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August 19, 2021 28 min read

This past weekend, close to 2000 Haitians lost their lives after a terrible earthquake. Unfortunately, the casualties are expected to grow and a tropical storm has made things worse.

From the recommendation of Fast Company, we’re linking to Charity Navigator, which provides a list of recommended organizations to support the Haitian relief effort in this time: https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=8990

EPISODE 2

OM Interviewer Michaela

Thank you again, Julie, for taking the time to speak with me today, would you mind giving a brief introduction? Julie's the president of Deux Mains based in Haiti that works with artisans and built the company from scratch.

Julie from Deux Mains

Thanks for having me. I'm always happy to share a story and grateful when people ask about us, our company, a brand that was literally built out of the ashes.

I went to Haiti 11 years ago after the disaster, the first quake hit, and I'm a trained disaster responder. So it was natural for me to go. I got to Haiti about 10 days after the earthquake, but the real revolution about my life and the company happened from the Hatian people, the women just wanted jobs. And so as you know, we're trying to hand out bottles of water and tents. The people of Haiti are saying no like "job creation" and like, "let's think about long-term development."

And so that's really how the brand started. We started making footwear out of tires that we found on the streets and over the decade, we've really evolved from this more of a craft footwear company into a high fashion sustainable brand that really focuses on timeless creations and locally sourced materials at the core of who and what we are is dignified living wage and employment. It's kind of just a bonus that we use recycled and locally sourced materials. We just, I guess, assumed if you're going to start a business, why not just be as good to people on the planet as you can be. 

OM Interviewer Michaela

Out of curiosity, how did you get into the line of work in terms of even just disaster relief or nonprofit management? How did you get into that type of work? 

Julie from Deux Mains

My mom always told me since I was a kid, since I was five years old, I was collecting canned food for homeless and for soldiers.

And so, working in the nonprofit sector was just something, I guess I just always loved to do. And so I got my masters of nonprofit management at UCF, and at that time they were starting a new major and a new line under the nonprofit. And it was disaster management. And when I was in high school, I used to always take those, I don't know if they still do it, but the Red Cross used to offer free classes. They would teach CPR and disaster response. And I loved all those classes and I just know I'm good at organizing in chaos. I guess I just, I thrive in chaos.

One of my first appointments was to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and I lived there for four months in a FEMA tent. And then I worked in DC at the Red Cross center, just trying to learn like the logistics behind disaster.

And there's something about disasters, you know, the response is temporary. You can never judge people in time of disaster. And I think the most important thing I've always learned is just, you just respond. At that point, everybody's going to need food, water, clothing, medical--the global communities need to rally up around those who are suffering. But then Haiti was just, there was just something about it, not just being this disaster of the earthquake, but it was the disaster, the poverty that struck the country for so long. And that's kind of what changed my life and kind of changed my passion to focus more on this, this idea of sustainability and long-term development. 

OM Interviewer Michaela

That's fascinating. And I read that you spent a lot of time in Africa too. Did you spend time there in disaster relief efforts?

Julie from Deux Mains

Actually, I was in Africa for a couple of different things, but I worked at a clinic, I used to, I have a very strange CV, but I was a professional ballet dancer and my undergraduate degree is in building communities through art.

I used to teach creative art therapy. In Africa, I worked with women who were raped at a place called St. Anne's Home, teaching creative art therapy. And so that's what I was doing mostly in Africa, but I think my life has just always kind of been about understanding all the injustice in the world and seeing what part we can play in it. I mean, there's just so many, so many different things that happened to different people and, you know, it's usually a lack of opportunity or even poverty. I mean, I think I've, I experienced when I, my first few years in Haiti, that bad things really happen to poor people because you're poor. I remember a particular incident when, when you know, something bad happened and people are like, why are you doing that?

And it's like, because when you don't have any money, you don't have as many choices. And, just kind of started learning about this idea of how other people had to live. And I just always thought we should try to do our damnedest to close those gaps on, on any inequalities that people are suffering. And so that's what took me through Africa and, the disaster response and now to this fashion company. 

