By Morgan King, CIPE Program Officer
In the small town of Zunil, in the western highlands of Guatemala, Maria Mercedes Chay started her entrepreneurial journey when she was little. Raised by parents who fervently instilled the value of financial self-sufficiency, Mercedes was still in primary school when she began pushing a cart through the town’s cobbled streets brimming with chilies and squash.
As most women do in Zunil, Mercedes left secondary school before getting her diploma to marry and raise children. With the arrival of two kids, she soon realized selling vegetables wouldn’t be enough. Mercedes’s aspirations reached beyond supplementing her husband’s income – she yearned for true financial independence.
Armed with a battered sewing machine borrowed from her father, Mercedes’s journey started with her deep love for handcrafted, traditional Mayan textiles. But crafting a single top, known as a “huipil”, with its intricate and colorful embroidery, took her six months. She began experimenting with handbags and wallets, which required less material and could be produced at a faster pace. Interest cascaded in from friends, neighbors, and relatives, validating her passion and leading to the birth of her business, Mercedes Diseños y Tejidos. Demand burgeoned, yet profits remained elusive. She wasn’t sure why.
That’s when Mercedes found the Corali Women’s Business Resource Center located in nearby Quetzaltenango, run by the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening’s senior technical partner, the Center for International Private Enterprise, or “CIPE”, funded by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the U.S. Department of State. The Emprende Mujer program seemed a perfect fit – a course designed specifically for women starting their own businesses, and offering the support of technical advisors and a dedicated mentor. Mercedes knew she had a decision to make.
Going back to school was a bold choice. Women in her situation were expected to prioritize childrearing and household responsibilities, and venturing into business can be met with cynicism. Meanwhile, Mercedes’s family questioned her desire to invest time in a business that wasn’t turning a profit.
But she decided to enroll anyway. At Corali, Mercedes soaked up precious insights such as how to price her products, market her inventory, and expand clientele. “When I left my first session, I was shocked,” she said. “I had never heard of ‘target markets’ or ‘ideal clients’. Corali was exactly what I needed.”
Mercedes’s story exemplifies CIPE’s commitment to improving the lives of women and marginalized groups, especially in rural and indigenous communities. CIPE’s approach is built on partnership and collaboration with business associations, universities, and civil society groups across the globe and they leverage this holistic network of local partners in 83 countries to tackle economic disparity, engage with the private sector, and champion democratic reforms. Women’s Business Resources Centers, like Corali, are a core element of CIPE’s women’s economic empowerment programming, and have supported many thousands of women entrepreneurs, like Mercedes, since the inception of its first center in Papua New Guinea in 2016. Other centers are in Ethiopia and Azerbaijan. At Corali, 440 women have enrolled in entrepreneurship training. A group that has gone on to start 29 new businesses and create 35 new jobs.
The guiding philosophy is that women’s economic empowerment is not just a matter of equity, but a key driver of sustainable economic growth that fosters more inclusive and resilient economies, bringing with it broad-based benefits for all. According to The World Bank, closing the gender gap in global employment would provide a 20 percent boost to GDP. “Empowering women to participate in the economy not only offers significant benefits to their individual households, but also for entire countries and regions,” says Barbara Langley, director of CIPE’s Center for Women’s Economic Empowerment.
“We see very clearly through our work how specific efforts enhance economic growth, drive democratic innovations, and provide greater opportunities.” Those democratic gains come as entrepreneurs like Mercedes become advocates for sound business regulations, the rule of law, and government transparency.
For Mercedes, matriculating through CIPE’s programming led to profits. Her business has been in the black since graduating the program in June of 2022. Now, she is able to create jobs and has hired three other women weavers and tailors in her community. “My business has grown exponentially,” she said, “but Corali has also helped many other women who needed that push to get ahead.”