Mayra | From Civil Engineer to Social Entrepreneur
BY ELENI MERAKI
My father was an engineer, and, despite his warning and outright disapproval, I followed in his footsteps. As a single mother, it was my drive and passion for civil engineering that supported my family, but the profession also taught me skills that I was able to apply in other fields. Rather than completely changing paths in life, my journey has been about transformations following a process akin to creative design; that is, problem‐solving and creativity. The engineering mindset has been the brick and mortar behind my projects, but most of my inspiration comes from growing up in my grandfather’s house in Concepción de Oriente, a rural village in El Salvador. It was there that my mind and my spirit found endless challenges.
5 THINGS ABOUT
Beauty | world - Traveler | SUSTAINABILITY | COMMUNITY | SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY
LEAP OF FAITH
It started back in 1997, while working on a building project in a small Lenca indigenous community. I was reunited with my childhood friends, an extraordinarily talented group of pottery makers there who could not make ends meet. I realised that many techniques used for Lenca pottery were in danger of disappearing because of a lack of innovation as the raw material was behaving differently due to environmental changes. This affected resistance and, in turn, it determined what the pottery could be used for.
After interacting with the artisans, I felt deeply that the solutions to these challenges had to integrate local craftsmanship in order to preserve the uniqueness of Lenca pottery. The right combination of tradition and innovation had the potential of developing their industry, improving living conditions, and making the community self‐sustainable.
Solving that problem became my first Leap of Faith. I applied my skills to a project that did two important things for my future: it reconnected me with my traditional community, and it launched me into the world of social entrepreneurship.
Years later, life took me to New Delhi where I worked for an infrastructure corporation as an executive for CSR, safety and quality. This was a leadership position, structured and systematic that had me longing for the creative process. I focused on photography (my long standing hobby), and then a bit more seriously as I grew dissatisfied with my job. In a very organic way, photography became a second Leap of Faith. India is exuberant and an endless source of sensory stimuli and I needed to connect with all of it from the soul. I started taking photographs of friends, colleagues, and events, and eventually I was hired as a fashion and portrait photographer. In photography, problem‐solving and creativity go hand in hand. It is about light and composition, but also about letting people explore their inner beauty. My focus was color, texture, trendiness but above all, I realised, I was empowering my clients to feel good about themselves and to take ownership of how they were presenting themselves to the world.
My partner got transferred to Denmark and that has been the reason for me to pick up my social entrepreneurship again and leave the corporate world. There I set up IMARIT, a sustainable fashion company that produces clothes made with Peruvian Alpaca wool.
When I arrived in Denmark, my first impression was … cold! I longed for the beautiful, elegant, and soft alpaca wool from South America to keep me warm and feel at home. As I tried to solve this problem, I thought that I could not be the only woman in Scandinavia feeling this way. And so, I started thinking about importing alpaca garments. It was a challenging start as I learned that Scandinavian markets are driven by quality in the material and the design, but that they trust traditional brands. I lacked a relatable history, my roots where unknown and at times misunderstood. To be able to survive in the fashion industry you either compete on price or on quality. I wanted the latter. And the quality of the products was only able to be understood if we would share the stories of the artisans and of myself.
I aim to making people aware of the impact that dressing up every morning has on our planet. IMARIT is a social and sustainable brand that aims at zero impact and thrives to empower local communities.
While design and distribution is based in Copenhagen, Denmark, I partner with farmers and artisans in indigenous communities where we produce the materials that we then use for our designs. The process is fluid and organic, and it has developed over the years as form of creative-collaborative design. I am very proud of IMARIT because we have set in place structures and processes that guarantee a quality product while improving living conditions in local communities. When we involve local artisans, from design to production, we ensure that our clothes support an industry that is environmentally and economically sustainable.
I always believed that improving people’s living conditions is not done through charity but through helping these communities find a way to do something from and for themselves. Creating a meaningful motivation for them that is going to help them evolve as human beings as well as a community. With Imarit I saw that I started creating a bigger change. The change in the community took place by the individual artisans first. They slowly started changing the way they perceived their own products and eventually how they actually perceived themselves.
Through all the changes that I have undergone in my professional life, I have always been wearing two or three hats, as it were. I am, like my grandfather, a Jack‐of‐all‐tricks, and I never let go completely of a source of income. I worked as a civil engineer as I was setting up my photography studio, and now I am a photographer as I develop and consolidate IMARIT.
THE TOUGH TIMES
1. I learned the hard way that global financial trends affect small producers like me. I had just a couple of clients back then and when they weren’t able to put any orders in it was almost like all the work and effort was wasted.
2. You have to gain intercultural competence in order to understand how different cultures have different ways of engaging socially and economically.
3. I found out the importance of building a support network, with people that share my values to find encouragement and solace when needed.
4. It is important to find your capabilities and power, not by comparing to the rest of the world, but by the uniqueness of your contribution to impact someone’s life.
5. I am very shy and it was very difficult for me to own my own story. I did however understood the importance of it and over time I became more comfortable with my background and telling my story it in a way that matters and that can help my social enterprise.
One of my professors at University told me this and will always remember. “10 years after finishing your studies you think that it would have been good to learn earlier about management. 20 years after, you think that it would have been good to learn about the creative process, a vision for beauty. And 30 years later you wish you had learned more about philosophy and how to live a good life.” It is about 30 years that I completed my studies and I can totally relate. I now am aiming for “just” a good life.
5 INSIDER TIPS
1. Discipline is a must. An entrepreneur needs to be clear in his/her value because those will support them to be persistent, curious, to ask questions and accumulate valuable information.
2. As an entrepreneur you have (must) to build networks not only in utilitarian terms but for emotional support, surround yourself with people that share your values.
3. Find the way to isolate the noise, the negativity, rely on your network.
4. To be a social entrepreneur is about finding a balance between creating wealth and creating wellbeing.
5. An entrepreneur is not born but made. There are things that will come easy through skills learned or talents that you always had. But there are other things that you will need to learn and practice until you master them.
Written by Eleni Meraki
Eleni is the founder of Guts & Tales. She is a hypnotherapist, mind-trainer, coach and creator of the women’s coaching program Be Your Own Muse. She helps women become clear, confident and courageous to be and live true to themselves.