Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Paula Minnis was a retail consultant who wanted to make a difference in the world. In 2009, after volunteering with the International Rescue Committee, she created GAIA, an organization that employed refugee artisans and paid them a living wage. Minnis employed 10 refugee women from Syria, Iraq, Burma, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to create hand-crafted pouches, jewelry, napkins, pillowcases and more. GAIA means “goddess of the earth” in Greek. She says she chose the name to honor all women, from those who create the products to those who buy them. After starting the operation in her home, she opened a studio and retail space. She also sold the collection online and in stores. Actress Kristen Bell shopped with GAIA last summer. Minnis’s next venture is to employ refugees in a local sewing co-op, which will serve as an artisan production resource for small businesses in the Dallas area. Minnis lives off of Northaven near Preston Road. Her home is just a few minutes away from the Alcuin School, where her 7-year-old twins, Gabriella and Charlie, attend.  She also has two step-children – Genevieve, a rising junior at The Episcopal School of Dallas, and Will, a 2019 ESD graduate.

Tell me about your job as a retail consultant.
I was traveling a lot. I was an executive overseeing about 200 people across the country. I was burned out and jaded. I thought, “We’re selling dresses here, not curing cancer. What’s my purpose?” I took that opportunity to do things I really hadn’t made the time to do before — art and piano lessons, time with my step-children. I discovered the International Rescue Committee. I was matched with a woman named Catherin, who had just arrived with her two young children from a refugee camp in Thailand. She’s a Burmese refugee. 

How did that influence you?

As a mentor, I was to help with English, help find the bus stop and help acclimate. But Catherin didn’t really speak English or know how to operate a stove, how to use an ATM or elevator. Her grace, resilience and strength inspired and galvanized me. We were doing vocabulary words one day and the word was “sew.” She recognized it, stepped away and grabbed a spool of thread and was like, “Oh, you mean this?” I had a light bulb moment. I said, “Wait, you know how to sew?” And she said that she did. We started with cloth napkins. I thought, “I need to come up with a name.” I googled goddess names. Gaia is goddess of the earth, mother earth, which just seemed apt.

What was GAIA’s mission?
GAIA’s mission was to employ refugee artisans and pay them a living wage. A living wage is twice the minimum wage. It’s about $15 an hour. We existed to employ refugee women, help them rebuild their lives and restore their dignity through meaningful living wage employment. We added jewelry and as we also welcomed additional refugee women, we backed into their skillsets. If some refugee women didn’t take to sewing, we did jewelry — beaded bracelets and necklaces. Then we started doing earrings that are hand-embroidered. 

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

How did the women do?

We had tangible successes. The women went from shell-shocked and stoic to joyful and confident as they got a driver’s license, purchased cars and bought homes. Two have become naturalized citizens. A few more are studying to do the citizenship test. Those are successes that we celebrate.

Whatever happened to Catherin?
She’s still making the pouches, and she has since purchased a home and become a U.S. citizen. She remarried after her husband passed away and had two more children. She works exclusively from home and full time for us. 

What are some of the most memorable moments for you?

Catherin hosted us for Christmas Eve lunch. I brought my step-kids before I had my twins. We were eating lunch on the floor on a mat. I looked down onto the little patio of her apartment and saw a rooster. I said, “What’s that rooster doing out there?” And she said, “We found two at the village over.” I think she meant apartment complex. I asked, “Where’s the second one?” She said, “You’re eating it.”

Where did the refugees live?
When they initially arrive, almost all refugees are resettled in the Vickery Meadow area. But then as they can afford nicer apartments, they typically move to the Richardson area. Four have purchased homes, three of which are in Garland.

What was work-life like?

Every Thursday we made a point of all eating together. I was usually running around town all the time, just crazy chasing kids and stuff, and then a lot of times we were eating at our desks. But on Thursdays we were intentional about gathering, enjoying fellowship and sitting down together and breaking bread. We alternated between GAIA paying for it, or we each brought our own lunch or we did potluck. The women brought things that they cooked from their countries. We had Iraqi, Syrian and Burmese dishes. I tried it all.

“Being able to be exposed to other cultures in our city, right in our backyard, is really an opportunity that I’ve benefited from…”

What inspires you?

I’ve always had a lot of curiosity about other cultures and people in general. Being able to be exposed to other cultures in our city, right in our backyard, is really an opportunity that I’ve benefited from, and my kids have too. I treasure the opportunity to work alongside refugees. It helps keep perspective for me. That was initially why I started volunteering as a mentor. It’s easy to become swept up in the “Starbucks got my latte wrong and my pillows aren’t soft enough” way of life.

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