We interviewed Dustin Burgin and Lindsie Hill, the founders behind Corda, which provides jobs to underprivileged people in Ethiopia by producing eco-friendly, handmade, rope sandals. We found out how they are using social media to build community, who exactly makes their sandals, and how Corda supports their employees without exploiting their stories.
Did you want to create eco-footwear or did you want to help a community?
Dustin: I wanted to help people in extreme poverty that just needed an opportunity but I also wanted to do it in an environmentally sustainable way. You don’t have to choose between the good you can do.
Lindsie: I found Corda after it had been established, and my main draw to it was definitely to help people lift themselves to a more independent life. Shoes are the tool we are happening to use to create that good.
What are people most likely to search on Google before they land on your page?
Lindsie: Corda sandals! We actually get a lot of direct searches, which is awesome to be known. You can also find us searching rope sandals. Our goals are to start showing up higher in categories like, ethical shoes/sandals, vegan shoes/sandals, and adventure sandal.
What social media platform do you like best?
Lindsie: We definitely live on Instagram! One of the original founders loved the platform and it turned out to be a great place to start networking with people we admired and other companies to spread the word about Corda to get us off the ground. We recently asked for some help from our followers to help us with the work we had ahead of us. The response was overwhelming, we received so many messages of support and people expressing their feelings about the company. That experience was a huge boost to Dustin and me, really feeling the support and power of the community.
Does the rope get itchy?
Lindsie: No! There is a slight break in period – it took my feet about a week to get used to the rope texture wear, but it actually doesn’t itch at all. The rope is smooth and can stretch a bit. Dustin and I actually asked ourselves recently if it’s possible to get blisters in these things, we haven’t seen or heard of any blisters from anyone. The rope is pretty comfortable right off, but becomes SUPER comfy after that week or two break in period because they start to form to your feet. After that it’s like walking without shoes.
What’s your favourite outfit to pair with your sandals?
Lindsie: I wear my Cordas pretty consistently, but I like them with a simple pair of jean shorts, and a striped loosely worn shirt I tell myself makes me look a little counter culture.
Where in Africa are your sandals made – and by who?
Lindsie: Cordas are 100% handmade in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. The shop is actually what used to be in the living room in the home of our manager, Shemeles Daniels (or ‘Sheme’).
We currently employ 8 people, primarily individuals who are adult orphans, or have some kind of significant medical disability. “Adult orphan” refers to people who are orphans after they age out of the orphanage system. Unemployment is very high in the country, and without any family connections to help you, getting a job for an orphan is especially difficult. When we have a position open, Sheme asks throughout the community if people know of any orphans who have come to the city and need a job. We help them to get established and have a secure well-paying job. We have also started hiring people with physical restraints, like polio or epilepsy.
How do you make sure you’re supporting people, without exploiting them and their story to sell sandals?
Dustin: That has been a delicate balance from the beginning. We want to make sure we are being transparent with the good we are doing but not exploiting them for PR. I wish I had a good answer for how to balance those, but for the most part we just try to tread with caution and respect the people we work with by seeing them as people and not their status or disability.
Lindsie: This is a frequent discussion anytime we discuss our employees and our social mission. How can we help people to understand our mission, goals, and the good we can create, without making these individuals sound needy or helpless? Our entire goal is to take away helplessness. Instead of relying on others to provide for needs, and receiving help based on how others interpret personal problems, Corda seeks to create and build independence, to allow people to create and build their lives the way they see fit. Our goal is to make that independence easier for people whose personal situations make it more difficult to obtain.
Where would you like to take your sandals on an adventure next?
Dustin: The alluring beaches of the Greek islands. The sandals make great beach shoes; you can walk in the sand which is a pain with a lot of sandals, and you can wear them in the water so if you get a rocky beach it’s no problem.
You can learn more about Corda on their website. Follow them on Twitter and Instagram, and Like their Facebook page.