Empowering Her Tribe
I almost miss Carly Burson when I walk into Avoca Coffee off Magnolia Avenue. The petite entrepreneur is typing away — her face partially hidden under the wide brim of a summer hat.
When she looks up, her blue eyes dazzle with passion and purpose. This 35-year-old mother is leading a fashion movement in Fort Worth and changing the world by empowering women with education, employment, and confidence.
Immediately, I am taken with her sleek gold “Continuum Cuff” bracelet. In fashion terms, it is a “statement piece.” For Burson, it is a statement about life, family, and her business, Tribe Alive. The women’s fashion brand started four years ago as an e-commerce company, but the support and interest in her products were so strong that she opened a store on Magnolia Avenue. The store beckons buyers with its clean design and highly-curated product line, but it is the stories behind the products and the Tribe Alive mission that never fall out of fashion.
“We work with artisans in countries like Honduras, Guatemala, and India where women don’t really have access to opportunities and aren’t valued; we pay those women living wages,” said Burson.
Paying a living wage is life-changing in a country like Honduras, which has the same cost of living as Fort Worth, but its minimum wage is only $5 a day. People live in extreme poverty to compensate, Burson explains.
By understanding the labor system in the developing world and the cycle of poverty it perpetuates, Tribe Alive crafted an employment model that is holistic, based upon the core needs of its employees.
“Most of the women we work with have no education,” said Burson. “They lack basic skills. And they’re not given the opportunity to raise their children well.” Tribe Alive works to change that by teaching women how to be artisans. When women earn money, they reinvest that money back into their families.
“Women pay it forward,” Burson said. “We see the employment of women as a way to affect poverty on a global scale. People think poverty is complicated and hard to break, but it’s not. Invest in women and they will invest in the education of their kids.”
Burson knows fashion. Her personal style is simple, elegant, functional, and timeless. She developed that aesthetic while working as a store designer for major brands like Ann Taylor and J. Crew.
However, the birth of Tribe Alive had little to do with what was happening on the runways of Paris or New York City and everything to do with Ethiopia. That’s where Burson adopted her first child, Elie, and became a mother. Her second child, Pricila, and grandchild, Flory, came years later.
While in Ethiopia, Burson and her husband Kyle spent time observing life in the orphanage where Elie was living. That is where Burson had a startling realization. These children were not in an orphanage because their parents did not want them. They were in an orphanage because their parents could not feed them.
“It’s probably the greatest injustice I’ve ever witnessed,” Burson said. “Poverty should not be the reason for families to be split apart.”
Burson went back to work, but her heart had changed. She quickly decided to use her skills in fashion to give women an opportunity to get out of poverty and provide better lives for their families.
Soon after they brought home Elie, she started Tribe Alive as a hobby, creating jewelry in Honduras and employing five female artisans.
Two months after the company started, her hobby project got an order for 4,000 bracelets.
She told Kyle: “If I take this order, I’ll have to quit my job and go to Honduras for two months with Elie.” Kyle said: “Let’s do it.”
Burson hired 60 women to create the first bracelet order, and she says it was like Elie had 60 mothers surrounding her. “We live very isolated lives here [in the U.S.],” said Burson. “The women we employee, if they are eating, their village is eating. In the U.S., we hold on so tight to what we have. It’s not like that in most of the communities we work with around the world.”
Based in Santa Ana, Honduras, Sulema Benitez is the jewelry production manager for Tribe Alive. She did not start in that job. She did not start with any job. In a country with the highest economic inequality in Latin America and a poverty rate of over 60 percent, according to the World Bank, jobs are scarce. Jobs for women are nearly nonexistent. Benitez was just another number.
Then a miracle happened. Burson hired Benitez to help with its first big bracelet order. “She just shined,” Burson said. “She’d never made jewelry before, but she just picked it up.” Later, Benitez was promoted production manager for an 80,000-item order.
This is the first time Benitz, 38, has ever made more than $2 a day or had a full-time job. With that money, she is sending her three boys to school in Honduras. “She puts 70 percent of her salary into her boys’ education,” said Burson. In addition, she is supporting 17 family members who live together in the same communal space.
“For Benitez, a full-time job changed her entire family’s life,” said Burson. The mother of three went from poverty to provider because of opportunity and a lot of hard work.
Giving opportunity to women and investing in the lives of her employees is how Burson wanted to run her company. But she did not want to limit her product line or production capabilities. Today, Tribe Alive partners with companies across the world with similar missions, selling those products in the shop and online.
Historically, the garment industry has exploited workers across the world while paying wages far below any measure of sustainability. “Fast fashion” is one of the leading environmental polluters, and it is now the norm. The quick and inexpensive production of trendy clothing, which most Americans are guilty of purchasing, makes getting a cool new jacket from Zara affordable. The downside is that the cool new jacket is not going to last more than a year, and cheap production means the garment workers behind that jacket make just pennies in the process.
