Listening to Young Leaders and Entrepreneurs
We can learn a lot about solving youth unemployment by paying attention to young entrepreneurs. Changemakers like Violeta Martinez are eager to share lessons that are both context specific and universally relevant.
Thirty-year-old Violeta Martinez might not fit the mold of a typical CEO in her native El Salvador, but she’s not afraid to push boundaries – or share the secrets of her success.
The young designer and entrepreneur first forged her own path after high school, when she decided to pursue her passion for art. “My parents are engineers and very conservative, so when I decided to study graphic design, they saw it as a crazy decision,” she recalls. Artists and designers, she says, are not sufficiently recognized or supported in El Salvador.
Undeterred, Violeta experimented with everything from furniture design to photography before finding her niche in handbag design. Today, her company, Vaiza, is a successful and growing brand of handbags, wallets, shoes, and other leather accessories, drawing on Latin American motifs. But in its nascent stage, Vaiza struggled through challenges that are familiar to many entrepreneurs in Central America and developing economies around the world.
Buffing Up Business Skills
While Violeta was a talented and well-trained designer, she lacked any formal business training. As she told a roomful of technical experts at the Global Youth Economic Opportunities (GYEO) Summit, “I knew how to create a product, but I didn’t know what was next.”
Shortly after launching Vaiza in 2015, Violeta heard about TechnoServe’s regional youth entrepreneurship program, Crece Tu Empresa, and wasted no time in applying. Funded by the Citi Foundation, Crece is working to address youth unemployment in Central America by providing entrepreneurial youth with one year of training on high-impact business skills, along with mentorship and networking opportunities.
Violeta models one of her vibrant handbag designs. Photo courtesy of Vaiza. When she joined the project, Violeta was selling only three bags a month and losing money. Violeta’s Crece mentor helped her create a business plan, identify short- and long-term goals for Vaiza, and set prices for her products that better reflected their value.
Speaking on a panel at GYEO, Violeta summed up the three key takeaways from her experience that all young entrepreneurs should heed.
First, she said, be organized and have a plan. “I learned that I needed to create a business model and have a strategy,” she said. Second, have perseverance. By setting informed goals for one year, three years, and so on, Violeta advised, entrepreneurs will be less likely to give up early on.
Creating Jobs Where They Matter Most
The third lesson Violeta offered is: “find ways to collaborate with people.” One of the biggest challenges Violeta faced was staffing her operation in a way that bridged two of her core values: inclusive opportunity and high quality. She wanted to make sure her business was having a positive social impact and creating jobs for marginalized people that she says all too often “get left behind.”
She started working with a women’s artisan group whose members were mostly single mothers living in neighborhoods known for gang violence in the outskirts of San Salvador. With some initial training and guidance on quality control, the group got to work manufacturing high-end products in Violeta’s shop in the capital. But Violeta quickly realized that the commute, particularly the return trip at the end of the day on public transportation, was dangerous for the women. Moreover, many of the mothers had no choice but to leave their kids home alone during working hours, exposing them to a greater risk of engaging in gang activity.
Instead of looking for new employees whose situations were easier to navigate – further contributing to the marginalization of the country’s most vulnerable population – Violeta worked with TechnoServe to revamp her operating model. “I came up with the idea: what if you work from home? I go to your community and leave the machine and tools you need to make the bag, and you can be close to your children, keeping them safe,” she said proudly. She was relieved to discover that the new arrangement resulted in higher productivity, in addition to creating critical employment for 13 women.
Young Voices Make a Difference
In order for these women’s jobs to remain sustainable, Vaiza had to be profitable. Working with Crece, Violeta created a detailed business plan and submitted it to a global competition held in Thailand. When she won first place, Violeta finally started to believe that the ambitious goals she set with her mentor were within reach.
By the end of the project year, she had achieved the first set of targets and her sales increased more than fivefold. She gained visibility through trade shows, opened her first store, and started to export her products. In 2017, she opened a second store inside one of the biggest malls in her country.
Vaiza’s success is unique within the context of El Salvador’s fashion industry, but it is also illustrative of the growth that’s possible when young entrepreneurs receive targeted training and support. In its first three years, Crece helped more than 300 youth-owned businesses across a range of sectors in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Panama to grow their annual sales by an average of 78%. A new phase of the program launched this year seeks to support 150 additional businesses in these three countries.
Young people like Violeta want to be more than passive beneficiaries of development projects. They want to help drive the interventions, policies, and decisions that can increase economic opportunities in their communities. And they are eager to inspire, empower, and create jobs for other youth. Forums like the GYEO show why it is so important to listen to their voices and give youth a seat at the table.
Samson Mwaikenda, a young entrepreneur from a rural community in Mbeya, Tanzania, joined Violeta on the panel at GYEO. It was his first time traveling to the U.S. and he was proud to talk about his experience setting up a sophisticated farming enterprise with help from TechnoServe’s STRYDE program. “Sharing my story was great,” he said. “What I know is through my story maybe there is somebody who is as down as I was so maybe it will help somebody.”
Like Violeta, who seeks to inspire other young entrepreneurs through engaging YouTube tutorials, Samson is sharing his knew business and agronomy knowledge with young farmers in his community. “I can be a connector,” he realized. “An opportunity connector.”