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The GiFTT of purpose

Julie Buxton (BSBA ’95) grew up in Ada, Oklahoma; and from early childhood through high school, her mom frequently brought her and her sister to Tulsa. “We came to spend time with family, shop, visit Philbrook or see a show at the PAC,” said Buxton. “Tulsa was such a vibrant, fun community, I thought the small college feel at The University of Tulsa would be a good fit for me.”

She moved into the Twin South residence hall her freshman year, opting to room with someone she didn’t know because she wanted to meet new friends. Buxton pledged Kappa Kappa Gamma,  and the second semester of her freshman year, she took up residence in the Kappa house. “I loved it,” she says, smiling. “I became active in several organizations on campus, made some great friends and enjoyed my college experience.”

Climbing the ladder

Graduating with a degree in finance, Buxton veered from a traditional career path to Los Angeles to take acting classes. “I did that for about a year and a half and realized it was time to get a ‘real job,’” she laughs. Hired by the Williams Company, she spent several years trading energy on the trading floor before being hired by an out-of-state competitor. Soon after the Enron scandal hit and the energy market plummeted, Buxton was laid off from her company. Recognizing she was burned out and needing a break, she took some time off to consider her next move. “I got involved in triathlons and did a lot volunteer work. My world became training and volunteering,” she says.

Seeking a career change that would provide a better work-life balance, she transitioned to commercial real estate corporate services with CBRE (formerly Trammell Crow Company). From brokerage, she stepped into being part of the FedEx Kinko’s Office & Print 2,000-store national rollout, and was responsible for markets in Seattle, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Shortly after beginning the Kellogg School of Management MBA program at Northwestern University in Chicago, she accepted the position of director of operations, Global Corporate Services Central Region, a unique position with CBRE, in Chicago. She would no longer have to fly from Dallas to Chicago every other weekend for classes while working full-time. Buxton describes her time at Kellogg as “an amazing experience.”

Another career opportunity presented itself in the form of a position on a newly created global team. This role provided Buxton a chance to work remotely and return to Tulsa to be close to family. However, a reorganization soon after the transition left her again without a job. “You just cannot plan some of this stuff,” Buxton says laughing. Soon after, she was presented her dream job: To get in on the ground floor of a private equity-backed company. She was responsible for mergers and acquisitions of an oil and gas midstream company. After five years, the company recently ceased operations. Of that experience she says, “No risk, no reward.”

But, timing is everything, and Buxton came to realize, “The last 20 years of my career path, I had been constantly striving and moving up the ladder, chasing the next promotion, the next pay raise, the next title. But for what purpose? You get that new job, raise, or title you wanted, and two weeks later, you’re exactly where you were before you got it; already searching for the next step.”

A soul stirring

She had felt a stirring in recent years, which she describes as a mix of boredom, irritation and numbness. “I sensed there was something incomplete that I wasn’t able to articulate.” Buxton wanted to do something with an impact but wasn’t quite sure what that meant. This desire became intertwined with the realization and desire that she wanted to make changes in herself. A volunteer trip to Africa in 2015 to help build feeding stations for orphans in the Swaziland bush, an area hit hard by the AIDS epidemic, made a lasting impression on her. The seed had been planted.

Buxton had also worked with a local nonprofit to develop a business plan to address food insecurity in North Tulsa. That led to involvement with LEADNorth, a leadership program designed to equip current and future leaders in Tulsa with the skills, knowledge and network to make meaningful change in North Tulsa. “I signed up for that program to put action into my belief that we should be doing more to help the residents of North Tulsa,” she said.

Still, Buxton felt the urge to create something bigger. She made a return trip to Africa in 2017 as a volunteer and on the plane ride home, thought about the women she’d met who created beautiful, handmade goods that she brought back as reminders of her time there.

Within two days of arriving home, Buxton had put together a business plan for Global Fair Trade Treasures, or GiFTT, to import and sell certified fair trade items from around the world. “These items are handmade by women, for women,” she explains. “Women who own these small businesses train other women giving them a skillset and help them earn livable wages.” Buxton’s plan includes tapping into her extensive network in the U.S. and globally to sell unique, sought after certified fair trade treasures such as hand-dyed mohair blankets, bamboo scarves, aesthetically-interesting pulp bowls and jewelry.

Making both a local and global impact

“That’s the global impact,” she says. “The local impact is as GiFTT grows in Tulsa, I plan to hire women in recovery, women re-entering the workforce post-incarceration, and single mothers on government assistance.” As the company becomes profitable, Buxton plans to create a nonprofit to help fund emergency expenses as well as educational expenses for her employees and their children.

Buxton has spent the last year introducing the community to GiFTT by hosting pop-up shops and networking with boutique owners. She also worked with a team in Africa to design a custom bamboo scarf woven with hand-dyed thread in TU’s colors. TU supporters can pre-order the scarf here. A percentage of the sales proceeds will benefit the First Lady Emergency Fund, which assists TU students in crisis situations.

She says it’s the combination of the global and local impact that differentiates GiFTT from other fair trade retailers. “Whether it’s education or food insecurity, I don’t want to just stick a band-aid on it. I want to change the landscape by changing the soil instead of just planting a flower.”

Consumers vote for the world they want to live in by how they spend, as Buxton explains. “It’s a way to communicate what they value.” She gives an example of a fair-trade cotton t-shirt that typically costs three percent more in wages, which translates to roughly a 10 percent increase in that item’s retail cost. “As a consumer, I would pay that $1-2 premium for a $10-$12 t-shirt knowing it was a fair-trade item.”

Though GiFTT is still in its early stages, Buxton plans on reinvesting in the artisans’ businesses oversees to help create more jobs for them, training and enhancing their local operations. She forms personal relationships with each company owner and their “top management team,” which adds to the meaning of each item sold through her company.

Buxton says she will define success not by a traditional business model, but by something more qualitative. “If I only impact one family in Tulsa or one mom and her kids, that’s the whole point. If I can become a large enough partner with these companies in Africa and they are able to provide more jobs, that is also a win. While I haven’t defined success by a revenue threshold, it comes back to answering the question, ‘Have I made a difference in someone’s life?’ If so, I have achieved my purpose.”