Oscar Tadeo grew up in the small city of Sonsonate, El Salvador. But as a teenager, he spent his nights watching American fashion shows—Say Yes to the Dress, What Not to Wear and Project Runway. Now he’s designing his own clothes, but his Salvadoran products have a unique element you won’t find on most primetime fashion programs in the U.S.
They’re dyed with native indigo extract and made with almond leaves and coconut cores. Tadeo says most Salvadoran communities, particularly Sonsonate—Tadeo calls it the “coconut city of the country”—consider the latter two garbage.
“When I talk about working with local plants in my country and I’m extracting the dyes, they say 'What? I’ve never heard of that,' says Tadeo.
When Tadeo visited Coca-Cola in October, it was the first day of his Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative Fellowship that he didn’t wear any of his products. But he wasn’t any less driven about finding new markets for his wares in the U.S. Tadeo is one of 10 entrepreneurs from Central and South America whose successful ventures have qualified them for selection for the YLAI fellowship, during which they’ve worked with businesses and civil society organizations in Atlanta related to their fields.
They also made a few other stops during their four-week stint to expand their professional networks and capitalize on the wealth of knowledge and resources that companies like Coca-Cola can give them. During a visit to Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, the fellows met the company's Latin America Group President Alfredo Rivera, who engaged with them about their own ideas regarding their ventures and what Coca-Cola is doing to more sustainable solutions for its business.
One of the advantages a visit to Coca-Cola has for entrepreneurs like Tadeo is the chance to gain insights from employees who have watched Coca-Cola create a more sustainable business model using techniques the owners of budding businesses might be interested in implementing—particularly ones that benefit undeveloped parts of the world. Tadeo says he has seen the drastic effects pollution has had on his country, which has become one of his big motivators as a young professional. One of the best things that could come out of his growing business is being able to have a real impact on reducing pollution in El Salvador.
“They go home with incredible knowledge from working side-by-side with professionals here,” says Farah Amir, executive director of Georgia Council of International Visitors, which works to foster cross-cultural learning and is hosting YLAI’s fellows in Atlanta (one of several cities hosting the 235 entrepreneurs this month). “It’s just really inspiring to see that they’ve seen these problems at such a young age.”
The fellows are pursuing a variety of ventures that include women’s business training and mentoring, affordable housing and recycling. Some of the entrepreneurs found that Coca-Cola could give them perspective to expand their businesses, especially ventures similar to initiatives that Coca-Cola is leading around the world with its partners.
“The system is so big that can be hard to figure out a way to interface with us,” said Humberto Garcia-Sjogrim, Coca-Cola’s vice president of hispanic strategies. “Depending on what you're trying to achieve, I would encourage you to reach out to our bottlers. They are on the front lines and, therefore, closer to the action.”
Diego Olivero, owner of The Mayan Store in Guatemala, works with artisans throughout the country who he and others in his company have found to possess unique and high-quality craftsmanship, a venture that revolves around one of the skillsets that Coca-Cola’s 5by20 program targets. The Mayan Store tracks down artisans who live in areas with a particularly high malnutrition rate. The impoverished artisans Olivero works with are usually getting by on about $1.90 per day, so The Mayan store pays them 30 percent more to sell their products and tries to connect them with international retailers. The company works with 550 artisans, and Olivero’s favorite part of the business is giving them the chance to use their beautiful skills to change their lives.
“I always wanted to work with artisans to make a difference,” Olivero says. “We wanted to switch the approach and make it more up-to-date.”
One of the goals of The Mayan Store is to sell products that reflect the beauty of Guatemalan craft but also have a modern feel—among the companies that sell his products are Paper Source and Crate and Barrel. At six years old, the Mayan Store works with 550 artisans in Guatemala and sells their products in 15-20 countries.
Less than one percent of the estimated 1.2 million women entrepreneurs empowered by 5by20 are artisans, but they span across 13 different countries, a network with the success and reach that Olivero is looking for to improve his business. Those are the kinds of doors that the YLAI entrepreneurs are looking for, showing the true value of a month-long fellowship in Atlanta, one of the country’s primary locations for Fortune 500 company headquarters and nonprofit organizations.
“Each of you has an incredible opportunity to expand your influence in the field you’ve excelled in,” Rivera told the fellows. “Atlanta is a great place to do that.”
Rivera told the group he “fell into” a job at a Coca-Cola bottler because he was a history major and wanted to see the world he’d studied. He grew up on a small banana farm in Honduras, but knew at a young age he wanted to spend his life traveling. He still gets a guided tour every time he goes to a new city.
“For me, my job is something that allows me to do what I love,” Rivera said. “I think it’s worth it to pursue those passions that you believe can make a difference in the world.”
Some of the entrepreneurs have already taken Rivera’s words to heart—and with great success—pursuing ventures that reflect personal passions rather than opting for more lucrative careers. After getting a law degree, Rosario Garavito started working for regional government in Peru. She quickly realized that was not where she wanted to be.
“Corruption is such a big thing,” Garavito said. “I was just so disappointed with everything that at some point I decided to quit my job.”
Garavito then began the Millennials Movement, a youth-driven organization that creates awareness about sustainable development through social media, as well as seeking out small communities that often feel left behind by global development conversations staged in big cities. After starting out with a small social media following, Garavito and her organization began facilitating surveys and holding workshops for people who were interested in learning about sustainable growth in their communities. As of last year, the organization’s 213 volunteers from seven regions of Peru have reached 38,000 Peruvians through 300 workshops and 67 local partnerships.
“We’re changing the way of thinking,” Garavito said. “It’s not about what you can get from the world. It’s about what you can give.”