OM Interviewer Michaela

That's amazing. Do you feel like there's been a theme of women? It just seemed when I was looking up Deux Mains, it seems like you have a lot of women who work in the production. And also just your comments about doing creative therapy in Africa with women. 

Julie from Deux Mains

I think a really pivotal moment for me--because you ask a lot of questions that bring up things that I never think about--But when I was 18, I was in a class, a nutrition class, and I learned that in the 80s, the United States sent over all this powdered baby formula to Africa. Thousands of babies died when the powder was mixed with unclean water, and it was like this idea of all these things that the intentions that we have and the things that we're doing. And it affects women a lot. And women, I think I've always been really drawn to women causes. And I mean, of course I'm a woman. And so as women, I think we've also faced different persecutions for just our gender, but our company is actually not just that a lot of women that work there, it's all women owned. I co-own the company with three other women. There's four of us.

The whole entire leadership team is women. It's not that I sought that out. It just is kind of how it happened. 

OM Interviewer Michaela

That's great. I think about a lot about this stuff in terms of gender inequality. And Ocelot Market intentionally or unintentionally ends up buying from so many women makers. And I just feel like there are so many women behind the operations for these products that it seems like there's definitely a story there. 

Julie from Deux Mains

You would love this. In Haiti, they use a lot of proverbs and there's this proverb about Femme de [uncertain], which basically means that women are the backbone of society. And it's just so true when you think about it. I mean the backbone of society, and it's because women carry the weight of the world on their shoulders.

OM Interviewer Michaela

Yes. Very, very true. What was it like to pick up and move to Haiti? Did you speak Creole? Did you know anyone?

Julie from Deux Mains

You know, it certainly wasn't planned, but I went to Haiti, for the initial disaster response. I had taken a two week vacation from my job at the United Way and I knew within days that I was going to stay. It certainly wasn't planned. I was scared out of my mind, you know, I was 30 years old. I’d just bought my first house. I was engaged to be married actually at the time, but it just felt like this is what had to happen. And so I did meet two other women out there when I was working. I just said, "Hey, do you guys want to go back and live in Haiti with me?" One of them came for a year and it was a crazy time.

We were all living in tents. When I sold my house, I had $7,000. So I went back to Haiti and at that time I thought I was absolutely rich, but you know what? That was gone within days, I think. I can't even remember. But you know, when you're living in that type of situation and everybody has lost everything money goes fast. It was really hard. More downtimes than ups for sure. Lots of harsh realities came into place. A lot of my own fears. We were living in tents. It was horrible. It was scary. It was dirty. And we were sick all the time. So there was absolutely nothing glorious about it.

OM Interviewer Michaela

But you persevered.

Julie from Deux Mains

Oh, you know what? That is my favorite word. And I learned that skill from the women of Haiti, for sure.

Because so many times I wanted to give up, I just, I couldn't understand how, I mean, because you know this idea of injustice when you read about it or you see it on television, there is still kind of like this, like a barrier between you and these ways of the world that are so painful for so many people. But post Haiti disaster, I mean, you were living amongst the most injust horrible poverty and sickness and the injuries from the earthquake and just the lack of everything. I mean, in my own camp, so this is even the first few weeks we ran out of water and we were rationed to a quarter of a bucket of water a day. And it was scary because like you couldn't bathe or clean yourself. And my skin started to hurt from the dirt.

I mean, just things I just didn't even know were possible. And this is what people were suffering. And I could leave if I wanted to. That's what kept me. There was the fact that I knew I could leave if I wanted to. And a million people that just suffered this tragedy so intimately had nowhere to go. 

OM Interviewer Michaela

I think you said in your TED Talk that you came down with dengue fever too at one point during that period. This wasn't on my original list of questions, but now I'm curious from day one, you landing back in Haiti to start something anew, what's the time span on that from actually being able to start making products, to be able to sell?

