While working as a consultant in Panama, Yarelys Gomez often saw trash being buried or burned.
Gomez, who worked as an adviser on environmental matters, knew that getting rid of trash those ways creates polluted water and air. In many ways, she says, Panama measures up to strong environmental standards. But the country didn’t have proper ways to treat organic waste.
The problem inspired Gomez to start Geoazul, a firm that hires paroled prisoners to recycle food and brush into compost and mulch. The company sells their final products to gardeners. Now “we are the only company in Panama who is recycling organic waste,” said Gomez.
Gomez, 30, launched Geoazul last year after graduating from the U.S. WEAmericas Initiative in 2017. Started in 2012, the initiative supports women entrepreneurs with training in management, networking and leadership.
The Geoazul business is Gomez’s collaboration with Franklin Ayón, an ex-inmate who started a prison recycling program five years ago. The International Committee of the Red Cross credits that program with boosting living conditions inside Panama’s La Joyita Prison while assisting the rehabilitation of inmates.
Now Geoazul helps people under a conditional release from prison to continue that rehabilitation on the outside. The company pays workers a salary as they gain experience that will help them apply for future jobs. “They start with us and then grow to other, bigger companies,” Gomez said.
In a year, Geoazul has grown to employ 150 workers. While they collect trash for compost or shred branches for mulch, Gomez relies on management skills she learned in WEAmericas. “The program helped me to delegate work and [learn] how to make a budget,” she said.
Gomez still works as an environmental consultant. (She says WEAmericas taught her that entrepreneurs can work on many projects at once.)
The U.S. Embassy in Panama runs numerous programs to support local startup businesses. Recently, Gomez attended an embassy seminar during Global Entrepreneurship Week. She has also applied for the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative, which brings entrepreneurs from Latin America to train at U.S. businesses.
But she already has a sense of fulfillment with her work. “I feel actually now that I’m having the greatest success,” Gomez says. “I am very complete, because I have not only the environmental part but also the social one” by helping prisoners rebuild their lives.