Caleigh Hernandez: I'm an Empowered Passionista
At the end of last year, we hit the local craft fairs to seek out Passionistas to feature in The Passionistas Project Pack subscription box. But we were excited to stumble upon the story of Caleigh Hernandez, a social entrepreneur with a global mission. We actually met her mom that day and she shared Caleigh's story with us. We were excited to interview Caleigh and hear directly about her experiences. In 2014, Caleigh founded RoHo after falling in love with a pair of beaded sandals in a craft market in Kampala, Uganda. Breaking through language barriers, Caleigh teamed up with a Kenyan woman named Lydia and launched a company that focuses on social change by empowering women. Profits from RoHo fund artisan development, women's and environmental initiatives in Kenya and the United States. Here's an excerpt from our interview with Caleigh. Passionistas: What's the one thing you're most passionate about? Caleigh: I am most passionate about making global change. So for me that's RoHo. That's this company I founded, but I just see, you know, I have had so many opportunities in my life and it would be a waste if I didn't do something meaningful with them. Passionistas: Talk about that. What were those opportunities that led you to founding RoHo? Caleigh: First and foremost, I come from a low income background, my family in the U S and so that kind of gave me firsthand knowledge and insight into kind of what it is like to grow up with fewer opportunities in the US but at the same time, you know, I still had access to quality schools. I had really supportive parents who pushed education. We had more resources available to us than the average person across the world. So, you know, as I graduated high school and then I went off to university, I became really motivated to help other people get access to opportunities. What I've seen, you know, in my travels across the world as well as just here in the U S is that, you know, poverty, yes, it's a lack of material possession, but it is as well an absence of opportunity. And so it was my firsthand experiences, you know, kind of growing up that made me realize, Oh my gosh, I have a lot fewer opportunities to access certain things than friends or colleagues or whomever who, who had a wealthier background. But in comparison to the rest of the world, I'm so much better off because you know, at the end of the day I had access to quality education and that in and of itself really has provided tools to help me get out of that place and my family get out of that situation. And so I'm passionate about sharing that with other people. Passionistas: Tell us about the journey to founding RoHo. Caleigh: So I was in college and I began studying international development, which is essentially how we bring the poorest of the poor out of poverty. And this can be done through education, through, you know, economic opportunities through access to clean water. There are all of different channels you can take in order to kind of make this happen. And I decided to study abroad and Uganda after my sophomore year. And so I was working for this local nonprofit. We are helping the poorest of the poor get access to savings and credit because traditional banks or formal banks wouldn't give money or help these people save because it was done on such a small scale. So we created these informal systems to help these communities save. Because studies have shown that however minimal, everyone has the ability to save even people who are living below the poverty line. And so while I was in Uganda, I was living in this rural village. There wasn't much to do, to be honest during the weekends. So I would take a bus into larger towns and cities and I, on one education was walking through a craft market in Kampala, Uganda, which is a large city and Uganda and these craft markets, you know, they're not the most beautiful, they're kind of dingy. It cracked concrete floors. Most of them don't have electricity. You kind of get the idea they're selling local handicraft type items. But I remember turning and looking over my shoulder because something sparkling caught my eye. And it was a pair of these beautiful beaded leather sandals. And they just struck me because they were such a contrast to everything else around me. And at that moment I knew I was hooked. These were more than just a pair of shoes. I saw them as really an opportunity to break a cycle of poverty. So I returned to East Africa the following summer and I was doing research for my senior thesis while at the same time I was mapping out the East Africa sandal industry and local shopkeepers kept telling me to look for this Kenyan woman named Lydia. So on my last day and Uganda, after I finished my research, which to be completely honest, was like, I will not bore you with the specifics. It was very boring, but the journey to find Lydia made this whole trip worth it. It took me hours of searching. So I was told where she would be. And then three motorcycle taxis took me to wrong parts of the city and that I was lost. And I'm, you know, I'm like sweaty and just overwhelmed and very obviously a foreigner and this place. And I was trying to communicate things that probably didn't make sense to all of these like motorcycle taxis. Anyway, I curse my inability to speak Swahili and Luganda and fluently. But you know, I finally found Lydia and I kind of joke, it was a very unknown, unorthodox and possibly a little bit stalkerish way on my part, but it was just, is very representative of this whole journey to begin with. So, you know, I show up and it really worked out because Lydia, it was her last day being in Uganda. She's usually based in Kenya and this is my last day in Uganda as well. So I say it's meant to be, but you know, I show up and I'm sweaty and the shoveled and like I have no idea where am in the city. And I just desperately, I'm sure it was kind of like word vomit. I was like, I love your shoes and I want to know more about them and I want it like who was making them and what does this look like and how can we work together and do something that's really meaningful to the people who are making these products, who are mostly women by the way. And how can we collaborate and make something meaningful happen. And so, you know, we joke, um, because you know, my Swahili and Lugandan were not great at that point. My saw Haley's gotten much better since and her English wasn't perfect either, but we made it work and we say it's because beautiful shoes are universal. So I stayed in touch with Lydia and worked on developing a sandal line with her that was marketable for consumers in the US and I called this company RoHo, which is a Swahili word that means spirit or kindness, which is what we say we're all about. And so I graduated from college with this idea in mind for RoHo and began living in East Africa. I just wanted to get more on the ground development experience, make sure that I knew what I was doing and had kind of the background to prove it. And so I lived in rural Tanzania as well as Kenya on refugee and child labor programming. But once I finished all of that over in East Africa, I moved back to the U S and really launched RoHo using the time I'd spend any staffer, guy living over there flying to the coast to meet with Lydia and her 42 artisans, 36 women and six spot. And I use that time to really develop relationships with these people, understand the context in which they were working, understand the needs and the community and all of that information help to dictate how we moved forward with RoHo. Listen to Caleigh's full episode here.