Julie from Deux Mains

August 2010. Eight months after the earthquake is when we, when, so at the time, because we started as a charity at first, we worked globally. A charity that's still running because of the way our whole holistic business model works.

We have a nonprofit partner and that's still operating, but at the time it was just REBUILD globally. And we had a lean-to and a tarp and it was me and four other people. And we were sitting on these little wood things that I stole from a construction site. We didn't even have chairs. It was so archaic, but that's August 14, because it's my little sister's birthday, 2010. It was our first day that we opened.

OM Interviewer Michaela

How'd you come up with the idea of reusing inner tubes? And did you guys start using that from the beginning?

Julie from Deux Mains

Four years earlier, I lived in Malawi, Africa, and I was on a bus going from Malawi to Blantyre and the bus caught on fire because apparently this happens all the time in Africa. I don't know. And so we were sitting on the side of the road for hours and when you're sitting there, there was two men and they were making sandals out of tires.

And I swear to you Michaela, I never thought about it again. Like it was just like this, something that was happening. And then when we were in Haiti, people were burning tires, because they were actually making trash cans. You pile four tires because tires are just everywhere because there's a couple of reasons for that. One, it's an island so there was no proper waste management. Two, organizations like the UN, they'd change their tires every 90 days. Three, because the roads are so crappy tires have blown everywhere. So it's just tires everywhere. So people would pile up tires for high and stick their trash inside and light them on fire, you know? And it wasn't to be disrespectful to the environment. They're literally trying to keep their area clean. So between the tire burning, people lost everything, including footwear, there's rebar everywhere.

I mean, people have rebar, little kids were like walking on rebar and I thought, oh,  "I remember in Africa when people were making these sandals out of tires." And so it was literally this very naive concept that I had thought about. And then I met my business partner Jolena, who was one of the first women I met in Haiti. And like you said before, no, I didn't speak any of the language at the time. I had a friend that was translating, someone that I had met there. And then the kids taught me all the swear words. So I'm very proficient in all Creole swear words and over the years, I've learned enough to get by, but yeah, that was it. And basically when I met Jolena, I told her my idea and she said, "well, I know how to sew and I can rally the community of people and we can start this."

It was literally that naive. And I mean, the standards in the beginning were so terrible. Always, we've always used the tire bottom, but we didn't know how to fit it properly or use it properly. And then instead of now we have like a beautiful, genuine locally-sourced, leather upper. But back in the day it was inner tube. And we didn't realize that when the sun hits inner tube, it burns your feet. Well we realized that really quickly after we made them for our feet, all of us had like burned the top of our feet. So the sandals have definitely taken a huge transition over the years with a lot of help. We've had a lot of help over the years.

OM Interviewer Michaela

I guess it's like being on a blacktop now that I think about it, like in the summer here [in New Orleans].

Julie from Deux Mains

That's exactly right. That's exactly what it was like. But you know, we evolved that. 

OM  Interviewer Michaela

I wouldn't have thought of it until it happened to me. The things you have to learn in the process.

So admittedly, I might ask you a few questions that I might've read a little bit about. I saw that you got that from seeing it in Africa as well.

Julie from Deux Mains

I wish everybody would use tires. Especially where we are. Look tires aren’t easy, raw material to work with. I mean, probably a hundred times a day, we'll be like, "oh, we should just buy a wooden sole or something like a normal plastic soul and make our life so much easier." But we are committed to the environmental impact that this product has. And so as difficult as it is to work with a tire, it is long lasting. We do guarantee 50,000 miles like a car. So it's not an easy road material to work with, but we are kind of grateful that it's our signature product and every season just try to evolve and work, to work with it better and create less and less waste every revision that we have.

OM Interviewer Michaela

That's awesome. And less burning up the tires. Sounds good. 

Julie from Deux Mains

Yeah. It's not just a Haiti problem or Caribbean problem. I mean, that is a global problem--tire burning affects all of us. 

OM Interviewer Michaela

Yeah. That's scary from a pollution vantage point. 

