In entrepreneurship, opportunities can present themselves in various ways. For participants of the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (GSEA), EO’s flagship program for nurturing the next generation of entrepreneurs, opportunities for leadership and business growth are boundless. Just ask Violeta Martinez, winner of the 2016 EO GSEA Global Finals and founder of VAIZA, an El Salvador-based, luxury brand crafted from the heart. In this special interview, Violeta talks about the importance of giving back through business, empowering women to be strong leaders and the invaluable role EO GSEA plays in the lives of student entrepreneurs everywhere.
What motivated you to become an entrepreneur?
VM: “I decided to become an entrepreneur because I wanted to live a happy life, one where I’m doing what I enjoy every single day. I’ve loved art ever since I was a child, though I’ve always been told it’s impossible to make a living from it. When I was studying graphic design in El Salvador, I learned that salaries in the profession are very low. In my first job, I watched as other designers did the same things day in and day out with little pay; it can really zap you of your creativity. I didn’t want to live my life in that routine, so I looked for new ways to be creative and successful at the same time.
“In my country, fashion and art is an up-and-coming industry. There are no global designers like Michael Kors and Carolina Herrera in El Salvador, so I asked the question most entrepreneurs ask when they see an opportunity to innovate: ‘Why not?’ That’s when I decided to build my own brand. I researched how to make accessories and found artisans that went unnoticed. I showed them a few of my designs, and we started working together to create my first handbag. By employing local artisans to create my items, by investing in the artisan community of El Salvador, I am able to give back to my hometown. In turn, the artisans are able to learn about, and teach other, international quality standards. In doing so, workshops are built, jobs are created in the community and their kids are able to go to school.
“A lot of people think there aren’t any opportunities in El Salvador, but I believe in my country. I believe in the people who want to change that perspective by working hard every day. And I believe that my brand can make a positive impact by not only creating jobs, but by showcasing the creativity that’s on display in this country every day. People are shocked when they discover that my designs are handmade in El Salvador, so I like to think that I’m helping to shape a more positive image of my country. With my brand, VAIZA, I’m able to promote my art, culture and the local artisan heritage through the creation of luxury handbags, wallets and shoes.”
How did you hear about EO GSEA, and what inspired you to participate?
VM: “I found out about EO GSEA from Facebook. I read in the local news about Salvadoran competitors who participated in previous competitions. I saw how they were able to grow their businesses through the program, so I decided to apply. As an entrepreneur, you’re always looking for opportunities to expose your business and make contacts that can guide you toward the right path. I joined EO GSEA because I wanted to learn how to turn VAIZA into a global brand. I come from a small country, and this one-of-a-kind program opened up the world to me. I was able to connect with other young, likeminded entrepreneurs; heard what seasoned business owners thought of my product; received unparalleled coaching; experienced new cultures; and learned from others about better business.”
What was your journey to the EO GSEA Finals like?
VM: “After submitting my application, I spent a lot of time practicing my presentation before pitching my business in a local competition. To my surprise, I won first place! After that, I competed in a regional competition via videoconference, where I competed against other student entrepreneurs throughout Central America. After winning that competition, I worked with EO members every week leading up to the EO GSEA Global Finals in Bangkok, Thailand. They helped me with my presentation, mentored me and taught me how to deliver my pitch in English. I think I’m pretty funny in Spanish, and I wanted to have that part of me translated in my English presentation … I think I accomplished that a little bit! It took me 25 hours to get to Bangkok for the final competition. I was tired from the flight, but I had so much energy because I knew that I was in the right place, doing something positive for my business.”
What was it like engaging, learning alongside and competing against other student entrepreneurs from around the world?
VM: “I still can’t believe how many amazing people there are in this world! I was a little scared because I was traveling to Bangkok by myself, but in that first day alone, I made so many friends. We talked about the same things, shared tips, and built long-term friendships and business relationships. The networking alone was amazing. Sharing our obstacles, concerns and successes really opened my eyes and showed me that we all come from the same place. The best thing about competing with so many people from all over the world is that I was able to put my country on the map— and for a good reason! When I came back to El Salvador, I participated in a lot of interviews and was able to share how the program makes a mark. I am now able to inspire new generations of entrepreneurs locally, and to me, that is the greatest reward of all.”
How did EO GSEA help you grow as an entrepreneur?
VM: “EO GSEA absolutely helped me become a stronger leader. As the first Latin American woman to win the title of Global Student Entrepreneur of the Year, I can use my experiences to empower women to become entrepreneurs, to follow their dreams and to not be afraid of being the boss. I tell them all the time that we have the power to be leaders, and winning this award helps prove that. I also learned to expand my vision. I come from one of the smallest countries in Latin America, and because of EO GSEA, I was able to travel to another continent for the first time. This experience has changed my business vision; now I know that I can do more and be everything that I dreamed. I also learned that you have to always be authentic no matter what. In business, people value you more when they feel you are being honest. Finally, I learned that you need to listen to those people who have experiences to share; you have to understand that you don’t know everything and that it’s OK to ask for help.”
How will you use your EO GSEA experience as a springboard for your business?
VM: “EO GSEA opens a lot of doors for you. I was able to expose my business to so many people from different sides of the world, and that is an opportunity that you don’t get every day. I only recently won, and it has already opened up a lot of opportunities for me, which is something I never imagined. Thanks to EO El Salvador, I was invited to present my project in Forbes Central America to the most influential business leaders of the region. I now have friends in many countries that are interested in purchasing my designs, and I’ve met several people who are interested in going into business with me. Thanks to EO GSEA, I am able to expose my brand and designs on an international scale. Also, the program has helped me become more ambitious when it comes to my goals, and I now have amazing mentors who will help me achieve them.”
What does being the 2016 EO Global Student Entrepreneur of the Year mean to you?
VM: “It means hope for the people of my country; for the future entrepreneurs that have a dream to build their business in a country where most people think there are no opportunities. It means responsibility, because now I have to embrace that title and make my business grow in an international way; that was the goal I set for myself before applying to EO GSEA. Winning the Global Finals means that I am proudly representing women entrepreneurs, and now I can more globally share my message of leadership and encourage them to become leaders. This title also represents the Latin American community, which is filled with people who want to build better opportunities in their countries. Finally, being the EO GSEA champion means that when you have a real passion for creating a better future for your society, anything is possible because your strength comes from your heart.”
Want to learn more about Gladys’s journey? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit vaizadesign.com or connect with her on Facebook or Instagram (vaizadesign).