#ottomademyshoes: Buying Shoes From The Root Collective Supports Guatemalan Artisans

Co-founder Bethany Tran explains the brand's history, how she stays motivated, and how women have the power to better our world.

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Out of Office is a regular feature of brands we love—and we think you will too! Each of the brands we highlight must meet three criteria: 1) have a woman in charge; 2) create sustainably, responsibly, and thoughtfully; and 3) fit in with the lives we’re actually living. Read on to find out more about this week’s brand, the lady behind it all, and the advice she has for women everywhere.

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Of all the origin stories a shoe company could have, a trip to a Guatemalan slum seems an unlikely one. But after Bethany Tran visited a friend working for Lemonade International in Guatemala City, she was moved to make a difference, putting the wheels of The Root Collective in motion. Lemonade International is a non-profit focused on La Limonada, an asentamiento, or slum, of Guatemala City. Like many slums around the world, La Limonada, which is the largest slum in Central America, experiences poverty and gang violence the likes of which most people in the U.S. can’t imagine. Bethany, who had met some of La Limonada’s 60,000 to 100,000 residents, felt a connection to those people—and knew she had to try to help. It was on one of these visits that Bethany met a shoemaker named Otto Aceituno. As is common in places of extreme poverty, gang violence is rife in La Limonada, and many residents are either in gangs or their lives are affected by them. By the time Bethany had met Otto, though, he was out of gang life and working as a cobbler at his own shop, Calzado Limonada. Otto, who learned the art of shoemaking when he was 10, employs former gang members, including his son, in his shop. Bethany and Otto went into partnership together and formed The Root Collective to sell handmade shoes. Bethany creates the designs for the shoes, Guatemalan women weave the textiles by hand, and Otto and his team produce each pair—also by hand. The Root Collective, which launched in November 2013, initially offered a variety of accessories and shoes, but in the years since has narrowed the focus to high-quality shoes hand made by Guatemalan artisans. Now, The Root Collective works with Otto’s shop plus two others—one is a bootmaker who makes all of their boots. The fabric for the shoes is still woven by hand in two weaving cooperatives run by Guatemalan women. Bethany, who lives with her husband in North Carolina, worked full-time at a Fortune 500 company while developing The Root Collective. Now, in addition to her work with The Root Collective, she works at her own company, Broadview, consulting on brand strategy and marketing. She’s got her hands full, which makes her work with her Central American business partners all the more inspiring. (If she can do it, why can’t we?) When you buy shoes from The Root Collective, your money is going to help La Limonada residents like Otto and his team. And while there’s no easy answer to the poverty endemic in asentamientos like La Limonada, purchasing thoughtfully is a really great start.

HealthyWay’s Picks From The Root Collective

Each month, The Root Collective highlights a Pair of the Month they’re particularly feeling. In August, that pair is the Gaby in Scarlet—and it’s 25 percent off the entire month! The Gaby is their current flats focus; we especially love it in Mustard and Embroidered Floral. Boots more your thing? The Lee boot in Noir is made of handwoven cotton and genuine leather, and reviews are effusive to say the least. Their best-selling boot, the Espe, is particularly fresh in Midnight, a luxe brown color made of soft but durable leather. When you buy a pair of shoes from The Root Collective, join the community of Otto fans the world over by posting a picture on Instagram with the hashtag #ottomademyshoes. [products ids=’1075805,1075798,1075806′ type=full] [products ids=’1075809,1075807,1075808′ type=full]

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Q+A With Bethany Tran

What’s your why behind the brand? What inspired you to start your company?

The Root Collective started with a problem. It was a problem that wasn’t being solved, and I couldn’t understand why. A friend of mine moved to Guatemala to be the on-the-ground person for a non-profit she had helped start. They were focused on bringing education and support to a single slum community called La Limonada in Guatemala City. It was amazing work. I went to visit shortly after she moved in 2009. But I realized quickly that only half the problem was being addressed. You could educate a kid, but if there was no job for them after they graduated, nothing will have changed. That cycle of poverty would continue without jobs to allow people to lift themselves up. These kids came from struggling families. If there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that strong families build strong communities. And strong communities build a strong world. That’s the kind of world that I wanted to live in. These families needed jobs. I kept waiting for someone to do something about it, but no one did. I knew nothing about starting a business like this. I had a background in marketing, not international development, or product development, or even business administration. I needed to know about seven million things to do this well, and I knew about five of them. I decided to do it anyway. In 2013, The Root Collective launched. In that time, thousands of women have become part of creating a stronger world with their purchases. Every single pair of shoes fuels those jobs, and every single woman who wears them is changing the world for the better because of it. My “why” has morphed through my time from conception until now. It started completely focused on job creation and has now grown to include empowering women to understand how much power they have to create change in the world simply by how they spend their money. Women control 85 percent of household budgets, which means they control a large portion of the global economy. That’s crazy, right?! What’s so incredible about it is that women are so uniquely positioned to lead the charge to make our world better. Money talks, and how that money is spent, what companies it’s spent with, and what women are demanding as consumers—that’s huge.

