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A Community-Driven Approach to Housing with Wanona Satcher of Mākhers Studio

“The idea is to be able to build what you need when you need it. Again, we already know the answers—it’s just restructuring and creating new systems based off sustainable living versus extraction and exploitation.”

Wanona Satcher, CEO + Founder of Mākhers Studio

In this episode

Join Wanona Satcher, CEO + Founder of SheEO Venture Mākhers Studio, LLC, and Vicki Saunders, founder of SheEO, as they discuss Wanona’s Venture—a for-profit green manufacturing firm and design-build studio. As a social enterprise, Wanona’s team is dedicated to developing what she calls “prosilient communities.” Over the course of her career she’s served as an urban designer with a focus on equitable housing policy, landscape architect designer, city planner, economic developer, art curator and theater producer.

They also discuss:

  • The affordable housing crisis that disproportionately impacts communities of colour
  • Mākhers Studio’s role as a scalable solution for this crisis
  • Gentrification as explained by Wanona in terms of capital, land, and construction
  • Using shipping containers to build in + look at space differently
  • Micro-manufacturing spaces in urban and rural communities
  • Building sustainability and accessibility into her company’s operating procedures
  • Support from SheEO Activators that will help Mākhers studio shift to a B2B model and scale to other countries

We invite you to join us as an Activator at SheEO.World.

Take action and engage with Mākhers Studio:

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Podcast Transcript:

The podcast is being transcribed by Otter.ai. (there may be errors, run-on sentences and misspellings).

Wanona Satcher 0:00
The idea is to be able to build what you need when you need it. Again, we already know the answers—it’s just restructuring and creating new systems based off sustainable living versus extraction and exploitation.

Vicki Saunders 0:15
Welcome to SheEO.World. A podcast about redesigning the world. I’m your host, Vicki Saunders. In each episode, you’ll hear from SheEO Venture founders—women who are working on the World’s To-Do List. These innovative business leaders are solving some of the major challenges of our times. Please sit back and be prepared to be inspired.

Good morning when Wanona, how are you today?

Wanona Satcher 0:40
Morning, Vicki. I’m great. How are you?

Vicki Saunders 0:42
I’m alright. I’m really excited to have this conversation with you. And learn more about what you’re up to in the world and who you are. So do you want to just do a little intro? Who are you? Why are you here?

Wanona Satcher 0:55
That’s a good question. Well yeah, all great questions. Uh, yeah, my name is Wanona Satcher, I am CEO and Founder of Mākhers Studio. It’s a green manufacturing and design build firm here in Atlanta. I started in 2017, just started gaining traction around late 2018. And we, what we do, so we built a really interesting and creative modular shipping container real estate. Why do we do it? Well, a couple of reasons. One, we have an affordable housing crisis. Two, I believe that instead of complaining about the negatives of said gentrification, this is an opportunity for marginalized and communities of color, Indigenous groups to gentrify their own communities in a way that creates generational wealth. And three, my whole purpose really is to inspire and not just sit at tables, to hope to get food that you need, but to build tables in a way that everybody eats. And so I just happened to use design as a way to do that.

Vicki Saunders 1:57
Oh, wow. Okay, so much there. Thank you so much. That’s incredible start. So let’s start with the beginning. Talk to us a little bit about the affordable housing crisis for those who don’t know, like, give us a bit of a landscape there.

Wanona Satcher 2:13
Yeah, you know, it’s been a growing issue for a very long time, especially in communities of color, where you have had policies that have been used as tools for segregation, whether it’s been redlining or blockbusting. I mean, there’s so many different tools, you know, easements, eminent domain. And it’s not just the United States, it’s global. And so what has happened is that as income levels have dropped, for, for certain groups of us, for the top wealth, it has increased, which means that the divide has increased, which means that the opportunity to live equitable lives, in communities, mixed use communities, communities, that might not be as diverse. But communities of choice are getting more and more complicated when you have people that have to determine—are they going to pay for groceries? Are they going to pay their rent? Or are they going to pay for transportation? Or are they going to pay for health care? These are concerns and questions that no one should have to wonder, which are they going to be able to afford? I always say that everything starts at home. So if we don’t get this together, if we don’t create innovative solutions around not just policies and land use and zoning, but also how we build for who we build and who helps us build with equitable communities is only going to get worse. And of course, COVID has exacerbated that problem, where you have more slum lords taking advantage, evictions. Luckily, a lot of governmental looking at more and more moratoriums, but these are just short term fixes, we need long term impact. And that means that people should not have to be displaced, to be able to figure out how they’re going to get to work and how they’re going to pay for their groceries. But they should be able to live where they want to live, age in place, grow in place, have a voice at the table. So this is a scalable problem, which means luckily, that there is a scalable solution. And that’s why I do what I do.

