Creating agents of change in El Salvador with sustainable wearable art

By Jewelle Saunders

“Everyone deserves to have equal opportunities, rights, and benefits,” says Marí​a Suriano, 2018 YLAI Fellow. “It is time for everyone to fight for what is right and fair.”

María, who was born and raised in El Salvador, is the founder of Masshii. She dedicates herself to creating wearable art and ethical jewelry using unconventional materials and creating fair employment opportunities for at-risk groups in El Salvador.

Inspired by her inclusive mission, the YLAI Network team asked her a few questions about how she advocates for and empowers members of her community and how she recommends you become an agent of change.

Can you discuss your path to entrepreneurship? 

I always knew I was born to be an entrepreneur. Growing up in El Salvador, I was able to go to Bentley College in Boston, Massachusetts, and graduate with a degree in corporate finance and accounting. I gained a solid business background to support my creative side.

Before Masshii, I worked as a property accountant in the U.S. to gain practical experience on my degree. I then moved to Beijing to learn more about my Chinese culture and the language while also learning how to handle business with China. Since then, I worked independently importing containers from China to Central America and started projects fulfilling other people’s dreams. I moved back to El Salvador and started working toward my own dream at the end of 2015 with Masshii and started inspiring others to do the same.

What is the mission of Masshii? 

Masshii’s objective is to create opportunities for at-risk women in El Salvador who have little or no opportunity for proper education, training, or jobs. These include single mothers, deaf-mute women, former prisoners, and women living in vulnerable communities in our country. At Masshii, we are providing training opportunities to develop necessary skills to transform waste materials into unique and multicultural accessories with exclusive designs, creating consciousness through fashion. I’d like to think that Masshii acts as an agent of change in our community.

I am deeply passionate about the impact we generate. Witnessing the growth of our artisans is the fuel that keeps us going on. It is amazing to see how by impacting their lives, we create agents of change, generating a positive impact in their communities.

Can you expand on your training programs?

We usually partner with an NGO or institutions that work with groups of marginalized women, so that together we can generate much more impact in their lives. We start by approaching our partners to develop a program. Masshii usually trains beneficiaries with techniques to transform waste and skills that prepare them to enter the workforce. Our partners usually help with opportunities in education and mental health. We evaluate different modules that would benefit the women in each beneficiary group and create a program that will allow us to generate a greater impact.

Our programs — depending on the beneficiary group and the number of sessions per week — run from three to six months. Each program starts with 10-20 beneficiaries. At the end of each program, Masshii offers employment opportunities to those who have learned the most and are interested in working with us.

We aim to create strong women figures, offering them an opportunity to gain financial independence, contributing to a safer environment for all, thus breaking the circle of violence.

Why do you think it is important to provide these opportunities? 

Marginalized groups represent people who have fewer opportunities and access, from health and education to fair employment and more. These vulnerabilities also raise risks for violence and insecurity.

If we want to improve security and quality of life in our country, we must work on improving the lives of people who live on the margins of society. By empowering women to become agents of change in their communities, we see them blossom into citizens with increased opportunities to gain financial independence, thus breaking the circle of violence. We need to work on solving the root of the problem, which is the lack of opportunities for these groups.

During our programs, I have come to learn that many women feel that they were forced to commit small criminal acts out of necessity. By creating opportunities for them, we are tackling the problem directly. Skills training improves their quality of life and also improves the lives of the whole community, resulting in a safer environment for all.

How would you advise people to support marginalized communities? 

To anyone interested in supporting marginalized communities, I would suggest connecting with different institutions that already support them and work alongside them to be able to create a stronger impact together. There is so much that one person can do, but you can achieve much more by creating alliances with others working toward the same mission.

There are many ways in which any one person can also support these groups. For example, I would recommend you:

  1. Support companies, institutions, or brands that are already working toward the mission.
  2. Volunteer your time to help create awareness of their work.
  3. Help to raise funds to implement programs directly.

Thank you, Marí​a, for all of your hard work and dedication to empowering your community! 

 

The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author or interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the YLAI Network or the U.S. government.