In June of 2002, Ruth DeGolia traveled to Guatemala to conduct research for her thesis at Yale. During her trip, she met indigenous women whose lives had been affected by the nearly 40-year-long civil war that ended in 1996. Despite having experienced violence, discrimination, and poverty, these women still had the courage and determination to create a better life for their kids. In addition to being malnourished, indigenous children receive only 1.3 years of education in their lifetime. Girls in particular have slimmer chances of going to school because men, who are often the ones making decisions, do not see the point of sending their daughters to school.
Three-fourths of Guatemala’s indigenous population live below the poverty line. And while many of the women are skilled weavers and seamstresses, they are still unable to send their kids to school and buy nutritious food because no one is buying their products. Intent on helping indigenous women break the cycle of poverty, DeGolia took their handmade creations back with her to the US and sold them to her fellow students at Yale. After “everything sold out like hot cakes within a couple of days,” DeGolia decided to start a social enterprise. In 2004, she and Benita Singh launched Mercado Global, subsequently entering their business model in Yale’s annual business plan competition. Mercado Global won first place, as well as secured additional startup funding from a university fellowship.
Within two years, the fair trade organization was able to help send more than 100 children to school. Today, Mercado Global works with 28 cooperatives, employs 380 artisans, and has funded education for 2,000 kids so far. Partnerships with Levi’s, Nordstrom, Anthropologie, and other big American retailers have created more opportunities for the cause as well. In 2006, DeGolia was named one of Newsweek’s 15 People Who Make America Great alongside Soledad O’Brien and Brad Pitt.