Laura Viveros could not wait to change into more comfortable shoes.
She had been walking the cobblestone streets of Curiti, Colombia, exploring the small town in the northeastern countryside, for what seemed like forever.
It was the first time the Brickell resident, who was born in Bogotá and moved to Miami 13 years ago, traveled to her homeland on vacation. And she was “loving every minute of it,” until her feet started to hurt.
“It was such a beautiful day! The town was so charming and the people so friendly but once my feet started bothering me I couldn’t enjoy anything else,” said Viveros, 32, co-founder of Soles for Change, an artisanal shoe retailer that gives back a portion of proceeds to benefit the women (mostly single mothers) and seniors, who make them.
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“I spotted a small souvenir shop and went inside in hopes of finding some flip-flops or some other flats I could change into and that’s when I found these shoes ... these beautiful, colorful, comfortable handmade espadrilles.”
The shop owner told Viveros that the shoes, which are put together from fique, a natural fiber that grows in the leaves of the fique plant native to Andean regions of Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, were made by a local collective of artisans. He explained that most of the women belonging to it are single mothers, while most of the men are seniors.
She bought them, of course, and spread the word to her eight cousins, all girls, who were on the trip with her and whose feet were also “killing them.”
“It was funny because my cousins went in the store and we were all just there, talking, laughing and trying on all the shoes,” said Viveros, who works as an investment counselor at an HSBC Bank in downtown Miami.
When the group, which had arrived at the town on a bus, was on their way to their next destination, Viveros, her husband, Juan Carlos Rodriquez, and her brother Juan Camilo, who lives in Colombia with his wife, brainstormed ideas on how to help the artisan shoemakers.
In less than a few minutes, the three drafted the concept for Soles for Change.
“We had been wanting to do something like this, to be part of a sustainable initiative that would allow us to help others, for a very long time,” said Rodriguez, 37, a mechanical engineer who was also born in Bogotá, and works as a project manager for a transportation-technology company based in Miami.
When their vacation ended, Viveros and her brother contacted the souvenir shop owner to get more information about the artisan shoemakers.
Soon after, they were in talks with the artisans of Ecofibras, the 84-person collective responsible for hand-making the shoes that had saved Viveros’ feet just a few weeks earlier.
“Everything fell into place so fast. ... We had the idea, thought of the name, made the company, talked to the artisans. ... We got the ball rolling in every department, and things just started happening,” said Viveros, who has been in business since February.
According to Rodriguez, the way the company operates is this: Soles for Change buys the shoes in bulk from the artisans, working as Ecofibras, who then sew the brand’s label onto the shoes, assign a runner to travel 2½ hours to the nearest city and mail the product to Bogotá. (There are no international shipping companies in Curiti).
Once in Bogotá, Viveros’ brother receives the package, inspects the shoes for quality control, inputs them in the inventory and mails them to Miami. In Miami, Viveros and Rodriguez sell the shoes online, at farmers’ markets, craft fairs and trade shows like the Brickell Fashion Market and at Wynwood’s Art Walk. After deducting expenses, all profits are vested back to Ecofibras.
“But we didn’t want to just give them the money. We already buy the shoes and cover any business-related expenses, so we didn’t want to just say ‘OK, here’s some more money.’ What we wanted to do was use profits towards improving their working conditions and quality of life,” Viveros said.
For example, most of Ecofibras’ shoemakers have never left Curiti. Like their families before them, they were born in the small town and have worked there all their lives, many without ever stepping foot outside of it.
“What we did is that we asked them what they wanted to do with the first sum of money from the profits and asked them to take a silent vote on a Post-it note,” Rodriguez said. “When we opened them up, almost all of the Post-its said the same thing — they wanted to go on vacation.”
Ecofibras’ artisans recently bathed in thermal hot spring waters in Paipa, Colombia, about 136 miles from home. Soles for Change paid for the entire trip.
“The idea is to do something like this twice a year,” Rodriguez said. “It doesn’t always have to be a vacation; we want to improve their working conditions, maybe buy new equipment ... things like that.”
The Ecofibras collective is made up of 53 women and 31 men who range in age from 31 to 75.
Deisy Liliana Mejia, 31, who is Ecofibras’ youngest artisan shoemaker, says working with Soles for Change has already changed her life.
“This is a very rare opportunity for us,” said Mejia, a single mother to an 11-year-old daughter.
“Most people visit our town and take souvenirs home with them, but Laura and Juan Carlos are the only ones who have given back to us. They’ve opened a window to the world for us, they’re giving us an international scope and it’s very gratifying.”
Mejia, who has been working with fique since she was 14, takes pride knowing a shoe she made is worn by women in faraway places like Miami Beach, Madrid or Melbourne.
“It’s so exciting to know that something that is in our blood, that was passed down from generation to generation, is now part of a larger dream that’s already coming true,” she said.
As is tradition, Mejia’s mother taught her the craft early on. But she’s been working with the collective perfecting her technique for more than a decade.
“Our work is our cultural legacy and we’re excited to share it with Soles for Change and with all their customers.”
However, Viveros and Rodriguez warn: Don’t buy the shoes if you don’t like them.
“We don’t want people to buy a pair of shoes from us solely because they see it as a charity. Buy them because you like them, you think they’re comfortable, you’re in love with the colorful design and so on,” Rodriquez said.
“By the way, it’s been said that fique can help improve circulation, minimize foot swelling and reduce tiredness so that’s another good reason to wear them.”
The couple adds that the only negative feedback they’ve received from consumers is that the shoes, which sell for $35 to $38 a pair, are too expensive and that they can find a similar product somewhere else for a cheaper price. However, they say it comes with the territory of mixing business with aspects of social good.
On the other hand, on social media, Soles for Change customers have been quick to express their opinions about the brand.
“Going exploring ... in my favorite summer shoes. Love that every pair goes towards the improvement of lives for single women in Colombia,” posted user Farrah Sabado, @farrahsabado on Instagram. Another Instagram post by user Kelsey Goldberg @24kgold read: “They’re here!! My @solesforchange shoes! not only does this company empower and provide jobs for single mothers in Colombia-BUT the shoes are so cute and environmentally friendly!”
Moving forward, Viveros and Rodriguez would like to work with local boutiques in South Florida and explore other wholesale opportunities. The big picture includes expanding their reach to include other artisan communities.
“We’re not limiting ourselves to just Colombia either, we’d like to help people in other countries too,” Viveros said.