Julie from Deux Mains

Yeah, it's true. It's very scary. 

OM Interviewer Michaela

I'm curious before we get into some of the production operations.

What are your thoughts on using leather in production? This was a question I also put as optional, but we get asked a lot about this. People won’t shop with us because they only buy vegan products, but at the same time, there's so much leftover leather in the developing world that the leather ends up creating work because they repurpose it.

Julie from Deux Mains

Yeah. It's a great question. And I know it's a controversial issue cause you know, we've also heard from some really passionate vegans as well.

And yeah, my thought on it is like I kind of mentioned to you maybe before the podcast idea, we started to make, to create great jobs in Haiti. And it's just an amazing afterthought that we're also an eco-friendly company that’s sustainable and use solar power and recycled materials.

The reason that we choose to use leather is like you just said, it is a byproduct of the meat industry on the islands. It creates a lot of jobs now, leather, when it is abused, the way that we abuse it as consumers and it's processed and died with chromium and it's polluting the waterways and it's mass produced and in weird ways, like that's what hurts the environment. When you have thoughtful consumption of any material we can use the entire animal in Haiti. We use the horn in our jewelry and belts. The meat is obviously eaten and the skin is used in leather production for furniture and handbags and sandals and shoes and all kinds of things.

It's an easy thing to kind of get blindsided and say I'm only shopping vegan and I'm only now using pineapple leather or, you know, I won't shop your shop because of this. But you know, it really just depends on the brands that you're shopping with. If you're buying leather from, like you said, a small co-op that is using a hundred percent of animal by-product, I mean, you're doing your part too, and also you should have a timeless piece. Leather should last forever. That is why it was one of the original clothing and accessory materials because of its durability. Look, we also do vegan products too because I get it, but I would probably never steer away from leather in the sense of, you know, like I think we'll always have a leather collection because I do believe in the beauty of using the whole animal. I'm not opposed to using alternative leathers.

I do also want to say just something about, I've noticed. I always try to stay atune of what's happening in the fashion industry and like there's companies, I'm not trying to shame anybody, but a Zara or H&M or whatever. And all these $10 bags you'll see like, oh, 'we're vegan friendly'. And so if you read the label, what it is is it's a PU which is a plastic that doesn't biodegrade, it's actually terrible for the environment. So it's jumping on this bandwagon, of vegan or leather free, it's a marketing ploy and it's not actually helping the planet or people. And so that's why I would just always like to share that as conscious consumers, we can't just look at these kind of labels and these buzzwords, because they actually mean so much and they can be abused so easily by big brands that have a marketing budget a gazillion times bigger than mine.

OM Interviewer Michaela

Yeah. And I think it says for your dyes you use vegetable tanning for the leather.

Julie from Deux Mains

Yeah. So vegetable tanned leather is a more natural wood tannin based way to process the leather. And our tannery is the tanner. So our factory is 100% solar powered, but the tannery that we work with, one of them is in Haiti. And so it's the local tannery of the country. And the other one is on the island in the Dominican Republic. But the leather comes from this public park and it is 60% solar powered energy. And it recycles all of its water. So again, it's this idea of really knowing your supply chain and really knowing where your raw materials come from. So all day, every day, I'd rather use that leather bag than a PU bag that will never biodegrade. And that will probably break because it's made with a 'vegan leather' and I'm using air quotations. That is plastic.

OM Interviewer Michaela

Do you run into Haiti Design Co? I feel like you guys must overlap so much in your suppliers.

Julie from Deux Mains

Absolutely, love Chandler and her team over there.

OM Interviewer Michaela

Yeah [us too!]. We purchase a lot of jewelry from Chandler. I haven't purchased as much accessories, which I think is more where their leather materials come in, but the earrings that are leather, we purchase a lot for in-store just because it sells really well in person.

Julie from Deux Mains

She's a great designer. She's got so much talent. Their operation is truly amazing.

OM Interviewer Michaela

I imagine you guys overlap in terms of leather sources, right?

