Paula Minnis: Photo by Jennifer Shertzer

Paula Minnis: Photo by Jennifer Shertzer

Preston Hollow resident Paula Minnis left her high-stress job in the fashion industry in hopes of discovering a new, more meaningful passion. She ended up right back in the same field but with a vastly different goal. After volunteering as a mentor for local refugees struggling to settle in Vickery Meadow, she launched Gaia Empowered Women. She employs seven refugee women and pays them a living wage — about $15 an hour — to sew bags, coin purses, jewelry and home accessories from vintage, recycled fabric. She sells the products online and in neighborhood shops and plans on growing the business to employ even more women in search of a better life.

How did Gaia Empowered Women come about?  

My career had been pretty demanding. I needed to step down, take a break, kind of regroup. I started doing things that I hadn’t really had the opportunity to do before. I started taking classes. I took piano lessons and art classes and jewelry-making classes and dance. I did all sorts of fun stuff. I was reading voraciously. This was 2008, and I was learning a lot about micro-financing and also reading a lot about the empowerment of women. And then I volunteered.

At first, I found myself placed on event-planning or fundraising committees, but I wasn’t really feeling the connection with the cause I was volunteering for until I discovered the International Rescue Committee. I learned about this opportunity to become a mentor for a refugee family. They paired me up with a Burmese woman, Catherin, who had just arrived with her two children. She had spent over a decade in a refugee camp in Thailand. We started with the basics — everything from how to use her oven to how to store food, how to use an ATM, how to mail a letter. It’s overwhelming, all the new challenges that the refugee population faces when they come here, and just how vast the refugee population is in the Dallas area. It’s one of those best-kept secrets that shouldn’t be kept a secret.

Catherin and I were going over vocabulary words, and one of the words was ‘sew.’ I drew a picture of a spool of thread to try and represent what sew meant, and she got up and said, ‘Oh, you mean this.’ And she had a spool of thread in her apartment. So, I had this light-bulb moment where I thought, OK if she sews, then there’s some way I can give her an opportunity to earn an income.

How did the refugee women react to the opportunity?

I started with Catherin. She was thrilled. A lot of time in refugee camps was spent doing things with their hands, so I think there’s a therapeutic quality to that type of work. And she was relieved to be able to earn a living and be at home with their children. She was working as a hotel housekeeper for minimum wage, and she was having to pay for childcare while she was gone, plus money for transportation. She would come back exhausted. I couldn’t even imagine how she’d be able to acclimate to her new community if she was already starting this endless, exhausting life.

How did you all handle the news of the Ebola crisis at their apartment complex? Were you concerned?

Yeah, I was, and I spoke to Catherin about it. She lives in the Ivy Apartments, and so do three Congolese women I employ. She practiced a good level of precaution and told her children to stay indoors, because they’re outside playing all the time. She’s very matter-of-fact about it. She has witnessed a range of atrocities. She came here alone with her two children. Four months later her husband arrived, only to die two months later from liver disease. Then she was on her own again. It’s very tragic. I don’t think anything really fazes them. This is life. People get sick.

How do you plan on growing the business?

The goal is to expand to a more national distribution, so we can then employ more women. Then also, just for the existing refugee women we have, elevate their experience through skills training, financial literacy courses, to help them grow within their careers with Gaia. The products come at a higher price point than those made in factories in India. I haven’t made a penny doing this. This isn’t the economical way to do business, but it’s the most ethical. Right now, the general public is becoming more discerning about where their dollars are spent.

What’s the most important thing you learned during your time away from the fashion world?

Especially after working in the fashion industry for so long, I realized that I wanted to do something more meaningful. I was pretty jaded. I had a lot of clients in major brands on both coasts, and there’s a tendency to lose perspective on what you’re there for. I think, we’re selling dresses; we’re not curing cancer. The stress levels, I think, are just out of alignment with what the goals of the business are. That being said, I love fashion. It’s fun. It can be a form of art. I just wanted to find a way to blend that and add a level of giving back to it.

Browse the Gaia Empowered Women online shop or find a list of neighborhood boutiques that carry the products at gaiaforwomen.com.


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