Artistri Sud works to build women’s capacity to generate revenue through entrepreneurship, which provides the basis for increasing their influence first in their own home, and eventually, in their communities and beyond.  Several of our graduates have taken on exciting leadership roles–becoming president of a village, chair of the local water committee, teachers, employers and more. Inhabiting these new roles requires a transformational shift in mindset and perception of the self in a process which is catalyzed during our 5-day entrepreneurship training program.

 Jennifer at Tales of Triumph sharing Oliva’s story

 But to develop the skills and the network that is needed to create change in your environment takes experience; lasting change happens incrementally, as a result of concrete steps taken. But what do those steps look like on the ground? Read about Oliva’s journey in the months after completing Artistri Sud’s intensive ASSET program, and see where they’ve led her so far.

Asking Questions and Shifting a Mindset

 In September 2019, Oliva took part in our five-day entrepreneurship boot camp in Ecuador.  On the very first day, in a special exercise designed to help track the expansion of participants’ views of themselves, Oliva identified as a weaver–she makes and sells the famous Panama hats–this was her modest starting point. On Day 3, participants learn a seven-step process to improve their sales. They are invited to reflect on the profiles of their existing customers to develop a ‘persona’–an amalgam of their typical customers which helps them target product sales and innovation more effectively.

Oliva on Day One of Training

Oliva seemed surprised when she reported that she had only one customer, as if it were impossible to imagine more.  Still, she works through the exercise with a trainer, who asks: “Who is this customer?”, “How old is she?”, “Where is she from?”.  With a few more details, it becomes clear the buyer is not simply a hat-loving individual customer, but a retailer or possible a wholesaler, but Oliva doesn’t know–she’s never asked.  Her teammates encourage her to look up the woman’s name and company on-line to learn more about her business–does she export to sun-drenched holiday destinations?  Does she target foreign tourists who want to own an original “Panama hat”?: this information could provide clues as to the type of market which seeks Oliva’s product, and potential avenues for more sales.  But Oliva has nothing that can help with a search–her customer never provided a purchase order, a receipt or even a business card.  Her classmates and trainers have reached the end of the line–they cannot help her go any further.  But a light has gone on in Oliva and it shines in her eyes: she has realized that she can ask questions, find answers, she can influence the sales process.  Empowerment is dawning on her like the Ecuadorean sun.  

On Day 4, the 42 women work in groups to complete the modules on costing and pricing, and discover that all but one are pricing their products below cost. Stunned, they gaze around the room at each other, 41 of them with their hands up in confession of this startling discovery: they are all losing money.  Oliva is among them, hand up, shaking her head, her eyes wide with wonder.

Finding Self-Confidence

On the fifth and final day, we repeat the first day’s self-identification activity, and they write their names on large sheets on the wall under the titles they feel apply to them. Whereas on Day 1, “mother”, “weaver”, “farmer” garnered long lists of names, now, five days later, participants also add themselves to the sheets marked “community leader”, “change-maker”, “businesswoman”, “entrepreneur”, “teacher”–broader, more powerful roles than they had ever seen themselves in before. Oliva has marked her name in these categories, but stands under the heading that she identifies with now the most:  “learner”. Fred Schick, lead trainer, is surprised–she’s a master weaver, after all, respected steward of ancestral cultural traditions. “I make nice hats,” Oliva explained,”and I sell them, and I thought I was good and that’s it. But now I see that there’s a world of things I don’t know, things I can do. I’ve learned so much in these 5 days, and I know now that I will keep learning.” 

Oliva on Day Five of Training

In the five days of training, Oliva certainly learned that something had to change.  It takes two days to make an average-quality hat, then she had to pay $5 for the finishing, which requires a machine she and her fellow village weavers don’t have.  She then sells them to her one customer for $7 each–meaning she made 1$ per day, not including the costs of materials, shipping, and other expenses. She had to do better. 

Leading Change

Having realized that owning their own finishing machine was critical to growing a successful business, she boldly asked the municipality to fund the purchase of such a machine for the village weavers. To Oliva’s surprise, the mayor agreed, but in the election the following month, was not reelected; the new mayor refused to honour the commitment. Encouraged by her Artistri Sud coach, Oliva tried the prefecture. She was able to secure their agreement, but on the condition that the community itself match their investment. Oliva could not afford that on her own, and the local weavers refused to come together to put up half the funds for the machine which would cut their costs in half. “They only think about the short-term,” Oliva told her coach, discouraged. “That training program opened my eyes, but the others–theirs are still closed.”

Despite the setbacks, Olivia persisted. She turned her attention to expanding her potential sales opportunities. She asked her two sisters, who sold vegetables from the family farm at the weekend market in Cuenca, to take some of her hats and try to sell them. This turned out to be a great idea, allowing her to sell two or three hats per month at $25 or $35 (depending on the level), instead of $7, which resulted in an exponential increase to her income. Her sisters, inspired, started selling their own hats at the market–Oliva’s ideas mean more income for all three of them. She’s happy, because she can finally afford to buy the medicine her bedridden mother has been prescribed.

Adapting and Growing

Oliva began using social media to promote her work, which led to her being discovered by a lady on a buying trip from France. Taken by the quality of Oliva’s hats, she placed an order for 300 on the spot. Oliva flatly refused, terrified by the size of the order. On her bi-weekly coaching call, her coach Ana suggested Oliva reconsider the offer. With some encouragement, Oliva was determined to try–she offered the French buyer 20 hats a month, which she was confident she could make, committed to go back to her short-sighted compañeras to see about working together to produce the rest.

A few months later, the French woman returned, and 22 women from the village gathered to hear her and Oliva’s proposal. They finally agreed to produce 100 hats, for $9 apiece. “I know it’s a bad price,” Oliva confessed to her coach, “but at least now they’re motivated. It’s a start.” The others, however, were thrilled; $9 a hat is 50% more than they usually get. Oliva was now executing on a complex pricing strategy, something she could not have even dreamed of 4 months ago, and responsible for increased incomes not only for herself, but for 22 poor village women.

Making Powerful Requests

Oliva had a vision for a retail store and workshop in their village, where the women could gather to work, visitors could see how the hats were made, and customers could buy from a wide selection of Panama hats.   In the center of the village, she knew of an old abandoned building, a sort of community center, that had fallen into disrepair.  Soon after the successful meeting with the other 22 women and the buyer, Oliva went to the village chief, shared her idea with him, and asked if they could use the building. He was obviously skeptical, but he let her have it. An older man from the village lets her in, and together they scope out the premises.  In the ruins, they stumbled across a dusty old machine, and he fiddles with it.  “It works”, he finally pronounces, dusting himself off.  “Just needs to be tuned up.”  Turns out it’s an old model finishing machine,  the kind the women refused to chip in for. Oliva can’t believe her luck. 

Oliva and her sisters.

A couple of weeks later at church, Oliva asked the village priest to call a Minka–the Andean name for a kind of voluntary communal labour. And on the last Sunday in February, there was a Minka in the village of Sigsig; the community cleaned up the old building, and tuned up the hat finishing machine. A teacher was found to show them how to use it. “I realized in the training that I can be independent,” Oliva explains to Ana, her coach. “I want to learn to do things myself.”

Quietly, without fanfare, Oliva has stepped into her empowerment. She has grown her income, changed her family’s life, inspired her sisters, and brought 22 women from her village along her empowerment journey. One woman has brought about meaningful positive change for 27 other people, to say nothing of those whose lives will be changed by the discovery of her retail-exhibition space and the story of the soft spoken hat-maker behind it.

If you would like to help women like Oliva, please consider donating to Artistri Sud.