Location, location, location. The real estate truism applies as much to the busy streets of downtown cores as to the isolated communities of Ecuador’s Amazon basin.
And this location, Alexandra Muñoz tells me, as students line up to quickly buy lunchtime snacks before class resumes, is prime. Sitting in the shadow of a school next to the Jatunyacu River, her shop is a symbol of entrepreneurialism amidst the sprawling rainforest.
The mother of five is what’s known in Ecuador as a colonista. She moved to her adoptive community of Los Rios from her home on the coast with her father when she was a teenager, one in a wave of settlers enticed deep into the jungle by the promise of land to farm. Since then she’s knit together a tapestry of odd jobs and side hustles to put her children through school, an entrepreneur born of necessity.
Her hands are never still while she shares her story with the aid of a translator. Shooing away dogs, waving to friends, stocking shelves, fiddling with her ring—she’s in constant motion, and it’s easy to imagine her deftly moving one piece of thread over and around another to complete a ME to WE bracelet while she talks.
In the afternoons, when traffic to the shop slows down and her husband has tended to their crops for the day, the two come together to craft. “I’ll do the start of the bracelets,” she says, “and he’ll finish them.” Together, like an assembly line, they weave their future prosperity.
Husband and wife began crafting together in 2016. The year prior, WE partnered with the community to build a new classroom for the overcrowded school (and is now putting the finishing touches on a water project piping clean water into homes for the first time). As the walls on the classroom went up, WE team members consulted the parents. Beyond education and water, one need was mentioned by everyone they spoke with: economic empowerment.
Neighbouring WE partner communities had already formed artisan groups, celebrating indigenous Kichwa culture through artwork and jewelry, and making an income as ME to WE Artisans. Kichwa communities have woven stories in textiles for generations, capturing the sacred and everyday through crafts. When the idea to start a women’s group was discussed, Alexandra wanted to pair what she knew from her neighbours with her sixth sense for business.
She helped establish the Los Rios artisan group Sumak Sisa (Kichwa for Beautiful Flower). Soon, the group was making the signature ME to WE Minga bracelets while participating in financial literacy and leadership workshops.
Alexandra added a new title to her already long list.
A shop owner, baker and tailor, Alexandra became a ME to WE Artisan to ensure she always has enough to support her family. And she’s even gotten her husband to help.
“As a mother, I have to balance a lot of different things,” she tells me, her hands still moving. “But as long as our children have wanted to study, we’ve made whatever sacrifices we’ve needed.”
Her emphasis on education stems from experience. Alexandra was forced to drop out of school as a teen when she transitioned from the coast to the jungle, to help her father start their farm. “I pictured my life in a different way,” she shares. That’s what motivated her to become an entrepreneur.
Years ago, when her husband got sick and could no longer sustain the family by farming, the two opened their small grocery store. At the time, no road cut through the dense jungle, and they ferried supplies from upriver for hours by canoe, relying on a mule for the final kilometres.
She’s worked every day since then to ensure her children can finish school. And she’s well on her way to seeing it through. Her three eldest, all daughters, completed high school. One son is away at university while her youngest, 11-year-old Isaac, attends the nearby school where WE built a new classroom to replace the old, crumbling infrastructure.
A bell rings and classes end for the day. Children run home to help their parents while others beeline to the store for an after-school treat. Alexandra ducks back into the shop but quickly peeks her head out, offering some last words almost as an afterthought: “If you want something, if you have an idea, you need to work hard until you get there.”
And with that, she heads back behind the counter. There are customers waiting.
Jesse Mintz is a lifelong learner and believer in the power of stories to educate and inspire. He knows everyone has an interesting story—it’s just a matter of asking the right questions.