To commemorate the 100th International Women’s Day (March 8, 2011), I want to introduce you to an inspirational group of women entrepreneurs who overcame enormous social and cultural hurdles to realize their dreams. Meet Rosa, Martha, Susana, Patricia and Margarita: the women of Conserva Santa Rosa, located in Santa Rosa de Lima, Mexico, population 250.
I was fortunate enough to meet these women last week while traveling in Mexico with my United Nations Global Compact Supply Chain Sustainability Working Group. Restaurantes Toks, a member of the group, introduced us to Conserva Santa Rosa to share an example of how Toks supports sustainability in microenterprises and integrates poor rural communities into its supply chain.
It all began in 1998 when these five women attended a training course sponsored by a local conversation organization. The Conservation Corps of Guanajuato (CCG) had seen fruit farms in surrounding villages fall into disuse. To improve the environment and bring income to the local communities, CCG trained women in fruit preparation techniques.
With support along the way, including funding from local government development programs, these women formed a community workshop and began making jams, marmalades, desserts and liquors and selling their products at local trade fairs. They learned how to conduct quality control on their products, how to present at trade fairs, how to speak in public and how to work together to run an organization.
Yet they faced numerous challenges on the home front. Even today it is unusual for women in villages like Santa Rosa to work outside the home. Neighbors had a hard time believing the women were really working, much less in charge of their own business.
Even as village rumors disparaged them, the women remained committed to their enterprise. Then 10 years ago today, on International Women’s Day in 2001, they were pleasantly surprised while attending an event by the Guanajuato Institute of the Woman.
Martha recalls, “We were surprised at the end of the event when the representative said she was very pleased but moreso for having a group of enterprising women [among them]. Never did I imagine that she was talking about us, until she said, ‘…please come to the front and we’ll give them a big round of applause; they are the women of Santa Rosa.’ We stood up completely surprised and went to the front and the people of the community [in attendance] could not believe it. And since this time, the people realized that it was not gossip, that we work and do everything that we say.”
Despite their progress, support from local organizations began to dry up. The women needed to learn to manage their business on their own.
Martha said, “We had to form a microenterprise, but I said it was too difficult. Besides, it was dreaming too big and for that, we had to learn much more.” But they didn’t stop dreaming – or learning.
In 2002 the women incorporated their enterprise under the name Conserva Santa Rosa. In 2006, they became a special supplier to Toks, who also became their advocate and supporter. Gustavo Perez, Commercial Director of Toks, notes, “At the beginning, these women earned $30 per month. Today, they earn $800 month and employ others from the community.”
He explained the reason for bringing our United Nations working group to see the project. "We are making the visit so they can see a successful project in Mexico and implement it as an example in other parts of the world. They’ve come to verify that what we told them once in New York is true. And we put this forth as an example of best practice against companies elsewhere. "
Today, the women have their own marmalade factory in Santa Rosa, staffed with workers from the local community. Their jam is featured in the menu of 90 Toks restaurants around the country and can be purchased in the restaurants as well. They have been recognized by local development agencies and business councils and made appearances on national television. They even received a visit from the Queen of Holland!
Yet during my visit to Santa Rosa last week, the women told us some neighbors still disbelieve their success. Rosa said her children’s school teacher did not believe there would be any visit to their factory by our delegation. [In solidarity, we signed a book for the teacher as proof of our visit; and we bought lots of delicious jam (if you want to try some, drop me a note!)]
Despite ongoing challenges in the community, the women have taken leadership roles on local school and church boards. Their children are among the first from the village to attend college and they are preparing to launch Santa Rosa’s first high school. And they continue to dream big, hoping someday to export their product abroad.
“With our project we have been able to provide a better quality of life for our families. At first it was difficult but with effort and support from Toks we have pressed forward. Still our neighbors don’t believe that we manage the business; they think we have a boss,” said the women during the presentation.
In celebration of these women and women everywhere who are persevering despite bias and discrimination, Happy International Women’s Day! And a special thanks to Restaurantes Toks for supporting these women and making our visit to Santa Rosa possible.