A Story of Second Chances by Manos Zapotecas
Six years ago that my life took a sudden turn into social entrepreneurship. I was already 61, a time when most people are counting the months until retirement. Sometimes opportunities pop up that are just too obvious, and Manos Zapotecas was born out of that kind of opportunity.
I had gone to Oaxaca, Mexico as a volunteer for a microfinance program, working with Zapotec indigenous artisans in a small village. Their traditional craft is handwoven wool rugs with ancient designs. Each extended family household compound has several looms where almost everyone works on their designs, and the many unsold rugs stack up like pancakes. As volunteers we were teaching the weavers money management skills, but with no market for their craft due to lack of tourism and oversaturation, there was little money to manage.
At first the idea was to sell the existing rugs in the US and pay the artisans fair trade wages, in order to help the village economically and preserve the weaving craft. However, it turned out that many companies were already ordering rugs from the village at bottom dollar prices and selling in the US. By then I had received a minimal amount of investment money and hired the brilliant Liz Moffett, who is more like a partner than an employee. She and I looked at the potential markets and realized that we should focus instead on hand bags.
We went to a couple of trade shows with our bags and realized we had a business! We received orders from boutiques, resorts, fair trade stores, western apparel stores, and others. The challenge then became one of production to keep up with the orders, and it was immensely helpful that I had spent so much time with the artisans and developed trusting relationships. Despite the cultural difference (Americans want everything yesterday, but indigenous artisans work with their own rhythm and take time out for the many fiestas and family events), we managed to meet most of the orders more or less on time. The original group of artisans found that the work was too much and had to look around for others needing work to help them produce on time. It was a huge learning experience for all involved!
Liz became our General Manager as we grew and needed additional staff to help with marketing and sales (Hannah Aronowitz and Gisela Sejpal). We also needed a coordinator on the ground in Oaxaca (Samantha Watson) who could work with the artisans on designs that appeal more to the American market -- using on trend seasonal colors. The traditional weavings used multiple bright colors with very intricate patterns, but it was important for the bags to retain the indigenous feeling while sporting a more contemporary flavor.
Once the seasonal bag designs and models are chosen the production team works together to dye massive quantities of yarn in large tubs over an open fire. The dyed yarn is then distributed to other weavers as orders come in, and the whole order/production/shipping operation is overseen by the incredibly smart and patient Paco Santiago who lives in the village. There is no bank in the village, nor shipping outlets there. It all has to be done in Oaxaca City, which is thankfully only 40 kilometers away.
We continue to grow and now have stores that carry us in all 50 states along with a handful in Europe, Japan, Canada, and Australia. In addition, we are really picking up with our online retail sales. We are also expanding back into the home decor market with a very select line of rugs and pillows. But most importantly we never lose sight of our original mission which is to provide an economic boost to the indigenous artisans while preserving their cultural traditions. We feel we are succeeding at both, by sending over $200,000 a year in payments, employing over 50 people, while distributing the incredible designs all over the US and internationally.
For me personally, this business is a natural result of all of my life endeavors, including a love of different languages and cultures, social service and responsibility, business entrepreneurship and adventure. In some ways it was inevitable that I would start Manos Zapotecas. For the artisans I see it as a way for them to continue their rich cultural heritage and weaving tradition while still making a decent living it also allows them to work at home and stay close to their extended families. I feel blessed to be able to do this.
Written by Shelley Tennyson, Founder & CEO of Manos Zapotecas
Learn more about Manos Zapotecas and shop their products here.