The SheEO Spotlight Series showcases the talent and radical generosity of the SheEO Community, one entrepreneur at a time.
Meet Sonia Strobel!
Sonia wants to create positive change in Canada’s fishing industry. A long-time advocate for sustainable and transparent food production, she made her mission a reality when she founded Skipper Otto’s Community Supported Fishery (CSF) in 2008. Her devoted and mission-driven work has given her great success, and she isone of the five recipients of our 2015 Radical Generosity Initiative. Here, we talk with her about her family’s fishing roots, how she found both confidence and balance as an entrepreneur, and what’s next for her and the CSF team.
How did your interest in the fishing industry begin?
I married into a fishing family back in 2001. My husband Shaun had grown up fishing alongside his father, but he eventually had to leave the fishing industry because it had become impossible for artisanal fishermen to make a living due to the industrialization of the seafood industry.
For a while, he and I were high school teachers and social justice advocates in inner city Brooklyn, New York. We advocated in particular for sustainable food systems and the importance of knowing one’s local farmer. Then in 2008, our oldest son Oliver was born, and it suddenly became clear to me that we were no longer going to have a multi-generational fishing family. This was really sad to me. I thought that there had to be a way to make fishing a bigger part of our lives, and that there had to be others who also valued quality and sustainable seafood from the coast.
My ‘aha!’ moment came to me soon after Oliver was born. I was inspired by the model that farmers were using to connect directly back to consumers, and realized that Shaun and I could implement this model in the fishing industry. And so the CSF was born.
Did something in particular spark that "aha!" moment, or was it the sheer build-up of the situation?
Yes, it actually was something in particular. While I was pregnant with Oliver, I was reading a book called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by the fiction and nonfiction author Barbara Kingsolver. The book follows Kingsolver and her family during a year-long period they’ve committed to eating food they grow themselves or by their neighbors. The family goes back to where they are from, lives on the old farm, raises chickens, and in general aims to get in touch with food production on a daily basis. While reading this book, I found myself thinking, “Yes, this is everything I believe in. This is understanding the value of food production, where it comes from, and how important it is for kids to know that food isn’t just a shrink-wrapped thing at the grocery store.” These thoughts along with Oliver’s birth filled me with hope and inspiration for change. I can remember the moment when I was breastfeeding my newborn baby, and I thought of the name ‘Community Supported Fishery’ for the project!
I love hearing about this strong sense of purpose, and how it's been driven for you by a long-held mission as well as by everyday sources of inspiration. How did you build your confidence to the point of being able to make your mission a reality with the CSF?
First of all, I have to give credit to my parents for helping me build my confidence. They raised me and my siblings with the attitude that if you saw something that needed to be fixed, you fixed it by figuring it out. Whenever I have come across something that needs to be fixed, I find a solution and fix it.
When Shaun and I started the CSF, I was motivated to find a solution to a problem: fishermen in Canada who were using traditional and sustainable methods were being driven out by the fast-paced commercial fishing industry. My family and other fishermen were hurting, and so were the consumers who didn’t know where their fish were coming from. I didn’t initially decide that I was going to make a living out of running it. As I was still a high school teacher then, I fully believed that I would continue being a high school teacher while leading the CSF on the side to help keep my father-in-law, Skipper Otto, in the fishing industry. We had forty members when we started the CSF, and by the second year we had two-hundred. It was extremely motivating hearing the fishermen say how the support of the CSF was life-changing for them, because they were being paid more than they ever had been paid for their fish. Likewise, it was motivating to hear how happy our members were with their premium quality fish, knowing their fisherman, and that the fish was so reasonably priced!
The CSF has grown in an organic process, and my confidence has grown with it.
With all of the success you and your team have had with the CSF, how do you balance work and personal life? Do you find time to unplug from it all?
For one thing, I am a runner. I run a lot of half marathons, and also commute everywhere by bike. Exercising regularly really helps me to unwind and manage stress. Another thing that’s been important has been developing good boundaries. When Shaun and I first started the CSF, we worked out of a closet in our small apartment. We called it ‘the Cloffice’, and were able to squeeze a tiny desk behind those bi-fold closet doors. By that point, we had two children, Oliver and Lyndon, who had legos spread everywhere in the house. This, my constant answering of emails at home, and the fact that I was teaching, left me with no boundaries between my work life and my personal life. I was on the road to burnout.
Things changed pretty dramatically when we became a part of a social venture innovation incubator, which afforded us an office and coaching. The move into the office was pivotal, because I could now leave work at work and have home at home. I still leave work at work for the most part, take weekends off, and have one-on-one holidays with my kids. I’ve realized that I can’t be all the things I want to be, including a happy person, when the lines between these different parts of my life are blurred.
Is there a woman who has deeply inspired you through this process from working as a teacher to starting a business?
There are so many women who’ve inspired me! But I would say Dana Bass Solomon in particular, who is the CEO of Hollyhock, a life-long learning institute on Cortes Island in Vancouver. Her living of a very full life has been a real inspiration for me. She is doing this life-changing work at Hollyhock, and is at the same time so warm, authentic, and vulnerable.
What a great balance! Regarding the CSF, what are you excited about in your work right now?
I am excited about SheEO, and becoming a part of the Top Five 2015 Radical Generosity cohort. The support of the SheEO community is having a huge effect on the CSF right now, and helping us to quickly grow our numbers. As a result of SheEO’s funding, we have bought a big walk-in freezer to store our large quantities of fish, and are also opening two processing facilities for cutting fish in the coming couple of years. These two cutting facilities are exciting because they are the last link in the line of vertical integration. We now have control over every piece of each fish’s story from boat to fork. It blows my mind that this is all coming to fruition for the CSF. This innovation and support is allowing us to create sustainable change in Canada’s fishing industry.
Anna Wolle is an intern with SheEO, and a rising junior studying philosophy and French at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota and in Paris, France. You can email her at [email protected].
Hello SheEO Activators!
Our Activator Ask from the CSF? For SheEO supporters, we've discounted the membership fee to $38 (with code: RADICAL through May 31st). You can order fresh fish starting at $100 (see here for details on what $100 gets you).
Click here to pre-purchase now.