The journey to changing the world began with handing out water bottles to earthquake survivors in Haiti. That’s when, in January 2010, American volunteer Julie Colombino initially heard an unexpected refrain, mostly from local women: “Need a job.”
On a month-long unpaid leave from work at the time, Colombino, pictured above, saw firsthand the devastation that would claim, by some estimates, as many as 300,000 lives. “There was destruction and death everywhere,” she says. “It was chaos.”
And through it all, those three words—“Need a job”—repeatedly penetrated the fetid air and lingered for Colombino. “They were just ringing in my ears.”
She wrote them in her journal even as she wondered what would happen in Haiti when relief workers receded from the streets and clinics in the coming weeks and months. What difference, what change would they—would she—have effected?
Deeply spiritual, Colombino lay awake at night contemplating the realities of Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, in hopes that God would give her some direction.
Little could she have known that her soul-searching represented the start of something big, something that before long would garner attention from the United Nations, a super model and an internationally renowned entrepreneur.
A dancer full of grace
Colombino graduated from FIU in 2003 with a degree in dance. (She also holds a master’s in nonprofit management from UCF.) Her fondest memories of her undergraduate years revolve around teaching dance to incarcerated women as part of a program one of her professors, Leslie Neal, had founded at a Miami-Dade correctional facility.
“The program was revolutionary,” she says of the positive impact it had on the prisoners, who visibly softened as they embraced movement. “And it changed my life forever,” she continues. “Through that program, I got to say, ‘No matter why I was born and what gifts I was given, I can help somebody else.’”
And so after a year of working in prison—during which time she also held two other jobs to make ends meet—Colombino set out to offer a similar program of creative therapy to rape victims in South Africa.
“They didn’t trust me at first, and nobody liked me,” she says of those she wanted to help. “I was this foreign woman that came in, and there was a disconnect. Most of them did speak English, but they wouldn’t speak English to volunteers because they were just used to people coming in and out.”
With time, however, Colombino did get through to the women, and they began to talk with her freely, an evolution that the director of the home where Colombino taught found remarkable. “That was the first time since she’d been there, and she’d been there 10 years, that she saw people connect,” Colombino says. “And it wasn’t easy.”
A leap of faith
Back home in Orlando after her stint in Haiti, Colombino could not get the people of the ravaged country out of her mind. Their spirit of hope had moved her, and she continued to think long and hard about how to answer their collective plea for work.
“In Africa, I saw men making sandals out of tires in the streets,” she recalled. “In Haiti, I saw the tires being burned, and I saw people without shoes and people asking for jobs.”
With an idea emerging, she made a dramatic decision: She would quit her job at the local office of United Way, sell her house and move to Haiti.
So with $7,000 to her name, Colombino headed back to the tumult. Eight months after the earthquake, she and four Haitian women sat on the ground beneath a tarp, took razor blades to tires and began fashioning primitive flip flops.
“In the beginning, we never thought it was a business, really,” explains Colombino, who paid the women a wage. “We thought, ‘We’ll make shoes and we’ll give them to these guys out here,’” she says of the barefooted locals who trampled on rebar and other detritus during the ongoing cleanup. The recipients greatly appreciated the crude yet durable slip-ons.
And then, relief workers and missionaries wanted to buy them.
“People who were just trying to help, they didn’t really care what they looked like,” Colombino says of those who offered cash for the goods. “And we were like, ‘Holy cow. We can sell these.’”
A shift to “beautiful”
Before long, the Clinton Foundation, which had an ongoing presence in Haiti, heard about the workshop and sent over someone to investigate. The representative—a stern French woman, Colombino recalls—made clear in no uncertain terms that she found the footwear both uncomfortable and unattractive.
“I’m not going to lie,” Colombino says, “I did cry.” But then she went down to the port and convinced a cobbler to teach her and the others to make better shoes. It was the first step in a critical shift in thinking—“People want to buy beautiful stuff”—that would lead to continuous improvement of the workshop’s products.
“They’ve gone through 75 revisions in the last six years,” Colombino says, “from being this very basic, heavy, ugly sandal to”—and then the kicker—“a design by Kenneth Cole. Our sandals are sitting in SoHo in New York City.”
Against the odds
That leap from rough handcraft to fashion statement sums up a story of tenacity, hard work and abiding faith, often under the harshest circumstances.
“It hasn’t been an easy journey, but we persevered,” Colombino says as she recounts the professional and personal challenges she has faced in Haiti. “We’ve had a horrible fire. We’ve had theft. We’ve had a flood where we lost all our leather. I’ve had malaria and dengue fever and worms. To be honest, I wanted to quit several times.”
But the positives outweighed the negatives. From the very start, individuals and organizations threw their support to the growing team of Haitian craftspeople. Early on, two Nike employees agreed to Skype in from headquarters in Portland, Oregon, to explain how to build arch supports. The fashion model Heide Lindgren, in town temporarily with a relief team, stopped to visit the ever-expanding workshop—today a compound of four adjoining shipping containers, complete with an on-site boutique that attracts tourists—and eventually returned to Haiti to design a shoe that, unexpectedly, jumpstarted U.S. sales. Fashion mogul Kenneth Cole himself came down for a tour and to “grill” the staff about its practices.
What Cole learned—that the workshop pays wages three times the Haitian average and sources 100 percent of its materials locally—encouraged him to contract for the production of brightly colored sandals for his “Love Haiti” line.
Step by step, changing the world
For Colombino, success is measured not only in the number of shoes sold—3,000 pairs in 2015—and the ability of workers to purchase their own homes and provide for their families, but in the staying power of what she has helped create.
“We watched thousands of charities come and go through Haiti,” says Colombino, who last year moved back to the states to concentrate full-time on marketing and global sales to keep the enterprise sustainable. “But our business is still there.”
Another meaningful barometer: In 2015 the United Nations made its second grant to Colombino’s nonprofit organization, Rebuild Globally, this time providing $46,000 to outfit a mobile workshop—a shipping container on wheels—that will soon provide paid employment for 34 refugee women living in a displacement camp on the Haiti-Dominican border.
Currently employing 22 Haitian workers, Colombino prides herself on having spun off the original workshop into a tax-paying business, Deux Mains, “two hands” in French, that she co-owns with three of the original employees. Ultimately, she says, she looks forward to divesting herself of the company and leaving it all to the workers even as she hopes to use the nonprofit as a vehicle to create new opportunities elsewhere in the world.
A champion of social entrepreneurship, which uses business techniques to find solutions to societal problems, Colombino remains convinced that investing in people through fair employment practices has the greatest potential to transform lives.
“We don’t want our Haitian kids to see a foreign person handing something to them,” she says. “We want them to experience their parent or their relative buying them something and caring for them because that’s how you end generational poverty.”
And while she lauds the intentions of groups that collect and ship sundries to Haiti in efforts to help, “There’s a better way to do it,” she says, “that’s more sustainable and empowers and brings dignity.” ♦