How This Woman Successfully Launched An Ethical Shoe Brand With Zero Fashion Experience

Ten years ago, Bethany Tran went to Guatemala and had a transformative week that would ultimately change the trajectory of her career. Her friends had started a nonprofit that was working to break the cycle of poverty in the largest urban slum in Central America. It was her first time abroad and her first real interaction with communities living in poverty. Her experience ultimately turned her into a social entrepreneur, launching a brand in a field she knew nothing about: fashion.

Up until that point, Tran had been a marketing executive. Since graduating college, marketing had always been her path, but after her trip to Guatemala, everything changed. While the nonprofit was doing important work focusing on education, Tran knew that if there weren’t jobs available for the children after graduating, nothing would change. She started looking at poverty alleviation differently and felt there was a missing piece. 

Over the next few years, she went back to Guatemala several times and each time, she felt stronger about the lack of job opportunities, feeling compelled to find a solution. In 2013, social enterprises were steadily on the rise, and Tran took a leap of faith by quitting her “perfect” job and launched The Root Collective, an ethical shoe brand that creates work for the people she had met in Guatemala. 

Coming up on their sixth anniversary, Tran shares advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs. It is these core lessons that helped her get where she is today, which is lucky for us, because every woman should have at least one pair of The Root Collective shoes in their repertoire.

Throw Your Excuses Out The Window

When Tran turned 30, she had a solid corporate job with a good salary and benefits. By all accounts, she had “made it.” Except she was miserable. She began to wonder what she was really doing with her life and after watching Half The Sky, she had an epiphany. Inspired by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, the documentary chronicles women and girls who are living under some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable, and fighting bravely to change them. 

It was a pivotal moment for Tran. “If all these women in Asia and Africa are seeing problems and solving them,” she said, “and they don’t have all the opportunities I do, then I literally have NO excuse to not do anything.” The idea for a solution to the problem she witnessed in Guatemala had been bouncing around in her head for a few years, so that’s when she knew it was time to stop making excuses and take action.

Be Intentional

Tran had to decide what kind of business she would launch, a nonprofit or a social enterprise. She didn’t want to come in and ‘help’ communities as many nonprofits do. “I believe so strongly in the power of small businesses to make an impact,” said Tran. “I wanted to partner with locally owned businesses who live in these communities and understand the culture, and empower them, rather than me coming in as the American saying this is how you should do things.”

Early on, Tran was very clear that she wanted to provide jobs, not handouts. Decide what kind of an impact you want your company to have and then find the right business structure to help you achieve that goal. 

Figure It Out

Initially, Tran reached out to her nonprofit contacts and shared her idea for a business model that would create jobs in the community. She asked them to connect her to others that may be interested. She didn’t have any contacts or products, she just knew people needed jobs and she needed to fill in the blanks. Marketing and content development were Tran’s forte; not fashion, product development or international business.

“I had zero experience in any of the things I should have known about,” said Tran in hindsight. Because of that, she turned to Google and researched anything and everything about the industry. “It was empowering because I came to understand how much I was capable of learning. It was super hard and I made a ton of mistakes; I still make mistakes, but I just had  to figure it out.”


Being new to the space, Tran attended shoemaker conferences, where she networked and met valuable contacts who turned into mentors and introduced her to others in the industry. If there was something Tran needed, she would turn to her social network for guidance. Her first shipping contact came from a Facebook post where she was crowdsourcing solutions from her friends. 

Tran dedicates a large part of her success to being resourceful and being willing to ask anyone anything. One of her first pieces of media coverage came from researching editors on Twitter and messaging them at all hours of the night. She knew if she was going to be successful, she always had to hustle.

Stick To Your Values

Admittedly still trying to figure out how to measure her impact, Tran takes a hard line with suppliers, making sure there is transparency and that they are doing what they say they are doing. Her relationships are based on trust and if there is any point where she feels there is a trust issue, the relationship is done. This year, a new partner refused to share wage information, so it was a deal breaker for her. Now, she has a full-time manager in Guatemala to manage the relationships with each of her suppliers to ensure ethical treatment and fair wages for every one. 

Just Launch

Perhaps Tran’s biggest lesson learned was that you can’t be perfect when you start, otherwise it will take years to launch. It took a little over a year to find partners, create the product, develop the branding and solidify the business model. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough to launch.

Tran focused on Instagram to launch the business when she was ready. Without any connections to leverage, she looked for existing communities to tap into. Noonday Collection had launched a few years earlier, so she searched their hashtags and began engaging with their audience as she knew they were like-minded.

When The Root Collective first launched, they had shoes, jewelry, bags and scarves. Looking back now, Tran admits that was a terrible idea. When you’re just starting out, you can’t do that many products and do them all well. Post-launch, it was the shoes that really took off and although Tran says shoes wouldn’t have been her first choice (due to the fact that they can be complicated and difficult to make), the company has garnered a solid following and has successfully built an ethical shoe brand.

There was no silver bullet, it was all hard work, but if you ask Tran, it has all been worth it. She has seen the positive impact on the families who have found work through The Root Collective and she is steadily growing her team.

When asked how she came up with the name for The Root Collective, Tran said it all comes down to the concept that we all have individual talents and skills that we’re good at, our roots. While her skill is marketing, in Pastores, Guatemala, her artisans are renowned for their boot making, and if we all pooled our roots together, imagine what kind of world could we create.

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