Vicki Saunders 4:13
Awesome. Thank you. And can you talk a little bit about gentrification? For those who may not understand sort of the complexity behind this and what it means?

Wanona Satcher 4:24
Yeah, it well, it is very complex. It’s very multi dimensional. And a lot of times what happens so that I guess I will start, the easiest way to start is to look at three different components: capital, land and construction. And so we know that land costs are increasing, they’ve been increasing for very long time, living in cities where most of the most of your work is going to be most of the jobs and employment centers are going to be in cities. And so to live near where you work, which is which is where you really want to the position you want to be in is almost impossible because land costs are Hot. And a lot of that has to do with market forces that are designed. These are not things that just happen. And so what irritates me when people say, “Well, you know, some communities live in food deserts”, it’s not really a desert, right? Because deserts are natural occurrences. These are things that have been designed and planned by policies put in place, for those to be able to own and control the market to own and control the narrative of how people should live and where. Some people use commercial development as that opportunity. Some people use academic institutions, unfortunately, as anchors for gentrification because they buy a property only for a certain group of people, not for those that work, not for even professors that work in those institutions. The other component, aside from land costs, is construction costs. So construction costs, in fact, I was just reading a couple articles last night, that lumber costs have been increasing just exponentially, especially with tariffs and all the different kinds of market components very, very multi dimensional. But to build affordable housing is is not easy for those of us that are in that space, because construction costs are high material costs are high. And as we know, Vicki, they’re not, it’s just not sustainable, we cannot continue to reap and extract Mother Earth to build things that we don’t need. And so with that, being part of the equation, we have land costs, now you have exacerbating construction costs, capital, who’s going to finance the construction of affordable spaces. So what we’re seeing just like other markets, you have almost a venture capitalist approach to developing property, meaning that small, localized real estate developers, people like myself, who are from communities that we want to impact positively, we can’t even afford to play the game of real estate development, cuz that’s really what it is. And so you have only a certain group of people, large venture capitalists, listed type real estate developers who might even be from your city or country who buy a property, at enormous rates, but they can afford it, a get amazing tax benefits. And so all of a sudden, we start to see places and spaces that look the same in every city, there is no context, there is no character. And so that means that small developers and builders can’t afford to build locally. So now you’re squeezing out those that want to build affordable housing, you’re squeezing out those that need to live in affordable housing, and we’re reaping the earth to use materials sustainably and affordably. So all of those three components lead to what you might consider gentrification. That’s not even including racism, and racist policies of using highways and using infrastructure to tear communities apart. That’s a whole nother conversation. So, but all of this is part of that. Yeah. I mean, it’s it’s really, really, really scary. And it’s really, really complicated.

Vicki Saunders 8:01
And, it’s so insidious, right, like I am, I live in a city of Toronto, in Canada. And, you know, we have this new thing of laneway houses that have been approved. And I mean, when you talk about the sort of VC mindset, and model entering into real estate like I am, I swear anything with hyphenated tech at the end of it. Tech, land tech, real estate tech is literally just a signal for more inequality coming in.

Wanona Satcher 8:30
That’s right.

Vicki Saunders 8:31
It’s just such a painful word. And so I’m starting to see that in this thing, too. It’s just like, oh, there’s like, you know, real estate tech. I’m like, What is that? It’s like the signal that, oh, there’s money to be made here. Off whomever. Right. And so okay. Yuck.

