Growing up in Guatemala, I was no stranger to the terms I study in my International Affairs textbooks, like “poverty” or “economic development.” These terms are a reality for developing countries around the globe. The question that we keep asking ourselves also remains the same: “How can we lessen poverty/improve economic stability in those countries?” The approach to this question, however, is changing. NGOs have been the prominent organizations behind economic development abroad throughout the years. Certain challenges are common with NGOs, such as lack of funding and sustainability or longevity, limiting the long-term impact that can be created for beneficiaries. Social enterprises (“revenue-generating entities with a social mission at the forefront”), however, have become increasingly more prominent in the economic development space.
Recently, I traveled to Bali, Indonesia with the Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship Immersion IP program for four weeks. Having grown up in Guatemala, I’ve seen development through a Latin American lens. I began working with economic development initiatives two years ago through Woven Futures (www.wovenfutures.com), a Tallahassee startup that partners with Guatemalan Indigenous artisans to create ethical and bohemian fashion with the focus on creating sustainable income opportunities for marginalized groups. My work with Woven Futures showed me the dire need for sustainable solutions to poverty in Guatemala. Often times, NGOs in the country supply people in need with one-time aid but offer no follow-up or training. Seeing this first-hand in Guatemala urged me to create a business that employs artisans consistently and offers financial training so that beneficiaries can not only earn an income, but effectively manage their increased earnings as well.
I decided to join the Bali IP program specifically because I wanted to examine development through a new lens in a different part of the world and see how I could apply successful practices in Indonesia to my business in Guatemala. Let me tell you, I was not disappointed in what I found. Despite Indonesia and Guatemala being in two completely different parts of the world, the two countries are quite similar. In Bali and throughout Indonesia, there are many indigenous groups with little access to resources for growth. Threads of Life is a social enterprise that partners with indigenous artisans to develop their weaving skills and then sells these handwoven textiles through their shop in Bali, helping empower women and sustain artisan culture and economies.
Threads of Life began over ten years ago and now offers weaving and dyeing classes in Ubud, a popular tourist spot in Bali, while partnering with hundreds of artisans across the archipelago. Seeing this enterprise work as a business (they have a storefront gallery with beautiful items for sale) inspired my work at Woven. Building a business with a focus on profit is not bad, nor should it be. I was always used to thinking that only NGOs were truly selfless in their mission because they took no profit, but that is not always the best approach for impact. Building a business that makes a profit allows you to have more capital to invest into impact programs for your beneficiaries. If profit is allocated properly, impact is tremendous. Evidence of this was consistent throughout the Bali program as we visited social enterprises that trained and employed locals to carry out change in their communities directly through business approaches complemented with holistic, wrap-around supports. I traveled back to Guatemala after Bali and spent another two months working with artisans to create travel and accessory items for sale in the U.S. Together, we’re creating useful fashion for the U.S. market that generates a profit, one that in turn allows artisans in Guatemala to rise out of poverty. I believe that “business can be and should be a force for good,” and the Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship Program in Bali showed me just that.
Hannah King is Founder and CEO of Woven Futures. She’ll be graduating this May with a B.A. in International Affairs and minors in Social Entrepreneurship and Portuguese. She will expand Woven Futures upon graduation and will spend half her time in Guatemala.