In 2004 Ruth DeGolia traveled to Guatemala to conduct research for her Yale thesis on the effects of globalization in a country torn apart by civil war. While DeGolia had traveled to Guatemala in the past, this time, she met women whose stories of courage and determination changed her life in a direction she never imagined.
"I met these amazing indigenous women who were so inspirational to me," DeGolia told The Story Exchange.
During the brutal 36-year-long civil war, which ended in 1996, many women saw their brothers, fathers and husbands killed before their eyes (more than 200,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed or disappeared during the war).
But despite the pain of the past, these 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 60 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.
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," DeGolia says. "And the price was five times higher than what the women could have earned locally."
While DeGolia says she never intended to start a social enterprise or nonprofit, she followed her instincts and in 2004 Mercado Global was established as a fair trade business.
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.
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 Lance Armstrong.
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," DeGolia says.