The full interview with the founder of Brave Soles, Christal Earle
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Christal Earle is a lot of things; she is a social entrepreneur who believes change is possible through smart collaboration and thinking differently. She’s a social advocate for the stateless peoples of the Dominican Republic and the environment. She’s a businesswoman who started her enterprise with a lightning bolt of inspiration and only $1,000 to her name.
But most of all, she’s brave.
She’s brave because amid life-altering moments of adoption, divorce, financial despair, and literally, no place to call home thanks to governmental bureaucracy, she chose to take on a cause bigger than herself.
Does that sound familiar? As entrepreneurs, we all must be brave as we take on problems much bigger than ourselves to create positive social change through sustainable solutions.
Meet Christal, Co-Founder and CEO of Brave Soles — a social enterprise that sells 100% handmade leather shoes with recycled tire soles made from discarded tires found in the landfills of the Dominican Republic.
Her innovative solutions using upcycling, microfinancing, and community engagement are helping break the cycle of poverty for her suppliers and providing hope for impoverished communities. As a social entrepreneur, Christal harnesses the power of storytelling to teach others how small economic choices, like buying a pair of sandals, can have a worldwide impact.
The 5-minute journey that woke Christal up
Christal Earle’s journey as a social entrepreneur started in 2000 when she co-founded Live Different, a Canadian charity dedicated to creating positive social change. In 2004 Live Different went International, making worldwide trips to impoverished communities in need of help.
In the summer of 2006, Christal took a break from her humanitarian work and vacationed at an all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic. It was during that trip that her life would forever be changed thanks to a five-minute journey her friend asked her to take to a community she was helping at the time.
“That was my first exposure to poverty at that level. I remember sitting in this Haitian woman’s house and having her explain that her home, which was smaller than my living room, was a communal home shared by many. She told me what it was like to be her; she was a single mom with four children, their beds were up on paint tins above the ground, and how each time it rained her house would flood.”
That moment was powerful for so many reasons, but mostly for the sacred trust she experienced with that woman who graciously let her into her world, allowing her the opportunity to take a “walk in her shoes.”
And to think, five minutes up the road was an all-inclusive luxury resort! The loud disparate dichotomy based on chance (or lack thereof) was deafening for Christal, and she knew she had to do something.
Thankfully, this chance encounter would be the reason Christal decided to make the Dominican Republic a priority for her humanitarian outreach efforts where she would find both her inspiration for Brave Soles and her adopted daughter, Widlene.
Garbage Dump Destiny
After that talk with the Haitian mother in the one-room shack, Christal brought hundreds of Live Different teenagers to the Dominican Republic that year.
They would visit a garbage dump where many impoverished people, mostly stateless with no legal place to call home, worked for $1-$2 dollars a day.
Christal and her team helped these people collect bottles and other recyclables. Since recycling is privatized there, this is how most stateless individuals earn an income. While there, Christal befriended a woman with a toddler on her hip. They chatted, she helped her find bottles, and they parted ways.
About a year after this encounter, Christal learned that woman passed away, and her child was now an orphan. She and her then-husband were thinking about adoption already, so they began a quest to find that child, Widlene, which they did in 2009.
Widlene is of Haitian descent and was born in the Dominican Republic, so to adopt her required official documents and judiciary approval. This process took months instead of the anticipated weeks, and during that time Christal’s marriage began to dissolve. They completed the process only to have an earthquake destroy the paperwork and, unfortunately, claim the life of the judge.
Now Christal had a daughter who doesn’t speak the same language, she had no legal abilities to protect her nor could she leave the country with her. On top of all that, she was legally separated from her husband and now had to face the reality of being a single parent in a foreign country.
What’s a girl to do but start rebuilding her life?
“I was still working with Live Different, but I felt a pull to do something else. I’m an entrepreneur at heart, and inside me, I wanted to be able to create something that was going to provide a way for me to co-create with other people.”
Christal split her time between the Dominican Republic and Canada while she and her now ex-husband, co-parented their daughter. She spent her time away making money as a speaker and while in the Dominican Republic, she continued to host teams taking them to the garbage dump to work with the stateless population.
While she had been helping them find bottles for years, her work in the dump took on a new meaning considering her financial struggles as a now single parent.
“I’m actually in the same boat as these people. It looks different on the outside, but financially, I was just as vulnerable…I had such empathy for the cycle that they were caught in. It was through that empathy that I started to see the people there and the dump itself differently. I noticed the tires.”
The tires weren’t new, but her perspective was, and that shift would lead to her moment of divine entrepreneurial inspiration.
“What’s with all the tires?” people would ask when Christal would bring them to the dump to work. Usually, she would shrug it off, claiming ignorance as they got to work. One day, she said those famous last words many social entrepreneurs have uttered before:
“I don’t know, but someone should really do something about it.”
A few weeks later she walks out of her apartment, says hello to her neighbor, and notices her sandals. Christal said she had a “total girl moment” saying she loved them and asked where to find a pair. Her friend said she bought the handmade leather sandals in Cuba and handed one to Christal for closer inspection.
That’s when lightning struck: she could be the person to “do something” about those tires in the dump. The sole on the sandal she was holding was no better than what she could create using those tires through upcycling and a little ingenuity with the help of local artisans.
Upcycling Ideas and Resources
Christal is the first one to tell you this was not a new idea; many organizations worldwide use upcycling to help impoverished communities create goods, including sandals which she had seen from Africa and Central America.
Those were never her style, but she realized she could create something to her tastes that would address the tire issue, employ local artisans, and provide an income for her and her daughter.
