This is the story of how a low-income, half-Latina, young Santa Barbara woman is taking life by the horns and making a difference. The product of San Marcos High School and a recent graduate of Northwestern University, Caleigh Hernandez is a powerhouse of passion, ideas, and drive who’s already been involved in a tornado of humanitarian and educational experiences, impressing people like Warren Buffett and interning for The Eleos Foundation and U.S. Department of Defense.
In summer of 2013, while in Uganda for eight weeks to work with a rural savings and credit cooperative, Hernandez was intrigued by the handmade beaded sandals she saw and decided to develop a socially impactful shoe business. “We need to give opportunities, not hand-outs,” she explained. “Creating jobs and teaching vocational skills in a part of the world where unemployment rates are very high seems to be the best approach. Give people the opportunity, particularly women and employable aged youth, to earn a stable income, so they can decide what they want to do with their money.”
The result is Best Foot Forward (BFF), an innovative business that hopes to improve life for people in Kenya. Proceeds will go toward establishing a vocational school for Kenyan women and youth. “My calling is the issue of income inequality in Africa,” said Hernandez. “I see this place as having enormous potential but few opportunities to use the potential fully. I see poverty as an absence of opportunities. It’s about helping people help themselves. Opportunities need to be created.”
Promising from a Young Age
I spoke at length with Hernandez earlier this summer, days before she left for a one-year Princeton fellowship in Tanzania, Africa. A product of Santa Barbara schools from 1st through 3rd grade and then high school at San Marcos, Caleigh is not your average student. She gives hope that the world may be in good hands as it hurls through space with seemingly endless obstacles and challenges.
Caleigh was born in 1993 at Cottage Hospital to parents John Hernandez and Lindsay McTavish. Half English and half Latina, Caleigh could have allowed her parents’ divorce and subsequent loss of “just about everything” set her on a problematic and unsuccessful path. It turned out she was born a leader.
“In preschool, they always put her front and center in dance class,” said McTavish. “She was together, had the steps down, and was always a little more mature for her age, and very bright.”
In 5th grade, she was voted most likely to be the president of the United States. When her teacher was hospitalized with a serious illness, Caleigh took over the food drive and proved her leadership and organization skills. When she moved back to Santa Barbara and attended high school at San Marcos, she expanded a bold and fruitful habit of opening doors and taking full advantage of opportunities to learn and grow.
At San Marcos, she joined an extracurricular program called Model United Nations, led by a young, inspirational teacher named Jeremy Vaa, which piqued her curiosity in world issues. She was drawn to human-rights causes, beginning with the horrible situation in Uganda with children being recruited as soldiers by corrupt warlords. “In hindsight, it was my first turn-on to the African continent and I know was the seed that developed my interest in the pressing human interests of this continent,” said Hernandez. “I became a ‘slacktivist’ by joining all the petitions I could find online. Sign your name to save the bees!” She could see the impact of numbers of people getting behind an issue, but she realized this was a passive way to be involved in making change.
Always a high-achieving student, she received a full scholarship to Northwestern University. “Going to Northwestern and really being immersed in education took me to the next level,” explained Hernandez, who double-majored in political science and international studies with a special interest in international development.
Internships That Mattered
Her first summer internship was with The Eleos Foundation in Santa Barbara. “They invest in high-impact, early stage social ventures in Africa and Latin America,” she said. “I learned about social enterprise and how to bring people out of poverty and learned from many great expert guest speakers.”
A major door of opportunity was discovered when Hernandez joined the Northwestern University Community for Human Rights (NUCHR) as a sophomore. NUCHR organizes the largest student-led human-rights conference in the country featuring prominent expert speakers from across the nation.
Though she admitted, “I got stuck driving the van to pick up speakers and spent so much time transporting guests I missed out on lots of the events,” Hernandez was able to strike up conversations with many of the guest speakers during her chauffer duties. She even befriended one: Michael Miklaucic, professor and employee of USAID and the Department of Defense. Their friendship kindled into an internship at the Department of Defense in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2014.
Although her “access level” was very low, she worked side-by-side with people who had top-secret clearance. “I have a new appreciation for our government and what they do, but the bureaucracy is overwhelming,” she said. “The amount of information they have is mind-boggling.”
During her third year with NUCHR, she moved into a leadership role. Instead of chauffeuring, she was leading the entire organization, directly involved in securing speakers and creating conferences focusing on international issues of human rights, ever broadening and enriching her education and passion for uncovering the exploitations across the world that deny human freedom and rights. Combined with her top grades, Hernandez was a regular dinner guest of Northwestern’s president, Morton Schapiro.
