In 2008, Sonja Rasula risked her entire 401k savings to start her first business, Unique Markets, and never looked back. Sonja has worked with over 10,000 small business owners across America, helping them to grow, thrive, and take their businesses to the next level. She’s created marketplaces in LA, San Francisco, NYC, Austin, Boston, Seattle, DC, Phoenix, Denver, and Minneapolis. The success of her modern pop-up markets has made Sonja one of the top retail experts in the country, as well as a trendsetter. Sonja is proud to be one of only 1.7% of female-owned businesses in the U.S. to reach the million dollar mark.
As a motivational speaker and consultant, Sonja has worked with a variety of organizations including Redbull, Nike, Square, Soho House, Disney Imagineers Group, Adobe, and West Elm. Her candid and energetic storytelling has made her a sought-after speaker at conferences such as SXSW, Girlboss Rally, Quickbooks Connect, Create & Cultivate, HOW Design Live, and Martha Stewart's American Made. A select group of great companies, including Lexus, Athleta, and Joybird Furniture, has partnered with Sonja to help tell her story.
Sonja was 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—making her part of an impressive list that also included the Deputy Mayor and the Director of The Getty Museum. Most recently Sonja decided to create a permanent place for entrepreneurs and creative thinkers, and so The Unique Space was born—a historic 18,000-square-foot building in downtown LA's Arts District that Sonja redesigned and decorated to be a modern, collaborative version of an Office Building. It houses 18 private offices with tenants such as Bustle, Girlgaze, and Blue Bottle, as well as an event space. Rooted in the community, this is where she organizes monthly inspirational talks, educational workshops and classes, and events for entrepreneurs and women.
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What inspired the idea behind Unique Markets:
The decision to start Unique Markets wasn’t truly planned—it came from a series of events. One day, sitting in traffic, it dawned on me that there was a need for a large-scale community shopping event where you could buy lots of cool, curated items in one place. An event that would help hundreds of small business owners reach new audiences and increase sales, and in turn, help the local economy grow and thrive. So I risked my entire 401k savings to start Unique Markets! In December of 2008, we held our first market in Los Angeles, Unique LA, which instantly became the largest "buy local" shopping event in the country. Now, eleven years later, we host markets across the country and have franchised the business model.
How do you discover new artists and emerging brands:
I’ve made a lot of discoveries for new businesses and artists on Instagram. Social media, overall, is a great place to connect with people and learn about new brands that are local to the major cities where we hold our markets. All vendors and products sold at our markets are curated by myself and my team, so it’s important that we stay on top of trends and forecast new ones. This way, customers get a new experience every time they shop at our pop-ups!
What surprised you most about starting your own business:
Well, I’ve always been driven by the idea that creativity can change the world. Once Unique Markets picked up, I started to understand the power of my own community. What began as a marketplace became something bigger. Through Unique Markets, I have a platform to give power to small business owners. Unique fosters entrepreneurship, spreads creative thinking, and grows community.
Walk us through a typical work day:
Now that we’ve expanded outside of LA and have our pop-up markets all around the country, it’s busy year-round! Most of my time is spent on Unique Markets between researching retail trends, curating sellers, leading creative direction and design for the company, speaking at conferences and to groups at corporations, and marketing. My typical day involves a lot of emails! Aside from that, I also advocate for a 4.5 day work week for my team, and we do group lunches. It’s really important that we set time aside to cook lunch together in our office space and share a meal together. I’m also a big believer in a mid-day nap, so anytime I need a little refresher, I’ll take a 20-30 minute nap to recharge.
Favorite aspect of your job:
I love the community my job brings. Aside from Unique Markets, I also own The Unique Space—a modern office building for small businesses in LA’s Artist District—which is where my team’s headquarters are also located. Inside of The Unique Space, there are small businesses of all types, from creative agencies to architects to shoemakers. It’s really nice to talk to different people and learn about their projects. And we do a monthly wine tasting which is probably my second favorite thing!
Best career advice you’ve received:
Show off about what you’re doing. If you’re not excited about your work, how will you make others excited too?!
Describe your personal style:
Modern and eclectic.
Your most recent beauty/fashion/lifestyle product discovery:
I love love love Proclaim, an LA-based brand that makes nude bodysuits and bras in a range of nudes! (Check them out at wearproclaim.com.)
You never leave the house without:
My iPhone and lip gloss!
What does the future hold for Unique Markets:
Now that we announced Unique Markets Franchising, we’re on the lookout for amazing people all over the country who want to be business owners, leaders in their community, and help make a huge difference in the lives of artists, designers, and entrepreneurs. We plan to be in even more cities by the end of the year, and we're looking at franchising international locations in 2020!