Wanona Satcher 8:48
Well, and Vicki isn’t it’s not it’s not, it is yucky, because it’s not a human centered approach. And it’s not community driven. And then those are the that that is a recipe for disaster. And you have a lot of people who, you know, we all want a return on our investment and part of gentrification is getting the highest and best return of your investment. My whole comment earlier about gentrifying our own community is that you should be able to get a return on your investment as well, not building a community to be pushed out for someone else to get a return on their investment. We actually had, in the fact we have investors calling us all the time, wanting us to give our house away for nothing. After all the money and equity we put into it, because they see it as a line item. As you know, as a decimal point, they don’t see that this is a home. And there’s a difference between the house and a home. And so you have these individuals and institutions, huge institutions, who care more about a house and a structure than they do about community. Then we actually had an investor stop by and tell us that he didn’t know he came to the wrong house until about five minutes later, and that’s what he said, you know, no, no, we could buy this house and the apartment building now. To you, for a great return. community doesn’t matter. That’s what these individuals care about. It is not a human centered, human focused human led approach to building community. And that’s what is insidious.

Vicki Saunders 10:12
Wow. Okay, so again, it’s this like winner takes all run amok. Just monetize absolutely everything we can.

Wanona Satcher 10:22
Yes.

Vicki Saunders 10:22
So given that sort of landscape, take us on a bit of a journey for your vision, like, what do you what do you see around? I mean, just your language around modular shipping container, real estate? Cool. Tell me more. And then tell me how that fits into this human centered approach for livable cities and communities?

Wanona Satcher 10:47
Sure, well, I think, and I didn’t realize it until you know, being a part of this amazing SheEO community, and meeting with the coaches MJ and Dia to actually delve into why I do what I do, I thought I knew or at least I did, and it’s evolved since which is, which is, great. And the conclusion for me right now is that I guess my role really is to is to inspire individuals, where they are meet people where they are and inspire individuals to look at what they have, in a way that can that can be more of a value add. So using materials using policies using ideas creatively in a way that you can, you can reapply them for something that’s equitable. For us design is our tool that we use to bridge the high wealth and the low wealth, the voices, bring both witnesses at the table and build the table. At the same time, the table, the infrastructure happens to be housing, or at least the tool, because again, everything starts at home. And what I realized prior to starting Mākhers Studio, was that there’s an opportunity to reuse creative, recycled shipping containers, something that’s an abundant source that’s just sitting there that is structurally sound. That is an interesting space, because you can fit it on smaller spaces. So it’s a it’s a it’s a test into creatively reusing space, and especially spaces in cities where the myth is that there isn’t enough space, the myth is that you can’t build affordability. And in wealthy communities, well, you can if you look at space differently. And so started on this quest to test this notion of reusing a material that’s that structurally sound that’s built for our climate essentially built for really in my eyes, climate change, we see storms increasing. These things are built for hurricanes, right? And so what better opportunity, at least from a material standpoint, is to use something that’s safe and structurally sound for people to thrive. And so with that being said, what does it take though, to make it functional? It takes local tradesmen and women who are talented in their own right, that you can find next door. These are people who are at the belly of this, this very venture capitalistic system of real estate. These are individuals that have talents in welding have talent. These are women, of course, as well as men, but specifically minority and Indigenous communities who have natural gifts of how to build because we’ve that’s all that we have done is built for our building solutions that we needed and very creative and vernacular ways. And so now with that being said, you have the people, you have the material. And you had the idea that you can build something affordably locally, which is important by people who want to make their own change, control the value chain and supply chain of materials from the raw material to the end product. That is an interesting conversation in now to define your own community. Now making a stance as to what kind of generational wealth structure that you want to have for you not for someone else to come in and tell you what your market value is, we now can build our own housing, we can build our own modular commercial spaces and clinics and small business spaces affordably and train others how to do that. So we we started out like any startup, you know, building for customers direct to consumer. And so building our small shipping container micro homes, I don’t call them Tiny Homes, because it’s a whole different context. But micro homes so that people can understand what it’s like to feel touch and live in a shipping container. And I get that all the time what, who would want to live in one of those? Well they’re actually quite comfortable if you have quality work, and so we’ve started building these units, got a lot of great feedback, a lot of interest and just the opportunity to think differently about sustainability and reuse materials. That’s that’s also part of it. We are not using as much lumber if any for what we’re doing. We’re not about extracting and exploiting labor and the earth. And so that also was another piece of while we’re using shipping containers, and the modular component is because there’s so many spaces. Yeah, if we built conventionally, we couldn’t do. But building small spaces, we can fit into spaces that most people don’t even know, you know, are there when you walk around cities, alleys, parking lots, these are spaces that are just sitting there that can be utilized. And and valued. Because you’re now building for more people who otherwise would, they wouldn’t be able to afford it. So we’re building affordably, so that we can rent spaces affordably for people. That’s where we are now we’re now transitioning, especially because of SheEO’s help and work into more of a B2B model so that we can build more, scale up production, and build across the globe. So what does that mean? That means that we can’t just build one or two units at a time, that means that we need to ramp up production and get our first major micro manufacturing space. We’ve noticed in this in this industry, it’s very interesting intersection of construction manufacturing. And of course, we bring in the green component sustainability component, that other competitors, you know, they typically have two, 300,000 square feet factories, that’s not sustainable in our eyes. That’s not what we want to do. What our big vision is, is to create micro factories, in communities of color, meeting people where they are, where they have, they have transit stops, where they can get to work, and help us build these units, not just here in Atlanta, where we’re headquartered, but in other cities across the country and across the globe. I mean, the cool part is our shipping containers, you know, that’s what they are, right? So you can ship them literally, across the world, that makes it a lot more efficient. And so these micro factories, again, go with that to reuse, reusing redeveloping blighted properties in cities warehouses and turning those into our factories. So it’s a really interesting conversation around not just reusing materials, and creating more value, there’s also conversation around redeveloping real estate, that usually is unattainable and inaccessible to communities that are there, we’re saying that’s unacceptable, and creating collective ownership around these micro factories. So that is not about Maker Studios, not about me, it’s about those that live there to be able to build their change, to be able to own their change, and to be able to own the value chain of what they do in their community. So they don’t have to worry about being displaced, they control that narrative. So that’s the larger vision. And of course, logistically helps us because then we can ship our products, to other cities, from other cities to other countries. So that’s our, that’s our big vision. And that’s our goal. Again, it’s more than just a shipping container, we just happen to use that as our method of choice for affordable and sustainable construction.

