When is a bracelet or a necklace not a bracelet or necklace? That is the question. The answer is when it has been handmade in Guatemala, and the people who have crafted it have been empowered by an amazing woman. A woman that returned to her country of birth to give something back, after her family were forced to flee during the bitter civil war that raged for over 35 years.
Maria Pacheco is the 52-year-old founder and CEO of Wakami, a ‘socially conscious fashion-accessory’ enterprise that was placed in the top three of 27 global social businesses involved with the Chivas Venture competition in 2016.
The Chivas Venture has a $1 million fund that annually rewards startup businesses who, as they say: ‘Do well by doing good, because we believe generosity and success go hand in hand. That by giving we achieve more.’ Wakami in a nutshell.
“It was intense but inspiring,” says Pacheco. “It was essentially a competition but we weren’t in it just to chase the funding, although my thought was that we could do even more good with it. The whole experience was exciting and it introduced me to other similarly-minded individuals who also had really important information to share about their back stories and future intentions. What Chivas are doing is incredibly important because it brings social entrepreneurship to an entirely new audience.
“I was incredibly proud for the company to do so well [in the Chivas Venture] but not for me personally,” she reflects. “I was proud for the people who make our accessories and, obviously, my team. They all work so unbelievably hard and it was a recognition of their achievements.”
She is being incredibly and characteristically generous, it was also recognition for the scarcely believable job she is continuing to do to help women in vulnerable rural communities in Guatemala, to generate income and develop sustained prosperity by being given access to global markets.
Wakami means ‘It already is’ in one of the many Mayan languages and Pacheco explains that the justification for using it as a brand name is that, ‘For us “The Ideal World” already exists... we just have to find the gate into it.
“One village at a time,” is how she describes the approach. “There is a phrase we use in the business, it’s more of an old proverb really, but if you give a man a fish he can eat for a day, but if you teach him how to fish he can feed himself for the rest of his life, and that is the essence of both Wakami and sustainability.”
She admits that she has had an unusual career path for someone now essentially in the fashion business. “In terms of education I am biologist and I also have a Masters degree in agriculture but I suppose I was always an entrepreneur by instinct and it was always my intention to return to Guatemala.” Wakami is the result of those two things coming together.
“Fortunately, the business has grown exponentially - over 550% in the last five years and we now have almost 500 producers - and I like to think that the reason for this is that the people who buy our products understand what we are trying to do.
“If you buy something from Wakami you know that you are wearing an item on your wrist or around your neck with the hopes and dreams of those who made them. You are carrying them with you and that’s a beautiful thing.
“The vast percentage of the people we work with are women and their families, because that is how society is organised in Guatemala. They have a natural empathy for fashion accessories and the talent required to make them has been handed down over the generations, but we do work with some men who have set up their businesses.
“Through Wakami and their determined efforts they have been able to provide new homes with electricity, clean running water, put their children through high school and provide for a secure future.” She is being too modest.
Some other achievements in Guatemala include helping more than 2,500 people raise themselves out of poverty, providing more than 260 scholarships in 2014 and 2015 alone, consequently the ‘Wakami Children’ have 140% higher school attendance than the national average, while 54% have improved their nutritional status.
“It means that things can change,” she says when pressed, “It’s not impossible, it just requires the will to try and work hard but the results are so incredible that everything is worth it. Some of the stories of these entrepreneurs who have become part of the Wakami family can make you cry, but in a good way.
“It shows what can happen when you reverse the traditional business model, which would not have worked. We call it Inclusive Business Methodology and bring the markets to the entrepreneurs – as we call the women who make the Wakami products. And they are entrepreneurs, they formalise their own businesses and set about producing quality fashion accessories with our support.”
So, Maria Pacheco runs a socially-aware, flourishing business that has helped change the lives of thousands of people but, interestingly, she also shares her name with a famous and revered female 16th century warrior, who led the defence of Toledo after her husband was killed in battle. Both determined, driven, exceptional and successful women with a cause worth fighting for – albeit in very different and inspirational ways.
Bill Borrows is a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mirror and Mail on Sunday. He has written for everybody from loaded to The Guardian and The Sunday Times, to Cosmopolitan to Esquire, as well as several other national and international publications. Bill is currently writing a book on his friend Hunter S Thompson.
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