Boss Lady is a series that shares personal insights from creative women in business. This week we chat with Paula Minnis, the founder of GAIA, a home and personal accessories company who’s mission is just as impressive as it’s unique, handmade products. Paula shares with us her inspiration behind the creation of GAIA and what it takes to be an entrepreneur.
1. Tell us a little about yourself and your career.
Born and raised in Texas, attended UT Austin, then working in fashion in LA and San Francisco for a while. Fast forward several years: I’m now a wife and mother of 4 kiddos (3 yr-old twins plus 2 teenage step kids) living in Dallas, TX. I started my career as an apparel buyer right out of college, and after a decade of working in that industry, I started to become a little disenchanted by it. The stress was just out of alignment with what we were doing….selling dresses, not curing cancer! So I took some time off, and spent time doing stuff I’d never had the opportunity to do before….took classes in art, sewing, jewelry making, took piano & tennis lessons, and also started volunteering more, which eventually led me to the IRC, a global organization that provides essential care and resettlement assistance to refugees forced to flee from war or disaster.
2. How did volunteering as an IRC mentor lead to the creation of GAIA?
Through the IRC, I began volunteering as a Mentor to a Burmese refugee woman, Catherin, and her 2 young children in May of 2009. By September, the seed for GAIA had already been born, based on my experience with her. After enduring over a decade in a refugee camp in Thailand, Catherin then faced an entirely new set of challenges upon her arrival to the US….everything from learning how to use an ATM to navigating our country’s health care system. It’s overwhelming to even those of us born here, imagine how daunting it is for someone in Catherin’s shoes! Her strength and determination really moved me, and inspired me to do more. One day we were studying vocabulary words, and after describing the word “sew”, I discovered that Catherin had some basic sewing skills, and had a true “lightbulb moment.” I had been reading about how unlocking a woman’s potential is crucial to the prosperity of a community as a whole, and how giving women an opportunity to become self reliant through earning a living wage helps cultivate a brighter future for their children. I realized that I could pay her a living wage to sew pretty things with vintage textiles I had collected, utilizing my background in the fashion industry to bring it to market. So in late 2009, GAIA, for Goddess of the Earth, was born, with the ultimate mission of helping refugee women thrive in their new communities.
3. What is GAIA’s most successful form of marketing?
Instagram has been a great visual medium for us to convey both the GAIA aesthetic and our social cause. And I’ve also made some great friends through the network, who have in turn helped create awareness about what we do![pullquote]I love it as a way to immediately gauge interest in new styles or prototypes we’re considering.[/pullquote]
4. Where do you see the company in 5 years? 10 years?
Our ultimate mission with GAIA is to provide more opportunity for women in need, so my hope is that in 5 years I’m employing 5 times as many women as I am now, and in 10 years, 10 times as many. There are still numerous employable women in Dallas, and an endless amount in cities across the country. My goal is to streamline our production and operations so that what we’ve created here in Dallas can be replicated in markets throughout the country!
5. Describe a typical day at work.
When building a business, each day is completely different from the next. I wear many hats, assuming the role of Designer, Accountant, Sales Rep, Publicist, and HR manager all in one day. My To-Do list for a day might include tweaking the design of a new clutch, invoicing retail customers, emailing line sheets to potential customers, photographing images for social media, and choosing the content, layout, and design for our new website.
6. How do you navigate the work/life balance?
Honestly, it’s a constant struggle that I’m still trying to reconcile, as I often feel guilty about taking time away from my kiddos while I try to grow this business. I’ve determined that my life as a working mother is essentially about ‘allocation of resources’; right now my resources and energy are dedicated to my family and my work. There just isn’t much time for anything else. And within that, I always feel like I should be spending twice as much time as I am in each area! But ultimately, family is the most important, and I’m fortunate to have flexibility and a support staff at GAIA that allows me to integrate the two. My hope is that ultimately, my children will recognize the value of meaningful work, and how gratifying and fulfilling it can be to help those that need it most.
7. What inspires you and fuels your creativity?
Well, I’ve never really considered myself a designer, but my creative process is definitely helped by the unique approach we take with GAIA. The line is essentially driven by 3 things: the vintage textiles we score, the refugee women’s sewing capabilities, and what my team and I would want to carry or wear ourselves. We’re definitely working under challenging parameters, but this actually makes the design process more interesting and challenging!
8. You created a company to empower women, who has empowered you?
My husband! He empowered me through his initial encouragement when I wanted to start GAIA, to his constant support throughout the ups and downs of running the business. And he’s a very engaged father and husband…we make a great team. He just truly brings out the best in me.
9. What advice do you have for those looking to go from employee to entrepreneur?
You should definitely have a passion for your endeavor, and be prepared to work hard. I love the Steve Jobs quote, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” [pullquote] I think an entrepreneur’s likelihood of success is greatest if they find joy in their work. [/pullquote] Also, build your team wisely, with quality people that you truly trust and rely on. Find those with gifts and talents that compliment yours. I truly believe that the reason GAIA still exists after 5 years is largely due to the hiring of my 2nd in command, Lauren — probably the best business decision I’ve ever made!