We have more stories to share from the women who help bring some of our favorite products into our customers’ hands! Lia Valerio, co-founder of Malia Designs, served in the Peace Corps in Cambodia and was inspired to continue her connection after her first trip there. Lia witnessed human trafficking in the area and wanted to do something to combat it. Malia Designs provides a dedicated, sustainable income to at-risk women in Cambodia, so that they are less vulnerable to trafficking and can be proud of how they earn a living. Together, they break the cycle of poverty, and create high-quality, fashion-forward accessories that can be used everyday.
Malia Designs’ non-profit philanthropic arm Stop Traffick has donated over $160,000 to organizations in Cambodia and the US that fight human trafficking (read our chat with Lia a few years ago about Malia’s impact in Cambodia). Malia is celebrating nearly 15 years of partnership with the people of Cambodia, helping to improve families’ lives and change the culture. We celebrate International Women’s Day with Lia and so many women in Cambodia who are the faces of fair trade.
1. What inspired you to start Malia Designs and work with women artisans?
While traveling through Southeast Asia after serving in the Peace Corps, I fell in love with Cambodia. The Cambodian people are kind and generous, and the nation has a rich and beautiful culture. Despite terrible tragedy that overwhelmed the country in the 1970s and 1980s, their warmth and openness was, and always has been a source of inspiration.
During my initial trip to the region in 2000, I purchased many textiles and was introduced to several fair trade organizations working with marginalized women.
Upon returning to the United States, a friend and I discussed importing artisan-made products from the region to support these organizations and the good work they were doing. Although it was another five years before the idea became a reality, the seed had been sewn and in 2005, Malia Designs was born.
2. How many artisans/artisan groups do you work with in Cambodia?
We work with three fair trade producer groups in Cambodia. Each independent group is women-led, has their own social mission, and each is organized a bit differently. We have worked with two of the three groups since our very early days, and watching them succeed and grow has been an amazing experience.
Each artisan group employs both men and women, though women make up the majority by a large percentage. Our artisans span a wide range of ages, backgrounds, education levels, and life experiences. Some grew up in the countryside and some in the city slums. The one thing that they all have in common is the desire to create a better life for themselves, their families, and their communities.
3. What is your personal favorite product and why?
I absolutely LOVE our wallets! We have a size and shape for everyone. Each season we create new screen print designs and this seasons petal prints are spot on! Not only are they fashion forward but are super functional. Come on, now, who doesn’t love a wallet full of pockets and places to store all of your stuff?!?!
4. When women work, the impact of the investment is greatly multiplied. What benefits or positive changes have you seen in the communities where the women work/live?
When you purchase Malia, you help create life-changing and sustainable employment for over 300 individuals! Our impact reaches over 800 family members.
One cool thing we have observed is how many women who are employed by our artisan groups have really led the charge and spread the word about the positive ways that their lives have changed through having sustainable, long term, and fairly paid employment in their own communities. They recruit family members and friends to work alongside with them, and they can lead by example, which is a super powerful way to bring about cultural change.
Traditionally in Cambodian culture, women’s roles were limited, (just like they were here for many years). Taking care of the children and the household were the only priorities women were supposed to care about. Now as things change, women can find their independence through meaningful work, and in the words of one of our artisans, “a life filled with social activity” and help to transform not only the lives of their family, but the culture of their communities.
5. We love your commitment to empowering other women! What advice would you give to girls who are interested in getting involved in causes they are passionate about?
There is no time like the present. Get involved! Use your energy, talent and voice to make a difference today. You have the power to be the change you want to see in the world!
6. Which women have had the biggest impact on your life?
The women in my life who have had the biggest impact are my mother, my best friends, and my business partners. They have supported me, loved me, and been my best advocates. I only hope that I am and continue to be the same for them. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” –June Jordan