without speaking any German and without any job perspective. While engaging in menial jobs, she learned German and then worked as a professional trainer in the Integration sector. Later on, she funded an NGO “Networking Youth Career” for immigrants helping them on their career paths. Now she directly impacts the lives of more than 2,000 people every year.
IHV: Tell us about your background.
AS: I arrived in Vienna ten years ago. Love brought me here as well. I did not know a word of German and honestly didn’t like the language. In Romania, my country of origin, I was an Englis and French translator. As I had to find my way in Austria, I tried hard to learn German within a year, hoping that I would find a job in which I could grow into.
I started working for an Austrian cosmetics company in International Sales. I was happy but unfortunately, I started to feel discriminated and unwanted within the team. During those six months, I suffered badly from this situation. I felt discouraged there was such a disconnect between my colleagues and friends. It took me two years to accept the fact that I could not change the people that I was working with but that I had to change jobs.
My boss on the other hand was very supportive and she valued my knowledge and passion to work for her brand. Two years later I was made Export Manager. I travelled around the world, discovered rich and poor cultures, but experienced as well the way some suppliers were working with their employees. In China for example, I remember the tired faces of people working until 10pm. I will never forget that.
After 3 years, I took a sabbatical leave to study Sales and Marketing Management and that year transformed my life.
“The plants were dying all the time.”
IHV: How did you become part of the Impact Hub network?
AS: My brother introduced me to Impact Hub Vienna during my sabbatical leave in 2012. I started working on his project called “Window Farm”, a product in which plants can be grown
in a closed loop system made out of recycled plastic bottles. As an added value, immigrant women with little chance to find work, would be employed on a flexible time for a few hours a week. Unfortunately, it did not work for me though. The plants were dying all the time. I don’t think it was a problem with the product but rather my gardening skills. I pitched for this project at the Social Impact Start in 2013 nonetheless. At that time, I had never spoken in public and never wanted to either. But I felt safe and inspired by other entrepreneurs who took risks and jumped in cold water every day. They were happy at what they were doing. Now, of course, I did not win the pitch, but the Social Impact Start opened a door.
Alexis Eremia, co-founder and Managing Director of Impact Hub Vienna, asked me shortly after my presentation: “Why don’t you keep what motivates you [supporting people with different cultural background] but change the product? You obviously don’t feel passionate about the product but more about the impact it brought. So find a product that you like and have the same impact on migrants”. This was a turning point. We met the next week and brainstormed on products until we discovered it could be a fashion product. So she gave me the contact of a Latvian designer of scarves.
IHV: How did you meet your partner?
AS: While hosting at the IHV, I met Iulia Mugescu, the Marketing Manager of Younited Cultures. She is from Romania, like me, and was part of the IHV team. Previously she was President of AIESEC Austria a global platform for young people to explore and develop their leadership potential.
“I am no longer scared to do things I am not comfortable with.”
IHV: After the Social Impact Start, what was your next step?
AS: In April 2014, I pitched for the Social Impact Start again. This time with our own product and we won! Matthias Reisinger, another co-founder and Director of Impact Hub Vienna later said “This is the difference between pitching a product and owning a product”. We were really enthusiastic and won an 8-month programme including 20 hours of expert advice, a full membership and co-working space at the Hub and mentoring from SAP. Later in August we won the Social Impact Start Award that brought us 5,000 euros.
IHV: How did you finance your project?
AS: We invested 5,000 euros at the beginning, won 5,000 euros from the Social Impact Start Award, 5,000 euros from crowdfunding and took a 10,000 euros credit. State funds were not possible due to the criteria they had. We just never fit the profile unfortunately. So we decided to get a bank credit. They were less fussy.
IHV: What challenges have you been facing and how did you manage?
AS: We wanted the whole production to be made in Austria, but the costs were really too high. We are now producing in Italy with a family company that has worked in textiles for generations. More generally, I am no longer scared to do things I am not comfortable with. I did so many. I jumped in cold water so often, that now it’s just like warm every time I do a new thing! I also hate doing things that I don’t like doing: Public Relations for example… Not fun, but it brings results. So, I do it. And now it’s kind of growing on me. I get to meet interesting people and journalists.
“Thousands of potential success stories.”
IHV: At what stage is Younited Cultures now?
AS: In August 2014, we created a limited company. Six months later, we launched three products and got a lot of media coverage. Now, we are in the operations phase. Sales are done online, we open discussions with shops, participate at fairs. We also offer workshops for corporations, where they can create their own scarf in a team building effort.
IHV: What did the IHV bring to your project?
AS: What I really appreciate at the Hub is that everybody takes time to go deep into your project, no matter if he/she is a member or a co-founder. We are growing within this entrepreneur atmosphere where everyone is willing to help. There are also some other benefits as member of the Hub. In 2013 I won a €25,000 scholarship for an MBA in Sustainable Development Management. Thanks to this, I could meet investors, marketers and gain knowledge in strategy, sales, graphic facilitation and negotiations. There were experts from all around the world teaching classes. I am now writing my master thesis on women immigrants in top management positions in Austria.
IHV: What is the next step you want to take?
AS: We are organizing a “Celebrate Migration Tour” in Austria. We want to create some buzz in Austria for how migration can also be perceived as thousands of potential success stories.