How did you come up with the idea for GAIA?
Paula: In 2009 I volunteered with the IRC (International Rescue Committee – www.rescue.org) as a mentor to a Burmese refugee woman, Catherin, and her two children who had recently arrived in the U.S. after spending over a decade in a refugee camp in Thailand. My role was to help them acclimate to their new home by helping them with everything from language to navigating public transportation. I was overwhelmed by all of the challenges Catherin faced… while she was so grateful to have left the refugee camp to resettle in the U.S., she had a whole new set of obstacles before her. But she faced it with such strength and grace. One day we were doing vocabulary words and the word we were working on was sew, s-e-w. We were having some trouble with it, so I drew a spool of thread, to represent what it meant, and she said, “Oh, sew, thread!” and she stepped out to grab a spool of thread, and I was like, “Oh, you sew?!” Catherin said that she did, and I just kind of had one of those “aha” moments.
I had been reading about how unlocking a woman’s potential is crucial to the prosperity of a community as a whole, and how giving women an opportunity to become self-reliant through earning a living wage helps cultivate a brighter future for their children. I realized that I could pay her a living wage to sew pretty things with my collection of vintage textiles, utilizing my background in the fashion industry to bring it to market. So in late 2009, I launched the business, with the ultimate mission of helping refugee women thrive in their new home.
How did you get started on making that idea come to life?
P: We started with a collection of napkins made from vintage fabric, but I soon realized that if I was going to make this a real company I needed a name. So I started thinking about goddess names, which seemed fitting since my focus has always been on women’s empowerment. I came upon Gaia, Greek for “goddess of the earth,” and knew it was the one. I created hangtags and a website with images of the collection then began peddling our wares to local stores and selling at various markets and trunk shows.
How has GAIA changed since the beginning?
P: We’ve grown very organically since the beginning… slow and steady for the most part. We currently provide ongoing work to ten refugee women in our community, from countries including Iraq, Burma, Syria, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
We’ve also gradually added items to the collection, and have seen our business grow mostly through word of mouth, which is pretty cool. The support we’ve felt from our customers (both individual and retailers like Favor the Kind!) is incredibly encouraging – not only as it relates to our business viability, but just how it reinforces the notice that people truly do want to make the world a more kind and caring place!
Where do you see GAIA going in the future? What is your big dream for the future?
P: My focus is not on GAIA becoming a huge mega-brand; I’m just trying to make a significant, sustainable, and meaningful impact in a few women’s lives… while hopefully creating some cute pieces we are all proud to wear along the way!
What is your definition of kindness?
P: Kindness is choosing compassion over judgment, inclusion over exclusion, making someone feel seen and heard and not overlooked. It’s the social glue that connects us all.
What has been the most rewarding part of creating this unique & special business model?
P: The biggest indicator that we’re doing something right and that we’re affecting change in a positive way is by the smiles of the refugee artisans we employ. When they arrive here they’re pretty shell-shocked, and they’re a little bit stoic, and to see the transformation that happens is amazing. Over time, they become joyful. The tangible successes that they’ve achieved with their earnings at Gaia are also inspiring. They’ve bought homes and cars. They’ve been able to take vacations. They’ve become citizens. These are the kinds of things that are incredibly humbling to witness.