Bolivia

Instrumentos De Mi Tierra: Making Money Doing Something You Love

Instrumentos De Mi Tierra

Buried in Bolivia’s Witchmarket, in a corridor filled with handcrafted goods is a small music shop called “Instrumentos De Mi Tierra” (or Instruments Of My Land in English). Gonzola Huanca has been hand carving and selling string instruments for six years. His favorite instrument and most popular is a 10 stringed - miniature guitar-looking instrument, called the charango – an instrument only found in Bolivia and parts of Peru.

Andrew, who plays the ukulele decided to take Gonzola up on his offer to give him charango lessons. Gonzola patiently coached Andrew through a couple lessons and by the end of his practice Andrew was playing a four-chord song with a medium tempo.

Gonzola came from a family of musicians and music lovers. He apprenticed under a musician and instrument crafter for three years before opening up his own shop. Crafting a guitar can take up to three days and a charango up to week. That’s because when building an instrument, “quality material and quality construction can drastically affect the sound of an instrument.” For Gonzolas, “buying the right materials, especially quality materials from Bolivia is important. If you don’t select the right materials, you are going to always end up with a poor sounding guitar or charango.”

When Gonzola first started his business six years ago, there was much less competition. Now, with an increase in tourism in Bolivia, competition has grown but on the plus side a steadier stream of tourists, means steadier income for Gonzola. “You don’t get rich selling instruments in Bolivia. But, if you are good at what you do, you can make a good income doing something you love.”

According to Gonzola, his favorite part of being an entrepreneur is, “meeting people from all over the world. Every day I get to learn about different cultures and people and teach them about Bolivian culture too. I love teaching travelers about our music culture in Bolivia.”  

After a few pictures with Gonzola for our blog, Andrew bought his first charango, taking a little of Bolivia to remember him by. We then said goodbye, heading down the bustling streets of vendors, tiendas and more goods than the eye can see.  

Chocolates Para Ti: Smells Like Chocolate!

chocolates para ti

When we walked into Chocolates Para Ti (Chocolates For You in english)- a coffee and chocolate franchise in La Paz, Bolivia, we were greeted by the smell of chocolate. We sat down at one of the coffee tables, and drooled down at a menu listing over 20 types of natural chocolates made in Bolivia.

Veronica Gantier opened the franchise in 2015 after helping launch the first Chocolates Para Ti store in Sucre, Bolivia. As an architect and designer, Veronica designed the entire store layout for booth the Sucre location, and her own franchise in La Paz.

chocolates para ti 2

Veronica admits that since opening the La Paz franchise in 2015, “business has been slow. It is not as successful as I had hoped. While La Paz is an excellent place to start a business, our location within La Paz doesn’t have a lot of traffic. Regardless, I believe that the design and layout of the store helps bring in some customers because it creates a great environment to enjoy chocolate.”

“My cousin and I have been dreaming of opening a place for years. While, the concept did great in Sucre, neither of us knew how to run a business and had to figure it out on the go. Originally, I was supposed to help start the business and leave it to my cousin, but in the end I wound up taking over most of the operations.”

The future of Veronica’s franchise in La Paz is uncertain because of the struggling sales. “Only time will tell,” she says. Our fingers, and taste buds are crossed!

Disenos Ana Palza: Empowering Indigenous Culture

Disenos Ana Palza

The first thing we noticed when we walked into Ana Palza’s design studio, Disenos Ana Palza, were the mannequins adorned in colorful cholita dress, equipped with the iconic bowler hat, plush petticoats, shawl and huge decorative jewelry. Ana is a jewelry designer for Cholita fashion, the style worn by Cholas or Cholitas (the common term given to Bolivian indigenous women).

“It wasn’t too long ago when Cholitas would have been shamed for the way they dressed. They were discriminated against in their education, job opportunities and were even banned from certain parts of the city. Now, Cholita fashion is huge and even non-indigenous Bolivians are taking part, like me.” Ana participates regularly with the numerous fashion shows in La Paz, featuring solely Cholita dress. But, the biggest time in Cholita Fashion is Gran Poder, a two week long Christian religious celebration observed by the indigenous community in La Paz.

A big reason why Cholita fashion has become a movement in Bolivia was the presidential election in 2005 when Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president was elected for the first time. His two terms has ushered in pride for Bolivian roots and reduced social injustice. The president was elected for a third term on January 22, 2016 (historically only two, five year terms have been legal).

