Caleigh Hernandez supports Kenyan women by selling the shoes they make
By Kathryn Arthur with SBFLM Staff
Caleigh Hernandez felt the legs of the plastic chair bend under her weight as she shifted down in the seat. The beads of sweat that had accumulated on her brow and skin left her feeling irritated, sticky and uncomfortable.
Thanks to the heavy humidity hanging in the air, Hernandez knew the feelings would not go away anytime soon. As she sat waiting, her tired brain grappled with annoyance over how little they cared. Couldn’t they see that she had been working her tail off for weeks to create a program that would help change their lives? Didn’t they want things to improve? Wasn’t that the entire reason Hernandez and her team were here in the dusty, hot humidity of a Ugandan village?
Frustration and anger mingled into a bitter cocktail as the hours ticked on. Ugandans, especially those in rural areas, were known to show up late, routinely arriving long after the appointed time. But hours had passed since the community group meeting was supposed to begin, and Hernandez had the sneaking suspicion that no one was coming.
Exasperation over the past few months of hard work was steaming out of every one of her sweat-drenched pores when finally a man from the village arrived. He had come just for her. The rest of the village was attending to a more important matter: the funeral of a well-loved member of the community.
That’s when the realization hit Hernandez, and all the accumulated indignation vaporized.
Regardless of whether she or other development workers thought they knew what the locals needed, they didn’t know. They would never know. The only people who knew exactly what it was they needed were the people themselves. Hernandez knew she would have to defer to the community to find out what it was they needed.
This realization led to the way she now runs her business, Best Foot Forward.
Best Foot Forward sells handmade leather and beaded shoes sourced from the coast of Kenya. When Hernandez first came across the shoes, she recognized the quality and beauty of the products and realized that she could sell them in the states.
“When I brought my mom a pair of shoes she was crazy for them, and I knew this was how I could help,” she said.
Hernandez was born and raised in Santa Barbara. She graduated from San Marcos High School in 2011 and then attended college in Chicago. From there, she did a study abroad program in Uganda.
“That was a tough year for me because I learned so much about the world and it was an eye-opening experience. I worked with refugees, helping them get jobs so they could support their families, and it was hard not to take work home with me. The utter sadness … and I wanted to do something to create real change,” she said.
With her experience working in development in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, Hernandez was able to find the artisans who designed and made the beautiful leather shoes. Recognizing that they were primarily women and being paid a fair wage, and knowing that empowering females is central to community growth and poverty alleviation, Hernandez built a partnership with them and launched Best Foot Forward.
“I made friends with Lydia Ngeri, who was the source of where the shoes were manufactured in Kenya. She was a leader in her community and we have kept in touch to make sure the products are made with quality and those who work for her are paid fair wages,” Hernandez said.
As a for-profit company run by Hernandez and her colleagues from Impact Hub in Santa Barbara, Best Foot Forward sells the shoes at a markup to cover expenses and make a profit. Enough is left over to create a fund that is directed back to the artisans themselves to cover needs they recognize as being most important to their communities. The money has helped create a vocational school to help people learn trades.
Hernandez spends her time developing her brand and spreading the word about her products. Not only does her work give buyers a beautiful pair of shoes, but it also gives hope to those who make them.
She is also working to expand her line to kids’ sandals, belts and dog collars. She is negotiating with several retailers, but meanwhile you can see or buy her products at www.bffshoes.com.
Impact Hub Santa Barbara is a collaborative workspace for entrepreneurs and professionals that provides development opportunities. For more information, log onto www.impacthubsb.com.