Tag Archives: 2017 Accelerator Class

Meso assists Mayan artisans in Guatemala

 “We had an objective but no idea how to get there. Agora taught us how to order our priorities, re-analyze our strategies, and achieve our goals.”

Marisa Umaña believes in the power of artisanal design to empower women and bring economic opportunities and development to rural communities. A student of international commerce and policy, Marisa moved her professional life quite naturally into the field of economic development. After acquiring a Masters in Belgium, she returned to Guatemala, deciding to take a job as the Director of the Handcrafts Division for the Exporters’ Association. As the leader of a USAID-funded project, she threw her energy into fostering economic development in rural areas and connecting the women to clients in international markets. It was there that she met Diego and Gonzalo, who, wanting to create contemporary handmade products with traditional techniques, had founded the Mayan Store in 2010.

With a fondness for art and design, extensive travel experience, and unmistakably strong Guatemalan roots, Diego Olivero had decided to create a diverse handcrafted collection to highlight his cultural tradition. Fascinated by the intersection between business and social impact, Gonzalo Pertile had worked in both the public and private sectors and was driven to create local development.

The two partners were impressed with Marisa’s experience with the handcraft sector in Guatemala and invited her to join their project in 2016. The first, a natural in topics of innovation design, the second, fluent in the language of international development, and the last, an expert on coordinating local handcraft artisans, the team steadily expanded their business.

Over the years, they committed themselves to the preservation of Mayan cultural heritage. They partnered with wool weavers from the Momostenango municipality, women beaders in the Sololá department, and glassblowers in a recycling-based cooperative, providing artisans who had lived in conditions of extreme poverty with a sustainable income and access to the international market. They diversified their products beyond their renown woven rugs, expanding to chairs, glassware, and jewelry, and eventually changed their name to Meso, identifying their target market as Central America.

Despite knowing that they wanted to access investment, the Meso team had no idea how to become investment-ready. They struggled with creating a clear financial plan that would list their cost structures accurately, and did not know which direction to move in. So, in 2017, they applied to Agora’s Accelerator.

In the retreat and months of consulting that followed, they were shown how to achieve their objective. They emerged from the program with a re-analyzed growth strategy, invaluable investment contacts, and a stronger financial plan. With a company restructured in accordance with their goals, the team divided the work amongst themselves, relegating grants, design, and operative administration to the expert of each field.

The Meso team today continues moving steadily toward investment-readiness and expanding their network. Starting with three artisans in 2010, Meso now works with over 500 individuals, most of whom live in the northern highlands of Guatemala. They’ve focused their expansion on empowering women, moving female artisans into an agricultural group previously managed solely by men. In the process, they have brought an increased income and improved living conditions to all these families. Marisa has worked consistently to perfect effective communication with her artisans, many of whom have never been exposed to the need for quality control or deadlines nor understood finances. She happily reports that the process has become much smoother, and that she and her team have ambitious goals for growth. They plan to develop workshops where their artisans will be able to separate work from home in a space safe for dyeing and weaving, and thus reduce certain health risks.

Marisa believes that the diversity of her team has been the key to their success, each individual contributing a unique skill set to the company and inspiring the others to persevere. Despite the many challenges of working with rural Guatemalan artisans, Marisa is encouraged to continue driving social impact by her sense of responsibility to herself, her team, and society.

Marisa, Diego, and Gonzalo run their company on the values of teamwork, perseverance, and creativity, and they are changing the world, one beautiful wool-woven rug at a time.

Learn more about Meso at https://www.mesolifestyle.com

Indigo Impacto ensures access to safe drinking water

“As a social entrepreneur, you need to spend time on understanding the community you are impacting. You have to understand that market, and thoroughly understand their individual needs in order to best be able to help them.”

Israel Amezcua believes in the basic right of humans to access clean, affordable water. Throughout his life, Israel has always cultivated his natural entrepreneurial spirit, founding several ventures that sold products ranging from jewelry to organic coffee. But for the last decade, he dedicated his time to a civil association, working with safe water, management of natural resources, and rural development. Israel became increasingly drawn to the monumental importance and rising value of water. Faced with the quickly approaching effects of global warming, he knew that rural communities were most at risk and least capable of accessing clean, safe water.

Israel learned that, despite being one of the world’s largest consumers of freshwater per capita, Mexico still had over 20 million of its citizens living without access to clean water. This was causing a massive portion of the population to be extremely vulnerable to serious gastrointestinal diseases. Israel knew that something had to be done, and accordingly put his entrepreneurial spirit to work.

Working with Fermín, a friend from the same civil association, the two men decided that they wanted to empower these rural communities in the management of their own natural resource while simultaneously bringing them access to safe drinking water. Out of this idea, Indigo Impacto was born.

Conceived with a clear focus on these rural communities, Indigo Impacto builds on the existence of water purification kiosks in urban areas, adapting the models to more remote areas and using them to bring opportunity and autonomy to marginalized individuals. By selling the kiosk franchise for women to operate on their own, Indigo Impacto ensures a stable stream of income for individuals who were unlikely to ever own their own business. Additionally, the kiosks keep the price of safe water low and affordable for all of the community. They have even become a source of pride, proof that natural resources are being efficiently managed.

