The Power of Hammocks
A few months ago, we were contacted by a woman via email asking about advertising on our website. She wanted to advertise her hammock business and we thought that was a great idea, so we arranged to meet with her. We did not really know what to expect, but we certainly did not expect the people and organization that we met! We were so impressed with the creativity and dedication of the people we met, along with their inventive combination of altruism and entrepreneurship, that we decided to tell our readers their story. This is that story.
It All Started When...
We arranged to meet at their store, Hamacas Merida, on Calle 65 just south of the Plaza Grande. We had probably walked by this store a few hundred times without giving it a second thought. And we almost walked by it again, as it was closed, with the metal doors almost down to the ground. Since we had an appointment, we knocked on the metal door and within seconds, a handsome and tall young man raised the door and welcomed us in. This was Constantino, hot and tired from taking inventory in the heat of a Merida summer afternoon. He was soon joined by his equally attractive sister, Josefina, and they both proceeded to show us around their store while telling us their story.
Growing Up, Leaving, Coming Back
Growing up in Merida, Josefina and Constantino were raised by a mother who worked as an attorney and a father who worked in the family businesses of hotels and shoe stores. While their mother provided an example of working with charity organizations, Josefina grew up working in the hotels and Constantino worked in the shoe business. Eventually, these family businesses were all sold, leaving the two children to find other ways to make their way in the world.
Constantino earned his college degree at Tecnologico de Merida, and as with many educated children here, he decided to spend some time in the United States furthering his education. Early in 2001, Constantino left Merida to go to graduate school in Pensacola, Florida. While he was there, the tragedy of 9-11 happened and, as a foreigner, he found it impossible to find work. He had previously asked his mother to send him a few hammocks from Merida to give to his friends in Florida, and they were such a hit, he asked for more. In an effort to support himself, he went to a local flea market with hammocks, and sold over 100 in one day. Recognizing an opportunity, he moved back to Mexico and, with assistance from his mother, started Hammock Boutique, and began the business of exporting Yucatecan hammocks.
In 2005, his younger sister Josefina, graduated from Universidad Anahuac Mayab and moved to Washington D.C. to go to graduate school at Georgetown University. In 2007, she graduated and moved to New York City with a job in investment banking. Seeing how well her brother's business was going and the additional opportunities they could create together, she initially helped him with financial investments. In 2012, as she puts it, she became Constantino's partner, a "full-time hamaquera", and they opened up the wholesale side of the hammock business.
That is their background, but that is not the most impressive or important part of this story. For that, we have to explain how this business works and how they are growing and promoting the business to benefit so many people.
Giving Back While Getting Ahead
From the beginning, Constantino and Josefina have been committed to running a business that gives back to the community and and the employees of the business. This includes paying higher wages to the weavers, donating household items on a regular basis to the weavers and their families, and supporting activities that benefit the communities that weave our hammocks. Each week, about eight "managers" come in to the store in Merida and trade completed hammocks for new yarn to make more hammocks. The Hammock Boutique provides their hammock producers with all the yarn they use, ensuring that the hammocks are made with quality yarn and in color combinations that they know will sell in the global market. The finished hammocks come from small pueblos throughout the Yucatan Peninsula where the leaders, once producers themselves, have cultivated a community of producers. Each week, they are paid for the completed hammocks, and given the new yarn to produce more hammocks. Through this network of local producers who work out of their own homes, Josefina estimates that they work with about 500 families who are supplementing or earning their income through producing hammocks, while still able to stay in their homes and communities.
In addition to ensuring that the hammocks are produced with the best materials and the right colors, the organization employs a few people in Merida who perform a quality check on each hammock, making repairs as necessary before the hammocks are shelved and ready to ship. The Hammock Boutique ships traditional Maya hammocks, hanging hammock chairs and American-style hammocks all over the world to individual buyers, but now, they are also beginning a thriving wholesale business. They have recently become a minority supplier to Lowes Hardware in the United States. In fact, Lowes will be coming in January to film Constantino and Josefina and their business as an example of Lowe's Supplier Diversity efforts. Anyone can now buy hammocks made in Merida on Lowes.com (see link at the end of the article) and starting January, Lowe's will be promoting hammocks from Constantino and Josefina's hammock business in 152 stores across five states.
