"Carry a story on your arm," reads the tagline above pictures of handbags made with bold black-and-white Guatemalan textiles that are offered for sale on Mercado Global's website.
Indeed, there are many stories associated with the bags and jewelry that Brooklyn-based Mercado Global sells. They range from the tales of indigenous women, using centuries-old weaving techniques who have connected with the global marketplace to the stories of a unique poverty-fighting approach and a venture launched in a Yale dorm room.
Now some 300 women organized in cooperatives produce for Mercado Global. Their products have been sold in Bloomingdale's, Anthropologie and Nordstrom as well as by Levi Strauss & Co., Red Envelope and other major retailers.
It all begins with Ruth DeGolia, executive director and co-founder of Mercado Global.
As a college student, DeGolia, 31, went to Guatemala to do research. "In the course of this work, I met these tremendous women in the highlands," she said.
She was impressed with the beautiful textiles they wove in traditional Mayan designs, their industriousness, their strength and how they were trying to sustain their families with so little. They also were survivors of the Guatemalan civil war -- a bloody conflict from 1960-'96 when human rights abuses were rampant and the government was accused of genocide against the Mayan population.
"These women were my heroes. They had been through so much," said DeGolia.
After her first summer
in Guatemala, she filled her suitcases with scarves and jewelry the women had created.
"The first day back at school I sold $5,000 worth," she said. "Then the women started sending me stuff to sell. At the time I regarded it as a personal favor."
She realized there was an appetite for the women's work. But with only a limited number of tourists visiting Guatemala, there was also a limited market. "What was missing was the market connection," DeGolia said.
During her senior year at Yale in 2004, DeGolia and classmate Benita Singh made a pact they would try to help the women in Guatemala earn fair wages and, in turn, create jobs for themselves. They decided not to look for jobs but focus on looking for start-up money.
"It was a bit like jumping off a cliff into the clouds," said DeGolia. As part of their money-raising strategy, the pair drew up a business plan and began entering business plan competitions.
They ended up winning the Yale Entrepreneurial Society's Y50K competition and the Social Enterprise Innovation Award. A big break came when the pair became Echoing Green fellows and were awarded $100,000 in seed capital.
By August 2005, they were on their way with the launch of a ceramic dinnerware collection for ABC Carpet and Home.
Even though Singh left the social enterprise two years after its founding, DeGolia pushed on.
By 2006, the project attracted media attention and that in turn interested Silicon Valley venture capitalists. A break came in May 2007 when Mercado Global launched its first collection with Levi Strauss & Co.
Sales increased by 160 percent in 2008. Then the recession hit and DeGolia realized Mercado Global had to adapt. She overhauled the business model and introduced a "socially conscious consumption" component.
"During the recession we found that women wanted to help even more. They didn't want to buy a cheap piece of crap from China. If they were going to make a purchase, they wanted it to be good, and they wanted it to count," said DeGolia.
Part of the strategy was to hire U.S. designers to put a more fashion-forward twist on the products. In the early years, Mercado Global sold scarves, simple bags and pillows that weren't "market-ready for the U.S.," said DeGolia.
For each $1 in merchandise sold, 50 cents goes back to the women. Donors also have helped the nonprofit Mercado Global, and their contributions support the education programs. In the fiscal year that ended in June, Mercado Global's sales totaled $400,000. For fiscal 2013, sales of $650,000 are projected, said DeGolia.