People Roberta Ventura

Roberta’s Socially Conscious Capitalism

, by Camillo Papini
The Bocconi alumna founded the SEP brand, which was born in the refugee camp of Jerash, in Jordan, to bring the traditional embroidery of Palestinian women to the world. She talks about her vision and that of her company, which employs the craft and dexterity of 600 female workers she prefers to call artists

There are various aspects of the social impact of the SEP brand that immediately catch your attention. The social company, launched in 2014, employs 600 Palestinian refugees of the Jerash camp in Jordan, recovering the traditional techniques of Palestinian embroidery. Speaking with founder and CEO Roberta Ventura, we realize that the most recurring term in her words is trust. In fact, this is how the Bocconi alumna, with a degree in Business Administration, defines the brand, as "a positioning of trust" because it is built on the trust accorded by the women of the camp and by those who buy clothes, accessories, shawls and home fabrics of the SEP brand, all made for the high-end market thanks to made-in-Italy textiles such as cashmere or organic cotton. “If consumers pay a high price for an item of clothing, they are incentivized to develop a higher perception both of the object itself, because they recognize the added value brought by handcrafting, and above all by those who manufactured it. In our case, these women are no longer refugees, but workers with their dignity or, as I define them, artists", explains Roberta Ventura. The Bocconi manager comes from the world of finance and acknowledges that consumer awareness is often a slow process, but she equally speaks of "conscious capitalism", a constructive evolution of the traditional capitalist model, where the challenge is having to do with lower margins because you take pains to be sustainable and therefore face higher costs. “We pay each artist, proportionally to the difficulty of the embroidery and preciousness of the fabric, a hefty wage premium compared to market standards, in order to enable women workers to cross the poverty line, to start planning to buy a house or send their children to school”, underlines the CEO of SEP, which has been a B-Corp since 2020 and concluded its first round of financing in 2022.

Despite the economic prospect, it must have not been easy to earn the trust of the Palestinian women of Jerash..
We are the first ones to work permanently inside the camp, built in 1968. The Palestinian and Syrian refugees there had already interacted with Western organizations, but the projects always ended up being interrupted. The first approach with us was therefore characterized by skepticism. This was replaced by excitement when we were able to sell what they had embroidered. However, afterwards there was a moment of fear because our production was growing more than sales. When they realized that no one would be left behind, trust emerged. After ten years.

What is conscious capitalism?
Conscious capitalism rests on 3 pillars. In the broader framework of ESG and sustainability, two approaches that are slow in taking off at least in fashion, there is on the one hand the consumer, who however today does not raise their voice often enough to ask questions about the social and environmental impact of what is bought from designer labels. If consumers wanted, they could bring about a rapid change in today's capitalism. On the other hand, there are companies that have been on the market for some time. For them, conforming to ESG criteria is like having an ocean liner change its course in mid-voyage. Instead, for native sustainable businesses, this comes more natural. The third party are investors who heretofore lacked the incentives to make decisions consistent with social, environmental and governance obligations. Today there are accounting standards and multiple metrics that are capable of capturing the value of a company based on its various impacts. All while respecting milestones and stages that need to be monitored and assessed.

Can the professional dimension fulfill the aspirations of female artists?
Working for SEP means first of all to escape the depressing life of a refugee camp with 50,000 refugees, dependent on humanitarian aid. It helps to improve the quality of life and enable women to dream again, to make plans for their future. With this in mind, we have organized a series of activities at the direct request of the artists. They ask for English courses for their children, courses on nutrition for them, courses on mindfulness or on how to maintain a good mental health balance. Since the pandemic we have developed a mobile digital wallet to credit salaries. This helped workers achieve a first stage of financial awareness.

Your embroidered products must pass an internal quality control before being distributed. What happens if the result is negative?
We have an agreement with female artists that the work can be redone so that a predictable salary can be guaranteed anyway. But the agreement also says that this happens even though the working hours are more. It is a deterrent against lowering the quality level of their work, given that we are targeting a high-end market and that, in addition, Palestinian embroidery is officially part of the UNESCO world cultural heritage.

You have brought a long-term, private sector business mentality to the Third Sector. What can the private sector learn from the non-profit sector?
I believe that, eventually, companies will take on a hybrid form, becoming a bit more like us. Public and private will converge. It is likely that pure non-profits will deal with the emergencies, such as in the event of conflicts, while the private sector will make its ability to create business available also where, in the past, only non-profits intervened.

What future do you foresee for SEP?
The brand has already grown, expanding into the home and beauty sectors, with its first perfume fragrance. But, more generally, we aim to consolidate the brand globally in the short term. Subsequently, in the medium-to-long term we will evaluate whether to start working with other refugee communities, perhaps also in different geographical areas.


translated by Alex Foti