She visited a small artisanal shop to ask the local shoemaker if he could help her create a prototype. When she explained how wanted to use recycled tires as the soles, he looked at her like she had lost her mind.
The next day he sent her a picture of a simple leather sandal, and he told Christal he found someone who knew how to work with tires. Everything was falling in line from a manufacturing standpoint; now, she just needed to find the money to start her business.
Posting a Plan: You’ve got to start somewhere.
Christal was still barely making it by with her income as a speaker so as a single mom, there wasn’t a dime she could commit to this project.
She knew her crazy idea could work thanks to her Haitian artisan friends so she went to her apartment and using Post-it notes, created the business model on her kitchen wall. She decided on the “Brave Soles” name, visualized her brand and mapped out a timeline based on her research.
She determined that $250 is what she needed to start. Thanks to a generous friend, she got $1000.
Then, she got to work.
Brave Soles Takes Off Running
That next day she started making shoes. Over the following six weeks she set up a Shopify site, had people wear sample sandals to gain feedback, and took some amateur pictures of her products at a local coffee shop.
On June 7, an organic Facebook post using these pictures introduced her brand to the world. This post generated 40 sales in one day.
She knew she was on to something.
At the time, she didn’t have the inventory to fulfill the orders, so she knew it was time to ramp up production. The good news was, her customers were aware they were buying more than sandals and were willing to wait for their order.
This vision of co-creating with other entrepreneurs would initially come at a cost for Brave Soles. While the local community wanted the work, suppliers lacked the resources and machinery to do it.
Christal developed a microloan program so these suppliers could purchase what they needed. It was a win-win; Brave Soles would be their first customer and they would now be equipped to take on new business from others. She realized that this microfinancing initiative was an essential part of her story:
“We’ve created a microloan program to give people a chance to participate in our story…and one of the things I’ve come to realize thanks to feedback from our customers is that when they talk about us online and social media, it always comes back to ‘I love that I know the story behind what I’m wearing.’”
Telling the Brave Soles Story: The Ambassador Program
Christal says this story-based selling is nothing new, but there are new and unique ways to share their story worldwide. Today, the Brave Soles Ambassador Program has representatives located throughout the world ready to sell her products and her cause to their local communities and online.
“I stumbled into the idea because people were telling me how excited they were about Brave Soles products and how they loved our story and wanted to know how they could help us succeed. I realized there’s a model for people to share a part of our story through an independent sales program…and it needed to have an element that for everyone was transformational, not just transactional.”
Christal and her team have developed several ways for ambassadors to help sell their brand worldwide using startup packages, trunk show sales, and peer network groups.
She credits the success of the Brave Soles Ambassador Program to her global sales representatives who share her passion of helping people discover ways to think and buy differently. Christal and her team are challenging the notion that one person can’t make a difference with their dollar, and that you can fulfill your need and help others simultaneously by purchasing a beautiful item that has a remarkable story.
It Takes Village: Gathering Other Brave Souls
Christal believes that it takes a village to create a successful social enterprise, and that village can sometimes come at a cost. Since she founded Brave Soles, she has relied on a council of advisors and mentors that have helped her company thrive and in return, she has supported others.
She believes there is value in “putting yourself out there” in a way that is comfortable for you. If you are beginning as an entrepreneur, it may be taking advantage of local groups and free events that provide networking opportunities. As your business grows and you want to expand your network, you can seek out paid opportunities like startup incubators or becoming a member of a local association related to your industry.
She said it’s these relationships with others that has helped create the social impact she envisioned:
“I gathered a council of advisors and mentors around me and participated in some startup incubators that were healthy ecosystems made up of people like me who were experiencing the same kind of journey, and I know it’s why Brave Soles has been successful. Our success as a brand has been a team effort.”
The Journey Ahead
Today Brave Soles sources materials from landfills to create sandals, shoes, handbags, and more. With success has come expansion with suppliers now located in the Dominican Republic, Argentina, and Mexico. Christal’s dream of co-creation continues as Brave Soles currently employs cutters and sewers from these areas to help craft these handmade items.
Christal intends on pushing outside her comfort zone to seek new funding sources. She initially raised money from a private investor and now realizes that as her business grows, she needs additional funds to support that growth.
She encourages social entrepreneurs to be brave when asking for funding; to realize that as your business evolves so too will your budget and that’s a good thing if you can plan accordingly and think long-term. As she gears up for her next pitch, she relies on her previous experience and is reminded that it’s her story and passion that sells, and there is always someone looking for a reason to invest in humanity.
Action Steps and Takeaways
Know Why You Are in Business
Social entrepreneurs are passionate people working for both an income and a reason. What’s your reason? Why does it matter? What returns from your work would you like to see?
These questions may seem like a mundane exercise as you make big plans to affect social change, but they are essential to have as a new startup to remind you why you’re in business in the first place. Passion can be misplaced when other issues arise that our bleeding hearts want to address; these answers will help keep your business heading in the right direction and most importantly, viable.
Stick to Your Values
Now that you know who you are as a business, what do you stand for and how will you relay those values to your audience?
Storytelling has been integral to the Brave Soles brand since its inception and can help tell yours too. Christal’s experience with Live Different, her time spent in the garbage dump, and her personal struggles have all added to the Brave Sole brand in different ways, and the brand story keeps evolving as her business continues to grow.
How will you use storytelling to your advantage? You are selling more than products or services; you are inviting people to participate in your brand and affect social change. Using storytelling to communicate your passion and values can help create the continuous transformative sales you want rather than the one-time transactional sales you may receive.
People may love your product, but they will talk more about the experience with your brand rather than what they received in return for their money. Remember that! Love always wins so even when it’s hard to be kind, remember your mission is worth it.