Julie from Deux Mains

Yeah, we sure do. We, I mean, it's a small little community out there. 

OM Interviewer Michaela

I believe it. Okay. So let's see. I feel like I should pivot so I don't keep you for three hours. How does the work impact the artisans who make the products?

Julie from Deux Mains

We're just totally about dignified employment. So all of us, like we all have the same thing. Like we have paid maternity leave, you know paid holidays, production bonuses, you know, just anything that you can think of that would, would make a job pleasant to be at. We just really try to enjoy ourselves. The country of Haiti has, has gone through a lot over the last decade.

I mean, over the last century, whatever, but like for what I've experienced of it, I mean, between the earthquakes and the disasters and the political instability and the poverty and even petrol in a couple of months, I mean just, I mean, and now a pandemic it's like, we have gone through so much together, but I feel like the company keeps us going because we have not had to shut our doors ever. Even during COVID, we operated at 30% capacity because it was government mandated, but we never had to close down. I find that it's that kind of like, you know, almost like the factories become another backbone, you know? And I don't know if it's because it's just women owned or if it's because it's just, it's always open. We're always there. We're always growing. I mean COVID year is the only year we didn't grow. I mean, we actually lost 100% of our corporate clients and 80% of our wholesale clients.

So how we stayed open was truly a miracle. You know, we're slowly starting to see growth slowly, starting to get some wholesale partners back, kind of just keep going.

But I'm sure most of the companies that you work with and brands that you know, had to change to a direct model sale, if they weren't a direct to consumer model, if they weren't already there. Before COVID we were like 10% online. It was an afterthought. I never, it was just, it wasn't our business model. And now it's like, I'm on Shopify all day. Facebook ads, just trying to figure out, like, how do you connect to the consumer? Because, look to be a conscious consumer, you have to, it takes more time, takes more effort, takes more energy. You have to be more thoughtful about your purchase. So we have a duty to them and they have high expectations and we have a duty as manufacturers to make these things, to make a timeless piece, to make it last, to make it better than they expected. To get it to them faster than they wanted it.

And to have a great story, it's a high stake world where there's a lot of emotions. And so we're just really trying to figure out how to be the best that we can be. So basically I'm interested in world domination. Because, you know, I really, I mean, now that I own a factory, it's like we can do it so differently. We could treat people so differently. You know, we could be more responsible for the way that people are able to even consume. If we just changed our policies and changed so much about how we do. So I just, I really want to see ethical factories all over the world. And I want to just see the manufacturing sector rising because it is almost all women that work and these production lines, it's like, we could just do so much more.

My father immigrated to America from Italy when he was five and my grandmother could never read or write in her own language. She obviously couldn't speak English or write in English, but she worked at a factory pulling the pits out of cherries for 25 cents a day. And you know, that was my grandmother. And my father was the first one to go to college. And now her granddaughter is a stakeholder in a factory, you know? And so as that factory changed my family's opportunities and abilities and my grandmother's hard work. I just hope that's what our factory, the kind of impact that our factory has in Haiti for the families of Haiti.

OM Interviewer Michaela

That's amazing. Do you see yourself building more factories? 

Julie from Deux Mains

That is the dream in the next three years, our mission is to create 300 more jobs. So we have about 50 people on the team right now. And so we have a big, big, big dream to create 300 new jobs in Haiti. And then, yeah, I would love for us to go all over the place. I have a real passion about Afghanistan right now. I've been wanting to go to Afghanistan. So I'm just hoping. Everything that we do is dependent on sales though. You know, we're a business. So if we can create more of a demand, which is, you know, obviously why I'm so grateful to talk to you and for the marketplace, because if we can create more demand, more people know that we exist, we can create more jobs. 

OM Interviewer Michaela

And we need to do a thousand times more promotions for sure. But pivoting to direct to consumer. Do you find that it requires a lot more capital just because the sheer testing of ads and the sheer testing of even just being on marketplaces, where people aren't as familiar with your products and maybe just returns?

