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Laughter. This is the sound that will forever remind me of my week in Cuenca, Ecuador, with the women of Casa María Amor.

It was the first day of our two-day Women’s Entrepreneurial Empowerment Workshop. As an introductory ideation activity to demonstrate the concept that all of us are creative, I charged the women with the task of building a prospective client for their micro-enterprises out of a piece of fruit. To their immense amusement, out of my bag I pulled a giant papaya, pineapple, mango and babaco, along with a mountain of assorted candies. Airheads quickly became ears and eyebrows, marshmallows morphed into arms and legs, and Twizzlers became mustaches and toupees. For 15 minutes, 16 grown women giggled like schoolgirls as they brought “Señora Papaya and Señor Mango” to life. When Señorita Piña toppled over due to her stilt-like legs, the room erupted in laughter. Each team then shared the story of their client. What was his or her profession? What were his or her needs? What are the skills the women have that could serve this client’s needs? This last question reinforced another core concept of the workshop: We all have something of value to offer others. For women who have been physically and emotionally abused, this can be a dangerous idea.

Casa María Amor is a women’s shelter hidden on the outskirts of Cuenca in a crevice of the Andes Mountains. It provides both physical and emotional safety to women and their children who are the victims of domestic violence. The goal of this Erb Impact Project was to equip these women with the resources, skills and confidence they need to create economic independence for themselves, which, in turn, may provide them the freedom and power to leave their abusive partners. My counterpart and I organized this project into three interlocking initiatives.

First, we created the Women’s Entrepreneurial Empowerment Center, which provides a physical space for the women to develop ideas for their micro-enterprises. With financial support from the Erb Institute as well as 25 GoFundMe sponsors, we were able to convert an old office into a fully functioning ideation center. Second, we assembled five entrepreneurship start-up kits, each of which included a laptop, two whiteboards, several notebooks, markers and other design-thinking materials. These kits will operate like mobile learning labs, allowing the women to build their businesses on the go.

And, third, we celebrated the center’s launch by hosting the Women’s Entrepreneurial Empowerment Workshop, the first of what we hope will be many hands-on training sessions in business design, computer literacy and valuable vocational skills.

As a means to tie these three entities together, a community bank was formed to provide investment capital, accountability and encouragement to the women as they become champions of change. A quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, which now hangs in the empowerment center, best summarizes this aspiration: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’”

The women of Casa María Amor are indeed courageously taking on life’s next challenge. They are fighting for a better future. They are filling the world with laugher. And while in Cuenca for a week, I was honored to strive and fight and laugh with them.

This project was made possible through the generous support of the Erb Institute, Nicholas Nguyen, Peace Corps Ecuador, Fundación María Amor, 25 GoFundMe sponsors, Partners Worldwide, Michigan Business Women and Michigan Business Women Allies, and the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability.  

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