For my feature on strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ruth Álvarez-DeGolia.
As the Founder and Executive Director of Industry City’s Mercado Global, Ruth Álvarez-DeGolia has overseen the organization’s growth from a small nonprofit working with a dozen artisans in Guatemala’s highlands, to its recognition as an innovator in social enterprise, partnering with hundreds of artisans and a number of internationally renowned retailers and catalogs.
Ruth has been recognized for her role in founding and supporting a variety of programs and organizations related to international development and poverty alleviation. She has received honors for her academic work on the impact of globalization on political and economic development in Latin America, including the William H. Orrick prize at Yale University. She was named among the “World’s Best Emerging Social Entrepreneurs” by Echoing Green in 2004 and selected as one of the “15 People Who Make America Great” by Newsweek, Ruth has also spoken at the United Nations, the Clinton Global Initiative, the Global Summit for Women, and the U.S. Dept. of Labor.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I first had the opportunity to visit Guatemala when I was an undergraduate at Yale working with community-based organizations in the region. Through that work, I met Indigenous women who were working against the odds to provide opportunities for their families. Many had lost their husbands or their children in the civil war, but they were resilient — fighting for their families to send their kids to school. These women were making incredible woven products, but lacked a market to sell them in. That’s where Mercado Global started.
The idea was that, rather than be victims of poverty, discrimination, or sexism, these women could be some of the best rural entrepreneurs in the world. We’re helping women who have never had the chance to go to school, to get a basic education — as well as build their technical skills — honing their weaving and sewing skills so that their products are ready for the global market. We started with three groups of women, and now we’re working with more than 70 artisan cooperatives throughout rural Guatemala.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
There are so many! One story that I love is that our buyer at one of our biggest retail clients — StitchFix — visited us in Guatemala during one of her vacations to meet the artisans and see the impact of her purchases first hand. She was so moved by our work and impact that she ended up deciding to leave Stitch Fix, move to Guatemala and work for us. She now is our Director of Merchandising & Brand Strategy, and has played an incredibly important role in helping build the brand and sales for our partner artisans over the past few years — and has strengthened our relationship with StitchFix!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?
Wow, so many stories that I could share here! I’ve definitely made A LOT of mistakes along the way as I built the organization and learned how to be a CEO. At the time a lot of them weren’t funny, but in retrospect I can laugh about them.
One challenge I worked on in my early years was that I was afraid to ask people for money. I was 22, straight out of college, and I felt as though asking people to donate money to organizations was the same as asking them to give money to me personally, which I did not feel comfortable doing. It took time to learn that if you believe in an organization and a cause, then when you ask people to support that you’re really offering them the chance to be part of something great and help make the world better. It’s exciting to share that opportunity with them!
In the early years at our first fundraising event, I didn’t actually ask people to give money — I just spoke, helped them get really excited about what we do, and then thanked them for coming. No one donated a single dollar, because they weren’t asked. Now that I have so much experience asking for donations I can laugh about how silly that mistake was!
Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I learned that part of becoming a successful leader is growing as an individual. I had a lot of work to do in my early years to gain my own confidence, re frame how I thought about my career, and learn to ask for help and how to invite others to partner with me in the work that we were doing. As I did this inner work and became more self-aware of my own strengths, and as I began to work on the areas where I wanted to grow, my abilities as an executive and entrepreneur increased — helping Mercado Global grow and scale its impact.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
When many of our partner artisans join Mercado Global, they’re often dealing with challenges around self-esteem and self-confidence because of systemic oppression and racism towards Indigenous people in Guatemala — they’ve dealt with years of machismo, discrimination, and lack of opportunity.
One of the things I’m most proud of is going back and speaking with them after they’ve gone through our programming, built their own cooperatives where women support each other, and started earning their own income often for the first time. I’ve seen how that transformed their lives, how that puts them in the driver’s seat when it comes to decision making in their family and in their community.
Together, we’re changing the narrative and empowering women in such an innovative way. One of our partner artisans — Isabel — recently told us a real shift is happening in rural Guatemala. In the 13 years that she’s worked with Mercado Global, Isabel has seen a transformation in her personal life and in her community. She told me that she now understands that women are equal to men, and she stands up for her rights.
And now in the pandemic, our programs have become the only source of income for families in the majority of our 70+ partner communities.
