Bolivia

An active member of our platform and an engaged social enterprise, beyondBeanie was created in 2014 to support Bolivian women artisans by re-selling their products and reverting part of the profits to social projects. In the following interview, Beyond Beanie’s founder, Hector Alvarez, tells us his story, makes plans for the future and talks about the importance of social entrepreneurship. An awarded member of SIGEF, Hector shares his experience of our most awaited event!

The beyongBeanie team with Bolivian children
The beyongBeanie team with Bolivian children

– What’s the story behind the foundation of beyondBeanie?

In summer of 2013, I travelled to Bolivia to go on a backpacking trip together with my wife and friends, among whom was Paty, a long-time friend and co-founder of the project.  While there, I noticed that there were a lot of women doing knitted handicrafts such as beanies and scarves on the streets of La Paz and the way they made their living was through the sale of these items to tourists. I could see that their lives were not easy.

I bought a handful of different hats from a few different artisans which I took back to Europe to give as souvenirs to my friends and family. While I was giving them my gifts, I talked to them about my experience lived in Bolivia as well as showed them pictures of the women who made these products. My friends immediately found this a cool concept to actually know who made their beanie. This positive reaction from my friends gave me motivation to want to start a social enterprise which would help provide much needed jobs to artisans in Bolivia. After a lot of planning, bB was finally born in March 2014.   

In addition to empowering artisans, Paty and I decided to expand the concept to not just provide work to artisans but also to help street and orphan children with every item sold. That’s how they idea of 1 hat = 5 meals was born which then expanded to other products, such as as bags = school supplies, bracelets = dental care, etc.

Bolivian artisans working on their products
Bolivian artisans working on their products

– You have a strong link with Bolivian artisans. How have you been supporting them with the project?

The artisans who make our products are all women from difficult backgrounds, such as women who have been abandoned by their husbands or boyfriends with two to five children to raise as single mothers or women who have had no opportunity to get an education and can barely read and write.

Through beyondBeanie, we are able to provide these women with the opportunity to work from home while taking care of their children.  Furthermore, we also support their children with school supplies, school uniforms, meals etc.

– How do you think you can empower these artists by selling their products?

One of the important issues which we wanted to do with bB was to not just provide our artisans with work, but also to help boost their self-esteem. When we first met, many of our artisans were quite shy and had very little pride in their work. In fact, many of them had nobody ever tell them that they have an incredible talent and that they do an amazing job. Therefore, in the same way as for example a painter signs his/her paint, each one of our artisans signs her finished product. Then, clients have the opportunity to meet their artisans through our site and even send thank-you letter if they want. This whole mechanism, while quite simple, plays an extremely powerful role in boosting our artisans’ self esteem.

The project boosts the self-esteem of the artisans
The project boosts the self-esteem of the artisans

– What was your biggest accomplishment with beyondBeanie?

The biggest accomplishment is seeing how our work is helping to make a difference in the lives of our artisans, as well as seeing the lives changed of the children we support with the help of our supporters. Thanks to our fans and customers, we’ve been able to provide over 10,000 meals and are currently able to give work to about 25 artisans. Our next stage is to increase our presence at retail outlets in the USA and Europe. For this, we are networking with different agents distributors and shop owners.  

– Do you believe sustainable businesses are the future of capitalism?

I do believe so. Thanks to the internet, nowadays, people are more and more aware about everything which is going on in the world and want to play a more active role in helping change the world for the better. Companies which facilitate this role to consumers will have a clear advantage over those companies who don’t.

beyondBeanie supports  children with school supplies, school uniforms and meals
beyondBeanie supports children with school supplies, school uniforms and meals

– Horyou is now organising the 3rd edition of SIGEF. You were awarded a prize in 2014, and last year you were part of the jury. How do you evaluate SIGEF and its impact on organizations worldwide?

For us, SIGEF 2014 was key to validate our business concept as well as to have much needed initial capital to start our first production of winter hats. This is aside the incredible networking which we did with like-minded individuals. SIGEF 2015 was equally important for us! It was a great honor to be invited to be part of the jury.

I really believe that SIGEF is a great portal to network with fellow changemakers, validate ideas and even find funding!

By Vívian Soares

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Projects on the Horyou platform are a key component in the promotion of social good. By starting an individual or group Project on Horyou, you can gain exposure, recognition, support and much more.

We recently interviewed Hector Alvarez from beyondBeanie, the winner of the SIGEF 2014 Call for Projects People’s Choice Award. Horyou believes in bringing visibility to projects that positively affect their communities. This is the case with beyondBeanie.

*Let’s first talk about this idea. How did it happen?

