There is something inherently transformative about experiencing a different culture. The sights, sounds, tastes, and interactions change us and become a source of inspiration.
In February 2020, Stars Design Group CEO/President Bret Schnitker and chief strategy officer (CSO) and Emily Lane were provided that opportunity in El Salvador. As part of an 11 person U.S. delegation, Schnitker and Lane were invited to assess textile and apparel capabilities in San Salvador.
The trip was organized by the Commercial Law Development Program (CLDP) and designed to foster relationships and mentorship between Salvadoran companies in the textile and apparel industry and U.S. counterparts.
During the week-long visit, the delegation visited nine Salvadoran apparel and textile companies. Each had overcome challenges on the way to success and used the business to provide opportunities to better living and working conditions in the country.
For both Schnitker and Lane, the most impressive visit was to the Lula Mena boutique, a luxury line of unique home and fashion accessories, which uses design as an agent of change.
“You walk into Luna Mena, and your mouth drops, the quality of the product, the aesthetic level, is amazing,” Schnitker said. Lane described it as an extraordinary experience saying, “It was just this ray of light and peace.”
The beauty in the space is a reflection of the authenticity and humanity that drive every element of Lula Mena’s business. For Mena, it is more than work. It is a calling.
After she became a mother, Mena realized the lessons and love provided during childhood are the foundation for the rest of a child’s life. During that time, Mena thought of the women in the rural areas of her country who did not have the same opportunity to both work and raise their children.
“If they want a work opportunity, they have to migrate to a city, or they have to migrate to a state in a lot of cases. I wanted to give them the same opportunity that I was having as a mother, to be with my children,” she said.
With that thought, Mena began growing a different family, connecting women in rural communities with opportunities that are shifting the cultural dynamic in El Salvador.
Currently, Mena employs 100 women artisans in rural communities who create the luxury home and fashion accessories sold in her San Salvador boutique. These women live in high-risk areas of El Salvador, a country with one of the highest rates of violence against women.
Using her design expertise, Mena transforms seemingly unsophisticated elements including copper wire, seeds, and fish scales into elegant works of art.
“I designed the product, I developed them, I trained the women on how to do our designs, and then we sell those products in the national and international market. And in that way, we can give them a steady job that helps them to improve their lives.” Lula said.
Lane praised the impact of Lula’s work, saying, “For the first time in history, the women are becoming the primary financial providers in these households. They’re the ones that are buying homes and helping to make sure that their kids are going to school. What a shift.”
Mena extends her impact on the culture by simultaneously preserving rich Salvadoran textile traditions and using them in her products.
Traditional loom weaving was primarily performed by men, and Mena redesigned the handlooms to fit a female body better and spent one year training rural women on the techniques.
Mena is also revitalizing natural dying techniques using plants, seeds, and fruit. The artistry was so close to disappearing, the youngest craftsperson performing the technique was 92. These traditional techniques hold a special place in Mena’s heart. “They are part of who we are as a country, and for me, that is important.”
It’s rare to find a business so thoughtful in its intent and execution. Lula Mena sets the example of brand stewardship for others to follow, each element fitting squarely into the categories of empowering women, innovation, handmade, eco-friendly, and fair trade.
Something Mena keeps top of mind, “Having those five principles present every time, every decision, every day in my life. It has helped me develop all these projects.”
A strong but simple philosophy we can all use to create success and transformation in our businesses.
Denise Naughton is an Emmy award-winning producer and journalist who has worked in all sides of media. At Stars Design Group, Denise uses her journalism and production expertise in support of all media and communication outreach.