When Caleigh Hernandez picked up a pair of beaded sandals in a Ugandan market, she was in awe of the delicate bead work and craftsmanship. The California college student was living with a family in Uganda, while working at a community-based organization. The vibrant sandals were such a contrast to everything else in the craft market that they sparked an idea for a fashion business that could potentially help break the cycle of poverty.
Tracing the origin of the sandals back to a woman named Lydia, Hernandez embarked on a journey to create social change by empowering women. “After weeks of asking shopkeepers in the city who made the sandals, they consistently told me to look for a woman named Lydia,” recalls Hernandez, now 25. “They would say, ‘Not the skinny Lydia, she’s a big woman, the Kenyan. You’ll know when you see her.’” So, after hours of searching and inadvertent tours around Kampala on motorcycle taxis, Hernandez found her.
Between bits of broken English, Swahili and Lugandan, the two women sat on wooden stools in Lydia’s pop-up craft shop, chatting for hours. Hernandez managed to explain that she loved the sandals and Lydia explained how a cooperative of women artisans were making the sandals in Kenya while she was selling them in Uganda.
With an eye towards building a social enterprise, the budding entrepreneur swiftly realized she could partner with the women’s cooperative to create a sustainable business model that would incorporate layers of social impact. Economically empowering women was top of mind and Hernandez was confident there would be an American market for the unique sandals. The women making the sandals in Kenya were clearly talented and ambitious, they just needed access to additional markets to generate a steady income.
Quickly connecting the dots, Hernandez gained the support of her mother and bootstrapped the company that would come to be known as RoHo upon her return home to Santa Barbara. The Swahili word for kindness and spirit, RoHo was born out of love for the women she had met in Africa. Hernandez enlisted her sister to photograph the sandals and artisans and built a direct-to-consumer website that could share their story. Regular communication and multiple site visits enabled RoHo to leverage the women’s talents and design what Hernandez thought would appeal to her American counterparts.
Initially envisioning a millennial demographic, Hernandez was surprised to see her customer base skewed a wider generational range than she had anticipated. Once people learned the story behind the sandals and the impact they were having, they were more inclined to purchase what they already thought was a stylish sandal.
Recently, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network recognized RoHo as one of 50 global youth-led solutions advancing the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in their 2018 Youth Solutions Report. Highlighted as an innovative leader, Hernandez is committed to creating social change through ethical fashion and focusing on the quality of products, ethical work and economic empowerment to achieve the SDGs like ending poverty and ensuring responsible consumption and production.
“The future belongs to the young, who are increasingly providing imaginative solutions to push the Sustainable Development Goals agenda forward, helping to solve the greatest challenges our world faces,” said Paul Polman, Chief Executive Officer of Unilever. “Initiatives such as SDSN Youth and its Youth Solutions Report are confirming how important youth-focused programs are in supporting the ideas and energy coming from the next generation.”
In a time when more and more young adults are stepping up to solve social issues in creative ways, Hernandez serves as a role model for other young Latina founders. While profit is important, quality, ethics and social impact goals are always the priority.