Written by Andrew Seale
At a dinner two years ago, a friend placed $1,000 in Brave Soles founder Christal Earle’s hand and told her she’d know what to do with it. She’d been living between Toronto and the Dominican Republic two weeks at a time, embroiled in a near decade fight to bring her adopted daughter, Widlene, back to Canada. Her rent was coming due, and life seemed to take pleasure at tossing hurdle after hurdle at Earle.
Amongst it all, the social entrepreneur who’d founded and since resigned from Live Different, an international youth empowerment humanitarian charity, had been filling sticky notes on her kitchen wall with the pieces of a plan to turn discarded tires into soles for hand-made, up-cycled sandals and shoes.
“I figured I needed $250 to start it,” says Earle. She’d just been given $1,000. “Rent was $750, I kid you not – and I thought: if this is not the universe telling me to get my butt in gear than nothing is.”
The next day, after paying her rent, she set to work on Brave Soles.
It’d been a long time coming. Earle has spent a large swath of her humanitarian career working with groups in garbage dumps around the world, spots where largely stateless people go to find work.
“They collect bottles and plastics and that's how they eke out a living,” she explains. “They live on a dollar or two a day.”
Tires were a common issue. They’d burn them, something that Earle admits “broke her heart” to watch – the gas and chemicals leaching into the ground and air. In 2017, she walked out of her apartment in the D.R. and commented on a girl’s shoes she liked. That’s when it clicked – recycle the tires and use them to make the soles of shoes while employing locals and generating economic opportunities for the people she was trying to help.
After using the $250 to get prototypes, she launched in June 2017. “On the first day, just from a post on Facebook I sold 40 pairs all over the world and I thought holy cow I think I'm onto something,” she says. By the end of the year, she’d done $120,000 in sales. “This year will be three to four times that.”
To Earle, it’s validation that businesses can value people, planet, and profit equally. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“The journey in social change and social ventures can be really lonely because you have a whole different set of criteria, you're still working with business principles but your mission is above and beyond what people can see,” she says. “There's an intrinsic motivation – I don't say that in an arrogant way – but that’s just the only way I'm ever going to be happy is if I'm doing this.”
Part of staying motivated has been finding her “tribe.” Brave Soles is a part of both the Fashion Zone at Ryerson University and CSI’s Climate Ventures, a cross-sector incubator for climate entrepreneurs, innovators, and leaders.
“We have such a great startup ecosystem in Toronto, and there is an amazing, very generous, business mentorship community,” she says, adding that Climate Ventures has helped her stay grounded. “It's one thing to say we want to do these things and another thing to say this is what we're actually doing… so I'm learning how to measure it and show it.”
But she doesn’t take Brave Soles existence for granted, the business came to her at the time she needed it the most. She’s still fighting to bring her daughter back to Canada. And the challenges faced by the stateless in garbage dumps around the world are far from solved. But Brave Stoles, she hopes, is a start of something.
“You can make a million and one choices,” she says. “But my little mantra has always been what's the next best choice I can make.”
Photo credit: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)