There is always a tipping point, a turning point in one’s life where a decision is made that completely alters your path and thrusts you forward into a new reality, your future. You may have already made this decision, or it may be just around the corner, but for me, the most pivotal decision of my life occurred almost two years ago.
It was one that many of my closest family members and dearest friends could not understand, and honestly I wasn’t even sure I understood: I abandoned a six-figure salary to become a social entrepreneur.
For six years post-college, I worked as a buyer with the TJX Companies, the parent company to TJ Maxx and Marshalls. I was on the fast-track to success: I had been promoted quickly, I was working for the most desired department at the company, and was on the path to management. My career as a buyer afforded me the opportunity of living and working in amazing cities and I was frequenting trips to Europe. On top of the all-expenses-paid travel, I was making a six-figure income, and my car and rent were paid for as a part of my relocation deal to Los Angeles. As a 20-something, life was pretty breezy.
I yearned for something more impactful …
Though I was growing and learning, an unsettling thought lingered in the back of my mind. I was working for a huge corporation producing massive amounts of inventory abroad. There was very little knowledge on where the products I was buying were actually coming from. I yearned for something more impactful, but loved product and retail so much that I could not see myself ever fully leaving the industry.
Growing up in a diverse household (my mother from the US, my father from Iran), I was exposed to cultural differences from birth. I started to travel at a young age because my father’s family still lived in Iran. Because of this early exposure to worlds that are often unseen, I became passionate about new cultures and people, always choosing a backpack and a local meal as my preferred style of traveling over a luxury experience. I wanted to meet the people! I wanted to learn their stories!
After graduation from college, I packed a bag and headed to South America for two months with my sister. Throughout the trip, I met countless women with unparalleled skills whom were hardworking, smart, and talented. In every country I asked myself, “What makes them so different from me?” And the answer was always the same: Lack of opportunity. A conversation I had with a woman I met in the tourist destination Cusco, Peru has always stuck with me. She was hand knitting some of the finest alpaca goods I had ever seen, sitting on the sidewalk of a busy street selling her products. She explained to me the hardships of the non-tourist. Her family often did not have enough money saved from the on-season to make it through the year, and even worse, a slow tourist season would see her funds completely diminish. It just didn’t add up – people in the US were looking for well-crafted, unique items, and this craftswoman from Cusco was looking for a business that wasn’t heavily reliant on the unpredictable tourism industry.
At the time of this trip there was not much I could act on, but those experiences and conversations never left me. Fast-forward six years through my work experience, and I was now equipped with the tools I needed. Finally, I felt that I had gained the experience I needed to move on and create a company that blended my retail skills with my passion for culture and impact.
Just over a year ago, I headed to Guatemala on a trip with a friend, knowing that there was a large textile market there. After forging relationships with artisans, I brought product back with me to see how customers in Los Angeles would react. After just a few weeks, I was sold out of everything. From there, Local + Lejos was born. The mission of the company is truly two-fold, to provide sustainable employment to our women, while also making it accessible for consumers to support us. The biggest concern I had heard from women was their lack of ability to sell during the off-season. By giving these women access to work year round, they are able to save money to invest in their family.
The mission of the company is truly two-fold, to provide sustainable employment to our women, while also making it accessible for consumers to support us.
At the end of the day, it is most important for us to listen to what our women need and offer that support for them. For example, our artisans in Rwanda were starting to experience some problems with eyesight and dexterity as they got older, so we are working with our non-profit partner to put together a self-care training workshop to teach the women how they can better care for themselves. While the wages are wildly important for these women, offering help and advice in other ways — that they would never be able to afford on their own — is equally impactful.
The past year has been hard, it has been filled with obstacles that I never knew existed. But, it has never really felt like work. In sharing my story, I hope to encourage the person who is unsure about where they’re headed. If you take your experience and combine it with your passions, you will find yourself surrounded by people that are as equally invested in causes close to your heart. As a result, colleagues quickly become friends. Of course, with the good comes the bad, but if you are spending the majority of your time doing what you love, you’ll find the strength to take care of the rest.
Images via Hazel & Pine