A Mission We Love: GAIA Empowered Refugee Women

With a mission of helping refugee women in Dallas rebuild their lives in their new home, GAIA is a company we are proud to feature today. The company, founded by Paula Minnis, helps lead these women to financial independence by creating handmade items using vintage, artisan and sustainable materials. Find out the beautiful backstory of this incredible company, and be sure to check out all of the amazing creations available to purchase. Get ready to be inspired!

Tell us about GAIA and how it came to be.

I began volunteering with the International Rescue Committee as a mentor to a Burmese refugee woman, Catherin, and her two young children in May of 2009, and her story really moved me. Before her arrival to the U.S., Catherin had spent over a decade in a Thai refugee camp after fleeing oppression and conflict in Burma. She was so grateful to be resettled in the U.S., but then had an entirely new set of challenges before her: not just learning a new language, but also how to use a microwave, an elevator and an ATM machine, not to mention navigating our tax and healthcare system! I was so humbled by the grace and resilience I witnessed throughout my time with her. Her spirit just blew me away, and I felt called to do more. By September, the seed for GAIA had been planted.

One day, we were studying vocabulary words, and after explaining the word “sew,” I learned that Catherin had some basic sewing skills, which led to a true aha moment. I had been reading a book called Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, about how unlocking a woman’s potential is crucial to the prosperity of a community as a whole. It explains how giving women an opportunity to become self-reliant through earning a living wage helps to cultivate a brighter future for not only themselves, but for their children, their children’s children and so on. So I set out to design a small collection of cloth napkins using my collection of vintage textiles, paying Catherin a living wage to sew them from home so she could care for her children. I previously had a career in the fashion industry, so I utilized some of that background to create the line and bring it to market. Then in late 2009, GAIA, for Goddess of the Earth, was born, with the ultimate mission of helping refugee women rebuild their lives in their new home.

What were some of the biggest obstacles you faced during the startup process?

I would say the biggest obstacle was the fact that there really wasn’t a blueprint for the business I was trying to create with GAIA, which was a blessing as well! It has given my team and me the freedom to follow our instincts and at times to lead with our hearts while also wearing our “business hats.” We often wish we could spend all of our time on the warm and fuzzy stuff, but we also have to “peddle our wares.” When you have a social enterprise, you walk a delicate balance between running a profitable, sustainable business, while honoring the core altruistic mission of the brand. GAIA exists to employ refugee women, but in order to do so, we have to design, produce and market beautiful product that also stands on its own merit. Maintaining that balance is an ongoing challenge!

We love the mission behind the brand. How do you find the artisans you work with?

When we have capacity to welcome additional refugee women to our family, we partner with the team at our local Dallas IRC office, who function somewhat as our “HR department.” They resettle most of the women we employ and can help provide us with candidates who are the best fit. It’s always so tough because we want to hire them all!

Tell us about some of the products you can find at GAIA. 

Zipper pouches, clutches, cross-body bags, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, pillows and items for babies and kids. Plus, we just launched our very first apparel item this past spring: the Reya Top!

Your new studio space is so lovely! What were the goals you had for the space during the design process?

Thank you! I always wanted GAIA headquarters to feel like a home, so when the opportunity arose to move into an actual house (and one with a history—it was a carriage house built in the early 20th century), I knew it was meant to be. The main shopping area is actually a living room with a comfy sitting area, and a cabinet full of toys for all the kids (of our customers AND artisans) who come visit.  

How do you envision the space being utilized to connect your refugee artisans with the local community?

I have so many exciting plans for the space, many of which have originated from other people in the community reaching out with their ideas! We’ve already begun hosting events for various groups, often incorporating craft workshops led by the GAIA artisans. Customers have also inquired about hosting birthday parties in the space, so we plan to offer that for both kids and adults. Most of our artisans are amazing cooks, so we’ll definitely be utilizing the kitchen for hosting meals, giving the community the opportunity to break bread alongside their refugee neighbors. I would really love for the GAIA House to become a sort of ‘community hub,’ where Dallas residents and visitors can have a meaningful, multi-cultural experience that they aren’t likely to find elsewhere!

What does a typical day look like at GAIA?

Like most small businesses, our days are pretty chaotic. Everything involved in running the business occurs at our headquarters—from design and production, to sales and order fulfillment. We have two to four artisans working in our studio, then several who are popping in throughout the week to bring in finished work and pick up more materials, usually with a few kiddos in tow.  

And now there’s even more activity since we’ve opened the store! It’s been so fun visiting with guests who come by, and I love that the actual women who make the product being sold are upstairs for people to meet!  

The store has been full of good vibes and we’ve felt such an amazing sense of community. One woman popped by to donate some fabric trim, and now is going to utilize her sewing skills to help us fine tune a new shirt we’re developing!

Another woman came by, a local artist, and one conversation led to another, she’s now going to design some custom prints for us, then soon teach art classes we plan to host in the store for both kiddos and adults!  

Is there anything in particular you’ve been the most proud of since launching GAIA?

The biggest indicator that we’re doing something right and that we’re affecting change in a positive way is by the smiles of the refugee artisans we employ. When they arrive here, they’re pretty shell-shocked and they’re a little bit stoic, and to see the transformation that happens is incredible. Over time, they become joyful. The tangible successes that they’ve achieved with their earnings at GAIA are also inspiring. They’ve bought homes and cars. They’ve been able to take vacations with their families. They’ve become U.S. citizens. These are the kinds of things that are really gratifying to witness.

What is your dream vision for GAIA and its artisans?

My hope is to continue to help refugee women not just survive, but thrive in their new home. I’ve never dreamed of GAIA becoming a huge mega-brand; we’re just trying to make a meaningful impact in a few women’s lives, while creating some cute things we all love to wear along the way! And through that, we can hopefully use our platform to help spread awareness about refugees, and the immense value they bring to our country.

How can our Glitter Guide audience support GAIA and its mission?

You can support GAIA by purchasing the beautiful handiwork of our artisans at www.gaiaforwomen.com, or at any of our wonderful stockists.

You can join us in helping refugees in the U.S. through any of the following ways:

  1. Get to know refugees in your community. Help them to integrate, and to really feel at home in their new home!  
  2. Volunteer and/or donate to refugee resettlement agencies in your area, such as the IRC.
  3. Urge your elected officials to support refugee resettlement programs.
  4. Start conversations with others, helping to clarify misconceptions and dispel fears about refugees in the U.S.

Connect with Paula and GAIA on Instagram.

Read Next:
Mozambican Artist Mafalda Vasconcelos On The Exploration of Identity Through Art

We love inspirational women doing great things. Be sure to check out these posts if you do too: How This Couple Launched Their Business With A Mission To Inspire Women and Start Your Own Thing: 5 Fears To Squash.

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Author: Samantha Welker

Samantha Welker is the business manager at Glitter Guide. She has an Master's in Corporate Finance & Sustainability from Harvard Business School but prefers working in the creative industry. She also hosts a weekly business podcast for creative women called Pretty Okay Podcast. She loves spending time with her husband and her son, Rocky, in sunny San Diego. Follow along on Instagram