In 2005, Canadian Benjamin Cole Brown was working in construction, flipping condos and houses in Hamilton, Ont., when Live Different, a local charity committed to empowering youth and pursuing social justice, approached him to lead up construction on building projects such as schools, houses, community centres and medical clinics in the Dominican Republic. Brown took up the challenge and was soon swapping granite countertops and stainless steel appliances for corrugated metal roofs and cinder blocks. Now based in the D.R., Brown still works with Live Different as its manager of operations in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, but has also branched out on his own to set up Cambio Goods, a social enterprise that creates local employment by bringing together some of the Dominican’s poorest, but amazingly talented, craftspeople to make stylish leather products.
How did the idea for Cambio Goods come about?
Working with Live Different, I spent a lot of time in some of the poorest slums in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Thailand and Mexico. I realized how talented and how hard-working many of [the people who lived there] were. The people I’ve met in these desperate places have incredible character and work ethic. Even though they were talented with leather goods or sewing, they lacked the knowledge to make what might be popular.
What’s the story behind the name?
Cambio in Spanish means change. In an ideal world, it would be great to buy something that makes a [positive] impact, but those products often fail because they’re not desirable. The concept of Cambio is to firstly make good, popular products that people want to buy and, secondly, to create employment and reinvest the funds back into community development.
So when did the company start taking shape?
Five years ago, I met a man called Jose who had a sewing machine and I started to design some products in a small shop that was right in the slums in the Dominican’s Puerto Plata. I began connecting local craftspeople with the shop and we started making things I personally wanted, like a wallet, a bag and a camera case. We designed with a lot of hands-on teaching about new styles. I don’t want to come off like I taught them how to sew or how to do specific designs, because the group that I work with is really talented; I just brought popular and relevant styles [with a broader appeal] to the table.
How would you say the company is impacting local communities?
The goal is to make an impact and create employment here with Dominican and Haitian communities. By creating a job where an individual can generate an income and support his or her family, and by providing an [outlet] for talented people in these communities and areas, that is the main push behind Cambio.
What have been the highlights so far?
The popularity of the products—like the Weekend Bag ($350) and the Traveller Case ($150)—has been a highlight and a surprise.
What do you love about your role?
“Creating beautiful products and employment in an area that has faced so many challenges has been the most exciting thing.”
How has Cambio evolved?
Cambio launched in 2015 after a slow progression that began in 2010—those five years were spent finding the right craftspeople. We have about 10 people who work full-time designing products. The main growth has been the line; there are 30 different products, from iPad cases, wallets and women’s purses to bracelets and guitar straps, and each is being continuously improved and we always have new designs in the works.
What can people expect?
Quality, style and functionality. Those are the main things.
Why would a Cambio product be a good option for a business traveller?
I’ve designed bags around travel. The Traveller laptop case fits in my carry-on bag until my carry-on goes into the overhead locker and then the Traveller lets me have everything I need at my seat. I have my laptop, hard drives, phone, headphones, pens and my passport ready, without having to go back to my other bag.
Where can people buy Cambio products?
Online at cambiogoods.org.
Best business advice you have been given?
To do what you can. Some days, I take big steps, other days I take little steps, but I move forward each day.
Brown’s Top Cambio Travel Essentials
“I designed this after a lot of personal travel. I am always trying to meet practical function with style.”
The Weekend Bag
“This bag has a classic style and practicality. It’s great for business travel and casual weekend trips, too.”
The Women’s Clutch
“A sleek and simple design for going out with the basics: keys, cellphone, cards and cash.”