When Kennedy Leavens founded Awamaki in 2009, she adopted a time-tested philosophy: If you want to help lift women out of poverty, don’t give money, give jobs. As Leavens explains, women know what their children and their communities need, and they make those investments when they have the means to do so. Having traveled to Peru while in college, she developed a deep affection for it, ultimately leading her to study Latin America and economic development while at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Since returning to Peru and founding Awamaki, she has not only been able to help craft beautiful hand-loomed bags and alpaca apparel, but she has created a women-led network of support that reaches far beyond Awamaki’s own production efforts.
You talk about empowering your artisans. How do you accomplish that?
We teach them not only how to make products for us to sell, but also the skills they need to build successful, women-led artisan businesses. We now work with them on skills from client cultivation to quality control to banking, and we help them connect directly to clients other than us so that they can build their businesses.
So, how does this strategy dovetail with the evolution of Awamaki?
Our vision is that as Awamaki's sales grow, and as our current cooperatives grow their business to include orders for other clients, we can bring in new artisan cooperatives to help fill demand for our products, thus expanding our impact across the region.
If you could have one wish for the handmade sector, what would it be?
Good design! So much handmade stuff is beautiful but less functional. That is an area where we at Awamaki have really worked hard—for our products to be a great investment piece, rather than something that is just beautiful and interesting. It needs to work great and feel great as you use it.
How do you make that happen?
Our team members use our products and fine tune them relentlessly to ensure that our pieces are not only beautiful but also functional and lasting.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a leader?
My co-founder was a Peruvian man, and I am a white American woman. I knew from the start I wanted our team to be made up of Peruvian women, but as a non-profit startup, we didn't have the funds to pay competitively and retain Peruvian professionals. In our early days, much of our design and marketing and operations work was done by enthusiastic, 20-something volunteers from the U.S. and Europe. These young people gave us endless energy and ideas, and as our early team moved on, we worked to build a team of professional Peruvian women.
How did that go?
in 2013, we set a goal to have an 80 percent Peruvian staff by 2019, and we achieved that. One of the things we have done is provide training to people who live where we are based, rather than try to only hire people from cities. In 2018 our leadership team in Peru became all Peruvian, which was also a major accomplishment. I’ve found that by hiring and training Peruvian women, and always paying competitive salaries, we save money because our turnover is so low, and our staff is so committed and experienced.
Back home in Seattle, how do you try to incorporate sustainability into your own daily life?
My husband works in green-energy policy and I in slow fashion, so we are both on the same page. The main thing we do is try not to buy new. We buy used whenever we can, and we use what we have for as long as possible. When we do buy new things, we try to buy good quality that lasts for a long time. We joke in our house that our stuff is "really nice or not at all."
Speaking of nice, what is your favorite Awamaki product that?
I have loved our baby llama hats for my kids. I always get so many comments on the little llama ears. Plus, our booties are the best at staying on tiny baby feet!