Kennedy Leavens fell in love with Peru when she was a 17 year old Seattle high school student. The landscapes, the culture, and of course the food enchanted her, and when she returned five years later, in search of adventure, she ended up staying for four years and founding one of CURA’s most beloved brands - Awamaki. Awamaki means “hand made” in Quechua, the main language of the Inca still used by a large group of indigneous peoples living in the Andes mountains. They weave and knit the beautiful, fair trade alpaca and wool products all sourced from the Peruvian highlands where the company works with, trains, and secures market access for Quechua women artisans. Awamaki embodies CURA’s mission and ethos. Female founded and led, the business is part non-profit, part social enterprise, working exclusively in Peru with nearly 200 female artisans. Originally, the mission was organized around artisan market access, but their ambition soon grew to include a business and management training program with aim of helping artisan makers to establish and grow viable enterprises of their own. Notably, Leavens made it a point and a priority to co-create the vision and management of the business with her Peruvian counterparts, both legally and in spirit. The result is a culture of mutual trust and respect, reflected in every aspect of the business operations.
We recently caught up with Awamaki Founder, Kennedy Leavens, who now lives back in Seattle. She is a mother of two, an impact entrepreneur and a woman CURA loves.
You lived in Peru for several years, but today we share Seattle as our home bases. You have two young kiddos, how do you do it? Run and manage a social enterprise 1000 miles away? From the outside looking in it seems like a well oiled machine, is it?
This was a very gradual shift for us. I spent 4 consecutive years living in Peru full-time, and then another five spending significant time there, or going back and forth. I currently spend 2 weeks per year there, which is what is possible right now with two young kids. (My older son traveled with me to Peru at the ages of 5 months and 16 months, and my younger daughter has never been, which tells you the difference in how hard it is to travel with one kid vs. two!)
The long distance has worked because we have really invested in cultivating local female leaders and asking them to share in creating the vision of the organization. This is something I believe is necessary for the integrity of our work. Our management team in Peru are two Peruvian women who have worked for Awamaki for seven years. Over that time they have invested as much of themselves in the organization as I have and it is truly theirs, both figuratively and legally, since the three of us make up the board. We have built a lot of trust and a common vision. They understand that by living in the U.S., I can offer a perspective and opportunity that furthers our work, just as I know that we couldn't do this work without their deep knowledge of our artisans and our cultural context.
It's definitely not a well-oiled machine, and there are many downsides, not least of which that I miss them, and I miss living in Peru! But it is working for us, and as my kids get bigger we hope to spend more time there as a family.
You are such an inspiration to us. Do you have any advice for those in mission driven businesses or those who would like to start a business of purpose?
Partnerships! Relationships are key and partnerships are an amazing way for a small brand to grow. Start with finding a business partner, because it is hard to go it alone. Once you get started, you will get opportunities that come your way, and try to find a way to say yes to them. All partnerships have an aspect of compromise, and sometimes it is going to seem not worth it. Sometimes it won't be. But sometimes, the value of a partnership is worth a little stretching because it can open you up to a lot of opportunities and growth.
Thank you for taking time to chat with us and for sharing this beautiful photograph of Benancia from Patacancha (below). We’re all challenged and changed by the coronavirus pandemic, can you tell us what life is like for Awamaki artisans right now.
Peru was one of the first countries in the global South to go on lockdown, including a travel ban in and out of the country which has ground the country’s tourism market to a standstill. The vast majority of Awamaki’s business is domestic serving tourists and travelers. But without the expected tourism revenue and strict isolation, the situation for these artisans is at best challenging and at worst heartbreaking. Most of the Awamaki makers live in villages that are 2-4 hours walk from the nearest pharmacy, market, or health care provider, and there is real fear that if they do become ill they won't have access to help. Quechua artisans are then faced with hard choices. Leaving home means taking exceptional risk (a small respiratory issue in isolation at altitude can become a big problem quickly), but their livelihoods, and we’re talking about basic needs here, depend on being able to produce and sell.
This is where CURA comes in…
Right now, more than ever, international markets provide greatly needed and appreciated revenue streams for Awamaki making your purchases exceptionally high impact for these communities of women. Beyond the usual, tireless hustle, Awamaki is raising a fund to provide basic support for its artisans during quarantine. Interested? Check out CURA's collection of Awamaki here or contribute directly to their fund here.