Vicki Saunders 17:52
Well and presumably, there are shipping containers all over the place to say, yeah, you don’t have to ship shipping containers, they probably exist in a lot of the markets that you’re going to, right.

Wanona Satcher 18:02
That’s true, you know, especially because of COVID. You know, we are not exporting a whole lot. And so we have, especially in other states, a tremendous amount of containers available. And so that makes it easier to get our hands on inventory. Of course, we use, used containers, not new ones, I will say that because of COVID in the market is hard to get your hands on new containers. That’s not what we’re using anyway. It’s all about reuse and recycling. And, and of course, you know, major cities, typically set for Atlanta, Atlanta is an interesting city, but usually or near large bodies of water, you know, so if you look at cities across the country, you know, my background is in city planning. In LA, when you look at Detroit, you look at other places in Michigan, we’re actually taking a business trip next week, to look at potentially another community that’s interested in one of our micro factories, that you look at City, New York City, Queens, you look at all of these major cities, in the United States and across the globe, and you realize they’re always near water or on water for trade. And so that also means you have access to ports, which have containers. And so logistically, it just makes sense for us to connect to existing infrastructure, not creating something new, just a different way of applying what’s already, what’s already been done. So that that’s what our big vision is, and of course, that is a workforce training and develop—economic development conversation, because now we’re hiring where ever we we opened up with microfactory.

Vicki Saunders 19:30
You know, it’s one of my favorite things about talking to founders in the SheEO community is all the new language, like the deconditioning, the decolonization of our thinking, right? And so I’m just like, micro manufacturing spaces. You know, we’re not about exploiting or extracting labor, sustainable reuse materials, micro homes, collective ownership. I’m just saying if you blighted properties, controlling the value and supply chain? Like, oh my gosh, yes, yes, in huge capital letters, and building generational wealth. So with all of these people, you know, as, as we’re listening to you talk about this vision for the future about the difference, there’s just a lot of deconditioning that we all need to have. And I’m getting so excited about just the holistic nature of this. It’s not just like, we’re doing housing over here to decide it’s like completely embedded in values based and grounded on a set of principles that you come, you know, you build up from, in many cases. And so I wonder, I have so many wonderings, but one thought is really, what you talked about two to 300,000 square foot spaces for traditional kind of factories to do things. What is a micro manufacturing space look like? And what would you need to do that?

