Who said that creative people can’t do business? These two worlds, a world associated with artistry and making and a world associated with numbers and money, appear to have nothing in common. Their marriage is critical though and how you get mega-millionaire success stories: success comes from creative people who are savvy enough to snatch opportunities and spread the scope of their work as they grown. It sounds very simple–but it obviously is very difficult.
Sonja Rasula knows this. She’s the woman behind the now sprawling company, UNIQUE USA, the craftsperson supporting mega-sale that all started from the LA championing Unique LA. Her brand originated as an effort to support a local creative ecosystem and now is sprouting into all sorts of new pursuits around the world. She’s building an incubator space for creatives to work from, meet, take business workshops and basically do everything she can to make them successful: she’s become the creative business guru creatives didn’t know they needed.
She finds that this all stems from her having grown up in Echo Park, a part of Los Angeles that instills a certain amount of go-getter attitude. “I’ve always been a hustler, which I think is the Echo Park in me,” she says. “I went to the Baxter Montessori that is across from Fix. The original sign is still there!”
Sonja lived in the hills of the area, where she says a lot of architects, writers and artists lived, and still live. “Up in the hills you have a lot of hippies, whereas down below – especially in the 80s and 90s – you have gangs and lots of cultural diversity. It was very interesting growing up with such different perspectives, there were so many different cultural references that I was getting growing up there. I absolutely love Echo Park. That sense of diversity has stuck with me my entire life.”
She attended public school and was totally set with her life in LA until her parents moved her family to rural Ontario. “We moved to a small town in Canada called Kingston, which is in the province of Ontario. I compare it to Eugene, Oregon. Basically, there are fifty thousand people. That technically qualifies as a city but, if you’re from Los Angeles, that’s a small town. It’s tiny, I mean it was a big deal when The Gap opened a store there!”
This change was not something Sonja was excited about but was quite good for her: she found that she had to start her life all over and squeeze everything she needed out of the small town. “I truly believe that if you move as a child, you’re forced to make new friends and adapt, which is an important skill. You don’t have the same group of friends for your entire life. That’s what I’m good at: making friends and finding a community. Because I also felt uprooted and thrown to a new place at 14-years-old, there’s always a part of me that yearns for a sense of community. I missed out on what all of my friends in LA were doing. They were doing cool things and I was…stuck inside because it was snowing out.”
“It had a big influence on me. It was amazing: I grew up in Los Angeles as this urbanite where I would go to museums all the time. My parents are both academic and both are lovers of art and film and opera, so I grew up in that upbringing. But because I moved to a small place in Canada, I also got that very outdoorsy, camping, canoeing, riding a bike side of growing up too. It’s cool that I got to experience both.”
Sonja attended high school in Kingston and she thrived writing for the city newspaper while still in school, finding a great interest in journalism and photography at an early age. When it came time for college, she went to study journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto. “I got out of that small town to Toronto as soon as I could!” she says. She found herself working many small jobs and internships in and around online media during school. Because the Internet was in its infancy, she was in a great position coming out of school.
“I immediately had a very successful career right outside of school and all my old work experiences is what has led me to where I am now,” she says. “I pretty much was one of the only people in my class who had online experience. Unlike all the other people who got internships at newspapers, I was interning online with cool websites. Since I was the only person with online experience, when it came time to graduate and find a job, I got headhunted immediately. It was happenstance. It was so weird! Instantly I had a super corporate job and was making a great salary.
Her first job was working as the associate editor of the website for now defunct Canadian department store Eaton’s. She could tell that the business was collapsing and, surprisingly, a headhunter found her and offered her a job launching Harlequin Romance’s website before she even began looking for new work.
“That was my first real, real job, that taught me everything I know. They were a very family friendly company and very female friendly and had a lot of senior managers and VPs who are women. To witness that kind of positive corporate culture was great. They fostered a lot of my continuing education and learning how to manage people and gave me so many of the skills that I take with me today.”
She ended up moving on to television company Alliance Atlantis and was placed in charge of creating their individual channels’ websites, from HGTV to Food Network to National Geographic. “I loved it and loved working there,” she says. “I’ve always worked in online stuff and have also always been freelancing on the side: I was an on-air personality and interior designer on an HGTV show called Home To Go while working a full time job. It was pretty easy and we were able to figure it all out. I also wrote freelance for newspapers and magazines, too.”
Los Angeles eventually teased her back, the sun and her home calling to her. She felt it was weird to already be at the top of the chain (the only position above hers was Vice President of the department), and had a lot of pressure with always being the youngest and the only woman in the boardroom. She needed a big change. Television was where she thought could grow most. So, she moved back to Los Angeles.
“My goal was to revolutionize the TV world,” she explains with a laugh. “I wanted to pitch and create a television show. I was going to change TV, ha! I just thought I would come down here and do it. I wanted to do a show about social good and community.”
