For Brisbane small business owner Carol Haffke it’s not enough to help her customers feel empowered and confident; she’s doing the same for women 12,000 kilometres away.
The owner of women’s shoe boutique The Shoe Garden, which specialises in stylish, longer-sized shoes for women with size 10+ feet, has raised more $12,000 in the past 12 months to MicroLoan Foundation Australia, a charity providing small business loans to women in Malawi.
She raises the money by donating between 50c and $5 from the sale of every item in her store, and also collects donations on the charity’s behalf. It's a process she said embeds giving back "into the DNA" of her business.
“I heard a term I loved, ‘not just for profit’, so it’s a business that makes money, but also gives back.” she told The Huffington Post Australia.
Every pair of heel grips, every can of waterproofing spray, or pair of heels or pair of boots, means anywhere from 50c to $5 is donated.
“At the end of each month I tally the sales I’ve made and midway through the following month I make the donation. It’s sustainable as I only donate from the sales I make, so I’m always helping but without over committing,” she said.
Haffke makes sure she has a great selection of stylish shoes available at The Shoe Garden.
Creating a business through personal need
Haffke, who wears size 12 shoes, said she decided to specialise in size 10+ shoes for women after finding it difficult to find longer, stylish shoes for herself.
She has customers as young as 10, she said.
“I was size 12 at age 14 and I’ve been that size ever since -- there’s nothing I can do about it. I used to tell people my outfit stopped at my ankle because I wasn’t responsible for what happened below that point," she said.
“I have struggled all my life, and this is why I knew it was the right thing to do. I knew there was a niche there as I am my customer -- everything they’ve been through I’ve been through too.”
And they’re not alone, with a study by the UK College of Podiatry showing that the average shoe size is up about two sizes since the 1970s, with around 35 percent of women saying their shoe size has increased during adulthood.
Proving there is a real stigma attached to larger feet, the study also showed that people are nearly twice as likely to buy shoes too small (44 percent) as too big (24 percent).
Haffke said some of her customers end up in tears they are so grateful that their footwear needs can now be met.
“I’ve had ladies cry, hug me, had them high-five me, told I’m their new best friend. It’s so lovely.
“It really is a self-esteem issue. I have women in their 50s come in and they still get emotional about things shop assistants have said to them. Like, “Really?? What size?? My husband has that size!” and it’s silly things like that that stick with you. It can really hurt.
“A lot of my customers, and I can see it on their feet, that they’d try to squeeze into shoes that were much too small. I make a point with all my customers to say they’d like longer shoes, not big or large, because I think that’s really unfair.
Some of the more casual styles available at The Shoe Garden.
“Their feet might be a couple of centimetres longer than what the so-called norm is, but you can’t do anything about it. To take away all the angst and the hangups about the size of their feet, I insists everyone in The Shoe Garden calls them longer shoes.”
Haffke said she left her fundraising job and background in journalism and PR behind to open The Shoe Garden four years ago, and now has more than 20 brands -- in styles ranging from gala dinner appropriate, work shoes, boots and flats --to cater for her customers who are aged from 10 to 90.
The shoes range in size from 10 to 15.
“We also have some more casual shoes, that are a little plainer in classic styles, but they’re still fun and funky, there’s no nanna shoes or just built for comfort shoes here," Haffke said.
Carol and her mum Ingrid with the ladies of the Dodo lending group in Malawi.
While repeat customers are the backbone of her business, new customers find her every day online as well as at her store in Hawthorne, Brisbane.
“It’s so nice; it’s beautiful because they get so excited -- I just love it,” she said.
“I see my shop through their eyes every time they come in. I’ve built strong relationships in the last 4 years through the shoes with my customers and their lovely long feet.
Helping African women through microloans
Haffke said she felt compelled to find a charity to support 12 months ago after seeing first-hand the conditions faced by a lot of women living in developing countries -- a decision partly inspired by her travels to developing countries in her 20s and 30s.
“I wanted to give back, possibly because of the 10 years I spent in fundraising and knowing how hard it is to raise funds for amazing causes," she said.
Haffke learned about microfinance because wanted to offer financial support to an organisation that was more than just a charity.
“I knew I wanted to support women and I knew I wanted that support to be within Africa,” she said.
The MicroLoan Foundation Australia raises money for a specific area in Malawi called Mulanje, and loan exclusively to women.
Carol and Ingrid outside the MicroLoan Foundation HQ in Malawi.
Haffke said the Foundation provided groups of African women with small business loans -- the average loan is $50 over four months per person. When it’s repaid with minimal interest, the $50 goes to the next group of women.
The loans finance new businesses ranging from a baked doughnut stands to market stalls, hair salons and farms.
“They’re not just given loans either, they’re also given business advice -- which I loved,” she said.
Carol and her BFF and The Shoe Garden mascot CC.