Working With Dignity
I love talking with women in our local community who use their skills to positively impact lives through business. I met one of these women, Julie Colombino, at her office in downtown Orlando on the campus of First Presbyterian Church. She shared her path to founding Rebuild Globally, a local nonprofit that distributes shoes made by deux mains designs, which are handmade in Haiti by an employee-owned company of craftspeople. Colombino possesses authenticity and a purposeful approach that reflects the values that also drive us at Orlando Content Marketing.
HOW SHE GOT HERE
Colombino was a dancer, and she first found Orlando when she was accepted into VOCI, a modern dance company, in 2003. Before that, she taught dance as a healing art in a Miami-Dade correctional facility. She did similar work in Africa with women who were victims of rape. Her undergraduate degree at Florida International University was in dance performance and building communities through the arts.
She continued performing with a few different companies, including New Vision Cirque, where she was a dancer and aerialist. At the same time, she chipped away at her master’s degree at the University of Central Florida, and earned it–debt-free–by 2007.
“Had I gone the traditional route, and taken out loans, I never would have been in a position to start ReBuild Globally, which at the time I didn’t know I was going to do,” she says.
Colombino was working as a volunteer manager for the United Way when Haiti suffered a catastrophic earthquake on January 12, 2010. Eleven days later, taking a leave of absence, she boarded a plane out of Miami and flew into Port au Prince with medical personnel. There was no airport, landing strip or customs waiting for them there.
It took a while for Colombino to find her way in Haiti. She distributed medical supplies. She slept in unguarded tents with a knife under her pillow. She worked alongside Scientologists, whose organized relief efforts were unmatched. She temporarily found a haven at the United Nations.
“Volunteers in Haiti faced constant illness and a lack of safety. We were there to help Haitians who had lost everything, but at the same time, we needed help. Even without any certainty about what the future held for me in Haiti, I quit my job at the United Way in the States and decided to stay long term,” says Colombino.
Haiti did a remarkable job of rebuilding. Around the world, people forced into refugee camps as a result of natural disasters often stay there for 15 to 20 years. It’s been almost 6 years since Haiti’s earthquake, and most Haitians have moved out of the camps. Now, the focus is on growing businesses and creating a strong economy.
“Haiti was plagued with NGOs and missions groups for years. They provided band-aids but not sustainable solutions. Haiti’s economy can’t grow if it’s dependent on charity,” explains Colombino.
WORKING WITH DIGNITY
Colombino focused her efforts on affecting the personal economies of Haitian people she met, not through charity, but through jobs. A practical need sparked an idea: “I looked around and saw that people didn’t have their own shoes because they had lost everything in the earthquake.”
She notes that wearing clothes and shoes that belong to Haitian culture is important to the dignity of locals: “Well-meaning Americans pack up boxes of their unused or old clothes and shoes, and send them to Haiti. All over the island, you see people in t-shirts with out-of-place branding or worn, ill-fitting tennis shoes, and they have to wear them because they have nothing else. But the clothes are symbols of charity. It’s hard to wear them with pride.”
In both Africa and Haiti Colombino had seen sandals made from upcycled tires, so she hired a few women to begin making two or three pairs per day. The women, who were jobless and struggling to feed their children, now had a purposeful job and means to support their families. Word got around.
The Clinton Foundation came to see what they were doing, and while they were supportive of the concept, they found the shoes “ugly and uncomfortable”.
“Here we had thought we were doing something amazing, and they put us in our place,” says Colombino. “There are a lot of cobblers in Haiti. I convinced a cobbler named Ody to come and train the ladies to make better shoes. Then, a guy from Nike came and taught us how to create arch support. Last year, Kenneth Cole came to visit and he was so impressed that he sat down and sketched some sandals for our women to make to sell in his stores. He calls it the Love – Haiti line.”
Today, 20 craftspeople work at deux mains and 30 apprentices are provided with academic scholarships to attend school, with the guarantee of a job upon graduation. The craftsmen and women are making 50 pairs of shoes per day. With the exception of the dyes used on the leather straps, the shoes are made of sustainable materials. Every craftsperson earns a living wage and has health insurance, and the first 3 employees are 6% owners in the business. Deux mains designs is Haiti’s first employee-owned business, a model for others to follow.
Colombino helped them register as an SA, which is much like an LLC in the U.S. It took a year and a half–and a lot of persistence–to get the certifications needed to pave the way as an employee-owned business, since there wasn’t an existing precedent.
With operations functioning smoothly, Colombino moved back to Orlando to focus her efforts on growth and scalability. To sustain the business in Haiti, REBUILD globally is tasked with distributing the shoes from deux mains designs in the U.S. and beyond. Ron Jon Surf Shop is one of the retailers selling deux mains in their stores; others are picking up the lines.
“My dream is to have five more workshops in five more communities. I’d like to have one in Orlando next. It’s not just about earthquake survivors, it’s about working with dignity,” says Colombino.
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