Wanona Satcher 20:49
That’s a great question. So what we’re looking at is 10 to 15,000 square feet spaces, which is a big difference, then the two 300,000 square foot spaces, it you know, it’s more intimate, but it allows us to have better quality control. It, and is easier to find spaces like that, that have been abandoned blighted in urban communities, and even in rural communities as well. Now, let’s say we’re interested in or there’s a community on a reservation that’s interested in working with us. And that’s a lot of land that probably doesn’t have existing blighted warehouses, because it’s not an urban environment, which is fine, cool thing about shipping containers as you can build your own 10,000 square foot space fairly easily, because you can put containers together like Legos. And now all of a sudden, you have a factory built out of containers to build containers. So there’s so many opportunities, how to make that work, but we are looking at 10 to 15,000 square feet on average, there’s of course, always room to grow. But from a cost standpoint, from an opportunity to redevelop and remodel some of those spaces keeps your costs low, it keeps quality control easier. We are right now in the middle of fundraising, our next capital rounds, to raise 600k. And we just got a 200k commitment last Friday. So I’m really excited about that, for a total of 700 capital for this angel raise. And this will allow us to purchase, acquire of manufacturing space here in Atlanta, it’s about 10,000 square feet. And that will also allow us to upfit the space with equipment, getting some electrical work needed to go ahead and go, it also allows us to have some funding so that we can do our own real estate development for affordable housing projects. You know, what’s been frustrating in this space too, as I mentioned capital earlier is one of the three major components to gentrification. Well, it’s also capital on the financing side. And it’s very difficult finding that conventional banks are not that creative in a lot of ways, unfortunately, especially when it’s around underwriting new, more sustainable methods of construction, which is interesting. Again, like you said, we have a lot of learning to do. And so for us, we don’t have time to wait for conventional systems to get it. So that means we have to create our own system, which means we need to build our own container modular, affordable housing mixed use multifamily developments. So part of the funding is for us to do the business development and partnership, strategic partnership development needed, so that we can go ahead and acquire property to build our own multifamily affordable apartments out of our shipping containers. And that way, we can begin to scale even that type of of housing unit, it’s called the missing middle. Right now, you know, unfortunately, our cities and towns have been rezoned to promote all only single family uses. We know that’s not, that’s not accessible, it’s not equitable. Everybody can’t afford a single family home. But what we do need, you know, we need more affordable apartments, we need more affordable duplexes, we can build these things in smaller lots, using shipping containers, because they’re small spaces, and we can stack them. So that’s the space that we need. Also, part of our standard operating procedures is that you know, these spaces need to be near transit stops, so that we always have access, our employees always have access, where they can live, work, play, and walk or bike or ride transit to our facility, which lessens that carbon footprint on that end as well. So it’s not just lessening our carbon footprint sustainably of how we built, we’re building with less materials. And with the manufacturing space, we don’t need as many, you know, travel time we don’t have to go to sites every day. Also on the other side of that operational piece is is is how we run a business sustainably right. And so making sure that even our employees don’t have to have a car to get to work and have to figure out how to pay a house or mortgage or rent versus having a car to work for us. No we’re by a transit stop. Are we in a walkable space? So it is a very holistic approach to manufacturing that I haven’t seen in a very long time. I mean, you used to see this pre World War Two, right where you live near your factory. Again, it’s not new, it’s just applying in a different way. And what we build this whole notion of urban onshoring, and bringing jobs back to our urban cores, creating more generational wealth, as I mentioned earlier, the idea is to be able to build what you need when you need it. And we noticed that was a big problem during COVID. Again, we already know the answers is just restructuring and creating new system based off sustainable living versus extraction and exploitation.

