They call it Calle Cadena, or “Chain Street”, for short. For sisters, Alejandra and Mabel Aguirre, the street that heads into the heart of their town back in Mexico also leads to their ecommerce platform that celebrates women of color, Cadena Collective.
Mabel says, “That pueblo built us. And that street provided the foundation for us as little girls and helped shape us into who we are.”
It was a winding path, for sure. Alejandra used to work in political consulting. “I showed up in what I considered to be professional…a black suit and straight hair, modest makeup and very modest jewelry."
"Whereas now, I am of the mindset that we should actually celebrate our culture. Lean into what makes us ‘us’.”
INDUSTRY: E-Commerce/Artisanal Goods
STARTED BUSINESS: Early 2019/Officially incorporated Sept. 2019
LATINO CONNECTION: Alejandra and Mabel Aguirre - Both born in Mexico
ALEJANDRA: Southern Methodist University - Bachelor’s Degree in Corporate Communications & Public Affairs, Human Rights
MABEL: University of the Incarnate Word - Last semester pursuing Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology (plans to go on to graduate school)
DREAM JOB AS A KID:
MABEL: “I thought I was going to be an archaeologist. I love history, and I just love stories. But when 9/11 happened, I immediately shifted to wanting to be in the military and be in that world.”
ALEJANDRA: “I wanted to be in acting or anything really creative. Acting, singing, drawing.”
BIGGEST GOAL YET:
ALEJANDRA: “Our next milestone, putting it out into the universe, is to… reach our $1M revenue goal, which sounds kind of crazy saying it out loud. But that’s probably our next goal for the brands that we work with [now].”
MABEL: “I would agree with my sister.” The vendors are “literally why we do it…When we are able to provide for the people we work with, clearly, that would be the best feeling.”
BOLDER – IN SPIRIT AND LOOK
Alejandra now looks at her TikTok reels and what she would change, if she could go back in time. “So now it would look like something more bold. That includes traditional embroidery. It includes handmade products. It includes our elevated leather handbags.”
Those are the kinds of artisanal goods sold on the Cadena Collective she started with Mabel.
Mabel gave up a ten-year military career as a U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant to go on this entrepreneurial ride and discovered a new way of looking at the world, especially since she’s an introvert.
“My world didn’t have a lot of color. And in the last two years of having started this, I have definitely been a little bit more adventurous.”
The sisters started on their social networks and ended up on Shopify because they quickly realized they needed more applications to fully tell the stories of the women whose work they are showcasing.
LEARNING FROM LATINOS IN FLORIDA
The sisters split the duties. Mabel handles business from San Antonio. Alejandra takes care of things from Miami. She says living in Miami has reinforced not only that they want to appeal to an even more specific niche market, Mexican-crafted products, but she also learned about how South Florida seems to have an edge when supporting its Latino community.
She calls it “the collective power of Latinos.”
Basically, in Miami, “You need a banker? El primo [a cousin], you know, he’s got your back. You need someone? A lawyer? There’s always someone there to help you that’s recommended….helping to scale the next generation of Latinos."
"In Texas, we might not necessarily see that."
So the sisters are trying to recreate that same pipeline of support in Texas.
IN THE TRENCHES
They seem to have gotten a solid grasp of what it takes. What started with ten pairs of hand-made earrings has now turned into a platform where traditional Mexican clothes, leather goods and beauty products are sold. They purposely have only 10 vendors who are artisans.
People compare them to etsy. But the sisters say it’s different because they’re “in the trenches” with the artisans they feature.
They think of themselves as guides to the artisans because they not only help close the technology gap, but also the opportunity gap. The sisters let the artisans know what’s working and what isn’t. They offer help with brand development, marketing and pricing.
And that brings up an even bigger mindset shift the Aguirre sisters are tackling head-on: changing how the Latino community’s contributions are viewed.
Alejandra calls it “…this perception that Latin culture, Latin fashion – that it’s all cheap. And so we’re also working to dispel that myth and change it up. Let people know that not only should you show up, be proud of who you are, with the products you wear and how you style them. But that you should also pay the price for it. Because it’s all high-quality materials and products.”
RECLAIM WHO YOU ARE
Mabel says, “That’s why we’ve been so successful - because we allow people to celebrate who they are and bring that to the table…It’s a way for us to reclaim who we are and to represent that.”
It seems to be working. Their Instagram account has more than 25,000 followers and they have nearly 45,000 followers on TikTok.
But they believe it all goes back to Calle Cadena and the link that binds all our stories together - our roots.
As Mabel says, “You’re still affected by the streets that raised you...that you grew up on. And Cadena is just our street…"
"It just never left us. And I don’t think it ever will.”
THE TIP JAR (tips passed out courtesy of Alejandra and Mabel Aguirre)
ALEJANDRA: “When I don’t know how to do something, I go to YouTube University.”
As for start-up money, “everything is within reach technology-wise for you to move forward. We figured out a way to make something out of $200.”
“Be fearless and just make decisions. “She reminds aspiring entrepreneurs, “We don’t have any entrepreneurs in the family…We are figuring out this puzzle without the puzzle image...It’s given us a lot to just go for it and just make decisions.”
MABEL: “Following your gut and not being afraid to make decisions, even though they’re scary.”
Mabel also suggests you start by asking yourself certain basic questions, depending on what kind of business you have in mind. Examples include:
-What kind of goals do you have?
