In this video, Ruth Álvarez-DeGolia shares the startup story of Mercado Global, her social enterprise that helps women in Guatemala run their own businesses and earn enough income to send their kids to school. (Video credit: Sue Williams)

Enough is enough. For the past 15 years, Ruth Álvarez-DeGolia of Brooklyn, N.Y., has run Mercado Global, a social enterprise that connects women artisans in Guatemala with international fashion retailers — a business model that helps break the cycle of poverty. (Watch her startup video, above.) But a few weeks ago, Álvarez-DeGolia decided she needed to do more. So she co-hosted a delegation to McAllen, Texas, in support of immigrant families and children at the border. 

“This was our first time doing this and we did it because of how bad the situation is right now,” she says of the two-day event, organized in late May by the Hispanic Heritage Foundation and attended by representatives of the Biden administration. While there, Álvarez-DeGolia crossed over the border to visit a tent camp in Mexico, “where families with children below the age of 6 [go after] being rejected,” she says. “They have nothing. The camps are controlled entirely by gangs, and gangs even took over the porta-potties and showers — every time you want to use the bathroom, you have to pay them.”

Even for Álvarez-DeGolia, who typically travels five times a year to rural Guatemala, the scene was “horrifying.” It was equally upsetting to think that many Americans assume the border problem has been solved because of a change in administrations. “It’s not being addressed,” she says. “These little kids are being totally traumatized. It’s like they’re being imprisoned.” While there are no longer cages, “the lack of empathy on the part of so many Americans” is disturbing, she says.

“The idea that people want to come is pretty false,” Álvarez-DeGolia says. According to her, people flee for two reasons: “Desperation and starvation.” 

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How She Started

In 2004, Álvarez-DeGolia, who grew up in Cleveland, was still just a student at Yale University interested in social justice when she took her first trip to Guatemala. She volunteered for an organization that helped artisans in rural indigenous communities build retail sites, apply for grants and access other business resources. “It was really exciting to actually be on the ground doing something,” she recalls, instead of “being in the ivory tower” talking about it. “I had never felt so useful in my entire life,” she says. 

An early idea to sell handmade Guatemalan bags on college campuses quickly morphed into something else: A scalable social enterprise, Mercado Global, that could effectively match Guatemalan women artisans with big U.S. brands like Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and Levi’s. Álvarez-DeGolia raised about $100,000 in funding for Mercado Global through Yale’s business plan competition as well as Echoing Green, an early-stage funder.  

Today, Mercado Global has about 25 employees, with most based in Panajachel, Guatemala, and works with over 750 women artists, teaching them how to make high-quality, on-trend totes, clutches and other accessories. “We do really intensive technical training,” she says, teaching sewers “really intricate briquettes and floor looms [so] they can charge a premium for their work.”

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Mercado Global goes beyond the normal employer/employee relationship. Its business model is based on three pillars, with the central pillar being access to international markets. But equally important are its other pillars, which include basics like self-confidence workshops, personal finance lessons and even classes in women’s health and childhood nutrition. “And then our third pillar is our asset development program,” Álvarez-DeGolia says, which includes a match savings program and helps “women buy their own floor looms and sewing machines” so that the women don’t slip back into poverty.

The goal is to help women run their own business and earn enough income to send their kids to school. When the pandemic struck, a quick-thinking Álvarez-DeGolia pivoted to masks. “Every week, we’d ship out 10,000 masks to different hospitals and nursing homes in New York City,” she says. As a result, annual revenue is on track for $1.5 million, about 40% more than previous years.  

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What Comes Next

Álvarez-DeGolia often describes Mercado Global as working in the “epicenter” of the migration crisis. “In the communities where we work, almost every single family has at least one family member who has gone to the U.S.,” she says. “There are almost no mothers who want their husbands or children to go — they know how dangerous or difficult it is.”

After seeing how much her company has improved the lives of women living in rural Guatemala, Álvarez-DeGolia now wants to be a louder voice for migrants — especially when it comes to addressing the root causes of migration. This aligns with the Biden administration’s $4 billion commitment to address the reasons why so many from Central America are fleeing, which include economic instability, gang violence, government corruption and environmental crises that have led to crop failure. 

While Álvarez-DeGolia says it’s a complex issue, she believes “it’s pretty straightforward how to address the migrant crisis,” namely by “investing in civil society and economic development.” In the coming year, Mercado Global, which has met with White House officials, plans to work closely with the Hispanic Heritage Foundation and advocacy groups like Justice for Migrant Women to raise awareness and press for change. Mercado Global also plans an expansion into Honduras.

“We want to help as many indigenous women as we can to get access to the international markets and use it to create the lives they want for themselves and their families,” Álvarez-DeGolia says. 

She adds: “I really love the women that we work with. Whenever I’m feeling tired or overwhelmed…spending time in our partner communities is just the best therapy.” The women artisans have “courage and gumption” and an ability “to connect with each other and support each other, and it makes me really happy to be around them.”

An earlier version of this post misstated the name of the looms. They are floor looms, not floral looms.

Editor’s Note: The Story Exchange is celebrating its 10th anniversary by launching the annual Women In Science Incentive Prize. Apply now for a chance to receive $5,000 in funding for your climate-related research or startup. Deadline: July 31. 

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