Ethically Sourced & Beautifully Designed Shoes: Zoe Cleary, Co-Founder of Nisolo

Written by Kassia Binkowski, Contributing Editor to The Good Trade

Meet Zoe Cleary of Nisolo

Affecting change on a global scale requires a combination of innovation, quality, and persistence. Nisolo has achieved just that. Since co-founding the company in 2011, Zoe Cleary has dedicated herself to designing high quality products that can compete on the global market - they just so happen to also employ hundreds of artisans and elevate livelihoods for their families. I recently had the chance to chat with Zoe about her vision for the brand, the challenges they’ve faced, and the steps that she’s taking to build a transparent business and lead a thoughtful and intentional life.

Very few businesses combine creative design and social impact the way Nisolo does. Tell us your story. Of all the products you could have chosen how did you end up building a shoe business to catalyze social change?

The idea for Nisolo was born in 2011 shortly after my Co-Founder & CEO, Patrick Woodyard, took a development job in Trujillo, Peru. After meeting remarkably talented shoemakers in the city, Patrick learned that they shared common barriers to growth with entrepreneurs that he had met in other parts of the developing world. In this case, the shoemakers’ greatest challenge was gaining access to the global market where they could sell their goods.

Learning that the struggling industry in Northern Peru partially employed over 100,000 people, Patrick envisioned the impact that a revitalized shoe industry could have in Trujillo. That vision grew as Patrick considered the impact that could occur elsewhere if he started a fashion label that committed first and foremost to ethical production and the wellbeing of its producers. Recognizing a need for fashion industry expertise, Patrick contacted me, and I quickly decided to visit Peru and meet the shoemakers myself. After being blown away by their exceptional skills and desire for consistent work, I quit my job with a major fashion label in NYC and joined Patrick as his Co-Founder and Designer. Nisolo officially launched in late 2011.

Today, our team at Nisolo is committed to developing beautiful, quality products and ensuring that everyone — from the first supplier to the end consumer — is treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve.

We’re so impressed by the amount of soul in your soles. What is the larger impact you are hoping to have outside of the field of fashion?

Thank you. From a big picture perspective, our vision for Nisolo is to set a new standard in the fashion industry for the relationship between consumers, producers, and the brand that often stands between them. The more we can grow Nisolo, the more we can grow our direct impact with our producers and our larger, industry-wide influence as an emerging brand within the fashion industry.  

Running an international business with its sights set on industry-wide influence is no small feat, especially based in low-income countries. Tell us about the challenges you have faced in your dual pursuits of manufacturing footwear and creating economic opportunity in Peru?

Regardless of where you manufacture products in the fashion industry, getting what you want when you want it proves difficult as you scale. Even the largest brands out there struggle with receiving their production orders on time. This has been especially challenging in our case as a small business with a big impact. I think the key to our success in navigating very difficult production constraints in Kenya and Peru thus far has been based on two things: relationships and a good team of lawyers and business consultants from the respective countries where we make our products. The advantage we have is that we’ve been working in these countries for nearly a decade, and we’ve built deep relationships with our partners abroad. The benefit is that no matter how difficult things become, we can lean back on trust and the relationship we’ve built to navigate these challenges together. Additionally, it is crucial to build relationships with a fair, just, and competent lawyer, accountant, and entrepreneur from the home region that you are working in. Getting them on your team will save you immensely, in both resources and time.

From the footwear you design to the partnerships on the ground, Nisolo is obviously thinking very creatively about how to affect global change. Can you tell us more about how you have used creativity and design to build your business strategy and expand your impact?

Our social impact is on the consumer and industry, but more directly on the livelihoods of our producers and their families. We’ve seen that by providing a specific set of inputs, we are able to radically improve the livelihoods of our producers, their children, and future generations. These inputs include: producer access to the global market, access to capital via our in-house microlending program, participation in our in-house savings program, stable and fair compensation, safe working conditions, healthcare coverage, paid vacation, pension funds, unemployment coverage, stipends for transportation to work, as well as bi-weekly skills training and capacity building programming (including finance management, language skills, leadership, conflict resolution, etc.).

On average, these priorities have led to a 161% income increase for our producers since before working with Nisolo. Immediately, this is spent on things like major home improvements, which 33% of our shoemakers have been able to execute where needed, and education, were 95% of our shoemakers’ children are in school, and a handful of them are even in university - all to be first time graduates in the history of their families. In the last year alone, the number of shoemakers who have been able to save for the first time in their lives has increased from 20% to 70% of our shoemakers - this means that basic needs are met and funds are being stored away for a better, safer, healthier tomorrow. One of our shoemakers even recently used some of his savings to help his son start a new business outside their home. This is Nisolo’s impact in action.

They say it takes one to know one, and we can sense your wanderlust from a mile away. Your business manufacturing is based in Peru and Kenya, but we can’t help but be curious - what do you do on a personal level to reduce your footprint when you travel? How are the values you’ve ingrained in your business reflected in other aspects of your life?

It’s impossible to deny that travel does unfortunately leave a large carbon footprint, however in my personal life, I do try to make decisions with this in mind. I use public transportation and/or walk whenever possible. I’m adamant about eating foods that are grown locally as much as possible. Peru fortunately has an amazing climate for growing a lot of the fresh foods that I love (passion fruit, mango, avocado, artichokes, quinoa, etc.) so I love to take advantage of that while in country. There are other small things I try to incorporate in my every day life such as eliminating plastic usage whenever possible, never buying plastic water bottles but rather a reusable water bottle, using reusable grocery bags, eliminating chemical products from my daily use, etc.

It’s an impressive list and we appreciate a peek behind the scenes. No doubt, creative entrepreneurship is an adventure. What is your greatest success to date? What is that one moment you won’t ever forget?

Overall, I’m extremely proud of what our team has been able to accomplish. Nisolo has experienced consistent, 100%+ year over year growth since its inception. Having sold over 35,000 products across all 50 US states and over 60 countries around the world, Nisolo currently supports the livelihoods of more than 300 individuals through its operations in the US, Peru, and Kenya. On average, Nisolo’s employees throughout its supply chain have received a 161% income increase since beginning to work with the brand, and apart from income generation, artisans receive the full range of benefits that I mentioned earlier.

Every time I’m in Peru chatting with the shoemakers, I hear new stories that remind me why we do what we do. This last time, our shoemakers were teaching me about diabetes and meal portion size based on what they had learned in their weekly nutrition class at Nisolo. Health and nutrition are very important subjects to me and it made my heart happy to hear this discussion going on.

If you had one piece of advice for how to leverage creativity for social change, what would it be?

First and foremost, anyone starting a socially transparent brand must deliver in a profound way on product offering. The greatest way a brand can impact the ethical fashion space is to prioritize product just as much as social impact. The space needs success stories, and it needs products that continually demonstrate to consumers that quality goods can be bought at affordable prices and produced and consumed responsibly as well.