Free Enterprise Staff  | July 10, 2015

A Social Entrepreneur Opens Doors for Artisans in Guatemala

Nicole Bakva has always had the same professional goal: To positively impact the lives of as many people as possible. Though she didn’t necessarily know how, exactly, she would do that, the social entrepreneur is making good on that objective through her startup Alicia San Marcos, which is creating economic and educational opportunities in Guatemala.

Part retailer, part e-commerce shop, part philanthropy, Alicia San Marcos partners with artisans in Guatemala and sells their one-of-a-kind handcrafted products. A portion of each sale—currently 10% of proceeds—goes directly to Niños de Guatemala, an organization that promotes access to education in Guatemala. That Guatemala plays a pivotal role in Alicia San Marcos’ vision and mission is not some random event, says Bakva, who co-founded the company with her sister, Michelle.

The company is, after all, named after Alicia Angel, a close family friend originally from San Marcos, Guatemala. “She was like a second mother to us,” Bakva tells Free Enterprise. “Although she had only gone to school through the sixth grade, she realized the value of education, so she moved to the U.S. and worked here for 25 years, sending money back to her family—all of whom ended up graduating from university.”

Two years ago, however, Angel was diagnosed with a terminal illness. She moved back to Guatemala to be with her family, and passed away after only five months. “As much as we were lucky to have her in our lives, and as devastating it was to lose someone so close, it was also devastating to see that she never got to watch her biological family grow up,” Bakva says.

Angel’s story is unfortunately not that uncommon in Guatemala, a country that, according to the World Bank, has a particularly low educational attainment rate and a remarkably high poverty rate. It remained at the forefront of Bakva’s mind while she pursued her M.B.A. at the University of Southern California, serving as the foundation for the hypothetical business she knew she wanted to one day start. “I always knew I wanted to build a company that could create opportunities for people in Guatemala and uplift families, without their having to leave the country,” she says.

Inspired both by an entrepreneurship course she took during her final semester of business school and through her own travels around the world, Bakva came up with the idea for Alicia San Marcos’ hybrid business model. “When I traveled, I would see these amazing handcrafts that artisans took weeks and months to build. I always thought that these products would be so popular in the U.S., but it was frustrating that there were so few channels for them to pursue that route,” she says.

“Then we visited Alicia when she was ill in Guatemala, and we were really inspired by everything there. It’s just such a beautiful, colorful culture, and that’s where everything truly connected. We wanted to boost local communities in Guatemala and provide opportunities in the sense that they could sell products in a market where people wanted to buy them, and at a premium. We also wanted to focus on creating opportunities for these people in terms of education.”

Bakva has made a number of trips to Guatemala over the course of this year. Much of her focus has been directed at forming relationships with artisans. She also spent time researching various nonprofits before settling on Niños de Guatemala, an organization that she chose to partner with because of its comprehensive approach to education.

“I really wanted to understand the problem, so I volunteered with them for one month, and I was really impressed with how they ran the organization,” Bakva says. “They don’t just build and maintain schools; they also provide meal plans and social services, and they run outreach campaigns. Their goal is to make sure their students are healthy, well-adjusted human beings.”

While Alicia San Marcos remains young even by startup terms, the company has already built up an enthusiastic, and growing, list of customers. Now that their supplier base has also expanded, Bakva and her sister are increasingly working to market their artisanal products to a broader audience. “We didn’t want to draw people to a site before we had a sustainable inventory, or contacts who could provide more inventory when needed,” she explains.

To help Alicia San Marcos transition to the next stage of its development, Bakva is reaching out to bloggers and fashion industry influencers, and she’s expanding the company’s social media presence. She has also taken her company on the road, holding trunk shows at brick-and-mortar stores—including a recent stop at the Century City Bloomingdale’s—in and around Los Angeles, where she lives. Her strategy appears to be working: Sales have been so brisk that Alicia San Marcos has already purchased and donated nearly 26,000 school supplies to Niños de Guatemala.

Despite her success, Bakva remains, above all else, a realist. There is, of course, no way for her to predict the future and, as she readily concedes, most new businesses fail. Yet starting a company has been an experience unlike any other, and it is propelling her toward her ultimate career goal.

“It’s something I always knew I wanted to do: To help people,” she says. “I can’t tell you what’s going to happen long-term with the company, but I can tell you that we’ve already helped people. I’ve learned more in the past three months than I have at any other job, and I feel that it’s all been worth it. It is, without a doubt, the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.”