We are officially crushing hard on mama, founder and style maven Ali Hynek. Not only is she the mother to three adorable 1-year-olds (triplets!) and has a stunning home in Utah (this feature on Design*Sponge is swoon worthy), she’s the founder of Nena & Co., a textile company that fairly employs mothers to create unique designs that celebrate Ali’s Guatemalan heritage. Having expanded her business at a rapid rate, Ali now oversees marketing, branding and product development, an ambitious task she tries to fit in while her babies are napping. Ali sometimes brings a baby (or two!) to the office to stay on task while juggling parenthood, and her mother runs the manufacturing in Guatemala to guarantee fair working conditions, wages and the quality of each Nena & Co. product. Read on to get a glimpse into this mama’s life, as well as a few tips for knowing whether creating a sustainable business is for you…
My name is Ali Hynek, I’m a mother of 1-year-old triplets and the Founder and Creative Director of Nena & Co. I started the colorful brand in 2013 from my home in Southern California and ran it out of my garage until 2015 when we no longer could fit in the house. I remember telling my husband, “What if I could sell just four bags a month? Wouldn’t that be awesome?”. I would have never imagined that, just a few years later, Nena & Co. would be selling tens of thousands of bags and accessories. As long as I’ve known my husband, he’s always had a great job. I didn’t start Nena & Co. out of desperation or for the money. I started my Guatemalan-based company because I am half Guatemalan, raised in the United States by a biracial couple who taught me how to love my heritage.
By my mid-twenties, I had traveled the world on my own and had yet to visit my Mother’s homeland. I was desperate to meet the family that I had only heard great stories about, and decided that if my mom wasn’t going to join me (which I desperately wanted), then I would go on my own. The way my mother, Abuelita (Grandmother), and entire family had talked about Guatemala, it seemed like the place with the best food, kindest people, and richest culture. I needed to know more.
That was the year we first went to Guatemala, and I soon found that everything I had ever been told about Guatemala was true. I felt an intense completeness and love for the country, and more specifically, for its people.
So the question is, why did I start a company that pays fair wages, and gives continual and reliable work to those that would otherwise not have it? Why would I invest money and time to create a safe working environment for my developing country employees so they can feel secure? Why would I go out of my way to directly source weavers to ensure they are being paid the wages they deserve? My answer is simple: for respect for mankind and my love of my heritage.
If you want to know how something is made, who is making it, and the actual value of your product, then you have to go to the source — and that’s exactly what we did.
But that’s not how the company began. I had the desire to start something, but never could have known how fast it would grow, so initially we worked with a friend of my mom’s. He knew bag-makers, and we’d give him small orders of 30 bags and he would ship us 30 bags. The orders got bigger as I built Nena & Co.’s brand and I started to realize our weaknesses. There was no consistency in the product and the quality was poor. For example, hardware would break or come rusted, and some of the bags were made with suede while others were traditional brown leather. I knew how much work went into the bags’ hand-woven fabric, and knew I needed to create my own original designs and better the quality of the product. On top of that I knew I needed to figure out a way to incorporate NEWLY woven fabric into our market as I realized weaving is a dying art in most countries and I’m not okay with that. The bags needed immense improvement.
The company had grown to the point where I needed more help. I had designed my own logo, website, taken my own photos, shipped orders, and handled customer service. My husband would even help me after coming home from work each night, but I still needed more help with the manufacturing side of the business. That is when I officially partnered with my mom. As fast as Nena was growing, we had to act faster, so my husband Jeremy, my parents and I started making trips to Guatemala about every 2 months. It became a family affair.
If you want to know how something is made, who is making it, and the actual value of your product, then you have to go to the source — and that’s exactly what we did. When I liked a type of weaving, we would trek through the highlands of Guatemala and just start asking around, “Do you know anyone that knows how to weave this pattern?” And that is truly how I learned about the different types of weaving and how I met so many talented master weavers. After years of outreach, I knew the people, I knew the process, and understood the value of the work that was being done. To make our visits to Guatemala more productive, we decided to open a small office and craft shop in Antigua. Instead of spending all our time going all over the country to meet with weavers, we would have them come to us. Since we couldn’t be in Guatemala full-time, we hired a manager that would work exclusively with those making our raw material, then hired a manager that worked exclusively with our leather craftsman in-house.
Right now, we have 48 leather craftsmen, 12 seamstresses/pom pom makers, and close to 200 weavers we work with on a regular basis who work exclusively on our “Artisan Collection” which offers newly woven fabrics as opposed to vintage fabrics. After 3 ½ years of starting our own manufacturing, our first hire is still working with us! We have plans to hire 10 more leather craftsmen in the next two months and hopefully more as we prepare for the holiday season.
Seeing their eyes and hearing their stories of perseverance and strength to work hard to earn a living for their family renews our efforts to grow as a company.
To create your own sustainable manufacturing operation is an insane amount of work. If my mom and I didn’t go down and visit with the weavers, bag makers and seamstresses ourselves, I don’t think we would have had the motivation to keep working this hard. Seeing their eyes and hearing their stories of perseverance and strength to work hard to earn a living for their family renews our efforts to grow as a company. If you are considering starting a company like ours, I would first ask yourself these 5 questions:
5 Things to Ask When Starting an Ethical Business in a Third World Country
- Know your “why”. Creating a truly ethical company takes a lot of work, so you must know why you are doing it in the first place.
- If you want to know the true cost of your product, then you must go to the source. No “middle men” — unless they are a very trusted source.
- Be transparent with your customers about your business model — because it’s actually a great selling point.
- Know that your product will be more expensive than companies that make knock-off’s, and that you will have to learn how to market better than them.
- Love what you are doing or don’t do it!
The greatest thing that has come out of Nena & Co. is understanding where my immigrant mother is from, the trails she has overcome, and strengthening family bonds. I don’t know what the future holds for Nena & Co. but the memories we’ve made on our adventures and the people we’ve met along the way are invaluable to me.