When Warren Buffett’s family donated $100 million to the university one year, Hernandez was invited to attend the lavish reception. “Warren was great,” she said. “I had to weed through the trustees to get to him, but we did get to have a conversation. He asked me, ‘Where do you want to be in 10 years?’ I said I had no idea and asked him where he wanted to be in 10 years. His response was, ‘Just breathing.’”
Best Foot Forward Is Born
In the summer of 2013, Hernandez headed to Uganda for an eight-week internship with one of the country’s SACCOs, which are Savings and Credit Cooperative Societies. “On the weekends, we would go to the cities to relax and explore,” she said. “We visited several craft markets, and I found a pair of beaded sandals for my mom. When she saw them, she said, ‘We could sell these here!’ I really didn’t want to run a business but realized we could make it interesting and create an impactful social enterprise.”
Hernandez started working with her mentor, Jeff Rice, a professor at Northwestern, on an independent research project. “I wanted to explore the impact TOMS shoes has had on Africa and the pitfalls of that business model, with the goal of creating a viable alternative,” she said. “When you buy a pair of their shoes, TOMS donates a pair of shoes to a person in need, but this model is not well-thought-out. The shoes are not made where they are given away. Many of the recipients could better use the money the shoes cost to support greater needs. Ultimately millions of shoes going to Africa is not an efficient way to support people, and there are some negative side effects.”
With fair working conditions and fair wages as the goal, Hernandez returned to Uganda to conduct research on small-scale entrepreneurs in the craft sector. After meeting multiple sandal makers, she was told that the woman who made the highest-quality sandals was known as “Fat Lydia.” In Uganda, it was not a derogatory or offensive name for a woman. “I spent over a month looking for her in craft markets,” she recalled. “I was on the hunt for Fat Lydia, and after five weeks I finally found her! I asked her if she would be interested in exporting her shoes to the U.S.A. She was elated and very open to the concept.”
Hernandez then started a foundation that gets $5 per pair of sandals sold with the goal of establishing a vocational school in Kenya, where there is a 40-60 percent rate of unemployment among women and employable youth. “We will train this population teaching life skills and vocational skills so they can earn a living wage,” she said. “As the business expands, our manufacturers are able to employ more and more of these women, giving them the opportunity to work, earn fair wages, and rise out of poverty.”
Support Comes Quick
Hernandez was encouraged to apply to the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U), which nurtures social-change projects created by college students. CGI U holds a national, competitive conference each year that attracts university students from around the country. She applied and was accepted to attend in March 2015.
“CGI U is like an incubator for new projects and enables students to learn directly from Nobel Laureates, CEOs, marketing experts, and venture capitalists how to develop, brand, and market your project,” explained Hernandez, who also applied to the Clinton Foundation’s Resolution Project, which provides funding and mentoring to select projects. She found out at 2 a.m. on Friday night that she was one of 35 finalists and had to make her final pitch at 8 a.m. the next morning. “The judges were heartless and brutal, just like on ‘Shark Tank,’” she said. “I had five minutes to pitch Best Foot Forward, and I knew the stakes were high, but the reward of succeeding would open a world of opportunity for the project.”
Best Foot Forward was one of the winners, so she received a cash grant as seed money and mentor times with a venture capitalist who invests in socially conscious businesses and a high-end fashion expert with global connections. She’s had three phone conferences with them to date and has many more to come. “All they want is for you to succeed in your career,” she said. “I am so fortunate to have their wisdom and guidance.”
Humanitarian Family Biz
Before leaving for Tanzania, Hernandez and her mom, Lindsay McTavish, created a website for Best Foot Forward, designed a new logo, and hosted a focus group of women aged 16-70 to test-market the designs of the sandals. They are developing packaging designs, and while in Tanzania, Hernandez will meet with Fat Lydia in neighboring Kenya to prepare for the first major order of shoes.
In Santa Barbara, McTavish is hosting Sole Sister Home Shows, where the beaded sandals will be shown and sold in private home parties for $75 a pair. Said Hernandez, “It’s a lovely thing for women to be able to support other women through BFF while enjoying very stylish handmade beaded sandals.”
Once production is in full swing, shoes will be marketed to boutique women’s stores and eventually to larger outlets, such as Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s. “In Santa Barbara, we live in a place of enormous privilege, and this business is about using that to do something meaningful and worthwhile in the world,” beamed Hernandez.
When asked what others her age or younger could do to help the world, she was quick to reply. “Find your cause and passion,” she said. “You can always find a way to give back, certainly on a local level as well as globally. You can’t save the whole world, but you can pick a cause and go to work for it. Until I learned the causes of the inequities of the geopolitical situations on a global level, I did not understand how I could make a difference. Now I know how I can.”