I think this post has been a long time coming. Its so extensive what I want to share and say, and since time is so scarce when I am working by myself in Denmark, I always have a million other things to do.
But today I received yet another message questioning how much the women are actually being paid. And this is nothing new. Some people will question our motifs and write really hurtful things about how this is just a white woman exploiting brown women, that it is poverty tourism and many other hurtful things. Luckily the majority of people write us super supportive and lovely messages, which warms mine and the women’s hearts. I am happy to be in this team and be able to share these messages with Elisa and Bernabela when they come, so that they can share their thoughts on it. Because in any case, when someone writes me a message like that it hurts me profoundly and makes me feel horrible. But at the end of the day, what matters is what we know in our heart is the truth and everyday life we are in.
In many ways I think it is understandable that people assumedly are trying in some way ‘defend’ the women that they think I am exploiting. But I also find it super sad that people sit behind their screens and can find so many negative emotions by looking our way.
I want to share my journey with this business, both emotionally and also financially to give you an insight. Maybe you will sit through the entire five pages, maybe you won’t due to our attention spans being MIA.
When I started Pura Utz, I made a conscious decision to create a business and not a nonprofit organization. I spent a very long time considering whether or not to do one or the other and consulted many around this.
My story is that I have travelled in this country since I was a kid, returning as an adolescent working as a volunteer in different projects and doing my bachelor thesis on the empowerment of the reproductive health behavior of Mayan women. When I started traveling by myself to this country, I was super young and was so eager to ‘make a difference’. After working in a public health clinic in a small village I implemented a nutrition program for malnourished children. I thought this would make a difference. But upon returning after a few months, the entire thing had been thrown in the garbage bin. I was sad of course, but it was a great lesson for me. Because I realized that none of these things made as much sense to the women involved as they did to me. The problem was so much bigger than what I understood at that time.
I returned to work on my thesis because I wanted to understand why so many women were not using contraceptives and planning parenthood when there were options available to them at the clinic where I had worked. And this was the first time I began to come across ‘Women’s Rights’. And my world completely opened to new aspects I had never considered (and this might sound obvious to you, but I was young and blue eyed and did not know better). To realize that things such as making your own money, being able to open a bank account to start saving for when you or your children get sick, or to be able to own your own piece of land and a pot and pan in your kitchen, were waaaay more important and came before anything I wanted to teach them about health. I also started to reflect upon that schooling does not only teach you to do math and write – it teaches you ‘critical thinking’ and it gives you self-worth because you know that you know something.
I actually found myself in sort of crisis at this moment, because I had thought up until that point that I would make a career in nursing abroad. But life serves a platter to you sometimes and Guatemala had been in my life since I was a kid, so this is where I had lost my heart and wanted to work. In the midst of my thoughts on this I was walking around the local market of artisan goods and all of a sudden, I felt like a lightning struck me – I wanted to work for the empowerment of the Mayan through their craft and skills. This way they could make their own money using a talent they had, creating a much more mutual relationship and exchange. I couldn’t sleep for two weeks due to the excitement I felt about this and just a deep deep feeling of it being my path in life. It took me two years to build up my courage and save money to start the company. I had NO CLUE what I was doing in terms of how I would find them women I wanted to collaborate with, which products I wanted to create or even what business I was getting myself in to.
The first couple of years
And this reflected my success with my business for the first many years. I made many terrible products, a few good ones and spent a good deal of my time trying to source things.
1,5 year I spent trying to find a quality YKK zipper in Central America. Even though Guatemala has so much craft, the country is not setup for production in that way. You can go to a village that sells tons of zippers, but no one ever wanted YKK, so no one sold that. This was in 2013.
When finally, I had found the right groups and organizations to work with (this was after some broken relationships with groups or women, and a loooot of money out the window), I had to start selling the product I made. Which was another very uncomfortable aspect I had never considered when starting the business. It is soooo different to sell your own product, not to mention the biggest challenge in all of this for me – how to sell and make money of a product that is also made to make a difference. I had moved from the volunteer work aspect to business. And oh boy, it has been so hard for me to learn.
For a long time, I felt so uncomfortable selling anything, it was a sort of guilt-feeling. The products were always expensive because I wanted to pay the women so well and then with markups, taxes etc (I will get back to this later in the text), I felt ashamed of asking people for this amount of money. Then moving to the topic of products that were made wrong or super bad quality – what do you do? Do you still pay the woman for her work because you acknowledge the time and effort, even though it is terribly wrong and not what you agreed on? Well I did. So of course, with all these emotions and energies surrounding money and sales, it did not go well. I ended up getting into a big debt and feeling as if I had failed big time. I could not shut down Pura Utz even though everyone from the outside was telling me to. I mean, it was definitely the objectively wisest thing to do haha. Instead I decided to look at it as long term marriage – as a time where the love maybe wasn’t flowing as easily and freely, but you stick with it, do other things to get you inspired and then fall back in love.
