When you buy a silk Goddess Scarf from the online retailer Gianna Fair Trade, not only are you getting a stylish new accessory, you're also helping Mae Ta, the Laotian mother of five who made the garment, send her children to school. That's because a percentage of the garment’s $59 retail price goes right back to Ta. Gianna Driver, the company's 28-year-old founder, feels the plight of women like Ta acutely. Her own mother came to the United States as a mail-order bride from the Philippines; she later fled her abusive husband and sought refuge with her daughter in a women's shelter in East Texas. "I looked around and saw all of this pain and unhappiness and I knew my mom didn't want me to have this life," says Driver. "When I brought home good report cards, she was so happy, so I really applied myself in school." That's an undertatement. Driver attended The Wharton School on a full scholarship and worked 30 hours a week in the computer lab.
Driver began her career at a large insurance company in San Francisco but "at the end of the first year, I started to question my life," she says. "I knew I wasn’t really fulfilled." She realized that she felt "most alive" when she was volunteering with women's organizations overseas. She began to think of starting a business that would help impoverished women, and that would also allow her to support herself.
Driver's original idea, in 2005, was to start a business that made professional, eco-friendly apparel, crafted by women in urban slums around the world. "Think eco-friendly Ann Taylor," she says. But there were problems with product consistency and quality control. It was when she began to assess the skill sets of women in different communities that she reconceived her company. "In Laos, the women weave beautiful tapestries, so we came up with the idea for scarves," she says. She scrapped the apparel idea and focused on accessories and home goods.
Now, Driver has arrangements with 60 women from impoverished villages or urban slums in Laos, Thailand, India, and the Philippines. She finds them through NGOs and women's cooperatives. "When we start in new communities," says Driver, "I'll provide a loan. If they want to buy a sewing machine, I front the money and over time, they pay back the value of machine through the sale of their products." Women receive between 25 percent and 58 percent of the retail prices of their products. Revenue is modest—it's yet to reach $1 million—but Driver has helped more than 200 women, paying them two to three times local minimum wage. "There's a waiting list of women who want to work with us," she says, "which is a testament to our values and to the women with whom we're already working."