MayaMam Weavers is a cooperative of women in Cajolá, a Mayan town in the western highlands of Guatemala who came together to explore ways to provide jobs within their community, rather than migrate to the U.S. and separate their families. To date, the cooperative has grown to more than 20 seamstresses all earning fair trade wages and learning how to effectively run a business. They create beautiful fair trade handwoven home goods and fashion accessories for both women and men that will make a difference in their lives and help them provide a better future for themselves and their children. Read on to no more about MayaMam Weavers.
What I like to see are women who take active business leadership roles that are consistent with women’s traditional values and not imitating male behavior in order to succeed. - Caryn Maxim
For our readers that are being introduced to your brand for the first time, please share with us the story of how MayaMam Weavers came to be?
MayaMam Weavers grew out of work that I began to do after I got involved in a community based group from Cajolá, a community in the western highlands of Guatemala. I met the group when they were still immigrants living in my town of Morristown, NJ. They had organized themselves to look out for each other, and as they returned to their community of Cajolá in Guatemala they had a dream to develop their community so that people wouldn’t need to migrate. Cajolá has been severely impacted by migration, with more than 30% of their town living in the United States. I began to work with them in Guatemala, particularly with women’s groups. The weaving cooperative grew out of that work, as the women looked for ways to alleviate their poverty. MayaMam Weavers in the United States was started with the idea of designing and marketing products for the US market, so that the women could earn a living wage. There are more than 200 thousand weavers in Guatemala, and many of them sell beautiful work at drastically low prices because they are desperate to buy food or medicine for their children.
Tell us a bit about your background and how you became interested in Mayan culture which is the inspiration behind your brand's products?
My background is in business. I have an MBA in Finance and worked 15 years in major corporations then I spent 15 years running my own business. It was the volunteer work I did with the immigrant community in Morristown that lead me to working with Grupo Cajol (the name of the group of immigrants) and thus introduced me to the rich Mayan culture. As I learned, the ancient Maya culture views the world as a continuum, people and nature are connected and complementary, family and community relationships are fundamental, cooperation and respect are the basis for society. The people of Cajol are from the Mam ethnic group of Maya people -- there are 22 different Maya ethnic groups in Guatemala, each with their own language. That is where our name MayaMam Weavers comes from! Weaving is an important part of their culture, so was a logical place to begin to think about ways to earn a living.
Photo: Caryn Maxim
MayaMam Weavers home goods and accessories are created by a group of women weaving cooperative from the town of Cajolá in the western highlands of Guatemala, where over 20 weavers and seamstresses earn fair trade wages, on-site childcare and adult literacy program. Can you share with us more about this cooperative and the programs offered? What are the changes you’ve seen in the lives of these women?
The weaving cooperative is an independent business, but the women are participants in the community group, Grupo Cajolá. Grupo Cajolá is focused on education and economic development, and supports the various businesses with skills training or education as needed. The women in the weaving cooperative commit to literacy classes, which are offered daily on site, until they have reached sixth grade proficiency. All of the women are eligible, along with their families, to participate in the Grupo Cajolá scholarship program. Many of them take advantage of the program and are studying at different levels from middle school to university. And, of course, the women with young children can take advantage of our preschool. We encourage the women to send their children to our Sunday Reading Circle and to our Afterschool Homework Assistance program. Cajolá’s illiteracy rate is a bit higher than 50% so this opportunity for education is key to development.
As for the women themselves, earning a living wage has a dramatic impact. They are able to pay for schooling or medicine for their children. Many of the women are single mothers so earning a living means they can stay in Cajolá and raise their children and not migrate to the United States. A side effect seems to be an increase in self-esteem, as several of the women have gone to court to challenge the behavior of their partners. Recently we changed from paying them in cash to requiring them to open bank accounts and depositing their earnings directly to their bank account. While they were nervous initially about opening an account, they are so pleased now since the money now really belongs to them! At first the men in the community were not pleased about the women going off to work, but have come to realize that steady work for the women does improve the lives of the community.
To ensure sustainable and ethical practices within your company, what are the measures taken?
Since we are fundamentally about creating a better world we are conscious of what we do and how we do it. We are members of the Fair Trade Federation, which gives us external standards to work by. The women make decisions about the group by consensus, and are learning how to make business decisions. They certainly contributed to the initial conversation about what does “living wage” mean. As their education level has progressed they have been more interested in understanding how they are paid. And as their educational level has increased they have been able to take more responsibility for business decisions.
All MayaMam Weavers products are sustainable and ethically made. What are your standards of quality when it comes to the materials and execution of your designs?
We work with our yarn supplier to make sure our dyes are nontoxic. Recently organic cotton has become available to us and we are evaluating the impact of transitioning to organic cotton. To maintain quality in the execution of our designs a member of the cooperative is in charge of quality. She is amazing, because in the local culture it is not common to be able to essentially criticize the work of your colleagues. But she and the rest of the members understand that quality is essential to the success of the cooperative.
Photo Credit: www.mayamamweavers.com (Kimono Wrap in magenta Festival)
Photo Credit: www.mayamamweavers.com (Kimomo Wrap in Black)
Tell us about the newest creations and the influences behind them?
Our products arise from our understanding of the US market, particularly regarding the actual products and their characteristics, but the fabrics are either completely designed by the cooperative or inspired by their designs. One fun example has been a fabric we call Berry Jubilee. The original fabric design was woven on the traditional backstrap loom. The foot loom weavers then wove a scarf based on the backstrap sample but with a much looser “windowpane” weave. Then our Creative Director (based in the US) suggested weaving the same pattern in the style of our kitchen and table linen fabrics, a much sturdier weave than our lightweight scarves, and with a red weft (yarns that are woven side to side). That has become a very popular fabric, and is an example of a particularly rich collaboration!
What sets MayaMam Weavers apart from other ethical companies?
What sets our weaving cooperative apart from many other weaving cooperatives in Guatemala is our focus on training the women in business management skills so that they can independently manage their business for the long term. They are being groomed for a future when they will manage the business themselves and hire the expertise in the US that they need.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I am totally passionate about my work and I am blessed with a supportive husband – who is a great cook!
In your opinion, what is the most significant barrier to women’s leadership in the business world? If any?
That’s a huge topic! What I like to see are women who take active business leadership roles that are consistent with women’s traditional values and not imitating male behavior in order to succeed.
What’s next? What’s your vision for the future of your company?
As I mentioned earlier, the vision is that the women of the weaving cooperative in Guatemala are able to independently and successfully run the business. There may always be a need for a US base, but ideally the women will be completely in charge.
What kind of legacy do you aspire MayaMam Weavers to leave in the "slow-fashion" industry?
We hope that people will learn to appreciate the beauty of a hand woven article that is meant to last, not throw away and we strive to be a good example of the potential for success of business practices that take into account people and nature.
Do you ship worldwide? How can we get a hold of MayaMam Weavers products?
We currently ship throughout the United States via our website mayamamweavers.com. We are evaluating expanding internationally and will likely roll that out in 2018.
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