Agora Entrepreneur Retreat Accelerates Social Enterprise In Nicaragua
Founded by Mayra Angélica Cortés in 2000 in Managua, Nicaragua, Details manufactures and sells paper products made from recycled plant materials. By using recycled products, Details helps to divert waste from landfills, a major problem in Nicaragua. Details also runs an initiative to train low-income women, many of which have been mentally and physically abused, to create handcrafts with recycled materials. The program helps them to improve relationships with their children (children are invited to join), and empowers the women by giving them financial ownership over the handcrafts that they produce. In 2011, Details participated in Thriive, an Agora Partnerships’ partner program that makes interest-free loans to socially responsible small businesses in the “missing middle”. Thriive businesses pay their loans forward to their communities through the donation of products, services, and vocational trainings.
After successfully paying it forward, Thriive then participated in the 2014 Agora Accelerator, a program that provides entrepreneurs solving social and environmental challenges in Latin America with in-depth, personalized consulting support and access to investors, mentors, and a global community of peers. Details participated as a “retreat-only” company in the Accelerator. Applications for the 2015 Agora Accelerator are open until November 3rd.
Agora spoke with Alejandro Perez, Director of Marketing for Details and Mayra’s son, about Details’ experience participating in both Thriive and the Agora Accelerator and how each program contributed to the growth of the company.
What inspired you to start Details?
Details was started as a handcraft company in 2000, making invitation cards, and organizing different events. Details then began to produce paper gift bags. In 2005, we began to sell the bags in La Colonia [major supermarket chain in Nicaragua] and in Corporación de Supermercados Unidos [a supermarket chain operating in 150 stores in Nicaragua and Costa Rica]. After securing these major distributors for the bags and receiving new machinery from Thriive, we started producing hand-made paper made from organic waste - such as rice, corn husks, banana peels, cotton, linen, and a wide variety of natural fibers. Nevertheless, the hand-made paper wasn’t as popular and so we had to use the paper in innovative ways to sell our product. Consequently, Details created gift boxes and gift bags and that is how we ended up selling these products in the major supermarket chains in Managua.
Why did Details apply to participate in the Thriive program and what benefits did Details gain from the program?
Details applied to Thriive in 2011 because we wanted to be able to produce more paper. At that time we were producing around 300 papers a month and right now we can produce around 900- 2000 per week, more than 4 times the production. This growth is all thanks to Thriive and the machinery loan that we received.
We applied to Thriive, we thought the only benefit would be from the machinery. However, since the payments for the loan were made by offering trainings and donations to our community, we ended up a learning a lot and started working with single mothers groups. We have been working with these women since 2011, and now, three years, we have trained more than 80 women.
Why did you apply for the Agora Accelerator?
We applied to the Agora Accelerator in 2013 because we had completed paying back our loan from Thriive and were ready for more growth.
What did you learn at the Agora Entrepreneur Retreat?
I don’t know where to start, because it was an amazing week. When you are an entrepreneur, you are always busy. You are always multi-tasking and you have to do a lot of things. You are the person who buys, the one who sells, the one who produces…basically everything, so its very difficult to focus.
One of the most import things about the Agora Entrepreneur Retreat is that we had the chance to get involved with other entrepreneurs from different countries. It was so great to find out that all of these people were interested in, well it will sound silly, but they were all interested in changing the world. Each person had a different focus and a different way of thinking, but in the end, it all came down to the same thing, every single person at the Retreat wanted to create an impact in some way. It was amazing to be a part of this group.
Another part that was very useful was the pitch training and the financial training that Agora provided. I learned how to create an investment memo and the many different documents needed for investors. These are very important skills.
What benefits have you seen since the Agora Entrepreneur Retreat as a direct result of participating in the Agora Entrepreneur Retreat?
The Entrepreneur Retreat really helped us to focus our business model and helped us find a way to deliver our ideas more clearly. Before, our story had been a jumble of “we produce this, we do this, we want to do this, we saw this problem, this is our solution”. The workshops and consultants at the Retreat helped us to simplify this for all of our different audiences including investors, customers, and the general public.
Learning to pitch Details has been so important for our growth. For example, we have been trying to sell our paper to a major distributor for the past 5-6 years. They were not very convinced about our products and had many doubts. They asked questions about the smell, the production process, our competitors, the price point, the production team, etc. These are the types of questions that we learned to answer during the Entrepreneur Retreat.
Shortly after the Retreat, I was in an elevator at the Crown Plaza and a lady walked into the elevator wearing a shirt of the major distributor that I had been trying to sell to. I knew I had about 30 seconds to tell her why I thought her company might be interested in our product. It was literally an elevator pitch. I had no idea at the time that she was the owner of the company. The lady told me that she was going out of town the following day but when she returned, she wanted to set up a meeting and asked me to prepare a presentation and bring some samples to our meeting. The presentation was two months ago, and we have agreed to integrate Details’ products into their 13 stores. To this day, we are selling in three of them and are opening one every two weeks.
According to 3rd Creek Foundation, Details was chosen to participate in the Agora Accelerator Program because the company showed strong potential for growth and outstanding commitment to social outcomes. “As a supporter of Thriive, we were also enthusiastic about Details since the company had successfully paid forward a Thriive loan,” commented 3rd Creek Foundation Director, Gwen Straley. “We view Agora’s Entrepreneur Retreat as an ideal next step for promising Thriive graduates who have graduated from early stage businesses and are now seeking further opportunities to scale their impact. Mayra and Alejandro serve as a testament to this through their leadership with Details.”
Dana Warren is Agora’s Manager of Communications and Strategy. She enjoys collaborating with the entire Agora Community to share stories and create impact. A Chicago native, Dana graduated from Kenyon College in 2012 with a degree in international studies and environmental studies. Immediately following graduation, Dana worked in Guatemala as a Frontier Market Scout for Pomona Impact, an angel impact investment group. While in Guatemala, Dana saw first-hand the transformative power of social entrepreneurship and impact investing.
Maria Ximena Arguello recently joined the Agora team as Program Associate and is working on the recruitment of entrepreneurs for the 2015 Agora Accelerator. A Nicaraguan native, Maria Ximena graduated from the University of Virginia in 2014 with a degree in Foreign Affairs and a Leadership minor. During her time there she established a research- based mentoring program that empowers adolescent girls in Panama, Peru, and Nicaragua. Through this experience she found her passion for entrepreneurship, women’s empowerment, and education.