Cholita fashion

“Fashion is seriously important to Cholita culture. It’s a huge status symbol. Wealthier Cholitas will spend up to 3,000 USD on a piece of jewelry and that doesn’t even begin to cover the expenses regarding their skirts, hat and shawl.” Cholita women who can’t afford a 3,000 jewelry set which includes earrings, pin for their bowler hat and shawl, can rent the jewelry at a lesser cost if they have the money, or settle for cheaply made copper jewelry (keep in mind, minimum wage in Bolivia was set at $215 a month in 2014). Ana is exploiting a middle of the road approach. “Our jewelry sets are about $300 and are handmade by Bolivians.”

It’s also important to Cholitas that they own a unique set of jewelry. The look of the jewelry is fiercely guarded secret in case competing women copy the style.

Ana has been in the jewelry business for 15+ years, starting when her sister and former business partner traveled to China and brought back Chinese styled and priced jewelry back as a gift for Ana. They quickly started a jewelry import business in Zona Sur (The wealthy district in La Paz) and employed over 15 women to help sell and create elaborate pieces. “But, like all good ideas, it was soon copied by other entrepreneurs. Margins slipped, we starting laying people off and eventually closed down the business.”

Two years ago, Ana started Disenos Ana Palza. “We are the only option available in Cholita fashion in the mid-tier price range. But, I know that because we have been successful people will soon start to copy our model. Our competitive advantage is our styles. We mix today’s Cholita fashion with older indigenous styles and modern western flairs. For example, this year our fish and coin jewelry has been very popular.” Ana shows us a special set of jewelry featuring fish (a sign of abundance) and old Bolivian coins. “Pearls have also been a hit.”

“I am very ADD,” admits Ana with a chuckle. “So, I am constantly creating. I think that is a big asset for me. Ideas just fly and I notice new trends all the time. The way my mind works helps me create and helps me stay ahead of the competition.”

Regardless, Ana says, “Entrepreneurs have to be adventurous, risk takers and can’t be afraid of failure.” Her piece of advice for current and wanna-be-entrepreneurs? “Figure out what you love to do and make that your business. If you love what you do, the money will come.”

Cholita 2

Merida Romero Art Gallery: "It is for the love of Art"

“My wife and I opened the art gallery four years ago because we wanted to show off Bolivian artists and their talent,” says Jose Miguel Romero, the co-owner of Merida Romero Art Gallery, located in La Paz, Bolivia.

“We wanted to be part of the lives of people who pass our gallery on the street. So, we turned our gallery into a personal experience for visitors, allowing them to look at books of art and choose the music playing in the gallery from an Ipad.”

Merida Romero Art Gallery in La Paz, Bolivia

Merida Romero Art Gallery in La Paz, Bolivia

As we walk around the gallery with Jose, he points out some of his favorite Bolivian artists, like the sculptor Leon Savadra and 87-year-old painter Alfredo Lapla.              

Alfred is one of the most important and representative artists in Bolivia; not only because of the multitude of paintings he has created, but also because of his amazing talent with oil and acrylic paints. Jose proudly tells us that Romero Gallery has the honor of hosting Alfredo Lapla’s last exhibit ever later in October 2015.

Picture of painting by  Alfredo Lapla      (Copyright: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g150811-d8180239-Reviews-La_Sala_Art_Design_Gallery)

Picture of painting by Alfredo Lapla  

(Copyright: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g150811-d8180239-Reviews-La_Sala_Art_Design_Gallery)

Earlier this year, Jose expanded the Romero name and opened a new art gallery in a high-end mall in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

“Selling in a mall is a completely new experience for us,” says Jose. “We are seeing if people will react well to the concept.” With 5-meter high paintings and large abstract sculptures, the exhibit is drawing people in and doing well.

“Santa Cruz is a tropical, almost jungle-like setting and the people are very eccentric! We are getting amazing reactions from the abstract work in the exhibit.”

At the end of the day, “our goal is not to just sell art in our galleries,” reminds Jose. “It is to promote art. Merida Romero is not just a business for my wife and I, it is so much more than that, it is a love of art.

Unique: It's all about the fashion!

