If we notice a girlfriend wearing a cute pair of sandals, we’d most likely ask her where she bought them. We’d expect her to answer that she’d picked them up at boutique but not from a non-profit organization. Yet, women from around the world are buying very stylish footwear from Her Best Foot Forward, a Louisville-based nonprofit. Founded by social venture entrepreneur Laura Chauvin, the footwear and other products are handmade by female artisans in Tanzania. The proceeds are used to provide clean drinking water for the area as well as to buy school uniforms for girls in this country. Laura also oversees UhuruPads, which is a social enterprise that manufactures and distributes eco-friendly sanitary pads. She is also the CEO of Sustainable Philanthropy Partners, plus she’s the wife of Judge McKay Chauvin and mother of three children. Let’s meet this week’s FACE of Louisville, the dynamic Laura Chauvin.
What sparked your interest in working in human development?
I was born and raised in St. Louis, and I went to college at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, starting as an English major. While at Vanderbilt, I heard about the Peabody College of Education and Human Development, and it sounded very unique, especially since you could do internships and apply what you learned in the classroom to work situations, so I transferred to that program.
What was your path after graduating?
I lived in New York for over a year doing college recruiting for Citibank. I really liked the idea of working in a collegiate environment, so I returned to St. Louis and went to work for Washington University. I was there for 18 years where I led the Alumni Association and other programs. I also earned my master’s degree in human resource management at the university.
I was happy there and thought I’d never leave, but there was a pivotal moment when I attended an event at the newly formed Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Bill Danforth was the Chancellor of Washington University for 24 years, and his next vision was to start a plant science research center. I went to work for the research center to help him build that organization and was the founding chief development officer.
What was your next career move?
In 2014, when my daughters were finished with high school and our son was getting ready to enter middle school, we decided to move to Louisville where my husband is from. We’d been commuting back and forth from our home in St. Louis and Louisville. We decided it was time to put down roots, and I started my own private consulting business.
Who were your first clients?
The first was Doug Pitt, Brad Pitt’s younger brother, who is Goodwill Ambassador for the United Republic of Tanzania. His work focuses on clean water primarily, but also the development of sustainable businesses. I reached out to him, and we just connected. He invited me to help him work on some of his efforts in Tanzania.
Another client is NBA basketball player Dwight Howard. He reached out to me and explained he had funded dormitories for girls in East Africa, written a very large check for this, and never received word on the outcome. He asked me if I could do some research on what’s happening there and let him know. I came back with a report for him, he appreciated the thoroughness of it, and he asked me if I would help him to run his other projects within his foundation.
How did you discover the sandals that you’re now selling?
I was in the marketplace in Tanzania, and I bought several pairs — I gave some to my sister and friends. When I wore the sandals, people started noticing them, and I took note of this.
How did Her Best Foot Forward get started?
My friends wanted to buy the shoes and started requesting different colors and sizes, plus they wanted to know how much they cost. I said, “I’ll buy them for you, but when I’m there, my focus is working on hunger and nutrition issues, so in return, I’d like you to write a check to support clean water or girls’ education through the provision of school uniforms.”
Tell us more about UrhuruPads.
“Urhuru” is Swahili for freedom. While I was visiting these girls’ schools there, I became aware of the challenges of menstruation, meaning that the girls don’t go to school when this is happening and can miss up to four days a month of their education. I asked Dwight Howard if he’d help fund the exploration of new technology to produce products for menstrual hygiene. He agreed, so I went to India to meet with the manufacturers of the world’s only 100 percent biodegradable, compostable sanitary pad and asked them to allow the technology and equipment to be used in Tanzania. They agreed. The facility has been open for two years, and our primary focus as an organization is the sanitary pad production and distribution.
What are the biggest challenges that come with running Her Best Foot Forward?
I’m not a fashion or retail expert, so I rely on the kindness of people who advise me. I’m someone who’s spent her life in the nonprofit world, which is my passion. Living between these two worlds is a challenge.
How do you spread the word about Her Best Foot Forward and the sandals?
I speak to groups of women about the challenges of women in the developing world and the potential they have, and I always bring the sandals with me to purchase. They can find me with the products at the Flea off Market or Fleur de Flea. We also sell online (shop here).
Do you have any favorite places in Louisville where you like to eat?
We like to go to a little taqueria called La Rosita, and I like to go to Blue Dog Bakery.
Do you have any local places you like to visit?
For inspiration, we like to go to the Muhammad Ali Center. If you need to put your head in the right spot I would say that would be the place to go to.
What piece of advice do you treasure and who did it come from?
My mom would say in her New England accent, “Come on dahlin’ — just put your best foot forward.” This didn’t mean to just throw myself randomly toward a goal, but to take stock of what I needed to do to give something my best.
Besides faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
My dogs, spending time with our team in our workshop in Tanzania and watching my son’s hockey games
Read about more amazing Louisville FACES — click HERE!