Creating Change in Latin America Through Fashion

This past month, we have been privileged to welcome two talented young entrepreneurs from Latin America, Carmen Castellanos and Yesenia Sanchez, into our office and our lives. They are part of a fellowship program created by President Obama, the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative, which pairs local businesses with young entrepreneurs from Latin America and the Caribbean It's been an amazing experience to have them with us, and we are excited to watch them take home what they have learned and grow their own businesses.


Carmen (left) and Yesenia (right) in our "Selfies with Substance" Photobooth 


What is the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative? 

Yesenia & Carmen: President Obama’s Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI) empowers entrepreneurs and innovative civil society leaders to strengthen their capacity to launch and advance their entrepreneurial ideas and effectively contribute to social and economic development in their communities.


In Seattle, the World Affairs Council is the host for the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative, can you tell us more about them?

Yesenia & Carmen: The World Affairs Council is the local implementing partner for YLAI with grantee Meridian International Center and the U.S. Department of State. The mission of the World Affairs Council is to advance global understanding and global engagement throughout the greater Seattle area, they welcome over 600 international visitors to the area through innovative and prestigious State Department exchange programs for both professional and youth leaders from around the world that advance that mission through citizen to citizen diplomacy.

The YLAI program is particularly exciting it provides a truly reciprocal opportunity to cultivate leadership skills for change makers and entrepreneurs from Seattle, Latin America and the Caribbean in a diverse array of sectors. The other 8 YLAI Fellows we are hosted in Seattle and are completing professional fellowships with the following local organizations and businesses: Crosscut, Swurveys, Inquiry Partners, Keepe, TomboyX, KRNL Labs, GGLO Designs, MESA Washington, Jolkona, Seattle International Foundation, Conduit Coffee, Atlas Coffee Importers, and Starbucks.

As a result of these fellowships, lasting friendships, as well as professional partnerships have developed that will be sustained even when the YLAI Fellows return home. This will be enhanced by the reverse exchange for up to 45 U.S. mentors to travel to the home country of their YLAI Fellow for a 2-week program aimed at local capacity building around entrepreneurship and community engagement.  



Can you both tell us why you chose to participate in this?

Yesenia: I decided to participate because it's a great program! Meeting like-minded entrepreneurs, exchanging solutions and also creating new questions. It has given me the opportunity I needed to help grow my business by gaining essential skills and knowledge that will be put into use so I can create more job opportunities for women in Mexico. Getting to know the American culture also seemed exciting and refreshing.

Carmen: I consider this program as an opportunity to learn from other Latin American entrepreneurs, from their experience, their challenges and their ventures. Also, an opportunity to know how other businesses works in a first world country in order to adopt and adapt the best practices to our business back in our countries. This is a huge opportunity to open the mind, by facing new experiences. I get to know new people, network and have the chance to take a pause, think and plan for new things that can make our business improve.


What have you been doing in this fellows program since you’ve been in Seattle?

Yesenia: I have really long days where the agenda is full of conferences, meetings, working at TomboyX, cultural events, and meeting other entrepreneurs from the area. I have also been hosted by a couple of families, which was incredible. I've been doing touristy stuff, having local beers, visiting the first Starbucks, went to Pike Place Market and even walked around Washington Park Arboretum. I've had an amazing experience.

Carmen: We started this new experience in Seattle and we have worked for a month at TomboyX getting to know the different areas of the company. We had the opportunity to assist at different events in order to learn networking skills and attended different conferences as well as workshops that are going to help to improve our business. We were able to have meetings with experts in our industries to learn from their experiences and share ideas. In addition, we had the chance to explore this amazing city, get to learn how Seattleites experience life. We were able to visit families from this city to experience how they live and got to visit many exciting places and enjoy the local cuisine. This been a great experience of growth in a professional and personal way. 



Tell us about your company.