In 2020 as the main sources of revenue in the region disappeared — tourism and remittances — in a twist that would have been unimaginable to her 13 years ago, Isabel became the primary breadwinner in her family when her husband lost his job. Now her husband cooks, cleans, and takes care of the kids while she works to support the family. Her husband’s outlook has completely changed, and he is supportive of Isabel’s work with Mercado Global. Finding the opportunities to make the greatest impact despite all the odds, really makes this organization (and our team) stand out.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re excited to continue expanding our Masks Where They’re Needed Most initiative in 2021! With support from our retail and foundation partners, consumers, and donors, we have impacted hundreds of high-need communities throughout the Americas. Already we have donated 120,000 face masks made by our partner artisans, which has continued to provide them with work and support at a time of such incredible need.
Our high-quality, re-usable masks have been sent completely free-of-charge to epicenters of the virus — to hospitals, retirement homes, postal workers, the underhoused, leaders of the racial justice movement, migrant farmworkers and their children, and to our partner artisan communities.
And because of the pandemic, we’ve shifted our trainings to be completely virtual and have even recruited and onboarded an additional hundred women to become Mercado Global partner artisans. With everything we’ve learned over the past year, our abilities to scale has increased exponentially!
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
To help your team and your organization thrive, make meaningful connections and be adaptable. This can get you through the toughest times. Over fifteen years we have built strong connections with our partner artisans, our staff (most of whom are women from the Indigenous communities we work with), our customers, our donors, and our retail and foundation partners — that’s what makes Mercado Global successful. Like we’ve said since day one — a single thread is stronger when woven with many others — and the community we’ve built here has kept us resilient even in the darkest days.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
The best investment you can make is in the right people for your team. With so many competing priorities and amazing opportunities out there to pursue — it’s our responsible as leaders to ensure our staff has the tools, resources, and motivation to work smarter (not harder).
We work with each staff member to customize their professional development plans and work closely with them to help them gain they skills they’re excited to learn. Just as important, we prioritize self-care and team building, understanding that to be high performing, we must be willing to rest.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many people to whom I am eternally grateful. Any good leader has so many people who helped them get to where they are, and has such a responsibility to pay that support forward. One person to whom I’m particularly grateful is Garrard Beeney, a partner at a major law firm who was Chair of the Mercado Global board for a decade.
Garrard came on when we were tiny and faced some huge challenges. He mentored me and supported me and the organization through several phases of growth, and put so much time and energy into supporting my growth and that of the organization. In retrospect, it is truly extraordinary that someone as busy as him was willing to spend the time and energy to provide that level of support at such an early stage and through more types of crisis and challenges than I care to remember. I’m very grateful to Garrard for his support.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Our success as an organization has truly helped transform the lives of hundreds of women and changed the world of ethical fashion. It’s so special and powerful to be part of this movement. And we’re proud to provide special opportunities for our customers, donors, major retailers, and strategic partners, to use their resources for good.
I do want to say that you don’t have to start a nonprofit to change the world. The most important thing you can do is take your skills and your purchasing power and create change in every part of your life as it currently exists. I’ve learned that so many people are hungry to be part of the solution, and they can start today by investing their time and resources into the causes that are important to them.
Our Board members, the buyers and designers at our partner retailers, the women in financial institutions who mentor our staff and host events with us — all of these people make our work possible. It’s so important to provide an avenue for change in people’s daily lives, and to be able to do this in partnership with our community of supporters is really incredible.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1) Practice collaborative leadership: If an organization’s scaling and impact opportunity is confined to the set of what you can achieve as an individual, you won’t get much done. If instead you cultivate a team of leaders in your organization and invite them to help you lead and grow the organization, now you’ll have a whole group of leaders working together to scale and achieve the organization’s goals. You’ll be able to get so much more done, you’ll have so many more ears to the ground identifying opportunities and minds at work figuring out how to get those opportunities executed, and you’ll be able to do it all with joy and partnership, rather than trying to shoulder the burden of leadership alone.
Even more importantly, you’ll be fostering sustainability within the organization, and reducing dependence on a single CEO who might be prone to burnout (and hence transition).
2) Practice values-driven leadership: Shared values motivate and drive people — both employees and customers. Identifying core company values and putting them front and center of all that you do can drive business success. I have found that values driven leadership helps unite and build teams by helping identify who needs to be on the bus, clarifying which direction the bus should be going, and then ensuring everyone is working in unison to get that bus to the end destination as quickly as possible.