In addition to the purification kiosk franchise, Indigo Impacto sells simple systems that collect and purify rainwater for individual households. With these diverse services, Israel and Fermín are changing lives. Maricela, a resident of the rural Francisco Sarabia community in Chiapas, is a single mother who used to make a living cleaning houses. Introduced to the purification kiosks, she formed a group with four other women, installed a model, and began to run her brand new business. She now makes an income stable enough for her to spend time at home with her children and address their daily needs.

Inspired by Agora’s Latin American vision and focus, Israel applied to the Accelerator program in 2017. In the months that followed the initial retreat, Israel was guided by an invaluable consultant, readily available for support and consistently connecting him with new individuals and organizations that could push his business further. Indigo Impacto today is stronger than ever before, with a clearer pitch, message, and mission that have drawn in several interested investors.

Despite the rapid expansion of his company, Israel’s thirst for creating impact has not been quenched. He envisions Indigo Impacto operating in ten states throughout Mexico, installing between 300 and 500 kiosks to be operated by women, and selling 100,000 household purification systems. Israel runs his company driven by the need to create a better future for his family, and he is changing the world, one drop of clean water at a time.

Learn more about Indigo Impacto at http://indigoimpacto.mx.

D&E Green Enterprises promotes clean cookstoves in Haiti

“For my fellow social entrepreneurs, never fall in love with your solution. Fall in love with the problem.”

Duquesne Fednard believes that homegrown entrepreneurs need to fall in love with the problems facing Haiti, relying upon themselves rather than foreign aid to push their country into the future. Duquesne was born in a small Haitian town to a mother who had only a 3rd grade education and a father who could neither read nor write. Despite their own limitations, Duquesne’s parents instilled in him the value of taking initiative and the understanding that education would be his ticket to prosperity. Raised in a town that, even now, has no electricity or running water, little Duquesne housed an entrepreneurial fire whose brazen flames endure to this day.

At the age of 9, Duquesne was left alone to proctor his class’ exams. While his teacher desperately tried to woo the attractive teacher next door, the young entrepreneur seized upon this opportunity. Within weeks he had a full-blown business running, making sure students who wanted to cheat had to pay him, or risk the wrath of their lovesick teacher. By the end of the year, Duquesne had made enough money to buy himself a few toys.

At 16, Duquesne opened a print shop, his first formal business on the island, but he craved foreign exposure and experience. And so, he sold his print shop and moved to the United States, spending the next fourteen years on the fast track. He worked in a consulting firm, pursued a graduate degree, became an investment banker on the famed Wall Street, and even worked for Mayor Bloomberg. But his heart remained firmly tethered to Haiti.

He began to conduct market research on the existing organizations operating in Haiti and realized that his country had become overrun by NGOs, many of which had the best intentions  but were only creating greater problems. The deluge of foreign aid not only made Haitians increasingly dependent, but also destroyed many of their jobs. Duquesne knew he had to provide a local solution to a local problem that could be implemented by the local community.

Armed with the knowledge that 95% of Haitians still use charcoal as their primary fuel for cooking, Duquesne identified the energy market as an easy entry-point. He hoped to address both the environmental damage caused by this reliance as well as the social disparity that saw 80% of the population living below the poverty line. The solution became D&E Green Enterprises. Bringing affordable, reliable and clean energy to these impoverished communities, D&E manufactures and sells energy-efficient cook-stoves and integrates its customers into a financing scheme that helps generate savings.

Duquesne excitedly designed his prototype in 2009 and turned all his savings into a new factory with equipment that would manufacture the cook-stoves. But in January of 2010, disaster struck. A 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti, taking the lives of 220,000 Haitians and the homes of another 1.5 million. Duquesne’s factory and all the new equipment inside were reduced to a heap of rubble. When Duquesne finally managed to visit the site, he noticed that a 39 year old who had been trained to work at his factory was visiting its remains every day. The factory was supposed to provide him with his first formal job, and despite the fact that this dream of an improved life lay in ruins before him, the man continued to show up at the site, desperately searching for a sense of normalcy.

It was at this moment that Duquesne remembered that his project was bigger than himself. Beyond the destruction of his dream and the loss of all his savings, his business had been a beacon of hope for all those involved. And so, picking himself up by the bootstraps, Duquesne got back to work. Over the next three years, his workers manufactured the cook-stoves manually, working in flimsy tents as hurricanes came and went. By 2014, the factory was rebuilt and his company was back on track.

Knowing that he needed capital to scale  his business was raising money, Duquesne applied to Agora’s Accelerator in 2017. His initial expectations were far surpassed. He gained access to a wonderful community and support system of fellow social entrepreneurs and was given the tools to get him closer to investment. Over the course of the past four months, a dedicated and perfectly-matched consultant helped him stay focused, maintain the structure of his business, and clearly define his priorities and responsibilities.

D&E today has sold over 125,000 cookstoves, directly impacting 600,000 lives. It has created over 60 full-time jobs and empowered over 100 local distributors. Duquesne hopes that, five years from now, there will be millions of low-income individuals on his savings-by-consumption platform, and D&E will be operating in three countries.

In the many ups and downs of his entrepreneurial journey, Duquesne has learned that, as a social entrepreneur, one must fall in love with the problem and not the solution. Believing himself incredibly blessed to be able to help others, Duquesne runs his company with humility, openness, and resilience, changing the world, one cook-stove at a time.  

Learn more about D&E Green Enterprises at http://www.dandegreen.com/.