Guatemala City, Antigua, Atitlán, Nahualá, Jocotenango, Pastores, Panajachel, and Santa Catarina Palopó. These are some of the cities and towns that my Project Pyramid team and I visited during spring break to learn more about Social Entrepreneurship and Social Impact. As part of the B’enam team, Travis Bouchard, Kelly Johnson, and I spent a week in Guatemala discussing with several entrepreneurs to learn about the challenges they face every day in this Central-American country.
B’enam & Co. is an inspiring company founded by Fernando Grajeda and his wife as an initiative to empower low-income Guatemalan families in Guatemala City and in the Mayan community of Nahualá. B’enam has allowed Fernando to pay higher prices (400%) for the textiles created by a Mayan family and this way, he was also able to provide a loan to Estuardo one of the members of the Mayan family, to study a technical business degree. At the same time, a low-income family in Guatemala City also received a loan through B’enam to acquire five sewing machines to have an independent source of income by producing B’enam bags and other products such as school uniforms.
Now, B’enam is looking for steady demand and market expansion beyond the Guatemalan borders and has requested the Project Pyramid team for support in this endeavor. Kelly, Travis, and me, in addition to Olivia Reeves who was not able to join us for the trip, we have been working with Fernando for the past 9 weeks to better understand the B’enam product portfolio, how can they be marketed, and the best ways to approach the American market to ensure B’enam’s future viability.
In addition to visiting B’enam’s production centers both in Guatemala City and in Nahualá, we visited several other Guatemalan companies to better understand the impact they are generating through very diverse social businesses. From leather shoes, recycled glassware, craft beer, and export services, several Guatemalans and expats are trying to transform the way businesses are perceived in Guatemala by adding a social component to their enterprise. These visits were extremely inspiring, and we were able to learn a lot from an entrepreneurial perspective. From the sophisticated marketing techniques used by Adelante, the ecological vision of Grönn, the delicious craft beer produced by Antigua Cerveza, and the survival instincts of the UTZ team.
Something that I was hoping to find during the trip was some Guatemalans with low-income backgrounds who, through the empowerment of Social Impact, were able to grow out of their poverty and become success stories of the benefits of social impact. Unfortunately, all the social ventures that we visited and heard of, were founded by expats in Guatemala or by well-connected Guatemalans with foreign studies and experience living abroad. This was disappointing for me because it showed me that, so far, you can only be a successful social entrepreneur in Guatemala if you already have significant income to study abroad, if you are well-connected within the Guatemalan society, or if you are a well-off expat living there. This in no way takes any merit away from what these companies are doing, it was just sad for me to confirm that in Guatemala, just like in so many other Latin-American companies, you need to come from a privileged background to succeed in the business world. At the end of the day, the power and privilege are not really shifting hands there.
Overall, the trip was an amazing experience for all of us. We were able to learn and get some inspiration from many great people in Guatemala. In addition, we saw some breathtaking landscapes and ate some delicious food. Traveling is always a unique educational experience, but when you are able to do it with the purpose of learning about something as meaningful as social impact, the experience is truly life-changing.