Corporate values should be the compass any CEO uses to help guide decision making for the really big and extra hard decisions. And it should also be the source of inspiration and connection to customers/ clients — it helps explain the deeper “why” around your product or company.
Mercado Global’s core values are Authenticity, Partnership and Respect. I could provide countless stories of when I’ve turned to these values to help make hard decisions about strategic goals, new opportunities we were considering, or to handle how to share difficult news or handle challenging situations.
3) Be “Chief Listener”: As CEO one of your jobs is to inspire and motivate your team, your customers and your clients. However, it’s also important that you cultivate your ability to listen. Being a great listener is how you’ll learn about challenges you need to adapt to, new opportunities you hadn’t considered, and personal or professional growth opportunities of which you weren’t aware.
Being a great listener is also key to connecting with your team and clients and building strong, successful professional relationships. Building your ability to listen and use it as a tool for problem solving, strategizing, and relationship building is not usually thought of as a key executive skill, but it should be.
Some of Mercado Global’s best ideas came from partner artisans who had never attended school, high-profile fashion industry executives, or anonymous end consumers who emailed recommendations via our website. You never know where the best idea will come from. It’s important to be open to feedback and to actively build a listening culture within your organization to ensure your org is nimble and successful.
4) Invest in your Team: Have the right people on the bus and get them all working together to steer the bus in the right direction is one of the most important roles of a CEO. Your team is your most important asset, and you need to prioritize investing in them to ensure that you’re building their abilities, and therefore the capabilities of the overall organization.
Most people, particularly millennials, are hungry for the chance to learn and grow. All staff should have a written Professional Development plan, and developing and implementing that plan should be part of the job of each employee. With this type of culture of openness to feedback and prioritization of growth and improvement, your company will certainly grow and improve as well.
5) Take care of yourself: CEOs set the culture of their organizations. If you don’t take care of yourself, chances are that your staff won’t either. If you burn yourself out, they will too, and you’ll waste time and resources on staff transitions and underperforming, burnt out staff. As a CEO you need to take care of yourself because you deserve it, but also because it’s in your company’s interests.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My highest aspiration is to create a new normal for women in rural Latin America, so that Indigenous women, rather than being seen as victims of poverty, lack of education, or economic exclusion, are seen for the amazing leaders they are. The new normal is that Indigenous women are running businesses in their communities, earning the income they need to provide for their families and to send their kids to school. Indigenous women across the Americas are connected to international markets — creating lasting change in their communities. That is the future we are working to build.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” — Maya Angelou
I started Mercado Global when I was 22 years old. When we first approached certain major retailers, they didn’t take us seriously and dismissed us as college kids working with moms in Guatemala. But we didn’t give up. We kept knocking on doors and making connections, believing in our products and the women who made them.
Since then, Mercado Global has weathered many challenges, such as the 2008 financial crisis and now Covid-19, and each time, we’ve come out stronger. I’m proud to say that in 2020, in spite of the pandemic and the shuttering of retailer after retailer, Mercado Global actually had our highest performing sales quarter in the history of the organization. We’re partnering with major retailers like Levi’s, Free People, and StitchFix — along with dozens of boutiques.
We were even able to recruit 100 additional artisans in a time of dire need in Guatemala. We have learned how to adapt from years of experience overcoming challenges, which allowed us to change our entire production model in just one weekend in mid-March. We shifted to a brand-new product — reusable face masks — while restructuring our production model to ensure partner artisans could stay home, and stay safe. Our Masks Where They’re Needed Most Initiative resonated with our consumers and we were able to donate over 120,000 masks to communities in need throughout the Americas. All of this gives me the certainty that we’ll be able to keep expanding our impact, come what may globally.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
This is a tough one! I would love the opportunity to sit down with America Ferrera to talk about the roles that art and artists have to play in affecting social change. I’ve been following her work on women’s rights and immigration, and I’m impressed by how she’s using her platform to speak out in support of the important issues of our time. We would definitely have a ton to chat about!
How can our readers connect with you on social media?
Follow Mercado Global on Facebook, Linkedin, Pinterest, and Instagram! You can learn more about our work (and hear from our inspiring partner artisans!), on our website www.mercadoglobal.org (where you can also subscribe to our newsletter).