20 Jul Combating Poverty and Capitalism with The Root Collective
Ten years ago, Bethany Tran visited a friend in Guatemala, and what was meant to be just a brief vacation, turned into a life-changing trip, inspiring Bethany to find a solution break the chain of generational poverty in a Central American country.
“I came back from the trip really a very different person than when I went down. It definitely rocked my world for sure,” said The Root Collective Founder Bethany Tran. “You think you understand poverty until you really are immersed in it for a while, then you realize how little you actually understand about how complicated it can be.”
It took this immersion for Bethany to realize what good is an education without the promise of a job opportunity?
“If you’re educating these kids but there are no jobs after they graduate, nothing has changed. So, when people talk about the cycle of poverty and generational poverty, it is kind of what they need, because there really is no opportunity for them to escape out of the life that they have right now. I was really wondering if we’ve been going about this backwards,” said Bethany.
Bethany visited Guatemala several more times over the next three and a half years, but around the time of her 30th birthday, Bethany came to the realization that there was no more time to waste—she had to do something.
“A few things happened kind of all at once, again this is about three and a half years after that first trip down there. First off, I started working with Comcast, living the American dream, right, working for one of the biggest corporations in the country, making good money, and there I was completely miserable,” said Bethany. “It was just one of those ‘This is not what I’m supposed to be doing with my life’ moments. Then a couple weeks after I started that job, I turned 30 and had a quarter life crisis. I thought, ‘What am I doing? What am I doing?’ I really had a heart for the communities in Guatemala, and here I am at my cushy corporate job. These two things just are not meshing.”
So, at 30, Bethany quit her “cushy corporate job” and dedicated herself to helping the Guatemalan communities she’d come to know and love over the past four years.
“There was just zero reason why I shouldn’t be doing something. And, so, the next day I was hiding in a conference room in the Comcast Center, and I called my friend and was just like, ‘I’ve had this idea for this business for a while, but I have no product, and I have no connections with artisans.’ Really what I had was this idea that jostled me to be creative in these communities, but I didn’t really know what that looked like yet,” said Bethany.
Over the next year, Bethany spent time making connections and building relationships with artisans in the community, including a shoemaker. In 2013, 13 months after that phone call, The Root Collective launched as a business that teaches the craft of shoemaking to community members, providing them with a skill, a job and a stable income. The Root Collective has since grown to work with three weaving cooperatives and four shoemaking workshops.
“Our primary focus is on the people. We’re making sure that they’re getting paid fair wages and we have really transparent relationships with all of our partners. We know who’s getting paid what and the different steps along the way to ensure they’re getting paid fairly,” said Bethany.
The Root Collective employs both men and women to craft unique, stylish shoes with a fun, timeless design. They work with weaving cooperatives that provide hand-woven fabric to cover the shoes, then employ shoemaking workshops to construct and assemble the shoes. Shoes weren’t always the plan, but intuitively, Bethany knew it would be the path they’d take.
“When we launched, we were trying to do all of the things and it was a really bad idea, but right from the beginning, I knew that shoes were going to be the thing. That was going to be what we were recognized for, and it was primarily because there are so many other fair trade brands out there doing bags, jewelry, scarves, and they were rocking it and doing a really good job, but the shoes were really the thing that was unique for us,” said Bethany.
In the beginning, Bethany handled the entire operation by herself, but in the past three years has employed a local to manage operations on the ground in Guatemala while she streamlines design and development here in the States. The Root Collective makes an effort to empower local business leaders by not employing the artisans directly. They hope to inspire locals to start their own production and manufacturing businesses, so they can work with them as partners, not employees.
As the business grows, Bethany hopes to expand into other products, having just launched their Molly Sandal this May, a tote bag line in June, and plans for a men’s footwear line this fall.
The Root Collective hopes to adopt additional sustainability practices in their business model as well. Currently they package all of their products minimally with environmentally-friendly materials, and they hope to soon start sourcing local, raw, organic materials for fabrics.
Ultimately, it is Bethany’s desire to change the way we purchase products. Since leaving her corporate job, she has made it her mission to support businesses that share her values and that make an effort to improve the state of our world.
“Every time you pull out your wallet you’re making a decision on the kind of world you want to live in, and you’re deciding what companies can leave their doors open another day,” said Bethany. “Every time you buy something, think about it. Think about how it was made, think about where it came from, and think about that parent company and whether or not they support the same values as you do.”
Bethany realizes this would be a big adjustment for most, but has faith that humanity will continue to take steps in the right direction.
“Take it one step at a time. You’re not going to be able to turn around and change all of your buying habits immediately. Start with a couple of things. Start with buying fair trade coffee. The next time you need a pair of jeans, do a little bit of research and find a company that supports your values. Being mindful and intentional will go a long way,” said Bethany.
The Root Collective provides an ethical shopping guide on their website to equip their customers with resources for shopping responsibly, ethically and sustainably, and to support businesses that support the people.