For Hazel Naranjo, running her own construction and home accessories business has meant learning to navigate in a man’s world.
Yet through the U.S. State Department’s Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) in Costa Rica, Naranjo met numerous other women who run their own businesses and learned skills that would help her overcome the challenges ahead, including the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Construction is distinctly a male environment, but with AWE I met so many women entrepreneurs, and I learned that as a businesswoman I am not alone,” she said.
Naranjo is one of 200 female entrepreneurs in Costa Rica who have been empowered by AWE since 2019. The U.S. government exchange program provides women with the knowledge, networks and access they need to launch and scale a business. More than 16,000 women in 80 countries have participated.
Naranjo launched her business, Kay Concept, in 2014 after years of designing ornamental fixtures, moldings, mosaic tiles and other accessories for homebuilders. As a mother in her 40s, she decided working for someone else meant too much time away from her daughter.
At first, Naranjo worked from home with one computer, relying on her industry knowledge and business contacts from 20 years in interior design. Her first order was a batch of cement tiles and construction materials exported to Panama.
Over the next five years, Naranjo’s business grew. She bought machines, rented space and hired 15 employees. Yet Naranjo realized she had more to learn. “I have my design degree,” she said. “But that doesn’t teach you anything about business management.”
In 2019, she enrolled in AWE. She learned how to design a business plan and that sometimes less is more. Rather than producing hundreds of different types of mosaics, moldings and ceramic pots, she narrowed her production line. “AWE helped me to concentrate on our flagship products — which are our tiles,” she said. “Learning how to better market our flagship products actually helped me make more money in the business.”
She also learned not to view her business model as static. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, sales declined 30% in 2020. Yet Naranjo adjusted her business model, stayed open and continued paying her employees. “I still had to pay the families of the artisans who work for me,” she said. “If you are a family, how will you survive with no salary?”
In May, Naranjo and 15 other female entrepreneurs met first lady Jill Biden in Costa Rica to share their experiences with AWE and other U.S. government exchanges. Naranjo says the meeting was both motivating and an acknowledgement of the women’s achievements. “There is always fear, always uncertainty, always those people who say you can’t do it,” she says. “But you have to follow the dream in your heart, because the heart never lies.”
A version of this article was previously published by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.