Society & Culture
Caleigh Hernandez Has a Global Perspective on Paying It Forward
Caleigh founded RoHo after falling in love with a pair of beaded sandals in a craft market in Kampala, Uganda. Breaking through language barriers, Caleigh teamed up with a Kenyan woman named Lydia and launched a company that focuses on social change by empowering women. Profits from RoHo fund artisan development as well as women's and environmental initiatives in Kenya and the United States.
Learn more about Caleigh.
Learn more about The Passionistas Project.
Passionistas: Hi and welcome to The Passionistas Project Podcast. We're Amy and Nancy Harrington. Today we're talking with Caleigh Hernandez. In 2014 Caleigh founded RoHo, after falling in love with a pair of beaded sandals in a craft market in Kampala, Uganda. Breaking through language barriers, Caleigh teamed up with a Kenyan woman named Lydia and launched a company that focuses on social change by empowering women profits from RoHo fund, artisan development, women's and environmental initiatives in Kenya and the United States.
So please welcome to the show, Caleigh Hernandez.
Caleigh: Thank you for having me. I'm so happy to be here.
Passionistas: What's the one thing you're most passionate about?
Caleigh: I am most passionate about making global change. So for me that's RoHo. That's this company I founded, but I just see, you know, I have had so many opportunities in my life and it would be a waste if I didn't do something meaningful with them.
Passionistas: Talk about that. What were those opportunities that led you to founding RoHo?
Caleigh: First and foremost, I come from a low income background, my family in the US and so that kind of gave me firsthand knowledge and insight into kind of what it is like to grow up with fewer opportunities in the US but at the same time, you know, I still had access to quality schools. Um, I, you know, I had really supportive parents who pushed education. We had more resources available to us than the average person across the world. So, you know, as I graduated high school and then I went off to university, I became really motivated to help other people get access to opportunities. What I've seen, you know, in my travels across the world as well as just here in the US is that, you know, poverty, yes, it's a lack of material possession, but it is as well an absence of opportunity.
And so it was my firsthand experiences, you know, kind of growing up that made me realize, Oh my gosh, I have a lot fewer opportunities to access certain things than friends or colleagues or whomever who, who had a wealthier background. But in comparison to the rest of the world, I'm so much better off because you know, at the end of the day I had access to quality education and that in and of itself really has provided tools to help me get out of that place and my family get out of that situation. And so I'm passionate about sharing that with other people.
Passionistas: Tell us about the journey to founding RoHo.
Caleigh: So I was in college and I began studying international development, which is essentially how we bring the poorest of the poor out of poverty. And this can be done through education, through, you know, economic opportunities through access to clean water.
There are all of different channels you can take in order to kind of make this happen. And I decided to study abroad and Uganda after my sophomore year. And so I was working for this local nonprofit. We are helping the poorest of the poor get access to savings and credit because traditional banks or formal banks wouldn't give money or help these people save because it was done on such a small scale. So we created these informal systems to help these communities save. Because studies have shown that however minimal, everyone has the ability to save even people who are living below the poverty line. And so while I was in Uganda, I was living in this rural village. There wasn't much to do, to be honest during the weekends. So I would take a bus into larger towns and cities and I, on one education was walking through a craft market in Kampala, Uganda, which is a large city and Uganda and these craft markets, you know, they're not the most beautiful, they're kind of dingy.
It cracked concrete floors. Most of them don't have electricity. You kind of get the idea they're selling local handicraft type items. But I remember turning and looking over my shoulder because something sparkling caught my eye. And it was a pair of these beautiful beaded leather sandals. And they just struck me because they were such a contrast to everything else around me. And at that moment I knew I was hooked. These were more than just a pair of shoes. I saw them as really an opportunity to break a cycle of poverty. So I returned to East Africa the following summer and I was doing research for my senior thesis while at the same time I was mapping out the East Africa sandal industry and local shopkeepers kept telling me to look for this Kenyan woman named Lydia. So on my last day and Uganda, after I finished my research, which to be completely honest, was like, I will not bore you with the specifics.
