Caleigh Hernandez is a 2014 Clinton Global Initiative University alum and the CEO of Best Foot Forward, a social business dedicated to empowering female African artisans working in the shoe industry.
When Northwestern University alum Caleigh Hernandez studied abroad in Budondo, Uganda the summer before her junior year, she had no idea that her research would become her business.
While there, Caleigh engaged the artisan community of Uganda’s craft markets in conversations about their business needs - everything from skills training to support services for working mothers. Captivated by their stories and the immense opportunity presented by a global marketplace, Caleigh pledged to return to Uganda the following summer to assess the needs of small-scale entrepreneurs and plant the seeds of a social enterprise that addressed them. The result was Best Foot Forward, a socially conscious shoe company that exports beaded leather sandals to the U.S. market.
“BFF shoes is establishing a mainstream market for local products and creating economic opportunities in areas with high unemployment rates,” she said.
To launch her business while still in school, Caleigh worked with the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) to pitch her social enterprise to the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) program, an ideas-to-action initiative of the Clinton Foundation for university students. ISEN became Northwestern's liaison to CGI U in 2014 and through its membership, joins universities around the world committed to making a measurable difference in five focus areas: education, the environment and climate change, peace and human rights, poverty alleviation, and public health.
Caleigh was accepted to the program and invited to pitch at the 2015 CGI U meeting at the University of Miami. There, she presented to judges from the Resolution Social Venture Challenge (RSVC), a multistep competition that inspires undergraduate students to propose projects that address pressing social issues around the world. Caleigh was named one of 15 finalists in the RSVC and was awarded $4,000 and access to a network of mentors to grow her business.
Upon graduating from Northwestern in 2015, Caleigh returned to the region to develop and implement a business model that supports its artisans through establishing services such as day care and health insurance, and invests in community development and environmental initiatives in Malindi, Kenya. Kenya is the home base and workshop location of many artisans who travel to the craft markets in Uganda.
“It’s not about handouts, it’s about paying people fair wages for fair work and providing them with the support they need to be successful,” Caleigh says.
Fast forward to 2016 and Best Foot Forward supports 36 female and 6 male entrepreneurs, as well as one key supplier. In the last seven months, it has sold 275 pairs of sandals and earned $15,000. With an eye toward the future, the team is spending the summer researching cooperative and fair trade giving models, and raising money to purchase the workshop where the entrepreneurs work. The goal is to transform the workshop into the first fair trade footwear workshop in the region.
The Best Foot Forward team includes three other employees: Lindsay McTravish, director of operations, who has a degree in Small Business Management from Humboldt State University; Allison Fox, creative director, who has a degree in Apparel Manufacturing Management from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles; and Liam White (WCAS ’18), social media director and current Northwestern student.
For more information on Best Foot Forward, visit www.BFFshoes.com For more information on ISEN’s student engagement programs, such as the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) program, contact Monika Wnuk, assistant director of marketing and communications, ISEN.