The Art of Weaving Is Helping Guatemalan Women Open Their First Bank Accounts
Guatemala often evokes images of rich, vibrant textiles, handcrafted goods, and a warm and accessible culture. But beneath the surface, the country is still recovering from the aftermath of its brutal civil war, which raged from 1960 to 1996. Caught in the midst of decades of warfare, Guatemalan women became especially vulnerable, often facing widowhood, economic struggles, and little to no access to health care.
For Sheeva Sairafi, a former retail buyer turned home decor entrepreneur, the country was the perfect place to employ local female artisans for her company, Local and Lejos, while also helping them overcome social and financial challenges. Partnering with artisans in two regions to create a collection including blankets and pillows, Local and Lejos provides sustainable employment, financial training, and a personal bank account for every woman it collaborates with.
Sairafi, 29, spoke with me about the journey of launching Local and Lejos—which also works in Rwanda, Mexico, and India—and the invaluable lessons she’s learned from the women who bring her brand’s home decor goods to life.
TakePart: Local and Lejos is a young company, founded in 2015. Despite being fairly new, you employ 102 women artisans worldwide who create a variety of products, including dinnerware, baskets, blankets, and more. What’s the story behind how and why you started your company?
Sheeva Sairafi: I was a buyer for T.J. Maxx and Marshalls for about seven years and traveled often. From a transparency standpoint, you don’t really know exactly where your products are coming from, and most of my job was negotiating lower costs on items and deliveries being faster. While it was a great company, I always wondered what the impact was for the countries and women making the products. I traveled often growing up, going to Iran at the age of four, to traveling abroad to places like Peru and Argentina, where you see a lot of amazing craftsmanship and a lot of women there working without a connection to customers here.
Part of me always had this idea of creating more established partnerships with women abroad and doing some kind of focus on retail here. While still working as a buyer, I decided to also get my MBA. I finished my degree, left my job, and went to Guatemala in 2014 to do a test run. When I returned to L.A., I held a home decor pop-up in Venice, and everything sold out. I knew then and there that it was time to fully launch. Also, there were a few fashion and jewelry brands producing great, socially conscious products, but there was a lack of it for the home décor space.
TakePart: What drew you to work with the artisans of Guatemala and curate the blanket and pillow collections there?
Sairafi: The first time I went to Guatemala, it was because I’d heard that it had the best textiles in Central America. Within a day, I was blown away by the female artisans’ insane talent. Then I learned that, as a result of the civil war, a lot of women were widowed, and weaving was a real source of income for them. Once I learned about the women and their stories, it became a collaboration born out of love for them.
TakePart: What is the social impact model for Local and Lejos, and what happens with the purchase of the blanket?
Sairafi: When we learned that if a woman gets a dollar, she spends 80 cents on her children and family—versus if a man gets a dollar, he spends 30 cents [on the family]—we knew it was important to empower the women to make the financial decisions. Our whole focus as a company is about empowering women to give them tools to be their own small-business owners and financial managers. With each of our women, for each of our products, we ask them, “With the money from this blanket, what do you do with it?” In Guatemala specifically, we have equated it to a month’s worth of electricity for each blanket sold. We also determined that on average, the women we work with make three times as much doing this than any other role in their region and are twice as likely to be enrolled in health care as a result.
TakePart: What is the story behind each woman receiving a personal bank account?
Sairafi: For the giveback of the blankets and the women of Chichicastenango, Guatemala, Rosa is the head lady of the cooperative, with 12 other women working with her. It was really important to us on our first order that we pay her directly. Like most women in the region, she doesn’t have a bank account, and only her husband has a bank account. At first, Rosa was uncomfortable receiving the money and said, “Just transfer the money to my husband’s bank account.” I told her, “I just don’t feel comfortable doing that. You did the work, and I want to make sure that you’re the one that gets the money.”
A big piece of our mission is to make sure the money gets into the hands of the woman, because we want her to be more of a decision maker in where the money goes. We decided to set Rosa up with the bank account as our first step. Since then, our mission with every woman we work with is to help her open a bank account, teach her tools on how to save and how to make smart decisions with her own business.
TakePart: What is currently your favorite item from the Guatemala collection?
Sairafi: I’m really into the Cerceta blanket, which means "teal" in Spanish. The blankets are made by a group we’re working with called the Women of Chichicastenango. They’re made on a big handloom. The material is all cotton, and dyed bright, gorgeous colors. The blankets are made in thirds since the loom isn’t very wide, and then all three sections are sewn together.
TakePart: You live the life of a global citizen, and it’s reflected in Local and Lejos’ products. Where did your love of international culture and travel stem from?
Sairafi: I grew up in a suburb of Boston where my dad was the only Persian, so from a young age, I was exposed to two cultures. My parents really wanted to expose us to other cultures and experiences, so we’d go to Iran and spend the summers there with our family. We went to Isfahan and Shiraz, and when you see that stuff at 12—from the market to the rugs to the gold—it just made me want to see everything around the world.
TakePart: What are you proud of, and what is your ultimate social impact goal?
Sairafi: I was in Rwanda in May visiting a group of 20 women who were creating the home décor baskets for the Rwanda collection. We were walking down the street and they pointed to a bank and said, “We have a bank account because we work with you, we’re so excited.” I get really excited when I know that they’re able to now save. This is just the beginning, because what I’m working toward is the women bringing in enough income from their artisanal work that their children will stay in school versus getting jobs. I think the best way to break the cycle of poverty is strong financials for the women to fund the education of their children’s futures.
TakePart: What are words you live by?
Sairafi: There is a great quote by Rumi, which is, “Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart.” For me, it meant finding what I was passionate about and following that through and still being a part of the retail industry that I love while doing good.