This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
Imagine if 197 million Americans – roughly 60 percent of the population – were forced to flee their homes. Where would they go? Who would take them in? How would they find food or work? How would they educate their children?
What would the concept of “home” even mean?
After nearly 10 years of civil war in Syria, those aren’t hypothetical questions. According to the UN, roughly 60 percent of the country’s 21 million people have been uprooted by the fighting, and 5.6 million have fled their homeland entirely.
Bothina is one of those people. She and her husband were forced to flee when he refused to join the Syrian military, putting their lives in danger. (We don’t use her last name at Bothina’s request.)
When violence and deprivation forces someone to leave their home, it’s hard to use a word like “lucky.” But Bothina is clearly one of the lucky ones. While millions end up in squalid camps or an endless cycle of relocation, Bothina and her family were among the 0.4 percent of refugees worldwide who found a permanent, legal home in America – Dallas, to be precise, and that’s where her luck got even better.
“I’ve seen firsthand how someone who comes here with nothing can work hard and become a contributing member of society … They can really change their narrative.”
Purpose Times Three
Not long after Bothina arrived in Dallas, three like-minded women got together to hatch a plan for a jewelry company built on the mission of helping refugees.
Gems by the Foot would offer made-to-order necklaces and bracelets featuring some two dozen precious and semi-precious stones set in six different styles and available in six different lengths. All sales would benefit the Dallas chapter of the International Rescue Committee (IRC Dallas), and the jewelry would be handcrafted by refugee women trying to start a new life in North Texas.
“We wanted to build and grow a sustainable business where the refugee population could benefit from day one,” explains Alicia Duque, one of the three co-founders. “We wanted the mission to be part of the company’s fabric, not something that got added on once we were established.”
Of the three social entrepreneurs, Alicia was the most recent arrival in Dallas. Born in Colombia and educated in New York, she was a certified gemologist with work experience at Philanthropy is Beautiful, where founder Joan Hornig had used fine jewelry sales to raise more than $1 million for charity.
When Alicia and her husband moved to Dallas to raise their family, it was Joan who introduced her to Elizabeth Carlock Phillips, a serial entrepreneur and philanthropist who had started her first cause-related jewelry business back in high school.
Elizabeth was already discussing a similar enterprise with Michelle McAdam, a college friend with deep roots in the Dallas philanthropic community and a deep interest in refugee issues, including a stint at IRC Dallas.
When the three women met for coffee in late 2016, they quickly realized that they had the perfect combination of experience and passion. After a few months of planning, they launched Gems by the Foot in August 2017.
Chains Designed for Freedom
Besides the mission of helping refugees, Alicia says the company’s appeal lies in the combination of genuine, quality gemstones in endlessly customizable settings at a reasonable price point, starting at $25 a foot.
For anyone who likes jewelry, the website offers an irresistible rabbit hole of design creativity. You start by choosing the size of your stone, from macroGEMS about 1 inch in length down to multiGEMS, which are tiny, faceted stones clustered together for maximum impact. In between those two extremes are micro and mini sizes that allow for infinite combinations of color, sparkle, and depth.
Once you’ve selected the size of your stone and the color of your wire (gold or silver), then the real fun begins. Are you a fan of quartz? With a few clicks of the mouse, you can see how your quartz necklace would look in a smoky, lemon, rock crystal, or tourmalated variety.
Onyx comes in green, red, or black, while garnet is available in mandarin or raspberry – colors that sound more like sorbet flavors.
Fancy something a little more exotic? Have your heart set on a blue-green color palette? Be sure to click on amazonia, blue apatite, aqua chalcedony, or iolite. Give yourself plenty of time to explore, because the stones can look quite different depending on their size – and you still need to select the length of your chain.
Once you place an order, your custom creation is assembled by a refugee woman in North Texas, working from the safety of her home. The women are referred by IRC Dallas, based on their skills and interests.
That kind of work can be a lifeline, according to Carol Azeez, the IRC Dallas employment supervisor.
“Many refugee women are less likely to become employed due to the many barriers that they face such as, limited English proficiency and a lack of affordable childcare. Gems by the Foot helps these women to overcome these barriers and provides a safe space for them to enter into the workforce and support their families financially.”
Writing a New Narrative
As a gemologist, asking Alicia to choose her favorite stone is a bit like asking her to name her favorite child, but if you push her, she’ll tell you to check out labradorite, a dark, translucent gemstone with strong shades of blue, green, orange, and yellow that emerge from different angles.
“And then I also love pearls,” she adds. “When I was younger, I thought they were the old lady stone, but they’re so beautiful and they match with everything.”
Alicia’s knowledge of gemstones is encyclopedic, but her connection to Gems by the Foot is much more than academic.
“Personally, my husband is the son of refugees who came from Iran in the 80s,” she reveals. “He’s the first member of his family to graduate from college. His parents really encouraged him … When you’ve lost everything and started from zero, there’s just this spark to become the best that you can be.
“So I’ve seen firsthand how someone who comes here with nothing can work hard and become a contributing member of society. They can build a beautiful life for themselves and their children. They can really change their narrative.”
After four years in Dallas, Bothina is trying to change the narrative for her family, too. “I have to start building a new life here,” she told us via text. “The hardest part is feeling that I have to raise my kids very far from everything I knew and far from my family.”
Using her skills as a seamstress, Bothina hand-stitches the fabric jewelry pouches that come with every order placed on the Gems by the Foot website. She’s grateful that the work provides a living wage – something that’s difficult for many refugees who lack language skills and reliable transportation – but beyond the money, she says Alicia, Elizabeth, and Michelle offered something else, as well:
“It helped a lot by feeling that there are a lot of people who are so supporting and welcoming.”
For Alicia, that kind of welcome is the very least that any refugee should expect after giving up everything to reach the U.S. “When these people have to no choice but to leave their home, I think we have no choice but to include them in this society. They have so much work to do once they arrive.”
Spend for good: With thousands of ways to customize your own combination of gemstones, charms, and chains, you’ll want to allow yourself plenty of time in the Gems by the Foot online store. Prices start at $25 a foot, and shipping is free on orders of $100 or more. Each time you purchase, 10 percent of net profits go to IRC Dallas.
Subscribe for good: Every week we offer original reporting to help you create a better world with the money you’re spending, anyway. Be sure you never miss a story! Click here to subscribe to our weekly newsletter.