Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which took the lives of over 230,000 people and displaced 1.5 million others, Julie Colombino felt extremely drawn to Haiti to serve as a disaster relief worker.
What was even more powerful though than her unexplained connection to the island following such a devastating event is what Julie says made her want to stay after the initial stages of recovery were complete.
“What kept me there was the perseverance and spirit of the Haitian people. The horror of the earthquake will live with all of us forever, I am sure — but the spirit of the Haitian people and how determined they were to recover and rebuild was the relentless pull for me to stay.”
“Within a few days of being in Haiti, the women who survived the disaster really came up with the concept for this company. Instead of wanting donated water and tarps and tents, they wanted jobs. So very quickly it became the notion for everything that REBUILD globally and Deux Mains is.”
Julie and four Haitian survivors quickly constructed a workspace in a tent and began crafting sandals out of tires they found in the streets of Port-au-Prince. Having no formal training in shoemaking or sandal design, Julie turned to the local community of artisans and designers to aid in the creation of her first pair of sandals.
“I went down to the port and met a shoemaker who came back [to the workspace] and trained the women and he became our shoemaker, our designer, and our trainer. And he really invested in the women.”
However, locals weren’t the only ones who offered their support for Julie and her determined team of sandal makers. Once the first version of the sandal was finished, one pair weighed about 4 lbs and by Julie’s admission, were “incredibly ugly, uncomfortable, and ridiculous.”
But, for four women sitting on the ground in Haiti following a 7.0 earthquake that demolished their entire community, armed only with small razorblades slicing the sidewalls out of tires and shaping them into footwear, I’d say that’s not a shabby start. Thankfully, others agreed.
“Some guys from Nike said ‘oh we can teach you how to do an arch support!’ so they Skyped in from Portland and taught our team how to make arch supports. And then of course the biggest change happened when Kenneth Cole came last year, and he really sat down with our craftsmen and women and worked with the leather and showed us how to do different things and invested in our people so that they could become even better shoemakers.”
When discussing REBUILD’s collaboration with Kenneth Cole, Julie said that his support and direction really inspired something in her team and herself.
“What we really appreciated about Kenneth is that he looked at what we could source locally, because we don’t import any of our materials. His original sketches had buckles [on the side of the sandal] and he said ‘Scratch that. What do they have right here?’ He was really respectful of doing business in the developing world, which was really awesome for us.”
Once Kenneth and the team figured out the logistics of the designs, it was decided that they would launch in 5 Kenneth Cole stores and online on January 12th. This was November.
“My whole team, we had Christmas in Haiti at our workshop making sandals!” Julie says, laughing. “Kenneth said it was the fastest he had ever went from design to production to in stores. So now you can imagine, these craftsmen and women, some of whom can’t read or write, and others who had trouble holding a pair of scissors 5 years ago, are now professional craftspeople working in our outdoor Haiti workshop making sandals to be sold in some of the most high end stores in Soho.”
The launch of the sandals with Kenneth Cole was a huge milestone for the company, but it was just the start of many more exciting things to come.
When it came time to start expanding the business, Julie says that finding human capital and talent in Haiti was never the issue with its rampant rates of unemployment and poverty. The Haitian government states that $5 US Dollars a day is an acceptable living wage, whereas Julie and her company refute this absurd expectation. They pay their workers double the average living wage in Haiti and even offer a $500 interest free loan to quickly get them out of the tents and into stable homes.
“We pay very well, we have an excellent culture and we’re a respected business in the community, so people come to us all the time looking for jobs. So our job is to really sell, sell, sell and get people invested in buying these sandals so that we can create more jobs.”
Julie goes on to passionately express that her main mission with her company is to become an ultimate authority and voice in social business and in the power of buying, the power of capitalism and purchasing products that make a difference.
“There is absolutely no reason why people shouldn’t make a dignified living wage in the manufacturing industry. And really what that means is that our CEOs will have to take less money. But you know what? That’s okay because no one needs to be a trazillionaire… there is enough for everybody… We just want to continue to be a voice in that space.”
In order to make Deux Mains a household name and to get people to value the materials and processes behind the products they purchase, Julie knows that it will take a relentless fight and a continued effort to raise awareness. Judging by the confidence and compassion in her voice, I know that Julie and her team are on to something big.
“This product is literally helping everybody and is actively reducing the carbon footprint. It’s these things that really matter, not just for us but for our children and grandchildren and for the planet.”
