Julie Colombino arrived in Haiti just days after the January 2010 devastating earthquake. She had given up her two-week vacation to help since she was a trained disaster responder and had a keen interest in helping in that desperate time. No one could be prepared for Haiti in those days, and there were no words to describe the conditions.
While listening to barking dogs, men screaming, and women singing in response to the pain and loss, she prayed to God for guidance and heard, “Julie, do less and listen more”. She felt alone, not having come with a certified organization while trying to make new friends. It was while working in a relief tent in central Port au Prince passing out supplies to people with nothing left in this world that a woman touched her on the shoulder, “Dame blanche, je n’ai pas besoin d’une bouteille d’eau, j’ai besoin d’un travail.” (White Lady – I don’t need a water bottle; I need a job).
She returned to Florida ten days later, sold her home, quit her job as a manager at the United Way, took her $7,000 in savings and came back to the suffering in Haiti. Like many people would, she started with what she knew best – Not For Profit management. She founded a Not For Profit and began to educate and deliver job training to the most vulnerable.
But there were no jobs to be had, and there was 40% unemployment in Haiti.
But God gave her an idea! She had seen something in Kenya, while on a visit there, so she used charity money to hire women to make sandals from old, discarded car tires. A year after arriving in Haiti, she and three women friends were sitting on the floor cutting up tires with razor blades, determined to take Haiti back from the earthquake, building a pipeline to dignified employment.
There were lots of hurdles, a cholera epidemic which started in 2010; and then in 2012 when she finally had funds to buy a vehicle, it caught fire and was a total loss; their workshop was robbed and then a flood took away all that was left. She got dengue fever that same year. She was broke, and tired of being sick. She cried out to God and determined to fight on; after all, the Haitians all around her were demonstrating amazing resolve and perseverance.
By January 2015, she and Jolina, her Haitian partner registered a For Profit business, Deux Mains, a brand inspired by the strength of the Haitian people. The website reveals the important values of Deux Mains management and its 40 employees:
We believe business can and should work to alleviate poverty by creating great jobs. We are champions of long-term economic development and lead by example creating jobs that provide benefits, living wages, health insurance, paid holidays and offer maternity/paternity leave. Job creation is the most dignified and sustainable way to fight poverty, it is the core of deux mains. We also believe women are the backbone of society, as the great Haitian proverb says, fanm se potomitan. We are proudly women-owned and women-managed. Encouraging leadership and promoting from within, with more than 500,000 hours of sustainable work created.
Deux Mains is proud of its eco-friendly progress with a new 100% solar powered factory. They produce in small batches and ensure that each item is crafted to last, sourcing 99% of the raw materials from the island, supporting and enriching local businesses. They create sandals and accessories that minimize waste and utilize available resources and offset the carbon footprint by purchasing up-cycled, locally sourced materials right down to the very last detail. They have transformed an estimated 10,000 tires into the soles of sandals, reducing the emission of CO2 by 11 metric tons.
Julie affirms the importance of charity but is mindful of the fact that it is sustainable businesses that are needed to build a country’s economy and provide dignity in its people. She says the greatest gift in the past decade in Haiti was God’s call to keep quiet, ask questions and listen. This made all the difference.
“Our brand takes on so many names: eco fashion, sustainable fashion, fair trade, ethical fashion… at the end of the day, we ensure our people come first. Our products are made in Haiti and are rebuilding the community one sandal, handbag and accessory at a time.”
Larry W. Sharp, BAM Support Specialist, IBEC Ventures