It was very boring, but the journey to find Lydia made this whole trip worth it. It took me hours of searching. So I was told where she would be. And then three motorcycle taxis took me to wrong parts of the city and that I was lost. And I'm, you know, I'm like sweaty and just overwhelmed and very obviously a foreigner and this place. And I was trying to communicate things that probably didn't make sense to all of these like motorcycle taxis. Anyway, I curse my inability to speak Swahili and Uganda and fluently. But you know, I finally found Lydia and I kind of joke, it was a very unknown, unorthodox and possibly a little bit stalkerish way on my part, but it was just, is very representative of this whole journey to begin with. So, you know, I show up and it really worked out because Lydia, it was her last day being in Uganda.
She's usually based in Kenya and this is my last day in Uganda as well. So I say it's meant to be, but you know, I show up and I'm sweaty and the shoveled and like I have no idea where am in the city. And I just desperately, I'm sure it was kind of like word vomit. I was like, I love your shoes and I want to know more about them and I want it like who was making them and what does this look like and how can we work together and do something that's really meaningful to the people who are making these products, who are mostly women by the way. And how can we collaborate and make something meaningful happen. And so, you know, we joke, um, because you know, my Swahili and Ugandan were not great at that point. My saw Haley's gotten much better since and her English wasn't perfect either, but we made it work and we say it's because beautiful shoes are universal.
So I stayed in touch with Lydia and worked on developing a sandal line with her that was marketable for consumers in the US and I called this company RoHo, which is a Swahili word that means spirit or kindness, which is what we say we're all about. And so I graduated from college with this idea in mind for RoHo and began living in East Africa. I just wanted to get more on the ground development experience, make sure that I knew what I was doing and had kind of the background to prove it. And so I lived in rural Tanzania as well as Kenya on refugee and child labor programming. But once I finished all of that over in East Africa, I moved back to the U S and really launched RoHo using the time I'd spend any staffer, guy living over there flying to the coast to meet with Lydia and her 42 artisans, 36 women and six men.
And I use that time to really develop relationships with these people, understand the context in which they were working, understand the needs and the community and all of that information help to dictate how we moved forward with RoHo.
Passionistas: But RoHo is more than just a shoe company. So talk about the way you built the business to inspire social change in Africa.
Caleigh: We say that RoHo is more than a shoe and it is now because we've expanded to a number of products. But it also means that we're committed to social change. And we do that typically in three ways. So through our beautiful products or ethical work at our economic empowerment. So in terms of our beautiful products, each product is handcrafted and hand tools by artisans in Kenya. We started with our beaded leather sandals, but we now have a line of Fair Trade jewelry that's made by 280 women in the South of Kenya and a collection of cow hide bags and other accessories that are made in Nairobi by a group of 40 artisans there.
And it's, they come from a partnership with a company that's co owned by a woman, which was really unusual in this area. And then we've also partnered with another nonprofit that's based in Nairobi as well. And those women are all taught tailoring skills and they're all survivors of violent conflict across Africa. So they're generally women who are urban refugees, primarily from Somalia, Congo, and South Sudan. So this nonprofit has found these women in Nairobi once they've, once they've crossed the border and are living living in the Capitol, and they teach them vocational skills. So they have an opportunity to get paid fairly for work that they're doing. So through our partnerships as well as with the artists and groups that I control all international distributions for, we're just committed to ensuring that all of these products are top quality. They're beautiful, they're unique, and that they're really doing something meaningful.
So as I mentioned, we started with our 42 artisans, our sandal artisans, but we're now working with over 400 cross Kenya, which is huge. 95% of which are women, which is very near and dear to my heart. And studies have shown that women will spend more of their income on the households and family. So that means investing more in children, ensuring that everyone is well fed in comparison to men, no shade to men, but it just goes to show that, you know, when you invest in a woman, you're investing in her children and you're investing in their education and their futures. So that's our beautiful products. But I've kind of touched partially on the ethical work as well. So we're committed to our artisans and their well-being. So we pay our artisans wages that are far higher than the industry standard. So that means that with our artisans that I can throw all international distributions for, that means that we're paying them 50% higher than the industry standard.
