Women face significant obstacles and inequalities in the workplace—we know this—and indigenous women in Guatemala face even more disadvantages. Ninety percent of Guatemalan adolescents receive no job-readiness training. In a country where roughly half the population is Mayan, only 12 percent of small businesses’ employees are indigenous.
We call the young women in our program “Girl Pioneers” because they are truly trailblazers. We measure our impact by a specific set of goals for our Starfish graduates, one of which is economic autonomy and mobility—can she choose where she lives, where she works, and the type of life she wants to lead?
The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor found that women in Latin America and the Caribbean “face much more complex challenges in the formal economy than women in more developed countries, such as: a lack of policies and programs to support and encourage entrepreneurial activity, excessive norms and regulations, and restricted access to credit.”
In September 2015, we launched our Small Businesses Program after witnessing that many of our Starfish graduates wanted to start their own businesses but didn’t have access to the aforementioned resources. To date, Starfish graduates have opened and continue to operate seven small businesses.
Here are seven fundamental ways our program fosters high-impact entrepreneurship:
An intensive selection process to identify long-term entrepreneurs
To ensure long-term entrepreneurial success, we put interested Starfish grads in our New Horizons program through an intensive 3-week orientation and selection process. After covering basic principles such as business plan development, value chains, and risk assessment, we were left with 18 young women who fully understood the difficult road ahead and were committed to starting their own businesses.
“Initially, we had many girls say they wanted to start a tienda (corner store),” says Vanessa Vásquez, Director of the Small Businesses Program, “but we wanted them to think outside the box, think in terms of what they are passionate about and what they see a market for.”
One of the most unique things about our Small Business Program is the diverse portfolio of enterprises we support. Guatemalan entrepreneurs exhibit some of the lowest growth rates in Latin America; a salient reason for this is a lack of innovation.
The current entrepreneurial market in Guatemala is oversaturated with bakeries, corner stores, fruit/vegetable stands, food carts, and other non-scalable consumer-oriented ventures. In addition to low initial investments, a low level of education directly affects entrepreneurs’ abilities to conceive, design, and implement a business with a high potential for growth. A 2014 World Bank study notes: “Successful entrepreneurs thrive in favorable economic and institutional environments that enhance the expected returns of innovation. When an enabling environment exists, entrepreneurs take risks and invest in innovation.”
That’s why we work with our small business owners to think through this process differently. Girls collaborate with our team to flesh out their interests and develop a business plan that fully assesses the viability of their idea. This not only ensures that are we tapping into the true passions of these young women—that they are able to pursue their dreams—but also that they are introducing market solutions and/or creating market need.
A built-in programmatic value chain that feeds back into local economies
Entrepreneurs play a key role in the transformation of low-income societies by adding wealth, creating jobs, and boosting innovation. Studies show that opportunity-driven women entrepreneurs are usually long-term and high-impact entrepreneurs. This is why we intentionally created an interconnected web amongst our entrepreneurs that directly feeds into local communities.
“It was important for us to encourage sustainability and community investment by creating a value chain amongst the businesses,” says Vanessa. “Each business is related to the other and invests in the other, and by doing so, invests in their local communities.”
How does this work? Think about it this way: Mayan Life (a tourism company) takes a tour group to visit Granja de Pollo Felices (a semi-organic, free range chicken farm). Pollo Felices in turn sells meat to Coxel (a catering company) or Centro Comunitario (a community space that offers meals, dance classes, and local artisanal products). Centro Comunitario showcases products from Dasha Marijo (a fashion company that exclusively uses recyclable materials). Dasha Marijo buys fabric from Fashion Típico (a weaving company). Fashion Típico buys source materials, like thread and dye, from the community.
Professional development and coaching by industry experts
Women—especially indigenous women in Latin America—lack resources and mentors in the workplace. That’s why we focus on building partnerships with industry experts who can provide capacity-building workshops, technical trainings, and market insight to the young women in our program. For example, Mayan Life recently took part in an intensive 3-day workshop with tourism consultant Matt Humke of Solimar International. It’s part of a long-term partnership with key figures in the regional tourism industry, including Old Town Outfitters and Trek Guatemala.
“These are changes we’ve been wanting to make in the company but we haven’t known how,” says Lola, a member and head tour guide at Mayan Life, after a long day of work shopping. “Learning how to set price points, learning how to structure a website—we have a lot of work ahead of us, but we’re all excited to get back and share what we’ve learned with our colleagues.”
These valuable partners, along with our experienced staff, provide a crucial support network that encourages growth by cultivating innovation, collaboration, and the confidence to take risks.
Provide exposure to local, national, and global markets
While technology has made it easier for entrepreneurs in the developing world to access global markets, there’s a lack of infrastructure to support such access. Studies show that women entrepreneurs in developing countries are less likely to gain access to regional and international markets when compared to their male counterparts. One reason for this could be that women exhibit more risk-averse behaviors and tend to partner with people from their inner circles, many of whom do not have a professional or international background.
We want the young women in our program to enter local, regional, national, and global markets. That’s why we establish a presence for each business at local business expos and pursue partnerships with brick-and-mortar and virtual marketplaces like Casa Cervantes and UTZ.
Expanding market opportunities drives growth, exposure, and profits. By augmenting their networks, we strengthen their ability to succeed.
Opportunities to earn seed money
Both men and women entrepreneurs cite a lack of financing as the primary challenge. Many obtain seed funding from their personal savings, friends, and family in the initial phase of setting up their businesses. However, when moving on to the second phase of expanding their businesses, men face fewer barriers than women when it comes to finding alternate streams of funding.
We work to connect our entrepreneurs with impact investors like Pomona Impact and help them prepare to present in front of a selection committee. Our program staff works closely with our entrepreneurs to develop a business plan and budget and work on practicing an effective pitch to investors. In doing so, these young indigenous women not only earn seed money for their businesses, but also build their confidence and gain experience self-advocating.
Creating community leaders and inspiring a new generation
It’s true worldwide and across sectors: women in the workplace lack female mentors. In entrepreneurial spaces in the developing world, male entrepreneurs tend to become mentors and angel investors to fellow male entrepreneurs, but what about women? There simply aren’t that many high-growth female entrepreneurs to serve in the same capacity—even fewer when you are looking exclusively at indigenous women.
So our Girl Pioneers in our small businesses program continue to be just that: pioneers. Many continue to break cultural barriers by postponing marriage and childbirth to pursue further education and economic autonomy. “They are doing something that has never been seen in their communities, and many have experienced backlash,” says Vanessa, “but it’s the only way things will change for future generations.”
Take Lola, from Mayan Life, for example. Lola has a younger sister who is currently in our Starfish mentorship program, and she knows she’s influencing and shaping her sister’s future.
“I was inspired by my older sister, who waited until she was older to get married. Now I’m doing something I love and, after some time, have earned the support of my family,” she says. “My younger sister sees what I’m doing and is also inspired to follow her dreams. I feel like we’re creating pathways to different possibilities for women in our community.”
And that right there is the power of investing in women.