It wasn’t always easy because I was very haunted by these thoughts of myself as a failure in business and that this big dream I had launched and believed so much, might not get real. (I guess that’s why we end up never going to the gym, because of these moments where we have to realize failure or give up on a goal - its super painful to have to do this. It’s easier to stay out of dreaming about it in the first place.)
A painful turning point
Right when my finances were at its worst, I also tragically lost my sister and went through a heartbreak. I am not going to lie, my confidence in life and myself was at a complete loss. But it was also the time I met Bernabela, my partner and master of the beads. I was hustling working +40 hours a week in two nursing jobs in the mental health sector, trying to recover from my debts and to be able to continue to make a few products with Bernabela. We worked so well together and I honestly felt like she was like meeting a soul sister - if there was two ends to the stick of my large dream and vision, then she was at the other end of it - with all her talents and power that I lacked.
We are not perfect and I know we are not going to save the world
It’s not very perfect to be in business. But it’s not perfect being a charity or NGO either. And what I know in my heart is that we want to be a business because I want people to value and want the product just as much as any other quality product – NOT to charity buy anything from us - because these women do not need charity. They are all entrepreneurs in their own lives trying to make ends meet in a country that is not very perfect either.
I want us to be a business because I don’t want the limitations of what the women can earn as a salary and what we can create with the surplus that we make. Many of the women in our group and here in the village in general do have some sort of education, but there are no jobs for them and if there is, they are being paid so poorly. Chonita, Sara and Julia have a degree in teaching, but what they make from the beadwork right now excels the salary they would make teaching. That is because we pay four times as much and per product they finish.
We are not in business to have them sit for the rest of their lives on a chair and make beadwork – I want the women to have the privilege of dreaming in their lives. It’s a huge privilege for me to dream and be a free woman who can move around the world trying to pursue career dreams and life goals. I hope the same for all the women in our group. And I think that is one of the big challenges that NGOs face because there is a limit to the success they can have, there is a limit to the money they can earn and all funds often have to be fundraised through charity.
There is no surplus of money to take a group trip, to buy a celebratory lunch or investing in restorative activities such as meditation training or plants for the workspace. I don’t mean to bash NGO’s, because I love so much of the work that most of them do. But it’s just not the way forward for us. I have experienced personally how difficult it is to mix business and well doing – it’s like we think they simply can’t match. Why is it that not many people question the big oil company of how they made their money, but instead celebrates the talent of the ‘clever businessman’? Then when you want to create a socio-economic business that claims to be doing good while making money, then people assume that something rotten must be buried behind the scene. This puzzles me all the time.
The main empowerment that takes place within our space is that the number one concern for Bernabela and I is the wellbeing of the women. That they feel safe, happy and appreciated for their work and talent. This of course also is reflected in the salary they are paid which is, as I mentioned, four times the salary they are paid for beadwork here in the village.
And I am sure many of you are sitting out there sometimes extremely surprised of the pricing of our products – and I just have to say, that this is not because we are expensive. It is because beadwork internationally and nationally here in Guatemala is such a devaluated craft. Everyone has grown so accustomed to being able to buy a beaded purse or keyring in a fast fashion chain or on the streets during their vacations abroad. But the reality of those products is that it is produced by some of the poorest people in the world, not even associated with a factory or formal contracts. There is an expression here in Guatemala ‘por gusto’ trabajo – ‘just for the pleasure’ work. And that is not meant as an actual pleasure but means that the work, time and material leave no surplus earning - ‘so just for the pleasure work’.
This was new to me to. I never knew anything about beadwork - not the time, craft and patience it requires. But when you sit side by side with a woman who manually picks up 55000 glass beads and weaves them into a pattern, then your jaw and mind drop thinking of how poorly they are paid for this.
Just the other day one of the new women in the group, Yenni (who is the little sister of Julia), had her first paycheck. Yenni could not believe how much money she had made in this month and for the first time she left her small village to go into market day to buy new clothes, jewelry and all the tostadas she wanted. Her sister Julia was sharing this story with us, because she was so surprised herself to see how Yenni shined like a sun and beamed with confidence over having her own money to spend.
Bernabela and I are not on mission where we claim to be saving the world or lives. But we are focusing on what is on the plate in front of us, and that is the well-being of the artisan women in our group. We want them to make lots of money, to feel good and have beautiful dreams for their futures. That’s all we can do in our tiny little part of the world and it makes so much sense to us!
Some days I want to shit my pants because I get scared of what I have gotten myself into. Some days I get overwhelmed with a feeling of a tremendous responsibility for the income of the women and the project we have launched. What if we fail? What if shit hits the fan and we have to close the project in a second? When will everyone figure out that I have no clue what I am doing?
It was a huge relieve to me to learn - ‘imposter syndrome’, and that it is something a lot of female entrepreneurs experience from time to time. It’s good to know that it is ‘normal’ and actually on all other days that I don’t feel like an ‘imposter’, I really understand why I am scared. But on those days I am better at letting myself get carried away by my love for what we do and all the women I get to work with.
