Tolana: Empowering Women by Empowering Mothers

Pria Bakhshi, Editor-in-Chief

“We believe a mother can shape her kids’ lives, and therefore, mothers have the power to redefine the world.”

The UN’s fifth Sustainable Development Goal is to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. To HBS students María Creixell and Paula Vich Serra (both MBA ’19), empowering women starts with empowering mothers.

Like many of us, María chose to travel the summer before starting business school. While in a market in rural Oaxaca, Mexico, she struck up a conversation with Alicia, a local woman selling eye-catching handmade handbags. Oaxaca has a long-standing craft tradition, and she had been struck by the high quality of the products she saw. While talking, she discovered that Alicia not only produced these bags herself at a small family workshop, but in fact was leading the enterprise. Experiencing poor working conditions as an employee elsewhere had motivated Alicia to open her workshop: believing that, with control over her own enterprise, she would have the authority to ensure fair treatment and compensation for her employees. In rural Mexico and with little formal education, she had the ability to run a great economic activity for herself, her family and her social context. María was so inspired by this story that, not only did she leave the market with a few handbags, but she also took with her Alicia’s contact details – not knowing when they might come in handy.

A few months on from Oaxaca, Paula and María found a connection with Mariví Gonzalez, studying nearby at Boston University. According to María, “The three of us agreed that if it had not been for our mothers, the support and education they gave us, and for the very ambitious goals that they gave us, we would never have been in an MBA. That made us think about the importance of the figure of the mother, and of the importance of having very strong, economically independent women as mothers.”

This realization, in addition to a shared passion to give back to society, motivated a new social project to support mothers in gaining increased independence and decision-making power within their families. “That’s when we thought back to the bags we had seen in Mexico,” noted Paula. “We contacted the artisan women that María had met at the market in Oaxaca… and finally launched Tolana.”

‘TO’ is for VicTOria – Mariví’s mother
‘LA’ is for PiLAr – María’s mother
‘NA’ is for AnNA – Paula’s mother

The Tolana project sources handcrafted products from entrepreneurs like Alicia and sells their products in international markets, starting here in Boston. It is built around these three core syllables, as well as three guiding values of Solidarity, Empowerment and Transparency. Its mission? To make the world a better place by economically empowering mothers, enabling them to make better and more independent decisions around their children’s upbringing.

Across the world, women undertake 2.6 times more unpaid care and domestic work than men. For women in these circumstances, the opportunity to have access to, and control of, their own economic resources increases their decision-making power and independence within a family context. Not only are they personally empowered, but they can act as role models for younger girls. In addition, World Bank studies have shown that, when women are able to earn an income, 90% of it is typically reinvested back in to their families and communities. Where does this money go? According to the World Bank, it is most typically spent acquiring “food, healthcare, home improvement and schooling for themselves and their children.” The impact on local communities can be transformative.

Through Tolana, female artisans benefit directly from increased sales and access to international markets, from the United States to Europe. Donating one hundred percent of the profit on these goods to on-the-ground non-profit organizations, the project also facilitates reinvestment in the local community. With the first iteration focusing on Mexican merchandise, Tolana currently gives all profits to Vifac, a Mexican organization which provides single mothers with training to enter the labor market for handcrafted goods. As the project’s scope eventually expands to other meaningful projects in new geographies, the funds will be directed to new related organizations.

Back in Oaxaca, what was so striking about Alicia’s story was that she empowered herself to work independently, and she did so because she had a deep sense that the options she saw elsewhere were unfair to herself and to others. It’s a story of entrepreneurship and economic success, but also fairness and progress. The women behind the Tolana project were inspired by this story and by the strong role models they had found in their own mothers. Through Tolana, they hope to enable more women and mothers like Alicia to gain economic empowerment, so that they too can inspire future generations.

The women behind Tolana

María Creixell (MBA ’19)
High-energy, active, curious and cannot sit still. Sports and outdoors lover, music lover, laughing-with-family-and-friends lover. Above all: people lover, would talk with anyone at any time because that is how I think I learn the most about the world in general. Spanish by origin, traveler by nature (especially if travel is in Latin America!). Would not be half of what I am today without my mother’s support and encouragement.

“No matter what you do in life, you have to be an economically independent woman” – Pilar (María’s mother)

Paula Vich Serra (MBA ’19)
Curious by nature. I love spending time with my friends and family but I also need moments of solitude and self-checks. Determined and professionally ambitious, although equally concerned about the impact that my actions and decisions have in society. Traveler and sports lover, thrilled to take on new challenges to keep me motivated (e.g., Half Ironman) and share them with my closest ones. Wouldn’t be 1% of what I am today had it not been for my mother.

“Paula, please place your talent at the service of society” – Anna (Paula’s mother)

Mariví Gonzalez (BU)
Passionate, full of hunger to learn and eager to pursue social projects that enable better conditions in the world. Love sports, outdoor activities, and travelling. Happiest when spending time with family and friends. Most grateful to my mother who always kept me true to myself, gave me the best advice and made me feel strong every step of the way.

“Always be authentic and true to yourself.” – Victoria (Mariví’s mother)

Pria Bakhshi (MBA ’19) is co-Editor in Chief of The Harbus. She is originally from India via London, England (along with a few other places) and graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2011. Prior to HBS, she spent six years in sales and trading at Goldman Sachs in London.