Activist: Caleigh Hernandez

How to start a socially-conscious business

A study abroad trip to Africa changed the outlook of this unlikely entrepreneur.

Caleigh Hernandez had no idea that a study abroad session the summer before her junior year would change the course of her career — and life. The political science and international studies major chose to travel to Africa, and while buying a pair of beaded leather sandals made in Kenya at the local craft market, a light bulb went off in Hernandez’s head. She saw a way to create a business opportunity for people in an underserved part of the world and launch a socially-conscious business in the U.S. that could provide additional opportunities to Kenyans.

The result: Best Foot Forward (BFF), which sells those sandals made by women in Kenya to women in the U.S. A portion of each shoe sale goes to building a vocational school in Kenya, where there’s a 50 percent unemployment rate among women and youth. Students of the vocational school can learn the skills needed for desirable jobs that pay a living wage. Hernandez’s goal: As BFF expands, the Kenyan shoe manufacturers can employ more workers, and increased sales in the U.S. boosts the size of the donation back to Kenya, allowing more women get to work and rise out of poverty.

If the shoe fits

Hernandez has wanted to make a big impact on the world since grade school. In fifth grade, she was voted most likely to be president. But while studying at Northwestern University, her interest turned to Africa. “There are so many untapped resources and incredible people doing cool things, but there’s not the market or the resources to bring it out on a global scale,” says Hernandez.

Hernandez had never planned to start a business or be an entrepreneur, but after her initial trip to Kenya, she knew that for BFF to start off right, she needed to return and learn everything she could. She got a grant to return to East Africa to officially write her senior thesis about women needing access to economic opportunities, but she also did market research on how to run a shoe business.

“I walked into this as modestly as I could, scheduling a lot of interviews with people who have done this,” she says. Hernandez also learned to be flexible. “There are changes every day that affect the outlook and future of BFF. It’s an insane amount of hard work. And I know more about shoes and women’s feet than I ever thought I would.”

A rush of success

The scariest moment so far: When Hernandez applied for the Clinton Foundation’s Resolution Project, which gives funding and mentoring to young entrepreneurs, and found out at 2:00 a.m. that she was one of 35 finalists and had to make her final pitch at 8:00 a.m. that morning. “I felt like I was on Shark Tank,” she said. “That pitch was absolutely terrifying, but I needed to hone the business model, so it was hugely useful.” It worked: BFF got $5,000 in startup money and was exposed to mentors in the fashion industry and venture capital world.

Hernandez moved back to the U.S. from Kenya last summer, and like a smart entrepreneur, she’s watching her budget. She’s living with her grandparents in Santa Barbara and working a part-time job to save money to grow BFF. She’s selling the sandals, at $75 a pair, on a website she and her mom designed, as well as at private home parties and festivals. All profit is reinvested in the artisans. The next step is to move up to small boutiques, then once shoe production is in full swing, get the product into higher-end department stores. She’d also like to branch out beyond shoes and sell other hand-made products from East Africa.

Starting BFF has inspired Hernandez to study for an MBA. “I always knew I wanted to work in reducing income inequality, but I didn’t know the medium in which to do it until now. It’s cool to see how the intersection of business and international development can be impactful, and how it can turn any product you buy to wear or use into something really meaningful.”

It’s cool to see how the intersection of business and international development can be impactful, and how it can turn any product you buy to wear or use into something really meaningful.

— Caleigh Hernandez

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