And with our partnerships, we're working with other groups. In the area who are doing the same thing. So we're committed to upholding the highest standards. And beyond that we also provide education grants to help send our artisans children to quality local schools. So tying this all into the third piece, economic empowerment, we are working to break the cycle of poverty and the short and long term, short term. We do this through fair paying jobs, long-term educational opportunities for our artisans in their children.
Passionistas: Thank you for everything you do.
Caleigh: To be honest, I couldn't do it without consumers who see our products and know that it's, you know, they're more than just a pair of shoes or a beautiful bag and yes, they're beautiful and they're interesting and unique, but it's more than that. When you see a pair of our shoes. I really want consumers to see them as works of art and to know that there were several hands involved in this process and that wasn't, you are wearing a pair of our shoes or dawning a jewelry item or whatever that, that there's a story behind it.
Passionistas: Tell us about how you found the artisans of after your story with Lydia. How did you find these other people and where do you source the products?
Caleigh: It's all been kind of happenstance, but it really couldn't have happened if I hadn't been living over in East Africa, especially Kenya for as long as I was. I just had friends and communications with a number of different artists and groups as I was over there. You know, I'm not normally a big shopper. It's really funny, but when I was in Kenya I just fell in love with the products that were available. So as I would travel around the country for work and just come across different groups. I will say though, I found our jewelry artisans, the group of 280 Mussai women in the South of Kenya, they live just outside of the national park on the base close to Kilimanjaro actually, which is in Tanzania, but they like right at the border of Tanzania and I found them in, I'm based in Santa Barbara and I found them through a nonprofit that's based in Santa Barbara as well that's working in this community in Southern Kenya and I knew it was a friend of mine who was working with this community of 280 women selling their jewelry here in the U S and just so passionate about what she did but was running another nonprofit and didn't have the time to commit to really bringing the jewelry designs up to fruition.
So that, you know, it kind of worked out really nicely that she said, look, I see what you're doing with these sandal artisans and I really want to partner with you. So that kind of fell into my lap just because of the work we'd already been doing with our sand artisans. And there was a really nice, you know, marriage of commitments between what they were doing previously to what we wanted to do. But the other two groups, it was me living over in Kenya and coming across them that really kind of launched those partnerships. And so I'm really fortunate to have spent quite a bit of time over any staff or gut and I loved exploring both countries and it was really forging relationships over there that's really made this possible because you know, it's, it's hard working in a foreign country and there are different ways that people do business and there are different cultural practices and there's just, there's language barriers and the way that things get done are just totally different.
I remember when we did first launch launched RoHo, we had a big shipment of several hundred pairs of sandals that needed to get sent from the coast of Kenya to California. And they were already a week late and the Pope came to Nairobi and this is the first time the Pope has ever come to Kenya ever. And so I had gotten the shoes from the coast of Kenya where they were made to Nairobi, but then all of the sudden the whole city just shut down because you know there were security concerns and this was the first time he'd been to this part of the continent. And so they wanted to make sure everything was working well. But that just meant I had to go back to a number of boutiques that we, who are waiting on these shoes and to a number of our customers and say, I'm sorry it's gotten delayed another five days because the Pope came to Nairobi and it's just one of those things where you have to be working with people who have a good humor about these things and understand that this is not like a typical company where there are deadlines and they are very strictly met. We have to be patient and flexible things. I'm not necessarily known for it, but I'm working on through this company.
Passionistas: How did you learn how to do this because you didn't have any experience right? In this type of business. So how did you learn to do this?
Caleigh: I have been really fortunate in that I am young and I am excited about this and passionate about what I do and I'm not too proud to ask for help. So a number of people who I've shared this idea with have kind of flocked to me in the sense that they have been like, okay, well I know someone who can help you with this. I know someone who can help you with this. I will never underestimate the power of buying someone coffee and picking their brain if they're willing to take the time to do that. That has been just hugely, hugely helpful for me is just saying, okay, I don't know what the heck it looks like to launch a business.
