Wondering why we’re selling underwear in our studios and online? While it’s super comfortable and ideal for your barre3 practice, it’s so much more than that. The underwear is made by Empowered By You, a company that gives 20% of its proceeds to microloans that help impoverished women launch businesses. We recently sat down with the company’s founder, Renata Black. Read our interview* with her below to learn how she went from orphan to humanitarian and entrepreneur.
barre3: You were orphaned as a toddler and, after being raised by an aunt in Miami, moved back to your native Colombia. How did this experience shape your path?
Renata: Going to Colombia was truly the most defining moment of my life—it paved the way for how and why I live my life. Because I’m so conscious that I’m adopted, I don’t take anything for granted. I could easily have been one of those kids I saw living in a box, and that kind of perspective shifts how you live. I realized that I’m fortunate and that I need to make the best use of my life. It’s not just about enjoying and consuming, it’s about giving back.
barre3: You were only 15 years old when you made the trip. How did you make the decision to go?
Renata: At 15 realized my mother wasn’t my mother—she had blond hair and blue eyes, and I was Hispanic. I was growing up in Miami, but I wasn’t born in the United States. I wasn’t really fitting in anywhere. I needed to find my identity, so I dropped out of high school and went to Colombia and totally immersed myself in the culture. I traveled all around, lived on an oil rig, walked the jungles of Colombia by myself with the guerillas right there. Looking back, I see that I was fearless—I’m much more cautious now! But I also learned my culture, my roots. I needed to know who I was, and I needed to be in Colombia to do that.
barre3: After coming back to the States and majoring in journalism and psychology at UNC, you set off for a trip around the world—a trip that ultimately inspired you to create Empowered By You. What did you learn during this journey?
Renata: I did a lot of humanitarian work that year, and I went to India to do relief work for the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. We were helping a group of women, and a woman said to me, “I don’t want your money. I want you to teach me how to make it myself. Will you?”
That moment was a huge paradigm shift for me. I suddenly understood that I was watching these women become dependent on our aid. Our efforts were hurting them instead of helping them. I realized that in order to truly make a difference, we needed to help them help themselves. I started doing research and learned about microfinance—basically giving very small loans to groups to enable them do work that will help lift them out of poverty—and went to Bangladesh to study under Mohammad Yunus [Nobel Peace Prize winner and pioneer of microfinance]. I then went back to India to put what I’d learned into action. I actually found the same woman who had asked me to teach her how to make her own money, and we gathered 800 women and formed my original microfinance group. The picture below is from 2005, when I sat in on one of their bi-weekly meetings.
barre3: How did you decide to make lingerie the focus of your microfinance business?
Renata: The women in India wore saris every day, and they’d tell me they felt sorry for American women because we feel like we have to show cleavage and wear short skirts to attract attention. I never thought of it that way—I’m Colombian and I grew up in Miami, I like everything short and tight! But when I came back to the U.S. I was watching a Victoria’s Secret show and I realized that lingerie was being used as a tool to objectify women through sexuality. I wanted to turn the tables and make lingerie a tool of empowerment instead of one of seduction. That’s how Empowered By You was born. When women buy our lingerie, they’re contributing to loans that help empower women in need.
barre3: Looking back, what has been the most surprising aspect of this whole journey?
Renata: That people don’t buy products because of causes, they buy it bc it’s a kick-ass product. You can have the best mission in the world, but if your product isn’t fantastic, it won’t sell. That’s why from the get-go we knew we had to make our lingerie the absolute best.
barre3: How do you find empowerment in your life?
Renata: When I need to get back to basics, I love reading women’s stories about how our company has affected them. It might be a letter from intern, feedback on product, or a story about a woman whose life we’ve changed with a loan. I keep these stories in a folder so I can read them anytime. It lifts me up to know that our product touches so many people on so many levels.
barre3: What’s a breakdown to breakthrough moment you’ve had?
Renata: Three years ago I got divorced, and that was really hard for me. I always put my career first, and my husband took a backseat. My breakthrough was realizing that I needed to pay as much attention to my relationships as I did to work. I had to lose something incredible in order to see that, but I’m so grateful that it helped me evolve. I’m such a better person and I have such better balance now.
barre3: What advice would you give to your younger self?
Renata: I absolutely love the barre3 concept of work smarter not harder, and I wish I had embraced it earlier. When I was younger I definitely subscribed to the whole “no pain no gain,” “you have to push to the max to get results” mentality, but now I see that living that way doesn’t help you work toward balance at all.
barre3: What legacy would you wish to leave behind?
Renata: That I created a business that fueled the empowerment of women.
Grab a pair of Renata’s do-gooder underwear, and let us know how you like it. We’re so proud to team up with her and to support women beyond our studio walls.
* Footnote: You may know Renata from her Huffington Post blog Paradigm Shifters, a series of interviews that focus on how successful people have turned weaknesses into strengths (check out Sadie’s debut here). We had so much fun turning tables and interviewing her in the same vein.