Vicki Saunders 25:44
Really fascinating. I have so many, first of all, I just have all these new words in my head, like urban onshoring, because I just keep writing down these like, new phrases, because I do feel like to get to the new world, you have to new to learn a new language, or at least get down to the core of where we want to go. And so just a last thing, and I want to do a series with you, because this is like really fascinating. And I have a million I want to connect you with. One of the questions around sort of consumer versus commercial? Do you straddle those two areas? Do you have a preference for commercial versus consumer? Or how do you think about that?

Wanona Satcher 26:24
I think for us, it’s just gonna be a, we prefer a balance of the two. Yeah, there is no preference doesn’t need is just so great. And I will say, though, that, that understanding that balance is going to really help us in our SME scale, and raise funds and pilot, our first micro factory here in Atlanta, how we how we set up our manufacturing capabilities to handle both. So that, you know, we have both the consumer customization opportunities and how we operate, but also the more standardized, larger business commercialized opportunities, and how we built those spaces for that industry more efficiently and effectively. But both of those are critical to our revenue stream and our model, and critical to how we ramp up production and critical to how we scale in other cities. Because there’s, even though the need is great for affordable housing, you know, the more things change, the more things are the same, you still have different conditions in different cities, we still have different needs, depending on whatever the client wants. So I say that we really, really, really even right now, prior to having our manufacturing space that we’re raising money for, we are learning a lot about how to balance the level of quality with how we built a sustainably and in a standardized way. So that we can build 1020 housing units in a month versus one or two at a time. And you know, in a year, that’s just not working. And so having that balance of consumer, having that balance of larger businesses, and being able to balance that with our operations is really going to help us to grow in a way that increases our margins 10 to 15%, in the next year or so. And will allow us to build other macro factories, at least, our goal is five cities, total in the United States and three abroad. And so we really have to, we really have to balance that. And I think that’s just going to be critical to our success, and being able to deploy very creative and affordable housing, whether it’s housing, commercial community spaces, clinics, you name it, anything we can build it, there’s so many verticals. And that’s that’s what’s difficult about what we do. And so our impact space really is more around the housing component. And even with that, as we’ve spoken a little bit about here, Vicki. It’s not just a property owner that’s that we have built for now you’re talking about larger, larger consumers, larger businesses, who were interested in invested, and really figuring out how do we solve this housing crisis? It affects everybody. And a big part of that is education. Because we also know that though a lot of people that will say, you know, we believe Black Lives Matter, we believe Indigenous Lives Matter, don’t necessarily want black lives and Indigenous communities living next to them. And so that’s also part of that vocabulary that you mentioned, of how do we connect the dots so that we’re building for everybody, but it’s all about elevating those that need access that didn’t, that should have access, that created the communities that we live anyway, you know, this is this is an Indigenous platform. And but for some reason, and we know the reasons there’s not equitable access. Well, we’re saying we want these communities to build their own access because they deserve it. It is theirs. And how do we do that? And we use design to do that.

Vicki Saunders 29:58
We want everyone to be able to to build their own.

Wanona Satcher 30:00
Everyone. That’s right.

Vicki Saunders 30:02
I am so with you. Thank you so much, Wanona

Wanona Satcher 30:06
Thank you, Vicki, this is great.

Vicki Saunders 30:07
This is like level one, okay people, right we’ll send all these words out into the universe. And so we’ll, we’re going to start connecting you even more as as we learn more about what you’re doing and what your goals are. I hope this builds awareness in the community to make the connections and find the people that will support you on your vision. And thank you so much for your leadership in what you’re doing. It’s just incredible.

Wanona Satcher 30:30
Well, Vicki, I can’t say enough about your work. It has been a tremendous journey. SheEO, I was so excited to be part of this community. It’s just been life changing personally and professionally. And there’s nothing like it, and I hope we’ll see more of SheEO and similar SheEOs globally. What you’re doing is needed, you’re needed and just can’t thank you enough. Our team can’t thank you enough. And we are so excited to walk this this this path with you. So thank you for everything that you do.

Vicki Saunders 31:04
Thank you Wanona.

Thank you for listening to the SheEO.World podcast. If this conversation resonated with you, please share it with a friend and subscribe on your favorite podcast player. If you’d like more information about SheEO, please visit our website at SheEO.World. That’s SheEO.World.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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