What is search engine optimization and what does that even do? What is it? What's the process of looking for a trademark and on and on and, and it's just, you know, I've been fortunate that my friends and family social circles have all, have some sort of experience in these small areas and I'm really grateful that they have given me the time of day and I can reach out to them with questions. But I'm also fortunate in that Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara County and Ventura counties in California, they have this nonprofit called women's economic ventures and they help primarily women owned businesses launch and get off the ground. And I had never taken a business course in my life. I mean I took micro economics and macro economics and college because I had to, but that was like the extent of anything. And you know, as I mentioned before, my background was in, you know, kind of the nonprofit space and in Africa.
So this business stuff just totally went over my head. But I took business courses through them and that totally changed everything because they walked me through every step of the business process. And at the end of it, you know I had a business plan, a legitimate business plan and a way forward. So I would say I'm really scrappy and very comfortable asking and searching out resources that are available. So for other people who are looking for their passion project or have ideas, I would, I cannot recommend that enough is just being a scrappy as possible and buying people coffee. It's like the best $5 you will have ever spent.
Passionistas: We're Amy and Nancy Harrington and you're listening to The Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Caleigh Hernandez to learn more about how she inspires social change and empowers women in Kenya, visit RoHoGoods.com.
Now here's more of our interview with Caleigh.
Passionistas: Is there one personal lesson that you've learned during your journey that sticks with you?
Caleigh: There are many and a lot of them still working on for sure. I would say today a big lesson I've learned is patience. I'm used to being the type of person where like if I work hard enough for something, whatever I am working on will happen. And this has been a lot slower of a process because of the fact that I'm working on a company where that's 8,000 away and there are language barriers and there's communication mishaps. And what I'm doing isn't exactly mainstream. I mean it's amazing that consumers are requesting from companies more and more that there be some sort of social mission, but it's not an everyday thing. And so I'm competing against mid level luxury brands who don't have a social mission and who aren't allocating a large percentage of sales back into the communities where they're working.
So it's kind of like we're starting at a slight disadvantage in that, in that sense. Although it's very much an advantage in the sense where I have the opportunity to work with these incredible artisans and that's what gets me up in the morning. It's not having a fashion company. I never thought I, you know, if you could see what I'm wearing right now, I'm in jeans and a tee shirt, you know, that's not fabulous. Shoes I have great shoes on. But you know, that's just not where I imagine myself. It's the fact that these artisans are there and they're putting it all into this company. And I've seen the growth that they have had over these years that I've worked with them. I don't want to overstate our impact just yet because we're a nail and very much a startup. But to see the shift in quality that our artisans have made in the products, to see their children grow and stay in school.
Well, when you know, just speaking about our sandal artisans, most of them have the equivalent of like a fifth grade education or below. And with our jewelry artisans, at least half the women are illiterate because there hasn't been a school in this area. So to just know that there are so much opportunity for growth. It both makes me impatient and makes me want to be more patient to really launch RoHo and get it off the ground and make it a common well known brands. You know, I want us to be in the next Tom's, but working on a more intricate level in the communities where we're, where our products are being made.
Passionistas: Looking back at the journey you've been on so far, is there one decision that you made that you think really changed the path that you've been walking down?
Caleigh: Forfeiting financial security immediately was the path that put me where I am today and it's an uncomfortable position for sure because there's not a huge safety net, but knowing that impact and doing something good in the world was more important than me making hundreds of thousands of dollars.
I can go to bed at night and feel comfortable in that decision. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's an uncomfortable place to be sometimes, especially being in a startup and having to make ends meet, but it's also the best decision I could've made. And when I hear other people excited about RoHo and sharing the story or I'll walk down the street and someone will be wearing one of our bags and I don't know who they are. It's like the coolest feeling in the world. And so I just, I see that as like little messages from the universe like, okay, you're going in the right direction. Don't give up. But as I mentioned before, like I am used to immediately if I work hard enough, things just turning out in my favor and this one's a bigger push than I expected, but it also is going to make it so much more rewarding as we grow.
Passionistas: What's your definition of success?