Setting the price
When we develop a new product, it takes lots of testing and samples. Then when the final product is done, Bernabela calculates an average between the fastest and the slowest of the women to figure out what we can expect time wise (keeping in mind that once the women get accustomed to a product, they make them faster than initially. This means they get an even higher payment per hour and product eventually.)
For some of the women this results in a big earning and others not as much, because to be honest with you – not all of them are as eager to earn and work as much as others. And I love that we have room for everyone and that it stays fair between them as well.
Then comes the big chunk of the calculation – THE STORE MARKUP. Did you know that most stores require a minimum markup of 2.5-4? Well I can tell you that I didn’t when I embarked on this adventure. So, if you do the math yourself on our prices, you see that the biggest chunk goes to our retailers – and that’s just how it is. And actually, I do not mind, because they help us spread our business and bring in bigger bulk orders. If we want to grow and have the social impact we dream of, then we have to scale our sales so that it actually matters.
This is my most recent realization – a late one, but none the less the most difficult one for me to handle because it means that I have to change my own perception of money and earnings for the company and myself. I have to get comfortable with the success and money flowing our way. The beautiful thing is that when we sell the product directly in our own shop we get the earning ourselves and this goes towards our dream of creating our own place here in Guatemala, to pay bonus’ to the women at the end of the year and to enjoy the process by eating well and taking trips together in the group – just as any other business does.
With that being said, the project was founded six years ago and just now I started paying a tiny salary to myself. I live in a collective in Copenhagen and the most valuable thing I own is my business,
I have not done well business wise for myself yet – but I really love what I do.
Connecting worlds - oh my god where to start! This has been the idea for me from the very beginning – both personally in the sense of myself feeling divided between Denmark and Guatemala, my desire to be able to keep working in this country, but at the same time be close to my family and friends in Denmark.
It is the desire to connect women across the globe through relevant and unique designs based on craft traditions, and then in the end to have it all make sense. Because does it really make sense?
There is so much that is so unjust and unequal between these worlds, which makes it super disillusioning sometimes. I find myself really struggling with the many hats of creating a photoshoot, an aesthetic universe of a brand, building and organizing a production in Guatemala, developing designs, reaching out to stores, running to the post office and mopping the floor of the office.
It can feel wrong and strange to sometimes find myself hustling around the fashion industry and being preoccupied with the look of a styling, to then be back in Santiago with the women eating tortillas and cracking jokes. They really are worlds apart and it seems ridiculous sometimes that a banana necklace is the connection, but it is also a relief. Because we are just trying to do the best we can with what is on our plate. And I try to find peace in this, otherwise I would just be completely paralyzed because there is something problematic in everything.
The story we tell
When you look at the brand from the outside it has evolved from one thing to another and the whole communication of these two worlds has been such a difficult nut for me to crack. I started out with being very focused on communicating about the women with pictures and stories. At that time the response was very different from now - my experience was that people did not like the mix of business and doing good. This was in 2013.
So I decided to tone it down and just have it be for those who were really interested in knowing it on our website. This meant I would mainly post about the products and not the process and impact so much, and just leave the information on the website for people who were curious. But this too felt hollow to me and also wrong to not be able to put the women in front together with the product. I was so limited with trying to figure out how to please everyone in the storytelling. What are people going to think? Will they like us? Will they like me? I felt like I could not be ‘too fashion’ because of the other end of the stick where the women were. I also could not be ‘too project’ because then it would be more like a charity product.
So last year I was in a rut with this and confronted myself with these limiting thoughts that were paralysing in a way where we didn’t really excel in any of it. I had a long talk with Bernabela about what she thought about the stories told about the women, how they were portrayed and what she essentially would think was a dignified way to tell theirs and our story. Bernabela loves that we can show the women and team, and she gets happy and proud when she is part of the storytelling. And as she said – “well, it is us that make the product, so I don’t know why it would be wrong to show that.”
I was so uplifted and thought to myself – Fuck it, I am just going to create this amazing brand that I am dreaming about, and it can be all of it at once – both fashion and project. And then whoever is going to love it, will love it - and those who won’t, won’t. I know my respect and love for the women I work with and the product we make and it is super personal to me. Even though many people will probably tell you a business shouldn’t be emotionally personal. I think that’s wrong. I needed to really take a leap of faith and go all in without regrets to actually see if this business could go anywhere. Otherwise I was sort of hiding behind the 50% chance I was taking. That was a turning point for Pura Utz and me for sure.
This past year I have challenged all my limiting thoughts every day. I have tried to leave behind the labels and stories of what I thought I could personally achieve and do. And I have set goals for Pura Utz that scare me. Even sharing this very raw and impulsively written story about my journey is challenging. But vulnerability is so important to be strong, and I guess that all these comments and questioning from people made me want to share from my heart, just as I would have if I had been face to face with you guys in real life having this conversation.
If you made it this far - THANK YOU. Your attention span clearly breaks the stats of our current generation attention span of 15 seconds <3