Burson says that when people brag about getting a dress for $19.99 at Zara, they need to know that the average markup is eight times what it costs to produce the piece.
“The only thing that can be squeezed in fast fashion is the human,” said Burson. “They get less money. The other prices are fixed.”
Tribe Alive’s social enterprise model flips that on its head and uses the way it employs and empowers a small number of women to help solve many of the social problems created by fashion. The best part? Tribe Alive is making money and making the world a better place in the process.
“A lot of die-hard capitalists out there think you have to compromise ethics to make a profit,” Burson said. “We’re showing that you don’t.”
That said, Tribe Alive makes a much lower margin on the goods it sells. Like most social enterprises, profitability is secondary to its mission, and a big part of Burson’s overall mission is education. “We never want women to feel ashamed of what they are buying,” said Burson. “We hope that it might change some of the choices women make, but if doesn’t, that’s okay.”
Nobody is perfect. Burson says it took her a long time to get to the point where she thought about everything she bought. Even today, she admits, she might buy her daughter a dress from Old Navy.
“I never want to come across as somebody who makes all the right choices, but I’m definitely trying to,” Burson said. “Most women just don’t know; every single thing we buy has a human life behind it.”
Less really is more, especially when it comes to buying clothing. An easy way to get started and scale back or quit fast fashion altogether is to embrace the idea of a capsule collection, in which a handful of pieces work interchangeably across seasons and trends. A capsule collection from Tribe Alive means women design a wardrobe that empowers other women and their families.
It also looks good. Just look at the pictures of some incredible Fort Worth entrepreneurs who are modeling Tribe Alive’s new fall collection, which includes easy silhouettes and styles that complement all sizes, ages, and body types. “It’s about longevity and inclusivity. We want to stay rooted in neutrals and have life in a wardrobe forever,” Burson said.
The company’s goal is to become a destination for women to buy that one special handbag they use for years and years — or that hat they cannot live without. The hat will also last for years and years.
At the end of 2015, when the Bursons decided to adopt another child, they worked with International Foster Care and Catholic Charities of Fort Worth.
During that time, Burson learned about the crisis of unaccompanied minors and how many children needed placement.
“My child was that kid in the detention center on the border four years ago,” said Burson. “She was 14 and she was pregnant; she fled a life that wasn’t safe or secure to make a better life for her unborn child.”
When Pricila, now 18, got to the U.S. border, she knew no English and had no education. Through a team of social workers, lawyers, educators, and the constant love and patience of the Bursons, Pricila is a mother, a senior in high school, and a fully-contributing member of their household.
“Pricila moves through life like a little superhero,” Burson said. Her three-year-old daughter, Flory, is just so happy, says Burson.
“Becoming a mother is hard, regardless,” said Burson. “[Pricila’s journey] is just a different kind of hard.”
Adoption is taking a leap into the unknown, just like quitting your job and starting a business that puts mission over money are leaps into the unknown. For Burson’s family, adoption has proven to be perfectly imperfect, untraditional, and absolutely beautiful.
“I feel like people are buried in the problems of the world right now, and sometimes it’s hard to see how we can ever make a difference,” Burson said. “But it’s not hard to help; that’s what I wish people would realize.”
Inside the Burson’s historic home in Near Southside, which shines with the same clean and minimal design as Tribe Alive, my daughter Amelia, 6, has a tea party with Elie. They serve us at the dining room table and patiently listen to our menu requests.
The girls run back to the kitchen, laughing and squealing. It is the sound of happiness, free from worry and full of love.
“Women are women everywhere,” said Burson. “They want to be independent. But to really empower women, it has to start with girls and education. That’s the missing piece.”
The Life Behind the Design: Half Moon Pouch
Setting the loom: Before a design gets started, it takes one hour for a woman to set the loom.
Weave time: Each pouch is hand-woven by backstrap weavers in Guatemala for two and a half hours
Total production time: Four hours
Cost to consumer: $68
Outcome for artisan: Sustainable hourly wage. Ongoing education. Access to community health program. Sponsored quality education for children.
For more than a decade, Sarah Angle has worked as a Texas-based writer. She began her career as a daily newspaper reporter and photographer, and now splits her time between journalism and marketing communications. Since starting her own freelance writing business, Sarah has worked for brands such as: Frito-Lay, RadioShack, Dairy Queen, Honda, Sid Richardson Art Museum, Samsung, and Pizza Inn. As a journalist, her work has been published in the Washington Post, Boys’ Life magazine, Texas Observer, Fort Worth Weekly, The Dallas Morning News, and 360 West magazine. In 2014, she won first place from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia for her feature story “From the Land of the Lost.” The following year, she earned a fellowship from the Investigative Reporters and Editors organization and became a board member for the Society of Professional Journalists, Fort Worth chapter. Currently, she teaches in the School of Strategic Communication at TCU. Sarah lives in Fort Worth with her darling daughter and a house full of books and mid-century modern décor.