I mean, I don't necessarily know if that's a hundred percent true, but I, I find that, we've definitely gone down that road where it just seems like there are certain marketplaces that end up, we ended up getting like 50% returns. 

Julie from Deux Mains

Returns hurt me because the shipping costs. I haven't had many returns, I get a lot of wrong shoe size, 'hey I need a bigger size.' And I didn't get it right the first time.

What we're going through right now is we're looking for solutions to some of our biggest problems. My biggest problem is like you asked me earlier about the impact that we have for our team, our internal, or, you know, in Haiti, all of us.

And that's an, that's an easy impact to talk about, to measure, to, you know, I mean we can see it in our own lives for the last 10 years. And we watched it build. The impact that I'm struggling with is how do I communicate that to the consumer? Like you said, how do I make an ad that matters? How do you compete with all these other brands that not only are greenwashing, but just fashion brands in general that are trendier or that are cooler, that are better? How do you communicate to these consumers the power of their purchase? Because truly it matters. I mean, like every single day matters, every single purchase matters. And yet I don't know how to tell them that, so I haven't figured that out yet, but yeah, it's definitely more expensive. I think it's probably why I steered away from it for the last decade.

Cause it was just like we were growing by word of mouth. We spent $0 in customer acquisition before COVID, not a red cent, not in even a boosted, Instagram post, like I just we'd never spent any money on this. It was, you know, people were coming to Haiti, people, whatever it was or we'd do events and people would fall in love with the brand. And we had very loyal customers. Once we acquire a customer, we tend to keep them, but now it's like a whole new ballgame and it's not one that I'm comfortable with. So I feel like a fish out of water every day. I'm much more comfortable in Haiti. Like, you know, just doing my thing in Haiti, like being behind the desk and it's a different world. 

OM Interviewer Michaela

Yeah. And finding the right partners is an expensive learning process in terms of marketing partners. Especially in my experience, it's just been, it's like, I feel like that's part of the, one of the hardest.

Julie from Deux Mains

It's so hard, and this idea of like partnerships and collaborations. I mean, obviously that's the best way to go, but I still to this day don't know how to collaborate well.

Obviously there's collaborations all the time, whatever, but like that great collaboration that is so mutually beneficial for both partners. I'm still wanting to explore that more and figure out how to do that better.

OM Interviewer Michaela

Yeah, and to prove that it was beneficial is sometimes really hard. Not that every collaboration is with that intent, but I just mean to prove that you even made a sale off of it. Like when I think about influencers. 

Pivoting back in terms of the work impacting the artisans who make the products, do you see that in their lives, in terms of the consistency of a paycheck or how it's impacted their ability to contribute to their community? 

Julie from Deux Mains

A hundred percent. I mean, I'll tell you two stories. Two of my favorite stories. So like one just happened. I was mentioning earlier that we have a non-profit partner REBUILD globally. And so that is the charity that we started as an education and job training organization. It is completely dependent on donations as a charity. When it first started, people would graduate the job training program and we're like, "there's no jobs to be had." And we have an 85% underemployment rate in Haiti. I mean, there's zero infrastructure truly.

So that's why we built the factory. And that's how we built the brand so that people would have somewhere to go to work. So there's a young man Wibinski, who has been in our education program. And our education program started 10 years ago. So it started after year one and he graduated high school. Like they all do. We've had a hundred percent graduation rate, thank God in his class, there were six who they wanted to go to college. And I was like, you know, like I didn't, it didn't even cross my mind 10 years ago that someday, if you put little kids in school, they're going to go to college. Right. And so we thought about this long and hard, how we wanted this to work. And we decided that asking all of the leadership team, okay, how did you go to school?

So for myself, I had two jobs. I paid for summer school, I got a partial scholarship and I got a loan. That's how I went to undergrad school. And in Haiti, there's no loans available and there's really no scholarships. So we said, okay, we truly believe undergraduate work--nobody should have to pay for that. And there's no free school in Haiti. So if we want them to go to school, they have to pay for it. Now, when they graduated high school, we offered all the students a part-time job at Deux Mains, flexible work hours and a university matching program. Now we've been one of those first to do that. And he just graduated medical school second in his class. And just, and so he's been working part-time at Deux Mains and just resigned actually on Monday because he got an internship at a hospital. 