Social Responsibility Recognized
As you can see, there is no question that these two young Meridanos have created a thriving and successful business. But what sets this business apart is the way that they are weaving entrepreneurial interests together with their determination to benefit the workers as well as themselves. Since the beginning, they have attempted to run their hammock business as a socially responsible enterprise. As Josefina still lives in the United States with her American husband, she is able to tell their story to organizations that can recognize and promote the work they are doing in Yucatan. Through her efforts, Hammock Boutique has been designated as a B Corporation business, which means the business must "meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, legally expand their corporate responsibilities to include consideration of stakeholder interests, and build collective voice through the power of the unifying B Corporation brand." There are more than 1,000 Certified B Corporations from over 60 industries and 34 countries, and Hammock Boutique is the 8th Mexican Company to be certified. Hammock Boutique has also been recently awarded a Fair Trade Federation Membership.
Breaking The Poverty Cycle
All this is great, but Josefina and Constantino recognized that it was not enough. After their regular Christmas giveaway in 2013, Josefina realized that she wanted to create permanent change in the communities. The giveaways, like so many charitable activities here and elsewhere, were providing temporary wellbeing for the recipients, but they were not changing the root causes of the poverty found where these families worked and lived. Josefina and Constantino wanted to make a bigger, more long-lasting impact.
So the siblings decided to take their efforts to assist the communities of weavers one step further. In the summer of 2014, they established Fundación Cielo, a non-profit organization, whose mission is, as their website says, "working to end the cycle of inter-generational poverty in the Yucatan by improving the health, education and leadership skills of the Yucatan People". They chose the towns of Chumayel and Teabo to start, planning to eventually expand their efforts to more neighboring communities.
Fundación Cielo is working to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty in Mayan communities in the Yucatán through an integrated system of socioeconomic development. We are introducing the SHE Network (Sustainable Holistic Empowerment Network) concept on Social Impact / Social Entrepreneurship. Our Sustainability comes from running a profitable hammock business. The Holistic component comes from the integrated approach of not limiting ourselves to provide just jobs but also act in other aspects to help improve their overall living conditions. Empowerment comes with the economic independence that results from being lifted out of poverty. The Network represents the institutions that make this impact possible as well as each family of weavers and their communities.
In 2014, a program called Impact on Air launched a contest looking for fifteen ideas that are changing the world, in five categories. Impact on Air is backed by Google, Impact Hub Seattle and VentureScale, and based out of Seattle. Fundación Cielo was selected as a Winner under the Poverty Alleviation Category, providing more opportunities to spread the word, grow the business and help the Yucatecan families.
Plans for the Future
Their main goal now is to build a Community Center in Teabo. They plan for the first stage to be completed by the end of 2015. At the same time, they are also working towards increasing production capacity for the hammocks. They hope to help these chosen communities break out of poverty through education, one family at a time. Josefina also views this as an opportunity to demonstrate in Mexico that the private sector can be and should be involved in the development of her country. She is hoping that "through our hammock business and the foundation, we will bring about change to these marginalized communities. I want the teenagers to have opportunities to choose their futures. If they choose to stay, that's awesome but if they have the brains to go work at NASA, I want it to be possible for them."
In 2015, Hammock Boutique will also be teaming up with Boomerang Communities to bring members to the Yucatan to see how they can contribute. Boomerang is dedicated to creating "city-based communities where you can learn about sustainable international development. We will provide overseas opportunities for you to see with your own eyes, touch with your own hands, and walk alongside full-time development workers serving communities in need. Then, we will help Boomerang members find meaningful opportunities to serve in their spare time using their unique skills."
Making It Work
We began living in Merida about the same time that Constantino moved to Florida, and we have seen many expatriates trying to help Maya families, including ourselves of course. We all employ local workers, give to their families when we see need and do what we can to alleviate poverty when we see it. But like Josefina, we can also see that our individual efforts are but drops in the bucket, and often those drops evaporate in the hot sun of generational poverty. What Josefina and Constantino are doing, with Hammock Boutique and Fundación Cielo, is a viable blueprint for the future, combining sustainable business activities with community activism in a place they understand, creating meaningful work for themselves while helping others.
Find out more about B Corporations