Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Supporting Social Entrepreneurship in Colombia: Zen Naturals and F2F

In April 2015, Gabriel Maya, the CEO of a small eco-cosmetic company called Zen Naturals, traveled from his home country of Colombia to Washington, D.C. under Partners of the Americas’ Bavaria Entrepreneurship Exchange program. These Bavaria Fellows won a national entrepreneurship competition in Colombia and were then selected to travel to the United States to meet with experts in investment, small business development, and experts in their individual industries to gain skills, ideas, and contacts for future growth. During his visit to Washington, Gabriel learned about the Farmer-to-Farmer program and was able to request a F2F volunteer to visit his company in Colombia in June 2015. Below is an interview with Gabriel Maya and his experience working with Partners of the Americas.

Gabriel Maya and one of his suppliers
What’s your name and title?
Gabriel Maya, CEO of Zen Naturals. My younger brother is the marketing specialist and Director of Marketing and Advertisement.

Tell me about Zen Naturals.  How did it start?
Our beginnings are that we wanted to create the best natural cosmetics that have the best impact socially and environmentally for the world. Our company started as a dream of social entrepreneurs to integrate beauty with social causes.  We’re addressing [the development of Colombia] in three different areas.  First, through farmer support. We are training the farmers that supply us with raw materials to help them achieve better quality crops so they can sell to many industries.  This helps them have better living wages, more sustainable jobs, and improves the economy and helps their families.  The second is our community where our manufacturing facility is located.  We are working with single mothers in the community. We have an eight month training process and have eight mothers working with us [who] are loyal to the cause, the movement, and the products. The third and final part is our consumers.  We are giving our consumers the opportunity to give back with every purchase they make.  We not only want our products to make you beautiful on the outside, but also beautiful on the inside.

How did you first learn about Partners and Farmer-to-Farmer?
We learned about Partners through the Bavaria fellowship. We won an entrepreneurship contest, so we were granted some capital and a trip to the United States for a week, and Partners was the NGO in charge of working with us.  We came to Partners in April where we got many many opportunities to improve our company and improve our social and environmental goals.

When we came here initially we had never heard of the Farmer-to-Farmer program. When we got here, we had a meeting with [Farmer-to-Farmer Senior Program Officer] Courtney Dunham. That’s when we learned about [the] program and we said hey, we can actually get great things from this and improve our company!

Who was the Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer that you chose and what did he do during the assignment?
Our initial requirement was for a green chemist.  We chose Bruce Akers from California.  He’s worked with many green companies.  With Bruce, many good things happened.  He helped us improve our research and development area.  He started changing things up.  We started buying equipment, so he gave us tips to get cheap but great equipment.  Also, he started playing with our formulas, doing certain modifications to improve our formulations, and started to do a great assessment about the legal requirements for the American market.

What surprised you the most about having a volunteer?
We never had a volunteer before.  The greatest thing about having a volunteer is that it’s a completely new world of knowledge that comes to your company, things that you might never have had the opportunity to achieve before, and you have people who have completely different backgrounds giving you new ideas and new tips for your business. It’s a huge enrichment process for your company. It’s amazing what happens before and after you have a bond with Farmer-to-Farmer.

Could you describe some memorable moments from the experience?
Something that I always say is that I love my country, I’m really passionate about my country. Our country has suffered many social and violence issues.  It was funny to see how when someone from abroad comes to your country to see has many, many ideas or a misconception about what it is like in your country.  When Bruce came into Colombia, he thought we were in danger all the time. But then he started seeing how things were completely different then he thought.  Now, Bruce Akers is actually a part of our company.  He loved the project so much that he joined us and he’s now on the Board of Advisors. 

What was the impact of being a Bavaria Fellow and receiving a Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer?
The impact was huge.  Our core business was improved 100% thanks to the Fellowship and our other meetings with Partners.  One of the long-term goals we have right now is getting into the American market. Farmer-to-Farmer and the Bavaria Fellowship have helped me in this process- the fact that I am here right now about to go into the American market is thanks to Partners, they really opened the doors for us.  It was great; I think we are a stronger company, with stronger goals and core values. If it wasn’t for them, it would have taken a much longer time. It changed our life.

How do you hope your connection with Partners will influence your company and country?
Employees at Zen Naturals
Partners is an organization that is addressing really important issues, one of which is poverty reduction.  Partners supports the leaders that will fight the issues of their country.  Just in four months in having a relationship with Partners our company has changed 100%. We are really, really excited about our future with our company and the relationship with Partners of the Americas.

In October 2015, Partners of the Americas will sponsor a second Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer, Margaret Woodward, to travel to Colombia to work as an international marketing specialist with Zen Naturals.

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