Combo photo showing two women smiling (© Jeff Guarino/Gracelandic. Courtesy of María Rojas)
Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) alumnae Grace Achieng, a fashion designer in Iceland, left, and María Rojas, of Mexico, both create sustainable fashions. (© Jeff Guarino/Gracelandic. Courtesy of María Rojas)

Growing up in Kenya, Grace Achieng learned the power of fashion at an early age. As a child of humble beginnings, she remembers how she felt when receiving a dress as a present.

“When I wore this dress, I felt so empowered,” says Achieng, who founded the sustainable design firm Gracelandic in 2020. “This is the kind of feeling that I want to sell.”

Achieng, who now lives in Iceland, is one of two alumnae of the U.S. government’s Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) whose companies are advancing sustainable fashion and design.

While Achieng’s Gracelandic designs long-lasting eco-friendly clothing and turns leftover fabric into accessories, María Rojas’ firm Negro Neon, in Mexico, crafts jewelry from recycled plastic.

Achieng and Rojas are among the more than 25,000 women in nearly 100 countries that AWE has equipped with the knowledge, networks and access they need to launch or scale businesses since 2019. AWE also connects participants with mentors and an expansive network of women entrepreneurs.

The program incorporates the Thunderbird School of Global Management’s online Dreambuilder course, which teaches participants to focus their idea and strategically plan their business.

Three photos showing collected recycled plastic, an assortment of jewelry made from the plastic and woman wearing earring from jewelry line (Courtesy of María Rojas; © Sojamx)
Rojas uses recyclable plastics to make earrings, rings and other jewelry for her Negro Neon jewelry line. (Courtesy of María Rojas; © Sojamx)

Rojas launched her company after returning to Mexico from studying industrial design in Germany. She’d been inspired by how German supermarkets offered customers easy access to recycling and promoted the practice with store credit.

She collects and sorts recyclable plastics and melts them down before reforming the material into rings, earrings and other jewelry. Rojas often employs other women, including single mothers and students, part time to help craft products.

A 2020 AWE participant, Rojas says the program helped her fine-tune her business plan. And the $2,500 she later won in an AWE pitch competition allowed her to open a workshop and studio for in-person clientele.

AWE has been instrumental in helping many women around the world turn their business idea into a reality or grow their company. After moving to Iceland in 2010, Achieng spent years trying to land a fashion job. In 2020, she bought a sewing machine and opened her own business. Two years later, Achieng participated in AWE through the U.S. Embassy Reykjavik and learned financial skills to help run her business and procure funding.

“When I started my business, I just blindly walked into my dream,” Achieng says. “AWE helped me to understand my business in a much deeper way.”

Photo of Joe Biden clasping hands with woman as Jill Biden stands next to them and photo of four women with arms around each other, smiling (White House; © Hulda Margrét Óladóttir/Gracelandic)
Left: Iceland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Thórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörd Gylfadóttir (center) wears a Gracelandic design while meeting President Biden and first lady Jill Biden at the U.N. General Assembly in 2022. (White House) Right: Grace Achieng seeks to empower women through her designs. (© Hulda Margrét Óladóttir/Gracelandic)

Since then, Gracelandic has grown significantly. Achieng’s designs have been featured in British Vogue and even worn by Iceland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Thordis Kolbrun Reykfjörd Gylfadóttir in a September 2022 meeting with President Biden at the U.N. General Assembly.

“When fashion is done right,” Achieng says, “it can be transformative for the people wearing the clothes and the environment.”

This article was compiled from articles written by freelance writers Allie Dalola and Naomi Hampton. Those articles were previously published by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.