Dallas based company, GAIA, employs resettled refugee women to handmake items for the home and personal accessories from vintage, repurposed, and sustainable materials. Owner and founder, Paula Minnis, launched GAIA in 2009 with the mission to empower marginalized women through employment, encouragement, and dedication to their long-term success in the local community.
Check out www.gaiaforwomen.com to shop directly from site or to locate a retailer near you.
What prompted you to create GAIA?
In 2009 I began volunteering through the IRC (International Rescue Committee) as a Mentor to a Burmese refugee woman, Catherin, and her 2 young children. Catherin had endured over a decade in a refugee camp in Thailand, and then faced an entirely new set of challenges upon her arrival to the US…..everything from learning how to use an ATM to navigating our country's health care system. It's overwhelming to even those of us born here, imagine how daunting it is for someone in Catherin's shoes! Her strength and determination really moved me, and inspired me to do more. One day we were studying vocabulary words, and after describing the word "sew", I discovered that Catherin had some basic sewing skills, and had a true "lightbulb moment" (forgive the cliche). I had been reading "Half the Sky" by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, about how unlocking a woman's potential is crucial to the prosperity of a community as a whole, and how giving women an opportunity to become self-reliant through earning a living wage helps cultivate a brighter future for their children. I realized that I could pay her a living wage to sew pretty things with vintage textiles I had collected, utilizing my background in the fashion industry to bring it to market. So in late 2009, GAIA, for Goddess of the Earth, was born, with the ultimate mission of helping refugee women thrive in their new communities.
Each of the GAIA Women have shown incredible perseverance in their lives. What have you learned from them? And what is your hope for them?
The resilience of these women is pretty incredible. After already surviving against incredible odds prior to coming here, they then have to completely rebuild their lives in a foreign land, with multiple challenges along the way. We've dealt with domestic abuse, alcoholism, illnesses, break-ins, poor living conditions, and exploitation by other employers and apartment managers. These women face it head-on, with strength and faith unlike anything I've ever witnessed.
Where do you see GAIA in three years?
Since "coming up for air" after having the twins, my goal has been to transform GAIA from a small business run out of my home, into a "big girl brand", with increased distribution across the country. It takes a lot of overhead to support our operations, so we really need to grow our revenue and scale up in order to be sustainable. So far we're off to a great start, with new product lines, monogramming capabilities, a beautiful Lookbook in the works, and the relocation of GAIA HQ from my home into an actual workspace! With all of this, the overarching goal is to provide more opportunities to refugee women in need, so I also plan to focus on enhanced training for the women, to include life skills, financial literacy, and entrepreneurship.
Where do you find your fabric?
Oh, truly all over the place! I had built up quite a collection before I started GAIA from travels to Central & South America, and Africa, but have stayed closer to home since having the twins. Domestically, we shop flea markets, antique malls, and vintage shops. People have also been so generous in sharing vintage fabric sources or personal collections, so we've built up quite the resource list over the years. I did recently step back into my "globe trotting" shoes for a trip to Morocco, where I scored some amazing textiles that I can’t wait to use in an upcoming collection!
Each time I look at your site the GAIA list of retailers has grown! I was SO excited to see GAIA in the goop pop-up shop in Highland Park Village. How did that happen?
I just emailed them out of the blue! I was honestly surprised to receive a response, but I think they appreciated that we were Dallas based, with the mission of helping local women in need. We designed an exclusive zipper pouch for the store, with quite a bit of input from them. Evidently everything was run past Gwyneth through the process, and she gave the final go-ahead, which is pretty surreal!
Any predictions of top GAIA sellers for this holidays?
Our new fringe cross-body bags have been a hit so far, and our zipper pouches are always a great gift item. I think customers appreciate that each piece is one-of-a-kind, with the hangtag telling the mission of our brand & the story of the refugee woman who handmade the item.
Do you have advice for anyone wanting to start a business?
Starting and running your own business definitely has it’s challenges, so you should truly have a passion for your endeavor. I love the Steve Jobs' quote, "The only way to do great work is to love what you do." So I basically combined things I love to create GAIA: making pretty things (I'm a craft nerd at heart), trolling for textiles, and providing employment to local women in need. I think any entrepreneur's likelihood of success is greatest if they love what they do.
Sharing the process of a painterly approach to art, wallcoverings, and textiles.