So you can imagine that this kid's going to medical school--so making sandals, isn't like, it's not great. It's not like his ambition in life is to work in a factory. But because it was a job, consistent paycheck like you said, university matching. I mean, we had the flexible work hours for him and all this. Anybody on an education path--if you remove all the barriers to success and this is what you have, incredible success.

And then my business partner Jolena her and her husband lost everything in the earthquake. He had a taxi business, lost his cars, they lost their home. Her business, everything was, everything was gone. So Jolena since day one was hiding money from her husband. I just heard this story a few years ago when Jolena and I started writing a book. She was hiding this money from her husband because she was afraid that he would want to buy cars before he wanted to buy a house. And she really wanted to buy a house. 

So she bought this land. Does everything. Buys the land, brings her husband in. And he's like, oh, he's like, "actually, no, this is my dream too." And they built this beautiful house and Jolena got really upset for years because I was still renting. And she was a homeowner and home ownership is everything. So like within the first few years of my marriage, [I tell my husband] we're going to have to buy a house because my business partner can't stand it, that she cried all the time. This idea of like life-changing opportunities. I mean, for all of us, you know, like we're homeowners now. We are taking care of ourselves and our families in a way that all people should have the opportunity to be. But in Haiti, that opportunity truly doesn't exist. You have to create the opportunity because for whatever you know, that we can talk about all day long, why it's not there, but the point being that it can be there if we create it.

And so it's every single customer, that's either come through the doors of Deux Mains or bought online or whatever that has. That's their story too, because none of that exists without selling products. None of it. 

OM Interviewer Michaela

That's amazing. Why is it important to intertwine the charity in business in general and especially your [type of] charity?

Julie from Deux Mains

Well, you know, to be honest, like I'm a proponent of business now. I have a master's in nonprofit management, always worked in the nonprofit sector, but I found that business to be more empowering and I've been proud. Like I've been just so proud of what our business has accomplished, but in a place like Haiti where injustice thrives and education isn't free, and 1% of the Haitian population goes to university. 1%. I find that the charity must, must, must exist. And the problem with a lot of charities is if you sponsor a kid or whatever, after they're not little and cute anymore, that you know that the sponsorships go away and then you've got an educated youth, teenager person who's angry and should be because there's no opportunities available to them.

And so I always said, I will never, I never want to be that person. So our education program is really small. We have six to 10 graduates a year because if we can't provide a job for them or match their university or do any of the things that we've promised them, we don't deserve to be around because that is, that is our mandate. You know, we have to stay true to that. And someday when our sales are really big, we can, we can grow that. But yeah, for me, and with all of the multifaceted issues, issues of an extremely impoverished community, the nonprofit, and for-profit have to work hand in hand. And also, like I had talked a lot about the charity, but hopefully, you know, it's, it's just inferred that like without the business opportunity, it just doesn't matter. I mean, because it's only half the battle.

OM Interviewer Michaela

I appreciate how sincere you are. You commit your word and you intend to keep it. How is the pandemic still impacting Haiti?

Julie from Deux Mains

The pandemic has been, and I'm also only of course, because everybody's had such a different experience with the pandemic, but from our experience, it has been much more of an economic issue than a medical issue. What we have suffered is even the businesses that were doing okay have closed down. I know tons of colleagues that are no longer operating. The economic impact is crippling, absolutely crippling. It's to this day, because, especially with corporate orders and, people not congregating the way that they used to, companies not buying things the way that they used to for their...it's yeah. It's devastating.

OM Interviewer Michaela

Do you see the wholesale, any of the wholesale orders coming back yet? Obviously it'll take time, I just think we've definitely started seeing a little bit of a pickup. There's definitely some optimism. And I mean, it depends on the area, right? Of course in Florida, I'm sure there are a lot more open than places, certain places in like the Northeast.

