A common through line in entrepreneurship is resilience but the idea of always "pushing through" is often easier said than done. What helps is having something to push through for and Jess Sanchez, founder of Colombian-Canadian jewelry brand Santa Isla has a thing or two to say about purposeful commitment after building her business across the world for over a decade. Created with the Embera Chami (meaning people of the mountain in their traditional language) artisans of Colombia, Jess has fostered a community around her Colombian culture that shines light on this centuries old art form that she knows she can never stop supporting.
We got the chance to speak with Jess about her ups and downs as an entrepreneur, how she has adapted the business over the years between multiple countries, the reality for anyone looking to start a business, and where she hopes to take the brand next. Read the full interview below!
Hey Jess, thanks for taking the time to chat with us! For those who aren’t familiar, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your business Santa Isla?
Absolutely! So I'm Jess, the founder of Santa Isla which is a jewelry brand. Santa Isla is my love letter to Colombia. It's an exploration of where I come from, woven with my Canadian identity. I consider the pieces of Santa Isla little tokens of Colombia for everyone to wear and hold. All of the pieces are made with lovely Embera Chami artisans who weave spiritual intentions that you can hold and feel.
Looking back at your Instagram, it seems the brand has been around for a while but evolved quite a bit throughout the years. How did it start and what was that evolution like?
It started 12 years ago when I came across these Embera artisans in Colombia and really loved the bead work they had created. I bought two pieces and was wearing them around in all of the big cities in Colombia I was travelling to and so many people were asking me about the necklaces, what they were and where they came from. It was a bit dumbfounding to me, like "how can something that comes from here and is so rooted in our heritage be so unknown to so many of our people" and it pushed me to spend more time learning about this craft and the history behind it and made me want to make some of them myself. I spent a lot of time trying to find and connect with these Embera artisans to learn and once I did, that's where Santa Isla started; but it was a passion project, not meant as a business.
For almost 8 years I was making really extravagant and large pieces but it wasn't until 2 years ago after a bit of a break during COVID that I started to pivot to merge these traditional techniques with more fashion-forward designs like rings, anklets and necklaces that are the driver of the brand now.
Wow, so you've really put in the time to build this!
Absolutely. As an entrepreneur, you have to put in the time. I understand that the time part isn't very sexy. We don't want things to take time. We want them to move but unfortunately - or maybe fortunately - it's really an exercise in patience. You really have to put in the time to get to know your business and your offering and then you can't stop.
You spoke about this fairly significant pivot from more traditional to fashion-forward pieces. What was the reason for that shift?
After so many years of creating these traditional pieces, which were mostly bought as display or art pieces, I decided I wanted the brand to be more accessible and in order to do that, I had to change the offering. Once I started getting into smaller, more fun and easy to wear pieces, it completely changed things for the brand.
Was it scary making such a big change like that?
I've had so many moments of doubt and asking myself, like "what am I doing" but I think that those moments of reflection are really important. As an entrepreneur, there are going to be so many moments where something isn't working but you can't stop; but you can pivot! The place you start might not always be the place you finish and that's ok. The important thing though is just don't stop.
We love a brand with purpose and it seems that Santa Isla is exactly that. Can you speak more about that connection with the Embera Chami artisans and the part it plays in the brand?
That is everything for me. That is my "why". For a brand, I think that your story is everything. Running a business is not easy but it's much easier to stick with it when there's something attached to it that's outside of you. Working with and supporting these artisans is the only reason that I've kept going after all of these years. It was hard and for a long time I wasn't making money but I kept on going because these people are amazing and they've been helping me learn more about my identity so how can I not continue to give back.
As Santa Isla grows, where do you hope to see the brand go long term?
If there was another brand I had to compare Santa Isla to, I'd want it to become like a Telfar where everybody has one, and it's cool that everybody has one. I want us to be worldwide with drops selling out and me being able to get Santa Isla into the hands of everyone, being accessible. I want it to be the marker of a community where everyone is proudly wearing Santa Isla and supporting this culture.
Love that! Lastly, on your crazy journey with the brand, what is one piece of advice you'd give to an emerging entrepreneur?
If you're ever feeling stuck or down, go help somebody! Even with a simple compliment, it can change people's attitudes and if you can find ways to then weave that into your business, it changes the game and can be a big motivator for you to keep going.
If you want to become a part of the Santa Isla community, make sure to follow them on Instagram for news on all of the brands upcoming drops and keep it locked to Pier Five for more conversations with creative entrepreneurs coming soon!