Sonja Rasula moved to LA to work in TV, but when her path didn't go as planned, she embraced the unexpected.
Today she is CEO of the Unique Empire, including Unique Markets and Unique Camp. Sonja was recently named '1 of 30 Women Entrepreneurs Changing the World' by fashion mogul Eileen Fisher, and Los Angeles Magazine honored her as one of LA's Top 10 Most Inspiring Women.
What most people don't know is Sonja risked her entire 401K to start the company. Now she has become a crowd-favorite at conferences such as SXSW, HOW Design Live and Dwell on Design, bringing her unique and unconventional style of interactivity and motivational speaking to audiences around the world.
Sonja came to us when she wanted to have something custom made for her friend's wedding. See her experience below:
“I moved back to LA with the thought that I was going to revolutionize TV. That did not happen. Instead, that’s when I started Unique LA and began doing the work I do now. The path was not straight, though.”
[The following is an interview with Sonja Rasula from The Great Discontent]
So then you moved to LA with plans to continue being on TV. You tried out and got hired for a job, but got fired, right?
This is terrible. I moved to LA with zero contacts. In Toronto, I was a high-roller, a big fish in a small sea. I had every contact in the world. I moved to LA and I couldn’t even get interviews for jobs. I applied to hundreds of jobs and didn’t get one interview.
One day I was on Craigslist and I saw an ad that was for a new TV show and wanted interior designers with camera experience, so I applied. I had no idea what it was for. I got it, and it was Trading Spaces, which had been one of my favorite shows.
I was offered the job and got the axe very quickly after that. Being fired is an interesting experience because you’re left with this feeling of, “What did I do wrong?” And you don’t ever really know because they don’t tell you. You’re in this weird, insecure space. You start to question everything. I think I was fired because the show didn’t do well. It only aired for a few episodes before it was cancelled.
How did that apparent moment of failure affect your trajectory and what did you learn about yourself?
Los Angeles is a magical place, especially for dreamers. I had some savings, so I knew it would be okay to not work for a while. I did a lot of wandering and exploring the city and got to know the different communities. It was 2007, and the most important election—at least at that time—was coming up, so I decided to dedicate myself to volunteering and knew I could give 6–12 months.
I became the volunteer director of a nonprofit whose goal was to get people in their twenties and thirties to vote in local elections. Obviously, we were excited about Obama, but we were more excited about the fact that because the press was so vocal about the upcoming election we could help spread the word about how important it is to vote local and vote all of the way down the ballot. I spent a lot of months pounding the pavement and registering voters, and I got to know a lot of city officials.
I become intertwined in local politics. Eric Garcetti, who is now our mayor, was a city councilor at the time, so I got to know him. All of this community work started to inspire me and set my course for doing something more community-minded as opposed to opening an online store.
There was this moment when I was sitting in my car trying to shop for a friend and wondered why there wasn’t a giant community-based shopping event in LA. New York had Brooklyn Flea, and I had come from Toronto, which had several large-scale shopping events. It boggled my mind that LA didn’t have one.
I decided then and there that that was what I wanted to do. I knew people in the city who could help and point me in the right direction because I had no clue how to start a business.
And that’s when you started Unique LA? Tell me about the process. I’m sure there were challenges along the way.
Yep! I decided to start something called Unique LA, but the overarching brand is Unique Markets. Essentially, I am pretty fearless, so I took every penny of my savings and 401k to pay for the venue. Once I had the venue, I knew it was go time. My goal was to have over 200 vendors at the first event and we had 225. It was a challenge to talk to people about it for the first few months and try to convince them to take part. LA had nothing like it and LA was more known for sample sales. The only reason people came to Downtown LA was for Ed Hardy and Juicy Couture sample sales.
I knew a very different LA. It was filled with great clothing and jewelry designers and independent artists, but that wasn’t what the world thought of. I wanted to show the rest of the world that LA is actually a great city—it’s not just Hollywood and the beach. So I created Unique LA and I called people on the phone and begged them to participate. I was hung up on, people asked whether I had any event planning experience (which I didn’t), people told me they Googled me and didn’t see anything about me online. I had to work really hard, but it paid off. Instantly, the event was a success. At the end of the day, I only profited a few thousand dollars—but I profited. I didn’t lose anything, which was a miracle. At that point, I realized that it might become my full-time job. That was December 2008.
How often is that event? We do Unique LA three times a year: in the spring, summer, and holiday season. We’ve also done one in New York and San Francisco. I’m hoping to come back to New York this year.