Made To Empower: Interview With Julie Colombino, Founder Of deux mains

Meet Julie Colombino, Founder of deux mains

Julie Colombino worked as an emergency responder when an earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, and after spending some time in the country and with the Haitian people, she decided to move there permanently. In order to work towards long-term and sustainable solutions, she founded REBUILD globally, a nonprofit dedicated to job training, employment and economic empowerment.

From there, Julie and her Haitian partners built deux mainsan artisanal shoe company making upcycled and locally-sourced sandals for the international market. We recently spoke with Julie about the strength and resolve of her team in Haiti, her hopes of having deux mains become a 100% employee-owned company, and her advice for people hoping to make a long-term impact in communities that need it most.

What is it about Haiti that spoke so deeply to you when you first arrived there in 2010, and how does the culture and spirit of Haiti inspire and influence deux mains designs and production?

The perseverance of the Haitian people is what impacted my life so deeply back then, and continues to play a significant role in the woman I am today. Seven years ago we were surrounded by devastation, and yet everyday as we worked to rebuild, I pulled strength and hope from the women I met…these women who truly lost everything. It was powerful. It is really important to our company that every deux mains product encompasses not only the beauty of being handmade, but the dignity that is behind the resolve of the Haitian people. 

Every deux mains product encompasses not only the beauty of being handmade, but the dignity that is behind the resolve of the Haitian people. 

Deux mains was born from a nonprofit you started in 2010, REBUILD globally. How has the partnership and intersection between these for-profit and non-profit organizations worked hand in hand to create lasting change in Haiti?

This is my favorite question! I love telling the story of why our for-profit and our nonprofit must work together. Technically, you would think a business is meant to just take care of itself….well, what we found on the beautiful island of Hispaniola is that education and job-training opportunities are not as accessible in this country. So our nonprofit, REBUILD globally provides the education and tools necessary so that these folks can become employable. As the participants from our nonprofit programs graduate, they have a direct pipeline to dignified living wage employment with deux mains to handcraft fine leather goods for international sale.

In the past seven years we've had 100% graduation rate, and every success story that you can imagine from homeownership, to admittance into medical school, to having the financial stability to take care of parents, children and community members with their own paychecks, rather than handouts…this is a really beautiful journey! 

The beginning of deux mains was marked with extraordinary challenges - to start off facing the devastation of Haiti after the earthquake, to sickness, other natural disasters, fires, robberies - how did you push through, and what advice would you have to others who are facing similar challenges?

Finding that inner strength to live out your calling is what I have found allows someone to have a full life. 

Yes, it's kind of hard to believe, but that is all true. We have faced many, many challenges, but the story wouldn't be complete if I didn't tell you that with each struggle we've had, we have an equal story of beauty and hope. And so I will use the word perseverance again because finding that inner strength to live out your calling is what I have found allows someone to have a full life.

I absolutely love my job, my families- both the family I was born into, and the one I created in Haiti. And I love the opportunity we have to change a sector that employs millions and millions of people around the globe. I love knowing that we can make a difference. So I would really encourage anyone who desires to make the world a better and more just place to never give up. I would also recommend they seek others who have gone before them. My team will probably kill me for saying this, but I'll take a phone call from anyone who needs extra support to live out their dream and help others. 

You’ve worked to empower and lift people out of extreme poverty. What is one of your favorite success stories?

I would love to tell you about my first friend in Haiti and my business partner Jolina Deroche. Jolina lost her home and business in the earthquake. But even though she lost everything, she immediately took in children whose parents were killed in the earthquake. I met Jolina because people in the neighborhood knew I was looking to start a business and they knew Jolina was looking for work to feed these kids. We were a match made in heaven.

Over the past seven years we have grown our friendship and deux mains together. Jolina has since then become the Director of Sales for deux mains, bought property, owns her own home again, started a second business making peanut butter and employs 3 additional women to run this side business. She is truly a hero.

You’ve used rubber from old tires, locally-sourced leather and upcycled fabric in your products. What do you look for when you are sourcing materials, and what materials would you like to explore next?

One of our values is sourcing locally, it helps to keep our environmental footprint low and it guarantees transparency in our supply chain. It also ensures that the dollars we spend on raw materials stay in the country we are working to develop economically. For example, last year we started employing refugees and sourcing all of our inner tube within the local refugee camp, providing dignified income to those who have been displaced. I'm really excited about the 2018 collection; we are looking at incorporating horn from a local Haitian artisan, as well as incorporating an incredible stone that comes from the Dominican Republic.

What are your plans for deux mains’s future, and what are your hopes for your employees that help own and run the business?

We have really ambitious plans for deux mains! Our team works tirelessly to grow the brand so we can become large enough to provide jobs in vulnerable places all over the world. We equally hope to empower consumers around the globe so that they may truly value, and have access to a wide rage of slow fashion products. Currently, our business is partially employee-owned. This means several of our managers own shares in the company. It is my dream that it becomes 100% employee-owned and for each member of the team to grow this business and experience all the benefits of a profitable company so that they can continue to pour into their communities and fight poverty with their own two hands.

What advice would you give to people seeking to make a long-term, lasting impact for those affected by poverty, natural disasters or oppression?

True long-term development will not happen over night and it typically can’t happen from a distance. To help a community overcome these types of issues, I have found that you have to really become a part of the community.

To be totally honest with you, that's a really hard question to answer because oppression, poverty and natural disaster are really multifaceted issues. And most people I've met along my journey have had good hearts and pure intentions, but what I found is that they don't have a lot of time. This work takes a long time. True long-term development will not happen over night and it typically can't happen from a distance. To help a community overcome these types of issues, I have found that you have to really become a part of the community. So if that's not a possibility, I encourage folks to not bite off more than they can chew, but to honor their gifts and talents, and the time they can invest because we are all needed throughout different stages of this process. Collaboration is always key and everyone matters.