Ruth DeGolia, Executive Director at Mercado Global

For Ruth DeGolia success is living the type of life you want to live and achieving the type of impact on the world you want to have.  With her company, Mercado Global, she is living up to that definition every day, improving the socio-economic status of indigenous women in Guatemala. And the impact she’s leaving is more than anyone could’ve ever imagined.

“No one believed indigenous women could be international entrepreneurs – in most cases not even their own husbands,” shares DeGolia in her 1000 Stories submission. “No one believed they could bring major amounts of income into their communities and pay to send their kids to school themselves.”

But she managed to prove everyone wrong, showing off how innovative, entrepreneurial and talented Guatemalan artisans are.

It all started from a trip to Guatemala in 2004, when DeGolia went to study the effects of globalization in a country torn apart by civil war.

For 36 years, until 1996, many women saw their brothers, fathers and husbands killed before their eyes (over 200,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed or disappeared during the war).

But despite the pain of the past and the poverty they lived in, those women were determined to rebuild their lives and ensure a better future for their children, particularly their daughters. “Their worst fear was that like them, their daughters wouldn’t be able to go to school,” DeGolia says.

Guatemala’s indigenous population makes up about sixty percent of the population and three quarters of this group live below the poverty line. And their circumstances make the possibility for positive change slim. Most of the indigenous people don’t speak Spanish – the official language — but one of the 20 something dialects used by their Mayan ancestors.

Many children don’t receive an education because their families can’t afford the school fees. “Often fathers are choosing, if they can’t send all their kids to school, to send just their sons. You also have some fathers that even if they can afford it, don’t see the value of sending their daughters to school,” DeGolia says. ” I believe that denying a woman the right to attend school anywhere in the world affects us all.”

DeGolia quickly realized that “the best way to get a dollar to a kid is to put the dollar in the hands of a mom.” And those mothers were talented weavers and sewers who just didn’t have a large enough of a market to sell their handmade clothes, scarves and accessories.

When DeGolia left Guatemala she took the indigenous women’s products back to Yale and began selling them to college students.

“Everything sold out like hot cakes within a couple of days,” says DeGolia. And the price was five times higher than what the women could have earned locally.

While DeGolia said she never intended to start a social enterprise or non-profit, she followed her instincts and in 2004 Mercado Global was established as a fair trade business.

Watch DeGolia explain how their program impacts women and their communities.

Each time DeGolia returned to Guatemala she would hear from the artisans that they were able to send their kids to school and cook nutritious meals for their families, thanks to the money they were earning through Mercado Global.

This inspired DeGolia to work even harder and together with her business partner she began raising money and looking into pre-existing distribution networks to expand their market.

“We didn’t come from corporate America; we were thinking outside the box because we didn’t even know where the box was,” DeGolia admits. While some big companies refused to meet with them, others were excited about their products.

It took them a couple of years to figure it all out – from raising money to partnering with bigger chains — but the payoff was huge. In 2007, Mercado Global signed a contract with Levi Strauss & Co. and other big chains quickly followed – Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, Crate&Barrel, and most recently Anthropologie.

Employing hundreds, educating over 2,000

That same year Mercado Global launched a community-based business education and development program to teach Guatemalan artisans everything from quality control to technical skills, to self-esteem.

“We wanted to make sure that our women artisans have the tools to really leverage the income that was coming in and teach them how to save, manage credit, how to open their own bank account … so if she chooses to put money there and save it to pay school bills, she has that option.”

Currently, the company has 28 cooperatives throughout Guatemala’s highlands, and employs 380 women who have sent about 2,000 kids to school.

DeGolia has received many honors, including one by Newsweek Magazine in 2006 naming her one of “15 People Who Make America Great,” along with celebrity philanthropists and game-changers like Brad Pitt and Bill Gates.

But for her, the biggest reward came this past December when she visited Guatemala for a holiday party. Each cooperative surprised her with banners and hand-made products embroidered with lines like: “Thank you for giving us our work.”

“Twenty eight co-ops came up to me and gave me gift after gift and that to me was the biggest honor,” says DeGolia.

Ruth DeGolia shared her story to our 1000 Stories Campaign, which inspired us to blog about her. If you’re a woman who started a business, join the 1000 Stories campaign and inspire others. Your story will appear on The Story Exchange website and will be used to find candidates for future videos and blogs.