With walls covered in hand crafted boulder hats, knit alpaca scarves, trendy sweaters and ethnic jewelry, the brand name Unique describes the tienda perfectly. Founder Maria Stach is a veteran entrepreneur. “I used to own a restaurant,” says Maria. “Then one day, I woke up and suddenly being in the restaurant business no longer appealed to me the way it used to. I started looking for other businesses that would fit my personality. The concept behind Unique came naturally to me because I have a real love and passion for handcrafts.” The pieces in Unique are designed by Maria and made by local artisans.

Kaitlyn Ersek on left, Maria Stach on right.

Kaitlyn Ersek on left, Maria Stach on right.

“My biggest challenge was switching from the restaurant industry to the fashion industry. I had to learn a completely different industry and way of running a business.”  For example, it took Maria some time to find the right artisans that would collaborate with her on designs, deliver on time and create a quality product.

Another big problem Maria faced was the location of her store. While the best locations for shops is the main drag in La Paz’s tourist district, Maria’s store is a few blocks away from the main shopping corridor. “My location hurts business. I need to constantly be handing out flyers and getting referrals from customers. My webpage didn’t seem to help matters, but Facebook and Trip Advisor have been extremely useful.”

While being an entrepreneur can be a challenge, “if you believe in yourself, you can make your dreams come true,” states Maria.

Check out Kaity’s finds at Unique! A cholita, inspired felt hat.

Andrew Bagwell on left, Kaitlyn Ersek on right with Unique's felt hat. 

Andrew Bagwell on left, Kaitlyn Ersek on right with Unique's felt hat. 

Antigua Miami: "Anything could happen in Bolivia"

Bolivia entrepreneur

“Bolivia is a fun place to start something in. You never know what is going to happen. Anything could happen here,” says Sukko Stach, Founder of Antigua Miami, a café in the heart of La Paz’s bustling tourist district.

Sukko grew up in the Bolivian restaurant industry. When he studied at a Canadian University, he worked for and helped open several restaurants and bars in the area. “It was a lot of work and I put in a lot of energy for something that wasn’t my own.” So, Sukko decided to pack his bags and return to Bolivia to start his own venture.

“One of the great things about opening a business here in Bolivia compared to Canada is that the initial investment is A LOT lower,” explains Sukko.

Sukko discussing coffee with a customer from Germany.

Sukko discussing coffee with a customer from Germany.

“I decided to open a coffee shop as opposed to a bar or restaurant because a coffee shop is manageable by a single person and involves less energy,” says Sukko. Sukko sees Antigua Miami as an incubating space for future ideas. “It’s a way to test and better understand the Bolivian market in La Paz,” explains Sukko. In the future, he plans to open other businesses, starting with a micro brewery.

Despite the fact that Sukko opened the coffee shop only 10 weeks prior to our interview, Antigua Miami was already listed as the #1 restaurant /café to visit in La Paz on Trip Advisor. So far, about 80% of Sukko’s customer base are tourists. That’s because tourists tend to be more in tune with the coffee culture than do Bolivians.

The coffee shop itself is an accumulation of Sukko’s travels. “I was super inspired by traveling through Europe. I’ve been taking ideas from other places and have finally been able to put them all together and to manifest Antigua Miami’s identity.”

Bolivia emprendedor

When it comes to entrepreneurship, “It is about taking a risk and really following through with your ideas. A lot of people have great ideas. Having a good idea is just 5% of success. The rest is when you make those ideas a reality.” For Sukko, making his dreams a reality starts with putting his ideas on paper. “I carry around a moleskin journal and write down all of my dreams and ideas. You never know when one of those ideas will come in handy a few years down the road.”

Silvana Cosulich: Design that tells a story

Bolivia emprendedora

We walked up the stairs of an apartment building in La Paz, Bolivia and entered designer, Silvana Cosulich’s studio which doubled as her home. A manikin was dressed in an almost lacy looking alpaca sweater and on the coffee table beside her “look book” were beautifully crafted stained glass necklaces. Over the last eight years, Silvana has dedicated her life to style and to giving back to alpaca crafters in the La Paz region through her design workshops. While she has typically sells to boutiques in the La Paz area, her designs are also available in Colombia and Mexico.

Bolivia entrepreneur

How did you get started?

I’ve always loved drawing and painting. I studied art and design in Mexico and Colombia. I learned early on that selling art is difficult but when you can couple a piece of art or design with a product, you can make a living while creating something beautiful. That is why I started getting into alpaca fashion and jewelry. I have been creating my own designs since 2007.