Caleigh: It's ever changing. I would say right now I would say it is balance. I'm working on finding a little bit more balance in my life. So healthy quality relationships with friends and family and loved ones. Some semblance of like financial security and finding meaning in one way, shape or form. I used to think it meant being entirely successful in a career and don't get me wrong, and there's nothing wrong with being recognized for doing good work, but that's not the end all be all for me at least.
Passionistas: What's your secret to a rewarding life?
Caleigh: It is finding a way to fulfill a passion in your life. So for me, of course that's, I found this way to give back through RoHo and not that I suggest everyone goes and starts a company in Kenya. I mean, if you can, if you want to reach out to me and we'll, you know, network but, but just that find something that really lights a fire under you and pursue that.
And that doesn't have to be in your professional career. It could be volunteering at a soup kitchen twice a week if that's what does it. I'd say for me as well, I try, although I'm not perfect at it, to set kind of a work life balance. So on the side and college, I, um, I wrote like crew and I have this really competitive streak in me and so I just, I need some really big athletic outlet in order to kind of blow off some steam when things are really hard in business or personal life or whatever. So for me that has been a really good other source of like passion in another area of my life is just kind of diversifying a bit in a bit. I, so I joined this crew team, so I row with them three times a week. And then I'd say my last thing, which is so silly, but I get so much joy out of like animals.
And so I have a dog who I just love dearly. And not that it's like a passion. Exactly. But I've just found that like having these areas of my life that just are fulfilling in one way, shape or form, it just, I don't know, I feel like things could be worse. You know, it's not perfect, but it's pretty darn good.
Passionistas: So what's your dream for the female artisans that work with you through RoHo?
Caleigh: The typical idea of an artisan in Kenya or some a craftsperson in Kenya. These people are largely women and they are typically women who are paid or earn money below the poverty line. So with RoHo, I see us creating a very solid, stable middle-class for our artisans. I want our artisans to stay with us for years, and I want, I want their children to grow up and have opportunities that day themselves did not.
I want our artisans, children to go to college if they want to go to college, if they want to turn into a sandal beater or create sandals, that's fine too. But I want them to have opportunities not get stuck into a specific role. So I have this vision for how I want this to work. I want our artisans to be healthy and happy and but at the same time I also want them to decide for themselves what they want to do. I don't want to impose my idea of a healthy, happy artisan. I want this vision to kind of grow and develop with our artisans as we move forward.
Passionistas: And what's your dream for yourself?
Caleigh: I want to be a change maker in the ethical fashion space. I want to help influence other companies into being more impactful with the sourcing of their materials and who makes their products.
I want to ensure that, you know, people behind products are really highlighted in a way that they never have been before. Um, I want to encourage minimal waste in the fashion industry. So I would love to continue to be a voice in that space. Not being said, I also want to and share this commitment to these artisans in Kenya. And that's where my background has been and where my heart really lies. So we're in the process of establishing a, the RoHo foundation, which is like the nonprofit branch to our company and I, you know, in the next five years want to be running it. And I want it to be a big thing where we have expanded our impact and our giving and really are engaging with our customers to ensure that they, they too can really experience all that our artisans have to offer and see what Kenya has to offer.
And so we've talked about hosting trips over to Kenya as well. There's a lot I want to do in 2020 we are launching through the nonprofit trips over to Kenya. So often I see people will travel, travel to Kenya and have these amazing experiences of course. But how often the only Ken Kenyon, a lot of times people will interact with will be like they're a driver or their tour guide. And I want, I want people to have a really full and whole experience of the country. And so when we take our trips over there, we'll introduce people to our sandal artisans and we'll put you one on one with one of our beaters and you'll design a pair of shoes. And then of course we'll do the touristy things and then we'll go down South, we'll do Safari, but at the same time we'll, you know, you'll meet our Mussai beating artisans and you'll learn how to bead with them.
So there's just, I just think there are so many opportunities for connections and I want, I want people to get those connections and the way that I have.
Passionistas: Thanks for listening to The Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Caleigh Hernandez to learn more about how she inspires social change and empowers women in Kenya visit RoHoGoods.com.
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