Latina military spouse creates online business to give back, promote slow fashion
Nadia Martinez, founder of Kallie & Co., turned to entrepreneurship as a way to help other military spouses, as well as Mexican artisans.
The experience of being a military spouse can be quite challenging. Imagine constantly having to pack your whole life in a suitcase and relocate, handling the moving and new surroundings while your partner is deployed.
That’s the kind of unpredictability and uncertainty Nadia Martinez experienced for over a decade.
By the time Martinez and her husband got married, he had already done back-to-back deployments to Iraq. Shortly after their wedding, he went back to Iraq for a third time, and later a fourth combat deployment to Afghanistan.
By that point, the two had become parents.
“As a brand new mom with a husband going to war, I didn't even know how to handle things,” Martinez said in an interview with AL DÍA.
Volunteer work became her outlet, as Martinez got involved in the Marine Corps family readiness program for one of the biggest battalions in the Marine Corps at the time.
The experience there helped Martinez build a connection and develop a support system with other military spouses and families, during a time when she especially needed a sense of community.
“If it wasn’t for those experiences, even though they were so extremely tough times — you say ‘goodbye’ to your spouse [and] you have no idea if he’s coming back — you hope for the best, and thanks to that, I became much stronger, resilient,” she said.
She continued to volunteer right until her husband’s retirement in 2018.
However, the challenge of having to relocate roughly every three years made it extremely difficult to grow professionally.
After being transferred from San Diego to Parris Island, Martinez had to leave her job and began thinking of potentially starting her own business, one that was “portable” due to her family’s frequent relocations.
In 2014, in her own laundry room, Martinez created Kallie & Co., an online social retail business that sells handcrafted goods created by Mexican artisans.
Through the use of social media, the company has since grown to sell products across the United States and Canada, as well as support Mexican artisans through fair labor — a big factor in Kallie & Co.’s impact and functioning.
Martinez credits her grandmother for shaping her as the person she is today. The experience of being raised by a woman who was born in 1930, who was also a widow and main provider for nine children, had a significant impact on Martinez’s perspective.
“I had to learn that in order to move forward, you have to work,” said Martinez. “You have to work hard, you have to have commitment and dedication. And I learned about all of that through my grandmother.”
Despite growing up in an area where there were no hospitals and only one elementary school, Martinez described her childhood as “simple and happy.”
“But it was also the core foundation of who I am as a person and what I do as a businesswoman, as well,” she added.
When she was 13 years old, Martinez’s grandmother passed away, prompting Martinez to leave the village and go to stay with her mother in the city of Tijuana.
While living in Tijuana, she crossed the border every day to go to school in Imperial Beach in San Diego, during her senior year in high school.
Being 16 years old, living in Mexico and going to school in another country, Martinez experienced a big culture shock. She didn’t speak English, and didn’t understand American customs and traditions. To help her learn the language, Martinez began taking adult ESL classes.
“Everyday was a learning experience because everyday was something different,” she reflected.
However, the teenaged Martinez found solace in the fact that at the end of each school day, she could go back to her comfort zone, to her family in Mexico.
“It was intimidating initially, but then the United States has been such a welcoming place for me that I embraced it,” said Martinez.
At the age of 19, Martinez came to live in the U.S. full-time, “but it did take a little bit for me to feel fully comfortable with the changes,” she said.
Martinez credits her husband with making her transition to a new life in the U.S. a little bit easier.
The fact that he was active-duty in the Marines helped Martinez learn the meaning behind American patriotism, as well as the common traditions that are celebrated across the country.
Despite the many challenges, Martinez believes the military has provided a good life for her family.
“Even though it came with sacrifices, it gave us so many opportunities that, as a young couple… I don’t think we would’ve had at such a young age, outside the Marine Corps,” she said.
Now a mother of two young daughters, Martinez started contemplating the idea of creating a business that was “portable.” That way, she wouldn’t have to leave her job if the family had to relocate again, and she’d also have an opportunity to work from home.
In 2014, in her laundry room, Martinez created Kallie & Co., an online social retail business that sells both stylish and ethical products made by Mexican artisans, including footwear, jewelry, handbags and other accessories.
Just two months later, their oldest daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. They had just arrived in New York City on military orders, and a few days later, their daughter was in the ICU.
With no other family members of friends available, the circumstances gave Martinez an extra jolt of motivation to move forward with Kallie & Co.
“As a mom, it just didn’t feel like it was going to be the right fit for me not to make the business work,” she said. “I had the motivation from our current circumstances on top of being a military spouse who was going to have to move three years later… that’s where the main motivation comes from.”
“It was a mix of so many things coming together that for many people it would have been some of the biggest challenges. But in my case, it became the driving force behind what I do,” she added.
While her venture into entrepreneurship only officially started five years ago, the idea has weighed on Martinez’s mind since she was 15 years old. At that age, she gave herself a window of 15 years to have her own business. At age 29, that idea came to fruition.
She became inspired by the fact that her grandmother was a business owner in her village. It was inspiring to see a strong, independent woman providing for her family, and making things happen, and that exposure stayed with her.
“The same resilience… the same creativity that sometimes you have to have as a military spouse to get through another day, another week, another month, it’s ultimately what pushed me to look into becoming an entrepreneur,” she noted.
“And I can honestly tell you that if it wasn't for those experiences that I went through and the need to have something of my own outside his Marine Corps career, I wouldn't be doing what I do right now with the company,” she continued.
“To me, there’s no better other feeling like that,” she said.
Through social media, she has been able to connect with other military spouses. Facebook and Instagram has helped her build the brand, while WhatsApp has allowed her to communicate with artisans in Mexico.
Back in 2017, however, Martinez went through a difficult time with the company. An earthquake in Mexico City and a hurricane in Guadalajara caused Kallie & Co. to end the year with big losses.
“I lost everything, I lost all of it basically,” recalled Martinez.
However, she was able to rebuild the company, and that was aided by her life experiences.
“Rebuilding, coming from literally ashes was honestly one of the biggest accomplishments that I have, and one of the things I’ve been most proud of,” she said.
In addition to creating jobs and giving back, one of Martinez’s biggest goals with Kallie & Co. is to help bring more awareness to the slow fashion and fair trade industry.
“I feel that here in the United States, we still have a lot of work to do,” she said.
Through this mission, Martinez will be opening a wholesale program to bring more awareness to the issue, as well as connect with other companies with like-minded goals.