Ruth DeGolia is not the average person. When she sees a problem, she fixes it. As the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Mercado Global, an organization that “empowers indigenous women in Guatemala to overcome poverty and become agents of change in their communities,” DeGolia has made it her life’s mission to give Guatemalan women the tools to educate their children and create a sustainable future for themselves by linking them to the U.S. market to sell their jewelry and accessories. Many ask, “But why Guatemala?” DeGolia’s response, “Why not Guatemala?”
As Mercado Global launches their “Educate to Empower” campaign, which celebrates 2,000 children in school through their mother’s Mercado Global sales, DeGolia is being recognized for her outstanding efforts. The Echoing Green foundation has named DeGolia among the “World’s Best Emerging Social Entrepreneurs” and in 2006 Newsweek magazine selected her as one of the “15 People Who Make America Great.” DeGolia is showing people that if you want to live in a better world, you need to create it. With this in mind, we have made Ruth DeGolia our Renegade Chick of the Week. We got the chance to find out more about this one of-a kind go-getter – check out our conversation below:
Renegade Chicks (Lucy Britain): Ruth, you are currently the Executive Director of Mercado Global, but you are also the Co-Founder. What inspired you to create Mercado Global?
Mercado Global (Ruth DeGolia): When I visited Guatemala as a college student I met a number of inspiring, strong indigenous women who had lived through the horrors of Guatemala’s Civil War. They had been denied the chance to an education themselves, and were now starving and unable to send their own children to school due to a lack of income opportunities. My only thought was: this is not right.
I believe that denying a woman the right to attend school anywhere in the world affects us all. Telling a young girl that she isn’t worth educating is an injustice against all women.
I think that we all have a responsibility to build the type of world that we want to live in. I realized that I had the opportunity to do my part in helping to build this world by connecting these amazing women to the U.S. market. That was all they needed – they didn’t want a handout or a one time scholarship. They just wanted a market so that they could take care of their families themselves. I realized I could connect them to that market. That was how Mercado Global started.
Lucy: You could have chosen to work with indigenous people in any country, but what pushed you to work with indigenous people in Guatemala?
Ruth: One-tenth of all Guatemalans live in the U.S., so the idea that poverty and lack of educational opportunity in Guatemala doesn’t impact us is simply not true – our lives, economies and political realities are very much connected.
Beyond this, I think the relevant question is “why not Guatemala?” When I visited Guatemala as a college student and met these inspiring, strong women who had lived through massacres during the civil war, had lived in refugee camps in Mexico for years, and now were literally starving along with their children due to a lack of income opportunities, my only thought was: this is not right. I think that denying a woman the right to attend school anywhere in the world affects us all. Telling a young girl that she isn’t worth educating, and not providing her with enough food to eat is an injustice against all women. I think that we all have a responsibility to build the type of world that we want to live in. If you want a world where all girls have the chance to go to school and all moms have the chance to earn the money they need to feed their children, then you need to actively help build that world.
Lucy: You have been named one of the “World’s Best Emerging Social Entrepreneurs” by the Echoing Green Foundation and have been selected as one of the “15 People Who Make America Great” by Newsweek magazine, but in your eyes, what is your greatest achievement?
Ruth: Our biggest success happens each month. In Guatemala, people really look down on indigenous women. I love when we do our monthly major export to a different part of the world. No one believed indigenous women could be international entrepreneurs – in most cases not even their own husbands. No one believed they could be bringing major amounts of income into their communities and paying to send their kids to school themselves. I love how proud our partner artisans are every time we prove everyone wrong and show how incredibly talented, entrepreneurial and innovative our partner artisans and indigenous staff are. I love when we are able to help our partner artisans achieve their potential as leaders and realize their own vision for change in their communities.
Lucy: What is one piece of advice you would give to other women who are trying to start their own businesses?
Ruth: There is no skill more powerful than the ability to listen. By listening to the women that I was working with, and responding to their needs rather than continuing to do the things that I felt were needed – I was able to develop a much more powerful model and means of helping these communities. In fact, long before I even began the process of writing our business plan or applying for start up funds, I met with as many NGO and community leaders as I could to get their feedback on the idea and gather the information I needed to work through this seed of an idea that the women I was working with had given me. Learning to listen and create a work culture that values and encourages listening is key to building a nimble and successful organization or business.
Lucy: Can you tell us something most people don’t know about the women you help in Guatemala?
Ruth: 75% of the women we work with cannot read and write. Only one in six indigenous girls in Guatemala complete the sixth grade. Two out of every three indigenous children in Guatemala go to bed hungry every night – Guatemala has the highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the Western Hemisphere.
However, the women we work with are some of the most talented, hard-working and inspiring women I have ever met. These women are amazing weavers and jewelry makers – skills that have been passed down in their families for generations. These women don’t want handouts – they want a market. They want a chance to earn their own income. And they want what every other mom wants: the ability to send her daughters to school.
Lucy: What are your goals for Mercado Global in the next five years?
Ruth: Mercado Global is committed to doubling the number of women and children we work with over the next three years. Right now over 300 women are benefiting from our work and 2,000 children are in school and receiving adequate food and healthcare due to our programs. We are launching our Educate to Empower Campaign to bring this model to more communities in Guatemala’s highlands and recruit more major retailers in the U.S. to join with our current sales partners in having “profits through principles” –leveraging their market power to source products that sell well while also helping advance the Millennial Development Goals.
Imagine the progress we could make towards breaking the cycle of poverty in the developing world and ensuring all children have a chance to go to school if all of the major U.S. retailers were sourcing products that helped women and children as a core part of their business strategy. We have already recruited many major retailers to the ethical sourcing movement and will significantly expand the number of recruits in the course of our three year campaign.
It’s the DeGolia’s of this world that create lasting change. DeGolia saw a problem and instead of throwing money at it, she came up with an innovative plan. A plan that did not involve short term change – but the exact opposite – long term change that will affect generations to come in Guatemala. Ruth DeGolia is our Renegade Chick of the Week, but more importantly, she is a source of inspiration for every woman who thinks it can’t be done. It can be done and Ruth DeGolia proves it.