Artistri Sud ASSET Program launched in Ecuador

When our founder, Jennifer Lonergan, returned from Ecuador after launching our first Artistri Sud Social Entrepreneur Training (ASSET) program in that country, she was impressed.  “There is a real feeling of sisterhood among these women, a commitment to supporting each other.”   The training team speculated as to the reasons–were the 47 women who participated and graduated simply more collaborative individuals?  Did the re-boot of the two-day Leadership program (led by educational consultant, Ariadna Camargo) prepare the 12 leaders to set a good example?  Did the new special content and activities focusing on women’s rights advocacy foster a supportive environment?   “We’re also getting better at anticipating challenges which can lead to conflict and helping participants to do that, too–for example, we now coach them explicitly to embrace challenges, even like rooming with people they don’t know, or trying role-playing activities with a partner even though they feel shy,” says Lonergan.  “Most of them have never been away from home before, so maybe this helps them feel like they’re all in it together!”  Whatever the reason, this year’s program in Ecuador exceeded expectations. 

Tales of Camaraderie 

The group this year was also very ethnically diverse–several members of indigenous and other ethnic groups were represented, along with women from both rural and urban areas.  While Spanish acts as the lingua franca of Ecuador, it is often not the first language of many indigenous people.  “It was moving to see the stronger or native Spanish-speakers supporting others from deeper within the Amazon and elsewhere who had some language challenges,” says Dr. Lonergan. Many of the participants formed previously unimagined friendships, connecting with women from around the country, all with varying backgrounds. After class on Wednesday, the women suggested they take turns demonstrating their local dances to each other, resulting in a moment that was both filled with cultural sharing and genuine happiness.   

Some of the indigenous participants, like Humbelina and Leorvis, expressed that they were originally worried that they would be looked down upon due to their ethnic identity. Both were met with a pleasant surprise when they realized they were not only supported but appreciated by the larger group. Humbelina even went on to say that  “she felt that the others in the group were not just new friends, but were her family.” The program concluded with participants expressing gratitude for the opportunity to connect with so many women from around the country and enthusiastically planned to stay in touch- something that had not happened before to such a great extent.


The training team expressed confidence that this level of camaraderie will result in a stronger group of graduates that will be able to support each other throughout the one-year-long coaching program and beyond. “This also gives us great hope for our Train-the-Trainee program, as many of the graduates have already shown the abilities to lead and to be inspiration sources to others, promising to grow into strong trainers,” says Dr. Lonergan.


How We Learn and Adapt

Every program has its own challenges, but our tenacity to learn and improve both our delivery model and program content is what sets us apart. Building on the success we had in Vietnam in carrying out the Leadership Program before the ASSET program, rather than after, we decided to replicate this approach in Ecuador. In Vietnam, we had decided to have the Leadership Program before the ASSET program mainly to mitigate challenges that could arise due to having multiple languages at the trainings (English, Vietnamese and two Hmong dialects). This was also applicable in Ecuador with Spanish and Quichua, but building on some feedback received from Vietnam we further developed the content of the Leadership Program so the graduates would have the skills needed to lead their teams during the one-year coaching program. 

 The new activities were designed around real-life challenges.  One scenario was: “Your participant hasn’t done her assignment, which is to make an appointment with a prospective buyer to present her product.  You’re having trouble coaching her–possibly because you have been too shy to complete this assignment yourself. What do you do?”.   Participants discussed solutions and approaches together, and then debriefed as a group. This phase allowed them to anticipate problems and work out potential solutions while building camaraderie with fellow team leaders. It further stabilized relationships among the participants, providing them with tools and approaches so they could proactively reach out to each other when facing challenges. 

A Change of Identity

At the beginning of each training program, participants do an exercise in which they are asked how they would best identify themselves. Usually, the responses on Day 1 are ‘mothers,’ ‘wives,’ or ‘artisans.’  On Day 5, the activity is repeated. This year, as usual, there is a shift in responses to ‘businesswomen,’ ‘entrepreneurs,’ and ‘leaders.’ This transformation in their view of themselves, which reflects a significant growth in their perception of their own capacity and efficacy, opens the door to implementing the changes they are called upon to make during the coming year.  

In Ecuador,  over half now saw themselves as  ‘learners’- a response with impressive implications of the success of the program. For when you become a learner, your world opens up to possibilities that fear may have previously kept closed off.  Oliva, below, who makes very fine hats (like the one she’s wearing in the picture), explained that she felt like she knew her business well, since she was selling to a distributor and was skilled in making her product. Yet upon discovering the many things she could do to improve her business, she realized how much there is still to learn and her desire to keep doing so. Jennifer Lonergan recalled a moment on Day 4 when Oliva--like everyone in the class except a handful–realized she’d been pricing her products at below cost.  Discoveries like these will allow the participants to better price their products on the market and result in a greater increase in profits for them and their families.

A Great Success

All in all, we are excited to have supported 47 women to realize their potential and identify themselves as continuous learners who can aspire to–and achieve–more. All 47 women who participated completed the entire program and graduated – a first for us as we typically have one or two women who are not able to complete the program for various reasons. “I think we’re getting better at explicitly preparing them for their experience and setting them up for success,” explains Lonergan. “We’re very rigorous about complete participation–they can fail at things, and still pass, but they must try everything and complete all the activities–even if they’re shy or don’t like speaking in front of groups. They must be on time, even though this is not the local norm. We used to say: these are the expectations. We’re now really positioning this kind of thing as a challenge to take on in the spirit of being open to new things and growth. And it helps create coachability and a can-do attitude that we believe helps them in the long-run, too.” 

Maybe this achievement was due to the quality and openness of women in the group, or perhaps due to Artistri Sud listening to feedback and constantly improving the program. Maybe it was a combination of both. Regardless of the direct causes, this success marks an exciting time in Artistri Sud’s history- and a trend we hope to continue into the future.