Feb 10, 2023 • Emmeline Clein
I recently spoke to Sabai's founders about how they started their company, why they wanted to make couches, and what it's like to be young women working in two male-dominated sectors: the start-up space and the furniture industry.
Phantila: We met in college, first as friends and then as colleagues – our first business venture together actually came before Sabai, when we were still in school.
Caitlin: In college, we worked together to found Columbia University’s first credit union. We wanted to give students a better way to bank, a system that actually had their best interests at heart, so we helped establish a student-run credit union that also helped students learn financial literacy. We already had a personal rapport, but we really built our professional rapport during that project.
Caitlin: During our senior year of college, we lived together and really started trying to incorporate sustainability into our daily lives. We learned how to compost, and joined CSA, and planned to bring this climate-oriented mindset into our post-college lives.
Phantila: So, when we started trying to furnish our first apartments, we realized there weren’t really any affordable, sustainable furniture options on the market, especially in the couch space. We wanted to bring our values into our purchasing decisions, but that option just wasn’t there. So, we decided to create it, and we set out to figure out what a sustainable furniture company that produced pieces at a reasonable price point might look like.
Phantila: That’s one of our top priorities – one of the reasons we were inspired to start this company was that we kept seeing abandoned furniture on curbs. People throw away so much furniture in this city! And we wanted to figure out how to build something that would last longer, and create less waste.
Caitlin: 80% of the furniture in this country ends up in landfills. With that in mind, we are looking for ways to make the end of a Sabai couch’s life more sustainable, ways to keep them out of landfills. We’ve focused so much on keeping the production side sustainable (you’ll read more about that soon, in an interview with our factory owners), so now we’re turning toward the other end – we’re looking at a buy-back option that could close the production loop entirely, and a repair-don’t-replace program.
Caitlin: Well, we get called girls a lot. It’s just harder to be taken seriously when you are entering these male-dominated spaces as a woman, especially a young one.
Phantila: The furniture industry has established its systems over centuries, so it’s a really traditional, aging industry. We’ve come up a lot of men who don’t trust us to know what we’re talking about, or don’t take us seriously, but we’ve also met so many deeply kind, open people in the industry who are excited to get new perspectives and want to modernize their industry.