-Do you want a brick and mortar [store]?
-Do you want an ecommerce site?
STEEPED IN SKILLS (mid-career):
ALEJANDRA: “People are saying we are in the middle of the 'Great Resignation'. So it’s probably the perfect time to take a leap.”
She had been working in government affairs for about eight years before taking the leap. Here are the steps she took:
-Mapping out the exit plan
-Figuring out next steps. For ex., what is a sustainable income to make that leap?
“Once I reached those, I went ahead and took that leap.”
MABEL: “Nothing’s going to come easy and that has to be the first thing that’s going to have to be acknowledged.”
Mabel says, she’s a fan of change and a challenge, “But, man, the fear is constant because there’s so many unknowns. Being in the entrepreneurial world is not for the faint of heart. It’s been tough. And so many times I have told my sister, I would rather be deployed right now…But it’s a thrill.”
I’LL NEVER DO THAT AGAIN:
ALEJANDRA: I’ll never underestimate myself.
MABEL: I’ll never settle.
BEST ADVICE FROM LA CASA: Alejandra says her mom’s lessons resonate with her to this day.
ALEJANDRA: “No dejes lo que puedes hacer para mañana.”
TRANSLATION: Don’t leave what you can do today for tomorrow.
ALEJANDRA’S INTERPRETATION: “When you’re a small business owner, you gotta have 20 balls in the air. If you postpone one of them, they just keep piling up.”
MABEL: They [Their parents] would jokingly sometimes say, “Ponte las pilas.”
TRANSLATION: Put on your batteries.
MABEL’S INTERPRETATION: “You’ve gotta [be "on"]. It applies to so many things. It kind of taught us to follow our gut. Have some thought-provoking questions and dialogue, and then pursue what needs to be done. It’s all in actions, right?”
NO NEED TO GO IT ALONE
HELP ON THE OUTSIDE…because we can all use a helping hand:
GET A $5,000 GRANT
Looking for some financial help and think you have an inspiring story to tell about trying to pivot because of the pandemic? The Hispanic Heritage Foundation has partnered with TikTok and others to provide 30 lucky Latino small business owners with a grant of $5,000 each. I looked at the application form for you. It’s short and seems easy enough to fill out and qualify for, but you’ll want to hurry. The deadline is Thursday, Sept. 30th. Good luck!
WORKING ON THE INSIDE…because, let’s face it, our culture has a hard time asking for help:
GET A MENTOR
Big decisions tend to seem more manageable, emotionally and practically, when you have someone you can count on to bounce off ideas, frustrations and successes. To help you with this moral support, get a mentor. Don’t know where to find one? Now, you do.
SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) has mentoring match-up service. What I like is that the mentoring can be done remotely (video, email or phone). And, apparently, SCORE says small business owners who receive three or more hours of mentoring report higher revenue and business growth. Learn more here:
THE INSPIRATION FOR THIS ISSUE: Journalism hooked me because of the storytelling. The gift of being able to tell other people's stories is priceless. So when I researched Cadena Collective, what immediately made these sisters’ business stand out was two-fold: They weren’t just establishing an ecommerce site that sells goods. That’s super common. Instead, their site tells stories.
You learn a little about the artisans selling their goods, but the Aguirre sisters also include a blog where you actually learn some history about Mexican icons. Not only does it include people you may have heard of like the late Mexican singer, Selena, and legendary entertainer, Rita Moreno, but you can also learn about Mexican symbols and what they mean. The blog introduces us to people like Khristine Lorraine, a black Hispanic woman who is also a DACA recipient.
The thing that really convinced me I had to do a story on these sisters was their overarching goal to change people’s perceptions about the value of Mexican and, in general, Latino, goods.
It got me thinking, you know how when someone tells you something is French, the image in your mind is probably of something expensive and well-crafted?
But the general perception out there about Mexican goods is that you can get them "on the cheap" and that they’re poor quality. Why is that?
No offense to the French. I actually have a brother-in-law, Sébastien, who is French. But the more I thought about this, the more I saw how wrong this general assumption is. Frankly, it really bothered me.
Is it marketing?
Is it the history we’ve been taught about European culture vs. indigenous cultures?
Is it racism?
Or is it a combination of these things - or maybe something else?
And that’s why I really appreciate the Aguirre sisters’ focus on opening society’s eyes to the rich, well-made quality of artisanal goods and the undervaluation when it comes to pricing.
Their commitment to reinforcing the idea that these items should be priced fairly, to reflect the skill, handiwork and creativity of the artisans, carries even more importance.
Immigration is a topic where we certainly don't all agree. And that is just fine. I'm certainly not advocating for any particular point of view myself. But if we at least make the effort to learn more about where people are coming from, we can form our own opinions with more background and context.
Imagine what this mindset shift could mean for how we view other underrepresented cultures and, ultimately, our neighbors and their contributions to our communities? That's how you create a lasting bond, even with differing viewpoints. And that’s something we could all benefit from - together.
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Excellent point. It starts with us. We need to make sure our own community elevates the value of the goods and services we offer. If we don't establish our own worth, nobody else will. Thanks for sharing.
I believe one of the reasons why Mexican products, and latino products in general are many times undervalued, is because we fail to appreciate them properly ourselves, giving products from elsewhere a higher relevance. I like what these two sisters are doing.