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FS Brats in the

Shark Tank


n February, Alley Heffern (daughter of

FSO Ambassador John Heffern) and her

business partner Jack DuFour appeared

on the popular ABC television show

“Shark Tank

” to convince the hosts to

invest in their business,

Taaluma Totes.

A Foreign Service moment on national

television is unusual, but it is all the more

surprising when it turns out that “shark”

investor “Mr. Wonderful” (Kevin O’Leary)

is himself a Foreign Service brat.

“I had a little connection with this

when Alley said that her dad worked for

the State Department and traveled a lot,”

he said. “That was also my story. I lived

in Cambodia, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Cyprus,

Japan, Switzerland, France. Every two

years we moved.”

Taaluma Totes was inspired by Alley’s

Foreign Service childhood and a col-

lege trip to Uganda, where she and Jack

sourced their first fabric to make beautiful,

unusual backpacks.

They co-founded the company with the

goal of strengthening economic ties within

the global community. Taaluma Totes

sources traditional fabrics from local arti-

sans in Asian, African and Latin America.

A portion of the money earned from

the sale of each backpack funds a micro-

loan for an artist, farmer or entrepreneur

in the country where its fabric originated.

Assembled in Richmond, Virginia, in a

facility that employs adults with disabili-

ties, the backpacks retail for $65 to $75.

Currently, about 20 percent of profits

go to microloans, which are typically paid

back within 12 months. The money from

repaid loans is then put toward purchas-

ing more unique, traditional fabrics,

completing the cycle.

Heffern and DuFour also run what they

call a campus ambassador program aim-

ing to expand their business. Two students


at each participating

college represent

Taaluma Totes and

spread the word.

Although the

“sharks” declined

to back the year-old

company financially,

noting that it was “too

soon,” they praised

Alley and Jack on their

innovative business

model, and encour-

aged them to seek

funding when the

company is more


They expressed

admiration for the fact that two young

people, inspired by examples of public

service, were hoping to continue the

tradition. “Taaluma” means “culture” in

Swahili, and according to Jack and Alley,

with Taaluma Totes, “You carry more than

a backpack; you carry a country.”

—Shannon Mizzi, Editorial Intern

Passports, Visas and

Transgender Rights

R olling Stone called 2014 the “big- gest year in transgender history.”


December 2014 issue highlighted some of

the victories, fromAmazon’s “Transpar-

ent” television series’ two Golden Globe

nominations (which it ultimately won)

to certain women’s colleges’ adoption of

trans-inclusive admissions policies.

Even the State Department got in on

the action by asking its health insurance

providers to lift exclusions related to “sex

reassignment” (see December 2014 Talk- ing Points). Though 2014 was indeed a

banner year for the advancement of trans-

gender rights in the United States, and

Caitlyn Jenner’s completing her transition

has only added steam in 2015, there’s

still a long way to go before transgender

people have equal rights.

For example, on May 7, The Times of India reported on the case of transgender visa applicant Amruta Alpesh Soni, whose

application to attend a trans health con-

ference in Philadelphia was put “on hold”

due to an inconsistency in her paperwork.

The gender in her Indian passport, “T”

(transgender), did not match the gender

she listed on her DS-160 visa application,

because State’s online form only allows

applicants to choose male or female.

While U.S. Consulate General Kolkata

reportedly did issue the visa, after two

days and a likely legal “advisory opinion”

from the Bureau of Consular Affairs, the

incident was indicative of the many chal-

lenges faced by transgender persons even

when dealing with trans-friendly govern-

ments and institutions.

Apart from India, a handful of coun-

tries including Australia, Bangladesh,

Nepal and New Zealand, offer their

citizens a third gender category on their

passports. Germany and Malta have

legislation that will soon offer passport-

seekers gender options other than male

Secretary of State John Kerry (forefront left) and Chargé

d’Affaires Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis watch as

U.S. Marines raise the American flag at the ambassador’s

residence in Havana, Cuba, on Aug. 14.


A Historic Step in Havana