 

Where does the inspiration for your designs come from?

At the end of the day, people want a unique product that tells a story. Through my designs, I am truly telling the story of La Paz and passing that story along to people outside of Bolivia.

Almost all of the materials I use are made and produced in Bolivia (the stained glass in her jewelry is from France) and much of the inspiration comes from Bolivian folklore and the colorful culture we have here.

 

How do you give back to alpaca artisans in Bolivia?

I teach workshops to alpaca artisans. I show them how to create a prototype that tells a story and then I teach them how to sell. I show them that their work is highly valued and to not sell their products for less than they are worth - which is a problem here in Bolivia. I am very proud of Bolivian artisans. They are doing incredible things!

 

What is a key piece of advice that you would give a fellow entrepreneur?

No matter your product or service, design is key. It has to tell your company’s story… or whatever other story you are trying to tell. Also, you must have a vision and a lot of perseverance to see it through.

Masterline Logistics: "If you die with your boots on, at least you can say you tried!"

bolivia entrepreneur

Entrepreneurial Trek: How did this business get started?

Jean Dessenoix: I grew up with a French diplomat for a father and a Mexican mother. We traveled the world and I fell in love with international relationships.

That childhood, primed me for international opportunities in business (politics just weren’t my thing). After a sting in the “Real World”, my wife and I teamed up to start Masterline Logistics in 2003. At the time, we were located in Mexico but after a couple years, we decided to move the business to Bolivia. It is important to us that we invest money in Bolivia and make sure that the money we did invest, stays in Bolivia.

Masterline has a very artistic and human approach to business that makes us different from competitors. That is my wife’s influence. She is a painter and the business has become the perfect joint collaboration between business and art. We are less focused on numbers and more focused on the relationships.

Being an innovative entrepreneur is a lonely journey (modestly speaking...I am still looking for the good formula and I may not find it at the end of this journey...). We are trying to build and prove our own business theory.

Jean Dessenoix Left, Kaity Ersek Right

Jean Dessenoix Left, Kaity Ersek Right

Entrepreneurial Trek: Why did you decide to start your business in Bolivia?

Jean Dessenoix: You don’t need to be in New York City to make money. Don’t get me wrong, the volume of business is larger in The States and Europe, but the rules in Bolivian aren’t so strict that it won’t let your imagination flow.

Look at it this way, when building a company in Europe you have to first consider the rules of the system and taxes and all that other crap. It is not only difficult, you just don’t want to invest the time into figuring it out. The system keeps creative people from launching new companies.

 

Entrepreneurial Trek: What makes Bolivia special?

Jean Dessenoix: I believe there are more opportunities and freedom in Bolivia. Everything is so new here and there are just so many needs for an entrepreneur to respond to. If you want to open a company in Bolivia, You will find an idea and, chances are you won't find a ton of competition. Plus, it is the only country in South America growing at 5%. Unlike the rest of the world, we really aren't feeling the economic crisis. 

The Bolivians are a very special group. Something like 50% of the people here are entrepreneurs. Everyone is buying and selling. They are constantly doing business.

 

Entrepreneurial Trek: What was your initial investment when launching the company?

Jean Dessenoix: About $13,000 USD

 

Entrepreneurial Trek: What is a mistake people make when starting a business? 

Jean Dessenoix: Some people make the mistake of starting businesses with their eyes only on the numbers. It is a very cold vision. I believe, you need passion and a goal. Running a business is more than just money.

 

Entrepreneurial Trek: What advice would you give another entrepreneur?

Jean Dessenoix: Forget about what you already know, open your mind to new things, new experiences, and new knowledge. Also, you have to invest more than 100% your effort. It is not just a business, it’s your life. If you die with your boots on, at least you can say you tried.

 

Entrepreneurial Trek: Do you have to go to University to be successful? 

Jean Dessenoix: I didn’t finish my university career. All those books just weren’t for me. I found that learning to sell was a more worthy education than what they were pandering at school. Your experience is your knowledge.

Forget all the years you spent in University. When you leave University, you know all the same things as all the other graduates. Instead of spending time there, try to understand the way the world works. Go travel and open your mind. Burn your passport and start fresh. Life isn’t always about numbers; it is about sounds, images and emotions too.