In this season of giving we are confronted with boundless advertisements luring us into stores to purchase the latest products for the ones we love. While thinking of my own loved ones this season and on a quest to put the good back into giving, I stumbled upon GAIA Empowered Women. The accessories and home decor company GAIA Empowered Women is on a mission to aid resettled refugees and their families in Dallas, Texas by providing a living wage and training and development for women to succeed in their local communities. Using sustainable, vintage or repurposed textiles GAIA is committed to respecting our planet as well as rebuilding the lives of women affected by violence and mass genocide. The brave GAIA women are from all over the globe: Burma, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. With many having spent more than a decade in refugee camps in neighboring countries, resettlement in the concrete jungle of Dallas can be frustrating. Bridging the gap between employment and financial independence, GAIA Empowered Women creates new starting points bringing women closer to self-sufficiency and empowerment in their careers.
In Greek mythology, Gaia, is the goddess of the Earth from which most future deities were created. Personifying the Earth, Gaia is a figure demanding respect for her surroundings. The motto for GAIA Empowered Women then, “Look Good. Do Good.” is a fitting way to recognize the accomplishments of all women and connect the brave, talented women who create GAIA products to the consumers who are looking to give for good. I had the opportunity to learn more about Paula Minnis, founder of GAIA Empowered Women, her inspirations and advice for future entrepreneurs. Below is our interview, edited for clarity.
What is your background and how do you think it contributes to your interest in fashion and social causes?
Born and raised in Texas, I attended UT Austin, then worked in fashion in LA and San Francisco for a while. Fast forward several years and I’m now a wife and mother of 4 kiddos (3 yr-old twins plus 2 teenage step kids) living in Dallas, TX. I started my career as an apparel buyer, and after a decade of working in that industry, I started to become a little disenchanted by it. The stress was just out of alignment with what we were doing….selling dresses, not curing cancer! So I took some time off, and spent time doing stuff I’d never had the opportunity to do before….took classes in art, sewing, jewelry making, took piano & tennis lessons, and also started volunteering more, which eventually led me to the IRC, a global organization that provides essential care and resettlement assistance to refugees forced to flee from war or disaster.
Unlocking a woman’s potential is crucial to the prosperity of a community as a whole, and giving women an opportunity to become self reliant through earning a living wage helps cultivate a brighter future for their children.
What influenced you to start GAIA Empowered Women?
Through the IRC, I began volunteering as a Mentor to a Burmese refugee woman, Catherin, and her 2 young children in May of 2009. By September, the seed for GAIA had already been born, based on my experience with her. After enduring over a decade in a refugee camp in Thailand, Catherin then faced an entirely new set of challenges upon her arrival to the US….everything from learning how to use an ATM to navigating our country’s health care system. It’s overwhelming to even those of us born here, imagine how daunting it is for someone in Catherin’s shoes! Her strength and determination really moved me, and inspired me to do more. One day we were studying vocabulary words, and after describing the word “sew,” when I discovered that Catherin had some basic sewing skills, I had a true “lightbulb moment.” I had been reading about how unlocking a woman’s potential is crucial to the prosperity of a community as a whole, and 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 vintage textiles I had collected, utilizing my background in the fashion industry to bring it to market. So in late 2009, GAIA, for Goddess of the Earth, was born, with the ultimate mission of helping refugee women thrive in their new communities.
How would you describe your personal style?
My style is pretty eclectic. I choose pieces from across the style spectrum, based on what suits me and inspires me at the moment. While I definitely love classic pieces as a foundation, I can never resist an ethnic print, and comfort is key —- which means I probably lean a little Boho most of the time.
How does social media contribute to your impact as a sustainable fashion brand?
Instagram has been a great visual medium for us to convey both the GAIA aesthetic and our social cause. I love it as a way to immediately gauge interest in new styles or prototypes we’re considering. And I’ve also made some great friends through the network, who have in turn helped create awareness about what we do!
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What’s your best advice for those interested in fashion and curating a sustainable fashion-specific following through social media?
Stay true to your brand using compelling imagery with a consistent aesthetic and distinct point of view. Look to other brands or influencers you admire for inspiration, but most importantly, always stay true to yourself and trust your instinct!
Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.
– Coco Chanel
Who is a fashion inspiration to you and how do they impact your personal style or work?
I’m not necessarily inspired by a particular person as much as I am through travel, and exploring various cultures. I’m always drawn to locales known for their indigenous textiles, such as Morocco, Peru, Tanzania, Guatemala, and Mexico. Not only does travel inevitably lead to design inspiration for GAIA, but most of our one-of-a-kind pieces are crafted using material gathered during these trips!
What are your favorite pieces of fashion advice?
“Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.” – Coco Chanel
Tell me about your favorite style pieces and what you look for when you find a new piece.
At this stage in my life, with 4 kids (including 3yr old twins) and a growing business, most of my closet go-to items are no-brainer pieces – tops or dresses that are comfortable and cute enough so I immediately feel pulled together without having to put too much thought into it. I love the ethical lines Lemlem, Ulla Johnson, Figue, and Tish Cox.
What advice would you give to a fellow entrepreneur?
You should definitely have a passion for your endeavor, and be prepared to work hard. I love the Steve Jobs quote,“The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” I think an entrepreneur’s likelihood of success is greatest if they find joy in their work. Also, build your team wisely, with quality people that you truly trust and rely on. Find those with gifts and talents that compliment yours. I truly believe that the reason GAIA still exists after 5 years is largely due to the hiring of my 2nd in command, Lauren — probably the best business decision I’ve ever made!
What does the future look like for you, do you have any current projects you are working on?
Our ultimate mission with GAIA is to provide more opportunity for women in need, so my hope is that in 5 years I’m employing 5 times as many women as I am now, and in 10 years, 10 times as many. There are still numerous employable women in Dallas, and an endless amount in cities across the country. My goal is to streamline our production and operations so that what we’ve created here in Dallas can be replicated in markets throughout the country!
With the help of GAIA Empowered Women many brave women are rebuilding their lives, one stitch at a time. To see more products or learn more about GAIA Empowered Women refer to their website, Facebook, or Instagram.
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Photos courtesy of GAIA Empowered Women.