We are fanatics when it comes to fashion and home goods and we love to flaunt well-designed accessories with meaning. We are currently obsessed with GAIA Empowered Women creations, which are cool, unique accessories handmade with care by women in need using vintage, repurposed, or sustainable materials. The name “GAIA” means “Goddess of the Earth”, which was chosen as a way to honor all women, from the ones who make GAIA products to the ones who purchase them.
With her passion for textiles and her fearless commitment, Paula Minnis established GAIA Empowered Women not only to help refugee women in need, but also to promote environmental awareness and practice. “With GAIA, our impact is two-fold. One in that we’re designing goods that people actually like and want to buy based solely on the design that are made by women whose lives are substantially improved through employment. Beyond that, the materials are up-cycled, repurposed, vintage. I guess contributing towards living lightly on our planet, we’re respecting and using few resources. Designing within those constraints is definitely helping to make a contribution.”
GAIA has grown into a wholesome business where people can buy one-of-a-kind home goods made of repurposed vintage materials and designed by women of different cultures and ethnic heritage. Gorgeous zipped clutches, elegant dinner napkins, lovely cocktail napkins—each product is made solely by the hands of the different women GAIA supports.
Choosing a life of service
Behind these homemade pieces is an inspiring story of how Paula began a life of compassion and dedication.
After graduating from UT in Austin, Texas, she entered the fashion industry and has worked or consulted for multiple brands all over the country— BCBG, Ralph Lauren, Kenneth Cole, Nike, Adidas, and many others. After a over a decade of creating and promoting brand presences at the retail level, Paula felt a growing desire to combine fashion and business with a sense of purpose.
She did volunteer work for the International Rescue Committee, a global non-profit dedicated to helping refugees resettle and rebuild their lives at the request of Albert Einstein back in 1933. As a volunteer mentor for the Dallas chapter, Paula took in a woman named Catherin and her children, teaching her different skills to help her settle in and adapt to her new home in the US.
As GAIA grew, so did the number of women she was able to help: three from the Congo, two from Iraq and two more from Burma.
Striving for a worthy cause
Every meaningful project or business is a result of a spark of inspiration and call to action. For Paula, her source of inspiration is the social entrepreneurs who have made an impact across the country and around the world, and the working mothers in the community who are able to dedicate their busy lives to doing good.
“I’m inspired by people that take the extra effort to make sure that their goods are produced ethically, that their employees are paid living wages.”
But as Beverly Sills would say, “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” The early days of growing GAIA were certainly a test of strength and endurance for Paula. Frank and straightforward, she admits the challenges she had to face, yet believes in the worthiness of her cause.
“It’s definitely not the easiest way to do business. It’s easy in a way that you’re inspired and you get that sense of knowing that you’re making a positive impact on people’s lives, but it’s challenging from a consistency standpoint, from a cost-effectiveness standpoint. But I think that’s where the general public is becoming more aware that there is value and it is worth the premium to pay for merchandise that has been ethically made.”
They started out with cloth napkins for its simple and straightforward process. After discovering that most of the women love braiding hair, the product line extended to braided elastic bracelets and accessories.
What’s interesting is how the design process itself also gives insight to the impact the experience has made in her and the women involved in the business.
“I’m very sensitized to design as far as having awareness in my life. As it relates to GAIA, we’re working under some challenging parameters as far as how we do business. The women are not working in a factory, they’re working from their homes. They’re not necessarily skilled artisans; the materials that we use for the items are repurposed and vintage, so we don’t have an endless amount of fabrics. So, working within those constraints actually makes the design process more interesting and challenging for me.”
GAIA Phase III
Having made tremendous progress since GAIA’s humble beginnings, Paula shares the big things to look forward to for 2014.
She calls this “GAIA Phase 3,” which includes the big move of their headquarters out of Paula’s house and into a new workspace, a new monogramming sewing machine as an additional service, and new products to add to the GAIA catalog.
All these are meant to provide more opportunities for the refugee women in need, specifically skills training to take their careers to the next level. Some of these include courses on financial literacy and entrepreneurship.
With that said, how can you help GAIA in their journey towards stability and better living?
Besides purchasing GAIA handmade goods, Paula encourages the community to be aware of the refugee population in their respective cities. “It’s one of those best-kept secrets which shouldn’t be kept. It’s kind of overwhelming when you realize how many are resettled.”
At the end of the day, it is the significant impact on the lives of these women that makes every GAIA Empowered Women product special, meaningful, and powerful.
And because we’re huge fans of creativity as a contribution to the world, we believe GAIA can soar great heights to be able to help more women lead better and more fulfilling lives as they begin the next chapter of their journey.
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