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Towson entrepreneur wants to build opportunity one pair of shoes at a time

Cute shoes, ethically made, from Guatamala via Towson

A trip years ago to visit a friend and aid worker in a Guatemala City slum proved life altering for Towson resident Bethany Tran.

In La Limonada, one of Guatemala's poorest and most violent neighborhoods, Tran saw houses stacked one on another, hungry children roaming the streets, gangs that spread fear through the community. But she felt a connection to the people.

"I just fell in love with the community, and came home just destroyed," said Tran, 32. "It's difficult to comprehend until you've seen it."

She eventually became convinced she needed to shift into work that would boost the fortunes of the poor residents she'd met. She teamed up with a cobbler from La Limonada, and created The Root Collective, an online shoe boutique.

Tran hopes the nearly two-year-old enterprise will help expand the businesses of the Guatemalan weavers and shoemakers who make the ballet flats she now sells at a rate of about 200 pairs a month. The shoes, crafted in the shoemaker's workshop using fabric made by a women-owned weaving collective, sell for $79 and $83.

The start-up, which also has been selling a limited selection of handbags, scarves and jewelry made by Central American artisans, is part of the growing "ethical fashion" movement, which aims to promote sustainable practices and reduce poverty and environmental damage in the fashion industry. The business had sales of about $45,000 in its first year and only recently turned a profit, said Tran, founder and designer-in-chief.

"We are walking the vision of changed communities through job opportunities, and walking it in super cute shoes," Tran said in a Root Collective tweet this month introducing its spring collection.

Tran's business launch comes at a time when consumers have become increasingly concerned about the use of environmentally sound practices to grow and make products as well as about the conditions of workers who make those products.

"Consumer buying habits are showing that transparency, ethical labor practices and environmental impact are becoming more important in the purchasing decision," said Shannon Whitehead, a Boston-based sustainable apparel consultant, in an email. "What is now only a niche market of concerned consumers will transcend into the mainstream as brands begin to build stories and authenticity around their products."

Consumer interest in the origins of their clothes soared after the 2013 collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh killed more than 400 workers, which prompted major U.S. retailers to pledge to improve worker safety conditions.

"Where we spend our money really does make a big difference and makes an impact," said Kristin Snyder, owner of Sophie Stargazer Boutique, a Lancaster, Pa., women's clothing store that features eco-friendly and artisan-made products, including Root Collective shoes. "If I have a choice between two comparable products, I would rather buy ... things that I know that are ethically or sustainably made in some way."

She sees it in her customers too.

"People are starting to pay attention to what they're buying," Snyder said. "I have customers that come in and ask, 'Where is this made and how is this made?'"

Tran, who grew up in Bangor, Pa., was working in marketing seven years ago when she heard about Lemonade International, a nonprofit that works on community development in La Limonada. The group started after forming a partnership with a Guatemala City woman who had founded an academy in the slum to help teach and feed children during off-school hours when they are most vulnerable to gang influences.

When a friend who'd helped found Lemonade moved to Guatemala, Tran decided to visit. She began spending vacations there volunteering, offering dance and art therapy, but eventually decided she needed to do something to help them help themselves.

An idea she'd been rolling around in her mind began to take shape.

With a backround in marketing and graphic design, "I did what I know," she said. "I had had this idea for a shoe business like this for a while."

Tran formed a partnership Otto Aceituno, 44, a La Limonada resident and former gang member who'd begun learning shoemaking at age 10. Aceituno, it turned out, dreamed of building a business that trains and employs former gang members from the neighborhood.

The Root Collective went live online in November 2013 after more than a year of work to get the business started.

During trips to Guatemala and weekly Skype sessions, she works with Aceituno, designing shoes and planning new collections. She aims for timeless, not trendy, design that will appeal to U.S. shoppers. The colorful flats, in hues such as mustard, cobalt, magenta and teal, come in 20 styles.

"My philosophy behind design is beautiful design and beautiful colors and people are going to wear them," Tran said. "I wanted stuff I would wear."

Aceituno employs his son and three others full-time at his business, Calzado Limonada. They cut, sew and assemble the shoes in a third-floor workshop at his house, producing about 100 pairs a week.

Tran, who donates 10 percent of her profits to nonprofits in Guatemala, buys all her hand woven fabric from a co-op owned by women, who live in the country's highland villages and use traditional backstrap looms. It takes a weaver two hours to create fabric for the main part of the shoes.

"The Root Collective is responsible for giving work to Calzado Limonada and for providing work for young in risk of falling into any gang or drugs," Aceituno said in an email. "These jobs help provide food and pay a salary for the guys.

He said the partnership has provided more jobs to young men in the community as the business has grown.

Aceituno's dream, Tran said, is to one day have a larger factory and a store.

For now, Root Collective shoes are sold online and in about 14 independent shops, including Snyder's Sophie Stargazer.

Snyder began selling the shoes after hearing about Root Collective through an Instagram post, then meeting with Tran.

The shoes are selling well, viewed as alternative to sneakers and in between casual and dressy, she said.

"People are liking them," Snyder said. "They get them in one color and come back and get another color. I don't have off-season styles I'm stuck with because they're great all year round."

Tran, who works full-time as a web content manager, spends her spare time on the business. She has converted an extra bedroom into a stockroom, stacked with boxes of shoes, where she and an assistant receive and sort shipments, pack wholesale orders and take inventory.

"It has been clear there are women that wanted a cute pair of shoes that were ethically made," she said. "The shoes took off."

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