It all started during a trip to Bolivia in summer of 2013 in which I went to visit Paty, a friend whom I had gotten to know some years earlier in California. While traveling, my friend and I were talking about the hardships faced by the women artisans of Bolivia who struggle to make a living through selling their creations to tourists and passersby in the streets of La Paz and Uyuni. I really liked their knitted creations, especially the beanies! I went ahead and got myself a few of my favorite ones back to Europe. Once winter started to set in Switzerland, I showed around my Bolivian beanies to my friends to get their feedback. I was very pleased to see that they liked them too, and even more once I showed them the pictures of my trip as well as pictures of the artisans and local people whom I had met. What happened next was that I told my Bolivian friend to send me some products that I would try to sell through my friends. Paty went back to La Paz from her hometown Cochabamba (a six-hour drive), organized a few artisans and made some sample products for me. It was important for us to let my friends know who made their products. Therefore, every product includes the name of the artisan who made it, whom my friends could meet through photos. While talking to Paty, we also realized that there was a great need to help street and orphan children in Bolivia, and that is how the idea to have every product attached to a help of children came to be. Our project finally came life in March 2014 and I said to myself: “I’m ready for this!”

How is bB making a difference?

We are making a difference by creating sustainable local jobs for women artisans so that they no longer have to go out on the streets and leave their children unattended, as well as continuing to help children in need with every item sold (one beanie = five meals, one bag = one set of school supplies, one poncho = one school uniform).

Something we find very interesting is your approach to bB: “BeyondBeanie is a lifestyle brand.” Can you give us your insight on this?

What we mean by lifestyle is that we do not just want to be a brand which sells products but which also educates people about how their everyday life choices can make a positive impact to the world. We believe that by combining fashion with solidarity, we can create a brand that can create sustainable change – a brand which conscious-minded consumers not just appreciate but also “live,” as opposed to just “wear.”

There are many people involved in this process: artisans, local organizations and communities, the bB team, among others. How does the entire process work?

Yes, it is indeed a very large and complex process in which there are lots of parts and people involved.

First of all, it all starts with the idea that even though we do charitable work, it is our goal to position ourselves as a fashion brand so that we can make our social enterprise sustainable over the long run (the idea is to have people want to shop our products first and foremost because they are catchy and cool while having the added value of giving back, instead of simply buying because they feel sorry about street children and shop simply to support, but just wear our products once or maybe twice in their whole lives).

In order to come up with great looking and trendy products, we spend a whole lot of time studying and following fashion trends, which is mostly done by Paty and her assistant, Renee. In addition, we do also work in close collaboration with top fashion bloggers and bloggers such as Depeches Mode in France, or Braided Bliss, Victoria Moronta and Lisa Marie Prang in the USA, who all evaluate and try our products and submit feedback to us.

Once the products’ prototypes are approved and OK’d by our sample population, Paty will indicate to the artisans their specifications, such as required texture and wool, lengths and diameters, etc. This process is not always easy, as the product making can have some variations from person to person (our items are not industrially made but rather individually crafted, knitted, weaved and sewn by our talented artisans.

Even though most of our artisans whom we support already have good knowledge and experience in knitting and weaving, they still require training to understand how to master the making and specifications of our products. Therefore, we have learned that it is important to prepare everything several months in advance.

beyond-beanie-hector

Fortunately, the part of forming collaboration with children centers to support has been relatively easy since Paty already had some connections with children’s centers that needed help and were eager to accept our support. The main problem was mainly in the beginning to try to understand what are the centers’ greatest needs, but once we understood them, the rest has been relatively easy.

Then the process that relates to the team, interns and volunteers helping in the project, we have a global team, which is divided, in two continents (Bolivia in Latin America and Switzerland, Germany and the UK in Europe, and most recently in the USA). The first few months when we got established were definitely difficult. In short, we all had to put lots of effort to deal with time differences, learn each other’s tasks, etc. Anyhow, everyone who has gotten on board has always felt a strong commitment and interest in the success of the project. Therefore, this has been a very powerful ingredient that has kept us together, even when things have gotten rough along the way.

I hope this gives a good overview about how everything works and flows. :)

What is your vision for bB? What do you think it can become?

It’s my dream to become a brand of choice for people who care about social good, as well as to hopefully serve as an example to other projects.
In the future, we would like to continue to expand our presence into other countries and online presence, as well as to continue to form collaborations with other awesome organizations that promote and “live” social good, such as Horyou.

Finally: What is your Dream? What is you Inspiration? What does the word “Action” mean for bB?

My dream for bB is to continue to develop our social brand, to keep establishing partnerships with similar-minded organizations, to keep promoting social good, all while educating consumers and impacting lives. Our inspiration here at bB is the happy faces and see how lives get changed to the about 80 children in two centers and 17 artisans that we support. The word “action” means to go out of one’s box and dare to do things in a different way to create positive change not just for oneself but to those around us too.

Thank you to Hector and all of the people from the beyondBeanie team for taking the time to share their vision with Horyou and for the video bB dedicated to us! We wish your 2015 to be full of many more accomplishments in the promotion of arts and education by strengthening the communities you directly support.

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