Business 06 November 2017
For 12 years I´ve dedicated my life to creating job opportunities for indigenous artisans in Mexico. When I started my first project everybody thought I was set to fail; people didn´t understand why I was building a company whose success relied upon the commitment of indigenous people.
I can assure you that every artisan I have worked with has demonstrated themselves to be hard working people, always searching for better opportunities for their family. Unfortunately, for many artisans in Mexico better opportunities don't present themselves and many struggle to make a living relying on their craftsmanship.
From this came LAZO, a company incubated by Grupo AtomiCo which enables social entrepreneurs that create high impact projects to change the world, a consumer-facing platform we created with artisans in mind. Its goal to preserve Mexican culture and vibrancy and connect artisans with the final consumer. In 2016 we started this new initiative so today's consumer could experience artisanal craftsmanship as we do. Working with different artisans, their locales dotting the expanse of Mexico, we created a basis for individuals who do not have access to the proper resources to justly expand their business and artistic vision, providing tools for eventual realization by global audiences. With an industry bent on diversifying product and utilizing “authenticity" as a selling point, it's of ever-growing importance to support the makers of artisan pieces.
Photo courtesy of Lazo
Fueled by my passion for social justice and cultural integrity, LAZO's combined site-and-service platform is very close to my heart. After receiving my law degree from the Universidad Iberoamericana, I have worked hard to preserve the freedoms and cultural integrity of my homeland. During my time as a volunteer for human rights with the Centro De Derechos Indigenas A.C. (CEDIAC), I learned the struggles the indigenous population faced daily and the importance of protecting their way of life, their contributions a necessity to the lifeblood of the region. After dwelling within this consistent injustice, I re-centered my focus and distributed my time among the women of these sectors through traditional textile art. From there, my interest only grew, and I threw myself into social change, founding the Fundación Arroz con Leche and manning Fábrica Social for five years.
With fuel in my heart, and the support of Grupo AtomiCo, I sought to start LAZO. After the initial plan was set, we invited five artisans who have been recognized for their talent and who are experts in their respected craft, whether traditional doll making, paper cutting, or wooden toy design.
Once we had our creatives, we needed a home, and the natural space for an initiative like this revealed itself as e-commerce. As weeks passed, the word started spreading and more artisans wanting to be part of the platform, which was so exciting for us, and artisans have started to experience the benefits of e-commerce and more want to join LAZO. This allows each artisan to create and be the protagonist of their own story.
Prior to LAZO, we noticed that many competitors in this field bore an inherent flaw; those that crafted the products would see low returns, while individuals marketing the pieces as resale would reap the benefits. To flatten this disparity, we gave the artisans complete and total control at LAZO.
They set the price, eliminating the frustrating habit of price-bargaining the craftsmen, so they could value their time and practice as they saw fit. They influence the market, rather than the market influencing them. From the beginning, we wanted the artisans to focus solely on their craft, which is why we developed a singular method to oversee the corporate process in its entirety, from marketing to business infrastructure. We provided services to our artisans that our competitors did not – an unrestricted portal for direct producer-to-consumer purchasing.
At LAZO, our goal to pair Mexican artistry with the potential of technology that has bridged the historical with the modern under one common theme.
In order to assure this mission, however, we knew we had to get our customers on board. We had secured the artisans and the platform, but translating the message and our hopeful preservation of Mexican authenticity to an audience of varying backgrounds became an interesting task. Mexico is naturally beautiful, and what I love most about my country is its passion. It's my own desire that the rest of the world witness what this culture can truly offer when put to the task, an ideal visible in the artisans' own work as well as our commitment to their prosperity. After much deliberation, we soon realized the only way for this to happen was to bring the world to Mexico, so we planned LAZO's first destination-getaway, the upcoming PURO experience.
As an avid traveler, with Mexico understandably providing most of my wanderlust, my hope is that this initiative will reveal the culture's magic to individuals as it did to me–a vibrantly rich community with much to offer.
Throughout the trip, ticket holders will see the beauty of Oaxaca that inspired my work in LAZO. From rare organ concerts, to a show of Calenda dolls, to an exquisite meal by Chef Eduardo “Lalo" Garcia – the trip is a complete offering of the region, a project we are thrilled to see come to fruition. Just the first of many to come, PURO is a true culmination of my experience and of the culture that continues to inspire my creativity and dedication.
My enduring dream for LAZO is to allow our artisans, as well as Mexico itself, the global recognition that they deserve through quality business management and commercial success. In providing standard business services for the sixteen artisans, LAZO is already improving the lifestyle of those surrounding their work. In the coming years, we hope to grow this exponentially, nurturing and protecting the quality production of this country under our cumulative umbrella. In garnering awareness of these art forms and of the hands behind their creation, we can truly cause a disruptive presence in the world of fashion. My past showed me the importance of artisan culture and how hard it fights for its own success. Now, with LAZO, I finally have the resources to do something about it.
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.