Yesenia: Yes Sánchez creates job opportunities for indigenous women through the production of unique handbags and accessories made of sustainable materials. We rescue traditional techniques by applying embroidery in our products. We believe in making cool-tural bags, paying our women a fair wage and satisfying the needs of a growing market because we love Mexico and we care.

Carmen: Fashion Truck is a pop up store that doesn’t wait for the customer to come. In our boutique on wheels we go where our customers are. These are women who want to be noticed, want to leave a mark in the world and want to express themselves. One of the best ways to do it is by the way you look, dress and how you want to be remembered. At Fashion Truck we believe in a collaborative work. We give to other entrepreneurs that share our philosophy, the opportunity to sell their products through us in order to strengthen the manufacturing industry in El Salvador.


Yesenia, as a company, Yes Sanchez has a focus on helping the environment, tell us how you are going about this? 

I've always been aware of the huge impact the fashion industry has towards the production of new items that are not always ecologically friendly so when I decided I wanted to create bags and accessories I knew I was going to produce responsibly. Our bags are made of eco leather, which has been recycled, some of the wallets and linings are made of rough cotton fabrics. We produce are own carry bags (packaging) which are made of recycled cardboard. We also use what's left of the eco-leather and fabrics to make patchwork. We love recycling and renewing materials because we believe in second chances.



Carmen, the mission of your company Fashion Truck is to empower women through clothes, how are you working to go about this?

Nowadays life happens so fast and nobody has time for anything. Women have a very important role in the world and they develop a lot of roles in their life. They are students, professionals, workers, mothers, girlfriends and so on. They are focusing on growth in every aspect of their lives and leave a mark in this world. Their priorities are set up different, but their needs are still the same. They want to project themselves as leaders, as global shapers and as their own person. They want to express themselves and show the world what they are made of. How? One of the most basic ways to express it is through the way you dress.

That is why we embody the spirit of freedom that is in every woman. Fashion Truck gives them a convenient way to buy using digital resources and staying connected with them to quickly deliver what they buy. Moreover, we create an experiential way to buy by them using the Fashion Truck that is a unique to what they are used to experiencing.

We want to empower women to achieve their goals by easing the way of shopping for clothes so that they can focus on other aspects of their lives and give them the confidence so that they can be whoever they want. 


Yesenia, what are the biggest challenges you face in Mexico in marketing your company?

The company is still in a really early stage so I haven't got the proper funding to implement a strong marketing strategy. 



Carmen, what are the biggest challenges you face in El Salvador?

One of the biggest challenges that we have as entrepreneurs is that the environment for entrepreneurs in El Salvador is premature. There are no big and established companies focused on entrepreneurs, there are just a few business incubators. The law doesn't support startups and it is very difficult to get investments or seed funds to succeed. But as Randy Pausch said in his last lecture, "The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something." None of these obstacles are going to stop us. It is a personal goal to contribute to the development of the entrepreneurial environment in my country.


What have you learned in your internship at TomboyX? 

Yesenia: I've learned about women empowerment, about staying true to yourself, and working hard. I've learned that you have to create your own normal and do things differently to inspire yourself to inspire others.

Carmen: "The harder you work, the luckier you get." I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to work around amazing women that are really compromised with their work. Nothing that is worth it comes easy. I know that the founder’s work really hard in order to make their company succeed and they are so rounded with an amazing team. I learned from each one that if you believe in a project do it with your heart, get involved, and the most important thing—be real and yourself.  



What are the ultimate goals for your company?

Yesenia: Creating a large community of women, creating more job opportunities, and opening workshops to create awareness of the artisanal working process. I want my company to be known abroad and to be able to show the rich culture México can offer. I want Yes Sánchez to grow socially and professionally to be able to contribute to our society and the world.

Carmen: We want to create a real positive impact in our country. We want to create jobs, increase the internal economic activity, strength the manufacturing industry in El Salvador and be able to help other entrepreneurs start their ventures. But the most important thing we want is to empower women and strengthen the self-esteem of Salvadorian women that makes them believe in themselves.