Helping the Homeland

By Alison Damast | Spring 2014

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Mendoza senior starts venture to assist Nicaraguan artisans

As a young boy growing up in Nicaragua, Christian Estrada watched dozens of craftsmen compete for tourist dollars in Managua, the country’s capital. Visitors thronged there to buy the country’s handmade hammocks and wooden bowls, but the artisans often had to cut prices significantly in order to survive in the crowded retail market.

“They were competing against each other for the lowest rather than the fairest price,” said Estrada, 21, a senior majoring in finance at Mendoza. “It was really hard to see people working so hard and being undervalued for their skills.”

Last year, Estrada decided to tackle the problem head-on, creating Custom Elevation, a company that sells handmade Nicaraguan wares ranging from coasters and wine-bottle holders laser-engraved with Notre Dame’s logo, to intricately woven hammocks. The company is less than a year old, but is already selling its goods at the University bookstore, specialty stores and online retailers, as well as to various departments on campus.

Estrada and his two business partners, ND senior David Kenney and alum Roberto Pellas (ND ’13), raised about $25,000 in capital so far, $10,000 of which was spent designing a safe workspace for the 11 artisans the company employs. The goal? To eventually provide the artisans with a fair living wage. Said Estrada: “At this point, we are guaranteeing them at least twice what they were earning before.”

Custom Elevation has an impressive track record. Since the company started selling at the 2013 Blue and Gold Game, it has sold more than $30,000 worth of items, Estrada said. Top sellers so far include the hand-carved wooden wine caddies and bowls.

Starting a business where the products are made in Nicaragua has come with its own unique challenges, from figuring out how to ship the goods to the U.S., to communicating with the artisans. Estrada sought out the help of Notre Dame instructors Michael Vogel and Melissa Paulsen of the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship at Mendoza for guidance on best practices and advice on logistics and product development.

Estrada, who has taken classes in social entrepreneurship and is a sustainability minor, wants to ensure the company has an impact beyond just improving the lives of the artisans working for him. To accomplish that, 5 percent of the company’s proceeds is going to Mentores Solidarios, a nonprofit that helps impoverished Nicaraguans complete their education.

With graduation not far away, Estrada is already looking to the future. He plans to work full time for the company, and would like to see its products eventually sold at other universities, corporate clients and restaurants. His career as a social entrepreneur has been a pleasant surprise, he said.

“I always knew I wanted to help out my country, but I didn’t know how I’d do it,” he said. “I’m glad that I’ve found a way to make a difference.”