Julie goes on to expertly describe the incredibly inspiring dichotomy of her shoes and it’s one that brings her entire message together.
“There really is something to this. It’s the sole of your foot our sandals protects. Our company was born rooted in soul and dignity to rebuild from the earthquake. It’s not necessarily as significant as footwear, but as having built something from the ground up — that is changing the way people live.”
In addition to making some awesome sandals, strengthening Haitian families and providing them with financial stability, the way in which Julie and her team were able to overcome every obstacle set before them, even after the earthquake, is impeccable.
“We’ve definitely had our troubles. We’ve had tropical storms, we’ve had fires, we’ve had droughts, floods — anything that you can imagine could happen to someone has happened to us… We’ve been without power for 3-5 days, we’ve run out of water, had illnesses, deaths, we’ve experienced sexual violence and just the struggles of living in a very impoverished community… I mean we’ve really had our challenges.”
Julie again credits the strength and spirit of the Haitian people as the reason they were able to see their way through these obstacles.
“That’s the point I’d really love to get across. The Haitian people really did build this. I just get to be the person who gets to represent it.”
Upon founding her company, Julie came back to the states to speak and was greeted with interesting expectations and reactions from some.
“People would ask, ‘well how many houses or schools have you built?’ And the answer was none. I have built nothing. But what I did was build an infrastructure so people could take care of themselves. These are people with lack of opportunity and that’s it. It is my duty and obligation and my job to make these sandals the coolest thing ever and increase sales because that’s what will keep this business not only sustaining, but growing.”
[Which speaking of sales, if you’ve made it to this point in the article, REBUILD Globally and Deux Mains would love to offer you a special discount – simply enter our Ambitious promo code “AMBITIOUS” at checkout to receive a full $20 off of $100 purchases or more. Count me in!]
Julie continues with an analogy that left me completely sold on her company, her mission and her plan to change the world. I have a feeling you’ll feel the same.
“When these women told me this was what they wanted to do and as I got to have the honor to watch it happen and watch their lives unfold — thats why I’m so passionate about it, because I know it works. I know it works. It’s almost annoying that it’s not rocket science and it’s actually quite easy! So lets just treat people well and have a company where you’re distributing the profits appropriately.”
Today is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. This is a day to raise awareness of the millions of people living in poverty and the need of acting upon it. We achieved our goal of cutting poverty in half by 2015. Now it is time to complete the job! It is in the hands of international organization, non-profits, community groups to make this happen. But most importantly, it is in the hands of the millions of individuals around the world like you to achieve our vision of a better world. So act today! Educate yourself on what it takes to really make a difference, spread the message, express your support for organizations fighting to end poverty… Your two hands can and will make a difference! #endpoverty #twohands #twohandsmovement #actnow #changetheworld #sdgs #mdgs
Julie’s future plans include making her mark in the local Orlando scene and using a similar business model that made her company in Haiti such an instant success. With Orlando being the third largest area of human trafficking, this is where she says their efforts will initially be most concentrated.
“Social business is not particular to Haitians or earthquake survivors. There’s poverty right here in Orlando with a 7.1 percent unemployment rate, you feel that. And you felt it when it was 7.9%. I mean just imagine a 79% rate in Haiti. The extremes might be different but the values are the same.”
It’s important to distinguish REBUILD Globally from other businesses in its field that offer donations of mere percentages from their sales or host maybe an event or two a year to benefit those living in poverty. What Julie and her company is doing is conducting business in a totally different way and on a much greater spectrum.
Julie and her amazing team have totally shaken up the landscape of non-profits and creating jobs for those who need them the most, and this has rightfully given her a definition of ambition that differs from any dictionary interpretation you could imagine. And in my opinion, a much more powerful and real definition that truly showcases the embodiment of what it means to be ambitious and to have this desire engrained in your mind, body and soul.
“From the ashes of that rubble, to say ‘hey white lady I need a job’. To be able to see past the bottles of water being handed out when you’re holding a baby that’s starving to death. To say no, I don’t want your bottle of water, I need a job. That’s ambition.
That’s the foresight they had, knowing that everybody was going to leave. Because we did, right? Everybody left and went onto the next disaster because that’s what people do. But they said no, we need a job, give me a job, I need the money.
Their courage, their perseverance, that’s my definition of ambition.”