I first met Cathy Gomes of 700 Rivers at a sustainable fashion event. To meet Cathy is to immediately love her–she is enthusiastic, kind, and incredibly passionate about her work to empower women living in poverty in Bangladesh. I am so excited to share a Q&A with her in the latest installment of my Southerner Spotlight series!
Cathy, tell us a little about yourself!
I am a proud NC State alumna with a chemical engineering background and the founder and CEO of 700 Rivers. I am incredibly passionate about doing my part to make a global impact one day at a time, advocate for all things fair trade and eco-friendly, and support social causes however I can. When I am not working, I love to bake, practice yoga, rewatch Parks and Rec, and make obscure Harry Potter references!
Tell us about your business, 700 Rivers.
700 Rivers is a global, ethical, and sustainable lifestyle brand. We create all-natural soaps that are handcrafted by Bangladeshi artisans that have escaped human trafficking. We work with our artisans to train them to make 700 Rivers’ soaps, employ them with fair living wages, and provide a safe environment with dignified work. Staying true to our mission of being fair-trade and eco-friendly, 700 Rivers’ soaps are made with all natural ingredients and packaged in 100% biodegradable packaging made from vegetable fibers.
The soaps are available online on the 700 Rivers website, and I am happy to offer your readers a promo code to get 10% off of a 700 Rivers Soap Set with code FAIRLY10. If you are local to the Triangle NC area, you can also find 700 Rivers soaps at Rose and Lee Co. in downtown Apex or at Blue Water Spa in Raleigh!
Why did you decide to create 700 Rivers?
My family is originally from Bangladesh, a land of incredible poverty, and immigrated to America before I was born. Growing up here, we got to achieve the American dream, where my sisters and I all got an education and great careers. This was a pretty big deal because in Bangladesh women are not considered equal and their educations and careers are not taken very seriously. I have always known how fortunate I was for being able to grow up in a land of opportunity, but I started thinking about the women in Bangladesh (and all over the world for that matter) who didn’t have the means to uproot their lives to a country of opportunity and what that meant for their lives, their futures, and their children’s future. So I set out to create an opportunity for them, starting with women in Bangladesh.
Human trafficking is a huge issue in Bangladesh since it is one of the poorest countries in the world, and women’s lower social status, lack of education, and alternate career opportunities leaves them with few options. What is terrible is that 90% of the women sold into human trafficking are being held against their will and were sold without their consent. Many of the remaining 10% typically return to the brothel once they escape because they feel they have no other options or career opportunities due to their lack of education and job skills. We are partnering with a fair trade organization that helps these women who have escaped trafficking to gain mental health counseling and teach them new job skills. 700 Rivers is specifically working with these amazing women to teach and employ them to make soaps using all-natural ingredients and provide training to teach them to make our future products.
What is your favorite thing about working in the ethical/sustainable industry?
Definitely the artisans and the difference that is being made in their lives through fair work. Since the women we help employ have escaped human trafficking, for many of our artisans, this is the first time they have control over their lives, are working with the dignity and respect they deserve, and can support themselves and their families. I still remember the day I was able to come back to them in early January after a successful number of sales in December and tell them that we were not only ready to start production for a second order, but we were going to double our last production run! They were so excited that we had made enough money in sales to guarantee them work for more months and called it a “New Year’s gift.” That moment really emphasized the impact behind our work and that our customer’s purchases have an enormous amount of purpose behind them.
What has been your biggest challenge while running 700 Rivers?
The biggest challenge is being a one-person business and balancing everything that needs to be done, especially when so much happens on the other side of the planet! I am the research team, the product discovery and development team, the liaison between 700 Rivers and our partnering artisans, the business department, the marketing and sales department, customer service, and shipping and handling. Fortunately, the soap line is a perfect combination between my chemical background and my global impact passions, which is helping keep the business strong! I also find help wherever I can from my husband, my family, and friends.
What is your personal favorite product from 700 Rivers?
My personal favorite is our Lemon Citrus soap. The lemon citrus is antiseptic, invigorating, helps keep the skin hydrated, and just smells so fresh! The scent rejuvenates me as I shower to start my day!
A close second would be our Orange Turmeric soap (this one is also my husband’s favorite). Turmeric can revitalize your skin, is anti-inflammatory so it can reduce redness, and acts as an anti-bacterial agent and a natural moisturizer. Bangladeshi people love turmeric so much that we traditionally apply it all over our skin the day before our wedding – and yes I definitely did this too!
What’s coming up in the future for you and 700 Rivers?
700 Rivers is going to expand our personal care line into additional soap scents, shampoo and conditioner bars, and more in the near future. We are also going to expand into a textile line and create products using all sustainable fabrics. My long-term future goals are to increase our global impact by expanding from Bangladesh to working with fair trade artisans all over the world and to use our profits to create a scholarship to help send more girls to school.
And finally, you know we have to talk about the South here on Fairly Southern! What are your favorite and least favorite parts of living in the South?
My favorite things about living in the South include Bojangles, tailgating for NC State football games, NC barbeque, dressing in bright colors, the sense of community, living in a city that is right in between the beach and the mountains, and our starry nights.
My least favorite part is the way people make fun of NC when it snows. More honestly, I also wish that more people would embrace that “y’all means all” and work to be more inclusive to people of all communities.
What does being a Southerner mean to you?
To me, being southern means being kind, quick to help others, having strong family ties, and slowing down to enjoy life, love your family, and remember what is truly important.
Cathy, you are absolutely tuned in to what is truly important, and I love the work you are doing to empower women on the other side of the world.