“Of course that didn’t happen. After six months, I needed a job. I took one at an agency and worked there for a couple of years but really hated it the whole time.”
While working, Sonja still maintained her connection to this entertainment goal. She eventually was cast to work her dream job, too. “I was bored at my job and I had come here to be on TV. So I surfed the casting ads online and applied to something… The show was a secret during the audition process but it turned out to be Trading Spaces. I auditioned and I made it and I was able to quit my agency job and become an interior designer on the next generation of Trading Spaces…which failed miserably.”
Sonja thought she had everything made but it all went away as soon as it had arrived. “After shooting an episode in Austin, I came back to LA and was having lunch and sketching. I’ll never forget this: I got this call telling me that I would no longer be needed. I was devastated! I had finally gotten my dream job and on Trading Spaces, this show that I loved and had been competing with while at HGTV. Essentially, I was fired from my dream job.”
“I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “It was a great thing because I was forced to examine what to do.”
This is how Unique LA came to be. After being let go from Trading Spaces, she needed a job and did not want to be working for someone else. She was done with television and had an idea that she wanted to try. “I thought it’s either going to work or its not going to work–but I never truly considered that it wouldn’t. I used all my life savings for it: I took a risk and it worked.”
The first Unique LA show was in 2008 and it was born from her love of Los Angeles and a need to bring the city together in an interesting way. “I was sitting in my car on the way to go shopping when it occurred to me that me that driving to Abbot Kinney to my one favorite store and then to Eagle Rock for another store was crazy. I thought to myself, there should be one event–even if its once a year–where people and come and shop from a ton of people. My idea was to create a mall environment that featured up and coming artists and creators. That’s was my vision at the time.”
“Los Angeles is the inspiration,” she continues. “I was sick and tired of Los Angeles being the underdog. We have so many famous artists here and actors, actresses, architects, musicians: why do people hate LA? In a weird small way, I thought Unique LA would build a buzz around LA, and then everyone else in the US and the world would know that LA is filled with talent. I’ll leave it to the museums to push all the the big stuff: I’ll show the upcoming talent.”
Unique LA built a very collaborative atmosphere and has expanded to Unique NY and Unique SF. They take pride in sharing what is made in America and are snowballing into new projects every day.
“The growth has been so huge,” she says. “We’re now taking a step back and thinking about how we want to grow and how to grow smart. What’s coming up is bringing it back to a local level: I’m working on finding a space that is a creative co-work space. Part of my goal is to bring creative people together in a space to interact with each other. When you’re a freelancer like I was, you start going to Trader Joe’s just to see other human beings… At Unique USA we get so many emails from people asking us for advice or help. After analyzing everything, I realized that I want to create a space where people can work and be creative, where they can meet like minded people and attend workshops and classes to help them grow their businesses.”
“The bigger goal with that is to have an event space where we can do a monthly event series. I love CreativeMornings and I was really inspired by them: if we were able to host them or help them with a space, that’d be great. My goal with creating the Unique LA creative space is to offer workshops, small business advice, and have a speaker series. That’s the next step: I’ve created this avenue for people to sell in so now it’s time to make a step where entrepreneurs and artists can hone in on their business skills.”
“And then there’s Camp,” she says, alluding to her next big project that will help creatives exactly as she’s mentioned. “It’s a conference set in a Summer camp environment. What happens when a creative person wants to have a business conference? Camp happens! On the surface it sounds fun and kitschy but I have done so much camp counseling and leadership training in my life that I know the psychological impact of all of this and how great it is. I’m taking these two worlds I’m passionate about and combining them.”
Camp will be a four day, three night, bused-from-LA-to-Big-Bear event with business workshops, creative workshops, and physical activities. She sees the experience an investment in yourself and in your future. “It’s like Unique LA: we aim to support people who are doing really cool stuff by giving them the tools they need to maintain not just their creativity but their businesses. It takes so much more than just creating a gadget, there is PR and photography and setting up your business properly and finding customers: all these things that creative people aren’t necessarily ready for.”
Sonja has countless projects starting and wants to do much more. She’s finding a space, running a camp, trying to get a Made In The US product line out, and doing everything and anything she can to explore and celebrate Los Angeles. This city is her hometown and she wants to do everything she can to support our local talent.
“It’s one thing to be an amazing artist and designer, it’s another thing to be profitable and therefore make a living from your creativity,” she says. “I want artist and designers to make money making art, not be “starving artists”: I’m trying to connect those dots.”
For more on Sonja and UNIQUE USA, be sure to check out their website. Also, the next Unique LA show is happening May 11 and May 12 followed by a July 13 and July 14 and December 7 and December 8, too. You can learn more about them here. Camp is also happening June 6 through June 9: you can learn about it here.