Robin Sayers: Everyday Hope

Robin Sayers is a mom of three boys – enough said, right? – and an entrepreneur with Trades of Hope fair-trade fashion company. The sun streamed through the windows of Coffee Please in Madeira last Saturday as we talked about empowering women all around the world, leaving your comfort zone on a daily basis, and of course, gorgeous accessories.

Interview by Kiersten Wones. Photography by Alex Larrison.

Tell us about yourself and your business.

I work for a company called Trades of Hope. I’m a compassionate entrepreneur. I’ve been working for them since October of 2015, and our mission is to empower women out of poverty, trafficking, and abuse through fashion. We have 28 different artisan partners in 16 different countries, and they’re the ones who create all of the jewelry.

We were founded in 2010 by two mother-and-daughter pairs. One, Gretchen, had a background in humanitarian efforts. She had actually started an orphanage in Haiti called Three Angels Orphanage, and she’d seen so many kids there that had at least one living parent. It wasn’t that the parents didn’t want to keep them; they would actually give them to the orphanages just so they could eat because they didn’t have any way to provide for their children. And so she said, “Okay, this orphan model’s not working. What can we do to fix this?”

She had a really good friend that had a background in business, and together they brainstormed a party/trunk-show business where they would hire compassionate entrepreneurs like myself to go into people’s homes or business places to share the stories and really get the products into more places. They use the direct sales model to help empower women.

We really consider ourselves storytellers, as well, so we’ll tell the stories of the women that have made the products in a dignified way, because we always want to keep them at the center of what we do. A lot of times, charities and donations don’t bring dignity to the people that they’re helping. It’s kind of, “we’re rushing in to be the heroes of your story,” but it’s not empowering them to be the heroes of their own stories.

I’ll get the question, “Why aren’t you a nonprofit?” Our partners are actually really excited to know that they’re helping women in America earn in income, too, so it’s a dignified partnership. It’s not just a handout. Charity’s not sustainable. You need more and more and more, and it doesn’t change the legacy of generational poverty. But if you empower women to have a living wage, they’re able to send their children to school, they’re able to be first-generation homeowners, and then they’ll usually put money back into their own communities, as well.

I read a book in college – Banker to the Poor by Muhammad Yunus – and I remember him saying how he would only lend to women because they would pour back into the community.

Women are the most vulnerable in other cultures. They’re most likely to be abandoned, to not have any education. They’re raising their children by themselves so the first people that they’ll affect are their children. The UN Women’s statistics say that for every woman you empower out of poverty, she’ll bring three to four women with her. You can imagine what type of difference that can make.

How did you come to work with Trades of Hope?

I taught kindergarten for five years before staying home. I actually worked for a little bit when I had my first son, and then he ended up having lots of medical issues, so I had to quit my job to be able to take him to physical therapy, occupational therapy, all kinds of specialists. So I was looking for a job, something I could do at home and still care for my sons.

I said several times, “Never direct sales. I’ll never do that.” And then I was invited to a trunk show and just fell in love with the stories and the women and the products.

Was it scary at first?

It’s way out of my comfort zone. I’m an introvert. Meeting new people does not energize me at all. But having the stories of the women in the back of my mind, knowing that I’m empowering them…they don’t have a choice. They get up and they’re brave every day. They step out of their comfort zone and work hard for their kids and fight for their dignity, and that’s what keeps me motivated. If they can do it, I can do it.

I think also knowing the story of the women in Haiti who weren’t able to keep their children … it just breaks my heart, knowing that there are moms out there that want to keep their kids, they want to raise them, they love them so much that they’re willing to give them up so they can have food. That crushes me as a mom. So that’s been one of my driving forces in this business.

So, how do you manage keeping your family life and your business in the same house without going crazy?

You have to be super intentional. I have office hours for myself now, which has made a huge difference. Before, when I was with my kids I was worried about my business, and when I was doing my business I was worried about my kids, so it was like I was never super focused.

How do you think your business has impacted your kids?

