In 2018, Amber Hammond arrived to Colombia on a girl’s trip with a close friend who is native to the region of La Guajira, where they would be staying. It was there where Hammond had her first experience with Colombian fashion, culture, and the socioeconomic inequity that makes up much of the country.
During a tour on her trip, Hammond learned of a young boy of the Wayuu indigenous tribe in La Guajira that died the night before due to malnutrition.
“It was a shock from how I thought the world worked,” Hammond recalls. “I saw these people working from sun up to sun down, not even being able to afford a meal. It shook me as something that was unfair and unjust.”
After learning about the mass impoverishment and lack of education in Colombia, Hammond was inspired to take immediate action. She partnered with Tania Rosas, a local Columbian who ran Fundación El Origen, The Origen Foundation, which serves to provide access and resources to education for the youth of La Guajira.
“95% of kids in the region drop out of school between 13 and 17 years old,” Hammond says.
One of the biggest reasons for this statistic, she explains, is the lack of employment opportunities for parents. Not knowing where their next meal will come from, children of unemployed parents in La Guajira are often forced to neglect their education to instead focus on providing for their families.
Wanting to help employ and empower the parents and adults of the region, the Central Ohio native began to work with the community to help local Wayuu artisans reach American markets in order to make a living, while still maintaining their culture and talented craft. Hammond also provides resources and entrepreneurship training for her artisans, whose creations led to the launch of Ciela Handmade.
Ciela, inspired by ‘cielo,’ the Spanish word for ‘sky,’ now sells hand-woven handbags and accessories by these artisans. Portions of proceeds from Ciela Handmade go toward helping the members of these marginalized communities.
“Our customers get to purchase beautiful, handmade products that they love while partnering with us to empower women out of poverty,” Hammond says.
Hammond, who spent years prior as a strategy analyst, took her experience from running a larger team to operating a small, but unique team. Her days studying fashion design in school were also made useful when she decided to make vibrant handbags and accessories the focal points of Ciela. Hammond tries to incorporate at least one traditional design from the Wayuu culture into each product.
“In the Midwest, we’re used to muted colors like black and white,” she explains. “Colombian fashion is not afraid of color; having accessories that are bold and eye catching are fun and different.”
Hammond’s involvement in the community did not stop there, however. Working with Fundación El Origen, she created an entrepreneurship program and online learning system that gives students the opportunity to create their own career paths and earn scholarships to pursue higher education. Additionally, Ciela Handmade sells products on their site from The Origen Shop, with 100% of proceeds going towards helping indigenous youth education programs and decreasing the literacy gap.
Two years after the launch of Ciela Handmade, the social enterprise was named a 2020 SEA Change Signature Cohort Finalist. This title was well deserved for Hammond and her team, who continue to give back to the community of La Guajira, despite a global pandemic.
With most of Hammond’s production and connections abroad, controlling operations and maintaining involvement within the community became increasingly difficult as the coronavirus brought detrimental effects to the region.
The social entrepreneur explains that most of economic development in the area came from tourism, which has halted during the pandemic. Coupled with the fact that many of the communities lack technology or electricity, makes it harder for Hammond to connect with artisans who no longer have access to public internet cafes.
While current travel restrictions keep Hammond from visiting Colombia, she is making efforts to safely continue encouraging the Wayuu artisans and youth in the village. The founder and her team are currently working on scaling back production and sales so that she can support students in her programs that are facing hardships due to the virus, such as schools shutting down. She even hopes to send tablets over soon, to curb with the digital divide that so many in the region are facing.
Despite an uncertain future ahead, Hammond is headstrong on working hard with communities abroad. She hopes to expand Ciela Handmade to other boutiques, and eventually develop a brand that works with local artisans directly.
“I want the people we’re working with feel to empowered; I want them to be self-sufficient and I just want to be the person that helps remove the obstacles in their way,” Hammond says.
For more information, visit cielahandmade.com.
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