Julie from Deux Mains

I mean, we've seen, we've seen a small pickup too, for sure. We've worked with really small boutiques and a lot of them closed down and won't open back up. So those clients are gone. So the world is changing and, I think so for all the loss of those boutiques and all those lost shops and store owners, my heart breaks for all of them, but I do hope that there's been a greater emphasis on buying locally and buying with intention. Now we can all hope that, I mean, the numbers have come out and you know, that Amazon grew into the trillions and, and all these big stores grew into the trillions.

And, and so look, I try to stay, I definitely have, I have to stay optimistic because this is, this is our life. But even if there's a 1% change in customer behavior, I'll be happy with that. 

OM Interviewer Michaela

Yeah, absolutely. Okay. So I just have a couple of final questions for you. I kind of wanted to ask you about if somebody wanted to follow a similar path, do you think moving to your production location was crucial to success?

Julie from Deux Mains

Yes, a million percent. So right now, when I left Haiti five years ago, my colleague Sarah is out there and she runs--the whole company is Haitian run, but Sarah's an intermediary because she speaks English with all the different wholesalers and all the different suppliers. Haiti really, really suffers the lack of middle management. It's a common thread throughout business in the country, but that's probably because of like the 1% that has gone to university.

You know what I'm saying, because the opportunity wasn't there, then the business places do suffer. So when I left Haiti, yes, Sarah took over. So she's the only foreigner that works in the country. The rest is Haitian run and are nonprofits, but from the business perspective, because most of our clients and customers speak English, it was absolutely necessary because they have these expectations of American expectations. So if your customers are American, you have to have somebody that can fulfill that expectation. For sure. 

OM Interviewer Michaela

Yeah, absolutely. In terms of, if somebody were to follow in a similar path, do you have any thoughts on startup costs or initial needs, I guess going there and maybe even just like for our industry in general? Not necessarily Haiti, not necessarily following exactly what you did, but I'm more just thinking I wouldn't put a number necessarily out there, but it's really, really brave.

And I hope, you know that to go somewhere and like, know no one and you not know what tomorrow is going to look like. 

Julie from Deux Mains

Thanks for saying that. But honestly it made my life better. I mean, not only is my family out there, cause you know, you can either have your own family or build your own family the way you want. And my Haitian family is my everything. I also met my husband out there. My life is so complete because of it.

Look, I broke every disaster responder protocol and it was dangerous and it was selfish and it was stupid and I shouldn't have gone out the way that I did. And I definitely recognize that. So I wouldn't advise anybody do that. But when it comes to starting your own company, like for us, because we're a fashion company, I wasted a lot of money.

I wish I would have invested in a designer more early on, like I'm not a designer. When I create a new bag or something, I staple it together and then hand it to Betty, our head seamstress, "can you make something beautiful out of this?" You know, I just like the trial and error and try. I wish that we had invested in a designer more quickly because they always say, if you're going to start something, you have to fill a hole in the industry, make something that people are already looking for. I didn't start our company like that. I needed to create jobs, you know? And that's where now a decade later we're struggling and trying so hard to connect to a consumer and to be that filler in this hole that I didn't even know existed, because it wasn't the intention behind the company.

And it's hard to have both. If you go, if you're starting a business for this reason, for the reasons that we've been talking about on this podcast, you know, it's hard to have to think about not only the impact you want to have in the communities in which you're working, but the impact you want to have for your customers. It's a lot to think about. So I would say that the other thing that I would definitely suggest is co-founders and partners, a real partner, because without Sarah and Jolena and my husband, and my mom, even my mom is our warehouse manager. Without these really strong relationships, I don't know how it would have happened. Nobody can do it on their own. And the only reason you're talking to me today and not one of the other team members is because I speak English. You know what I mean? Like we're all, we all play our part, but everybody is needed in a very significant way.

OM Interviewer Michaela

Thank you. And thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.

 

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