I have three boys: they’re 5, 7, and 9. My youngest son is very vocal about telling people what all the things are made out of. We’ve had lots of good conversations about the best way to help people and how to just love people where they’re at and treat them with dignity. It’s not always someone’s fault they’re in a certain position; the people that we partner with, they’re just like me and you, they just for whatever reason are in a place where they don’t have options or opportunity. I’m trying to instill that in my kids, take away the feeling of entitlement. It’s not always foolproof – they’re still kids – but I think they get it in spurts, you know.

And I love that I’m teaching them to respect women, too. I feel like in our society…it’s just a hard dichotomy to talk to your sons about, so I feel like portraying these women’s issues to them in a way that’s positive…my hope is that it’s teaching them to respect women that way, too.

What’s been the biggest challenge for you personally?

Every day I wake up and I’m like, “This is hard. I’m not in love with sales.” It’s not anything I ever thought or imagined that I would do, but then I’m reminded of the stories and so I’m able to push through. I have yet to meet a person that’s a compassionate entrepreneur that said like, “Yes, I’m a salesperson.”

It’s been empowering for me, personally, to get out of my comfort zone, to have that as my motivation, ‘cause otherwise I don’t know that I would have pushed myself. Having the mission in the back of my mind is constantly motivating me to say, “I can do this. It’s not a big deal. I can talk to people about jewelry.”

Our company’s really good about giving incentives, too. If you hit a certain level of sales, they donate something in your honor. One month was 12 chicks to a family in Africa, so they partner with humanitarian organizations that train the families to take care of the chickens and then they can use the eggs for nutrition, but also to trade and sell. Another was feeding an orphan in Haiti for a month. Another was sending a water wheel to a woman in India…it’s crazy. It saves them 30 to 35 hours per week. It’s a full-time job, just getting water, and that’s the kind of stuff that I know I take for granted.

Tell us about some of the women behind the jewelry.

Last January, I got to meet Faby and Fabienne from Haiti. Both of them are first-generation homeowners. Faby was begging for her whole family. Her father had passed away, and she was trying to take care of her mom and five or six of her siblings. She got connected to Haiti Design Company and was trained on making [the jewelry].

How does the local culture influence the designs?

This scarf that I’m wearing now is from Bangladesh and these are some of their tribal signs. It’s the color that’s on-trend here in the spring, but it’s also their tribal design.

This clutch is made in Guatemala; they’re all unique. They have all different colors because they’re made out of recycled Huipil blouses.

This is from Haiti [right], and this is actually Haitian clay that they take from the earth and paint. Clay beads are a traditional fashion piece that is popular in Haiti.

This is from Costa Rica [left], and it’s actually seeds that they string together. We actually have a group that we partner with in Jordan, and they’ll go on the Red Sea and walk the shores. This is sea glass [middle] from the Red Sea, so no two are alike.

What’s next for Trades of Hope?

Our mission right now is to find more people that want to do what I’m doing. We have two groups that we’re trying to add: one is in Pakistan, and they’re a group of women bond slaves that are making 7 cents per day. Because they are Christians, they’re discriminated against and forced to live in the slums, and what they’re making is not even enough to afford living in the slums.

But in order for everyone to stay sustainable, whenever we add a new artisan group, we have to add more compassionate entrepreneurs. It’s kind of a 1-to-1 ratio, so in this group there are 500 Pakistani women that we want to hire, so we’re working to hire that many more compassionate entrepreneurs.

There’s also a group in Asia; they’re all women who have been rescued out of exploitation, and we’re also trying to partner with that group. That’s kind of our push. We don’t want to go wide for the sake of being wide; we want to be sustainable, because when we just bring on new groups and not new compassionate entrepreneurs, then the other groups that we previously hired are suffering.

Tell us about an influential woman in your life.

One of the most influential women to me is my mom. She is just that person that’s always the first in line to offer compassion and to offer kindness and to help anyone that’s in need. She’s very generous with her time. I feel like as a society that’s something that we just are not good at. We’re busy all the time, and we’re not good about being generous with our time. She’s always willing to listen to someone and just be there for people, and I feel like that is something that I can struggle with, especially as an introverted person. Like, okay, these are your problems, I’ll listen, but the time part is a little bit draining for me. So I’m using her as a model and being able to say, “Okay, it’s not about me.” I can love people on a different level because of how she’s taught me to do that.