Gray Hemlock, in the words of Fitzgerald “Fitz” Robertson, is “the online marketplace for the most affordable women’s fair trade jewelry in the world.” The company sells bracelets, necklaces and earrings, all under $30, with the target market being college students and millennials. Artisans in Nepal, Rwanda, Costa Rica, Mexico, Ecuador, Uganda, North Carolina and Texas make the products.
The company, which began in December 2016, is run by two Seton Hill University seniors: Fitz, a business administration major with concentrations in entrepreneurial studies, marketing and human resource management, and Halie Torris, a graphic design major and entrepreneurial studies minor. Fitz and Halie are co-founders and they share the responsibilities of running the business.
What Makes Gray Hemlock So Special?
In January 2017, Fitz and Halie watched “The True Cost,” a documentary that highlights some of the negative conditions in which people in the fashion manufacturing system work. After seeing that, the two were inspired to reinvent their business. They realized that the previous version of Gray Hemlock may have contributed in a small way to the system that the film highlighted. They decided that, going forward, any new organizations with whom they partnered were required to send a letter guaranteeing that products are made “with fair wages, proper working conditions and no child labor,” Fitz said.
Halie and Fitz want to make sure that the artisan groups they partner with benefit from the profits. There are pictures on the Gray Hemlock website to bring attention to them and show that they are real people who make the products. One of the organizations is Hands Producing Hope, which is based in Rwanda and Costa Rica. In addition, classes are offered to the artisans, focusing on topics such as financial literacy and healthy eating.
How Seton Hill Has Helped
Both Halie and Fitz said that classes and professors at Seton Hill have helped them “inside and outside of the classroom.” One professor who has had an impact on them was Jen Jones, Ph.D., who taught Organizational Leadership and Corporate Ethics and incorporated fair trade into her coursework. Various graphic design professors helped Halie with the creative part of the business, like how to design an eye-catching logo. Also, the Wukich Center for Entrepreneurial Opportunities has provided Halie and Fitz with advice, resources and opportunities.
Informing Others about Fair Trade
Teaching friends and family about fair trade has become important for both Halie and Fitz. “Most people don’t know unless it’s explained on a basic level,” said Halie, which is why they’ve taken it upon themselves to inform others. It’s not just a one and done thing, either; it’s a continued conversation. Clothes and jewelry are sometimes manufactured in horrible conditions, as are other products, even food. They prompt their friends to think about these issues and do something about them.
What Happens Next?
Gray Hemlock started as a simple idea and transformed into a full-on online business. In May 2018, Halie and Fitz will graduate from Seton Hill. So, what happens next? “We want to solidify our customer acquisition strategy,” said Fitz, meaning they want to figure out how to share their business and their mission with more fair trade enthusiasts and acquire more sales. They have been speaking with and getting advice from their mentors and advisors about what they want to do, which is step off into this full time.
Halie said the company has “gone through a lot of different iterations,” and surrounding themselves with positive friends, peers and professors has helped them succeed. “Finding someone that has the same goals and aspirations,” Halie said, is critical for any successful business, and Halie and Fitz have found that in each other.
This story was researched and written by Alexandra Gipson, a junior creative writing major and Spanish minor, currently serving as a marketing communication intern at Seton Hill.