Walk us through your typical workday.

Oh goodness, it doesn’t exist! My days can vary from working on future designs, problem solving production issues in Guatemala, doing Facebook Live chats with other women boss babes, packing orders (yes, CEOs get to do the everyday standard work sometimes too!), updating our website, or doing interviews like this. Every single day is different, which is part of what I love about my job. I thrive off change.

What’s up next for your company?

We are currently working on expanding our product offering. We are in the design and sampling phase for Summer 2019 right now, and I’m super excited for what we’re hoping to be able to do.

If you had to pick just one of your products as your favorite, which would it be and why?

This is a trick question, right? If I had to pick JUST one to wear for the rest of my life, it would be the Espe in Slate bootie. This was one of our original boots and is still one of our best sellers. I love the color combination of the luscious chestnut colored leather with the tan and gray handwoven fabric. Plus, they’re so comfortable. They are one of my on-my-feet-all-day, walking-around-the-city shoes.

Five-Minute Mentor

What’s your best advice for our readers?

Be brave. Be curious. Be persistent. The best things in life are hard, but so worth it.

What was your lightbulb moment, where all the hard work felt totally worth it?

When I started seeing other women be inspired by what I was doing. I don’t say that to sound conceited (I realize it does!), but I get so excited seeing women be brave and do the things that get them excited, when they realize that they are capable. I say all the time that if I can do this, so can you. I didn’t have any kind of leg up starting this business. I had zero clue what I was doing, had no connections, no background in fashion or product development. So truly, if I can do this, you are more than capable of doing what it is that makes your heart flutter.

What’s your favorite way to practice self-care?

Reading by some kind of body of water! The beach, the pool, a lake…water relaxes me so much, and I love getting lost in a story. A good massage doesn’t hurt either.

Balance or harmony?

I’ve never heard it put that way, but harmony 100 percent. Balance does feel like a myth most days.

How do you define wellness?

The perfect combination of emotional, physical, and spiritual health. I think if you can manage some semblance of those things, you’ll find joy, even when life is hard. It’s easy to focus on physical well-being, but I’m learning more and more how emotional and spiritual health are key to a fulfilled life.

What book do you think all women need to read?

When Breath Becomes Air. It’s a memoir written by a brilliant neurosurgeon while he was dying from a brain tumor. I realize it sounds super depressing, but it’s a book about really living. In my top three favorite books of all time (even if I did read it on a beach trip and bawled my eyes out sitting in the sand).

Pick your fuel of choice: coffee, tea, or something else?

Okay, this is weird, but coffee, even though I only drink like quarter caff. I backed off caffeine a few years ago, but I still love the habit of drinking my coffee in the morning.

What’s your ideal day off of work?

Beach trip with my husband and a book

What was your first job?

I was a dance teacher for 10 years. I started teaching the summer I turned 16. Kind of crazy for a first job, but I loved it so much and still miss it.

What has been your biggest obstacle in building your company?

Just one? Goodness. Our biggest obstacle is still manufacturing. We are working with small batch makers, most of whom had generational training. Which means they were taught by their parents and grandparents. I love that so much, but it’s posed significant challenges. Since there was no formal training, they tend to do things how they do things, and that’s not always the best way. I had zero background in making shoes (and shoes are by far the most complicated thing you wear). I’ve had to learn as I go so I could help solve problems as they came up in our manufacturing. It’s still a struggle, but we’re all learning every day how to improve.

How do you stay motivated?

Frankly, I want my life to matter. On the days when it feels impossible, I remember that. I want to leave the world a better place than how I found it. Not to get all YOLO, but it’s true. I want to go to my grave knowing that I loved my family well, that I served other people, and that I was able to inspire others to do the same. Is there anything else to life?

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Buy a pair of boots to support Guatemalan artisans at The Root Collective, follow them on Instagram, and don’t forget to hashtag #ottomademyshoes.

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