Stiven Kerestegian Ganarillas and his wife, Francisca, are not just entrepreneurs worrying about breaking even or making a quick buck. They are making entrepreneurship social. Through their sustainable venture – Chilote House Shoes – they not only help convert bio-waste into something both ecologically-chic and profitable, they also support 50 families in Patagonia, Chile, who were robbed off their livelihood by corporate giants processing salmon in their waters.
The Local sat down with Stiven, 40, and Francisca, 34, Chilean nationals living in Billund (Stiven works at Lego), who have won seven international design and innovation awards for their product.
How did you come up with this idea?
Big Norwegian fisheries have salmon nurseries in the waters of Patagonia in southern Chile where traditional fishing communities have sustained themselves for centuries. Chileans soon copied this business model, and salmon are now cannabalising local fish, damaging the water sources and disrupting the ecosystem. A community that is solely dependent on fishing has lost its livelihood and residents have had to take up work at salmon processing plants.
Women who used to knit in addition to looking after their children also had to take up work in the salmon industry in order to make enough money for the family. The children were left alone at home while the parents worked. The entire social fabric was affected.
We put design thinking in use to mitigate the social and environmental impact of commercial fisheries.
What were the initial challenges? How did you overcome them?
We spent seven years with these people. We really wanted to help these women and help them stay at home so they could look after the children. With the savings I had from my previous job at Microsoft, we could sustain ourselves for a few years in Chile. Thanks to research grants, we looked into whether we could recycle the byproducts of the salmon industry or up-cycle them.
We collaborated with a local resident who cured salmon skin to make leather. However, we had difficulty coming up with a commercial model for selling the salmon skin. My funds were drying up and I was forced to move to New York to work at Kodak. There, because the winters are so cold, we had to make slippers to keep our feet warm. That's when it struck me that we could make house shoes from salmon skin and wool. That's how we commercialized the material.
How has the journey been so far?
We made small batches of a whole lot of products from salmon skin and presented at a trade show. The shoes were received very well and so in 2010 we focused exclusively on shoes and Chilote Shoes was born. This simple, noble, extremely comfortable and highly sustainable indoor shoe redefines the concept of inclusive design and conscious consumption. It is the result of the synergy created by three valuable assets: design guided craftsmanship, noble renewable materials from the Patagonia, and a disruptive collaboration and manufacturing process.
Eighty percent of the skin used in the salmon industry is still being thrown away. Compared to other animal skins, there is zero percent wastage in making leather out of salmon skin.
We have been building our business by attending trade shows and Chilote House Shoes has won several innovation awards. We have reached our break-even point this year by being present in only 60 eco-boutique stores in the UK, Germany, US, Canada, Japan and Australia. Denmark is also on the list of next destinations for expansion. We also sells and ship internationally from our website, chiloteshoes.com. Our customers are almost all repeat buyers and after their first pair usually order more shoes, which is the best feedback a product can receive. If we find an investment partner, we can do much more and increase our distributor network creating a cycle of win, win, win for all stakeholders involved. There is a huge, untapped market out there.
How has becoming an entrepreneur changed you, personally?
I have started viewing things more broadly and in a global perspective. I also think more long-term than ever before. What helps me sleep better at nights is the fact that not only are we preventing a byproduct from being wasted, but we can also help a local community achieve a better life. We currently support 50 families but we can increase that number to 500 or even 5,000 depending on the investment. However, the bottom line is that we will not walk away from this project as we are responsible for the lives of those 50 families.
Any other personal reflections and/ or message to budding entrepreneurs?
The probability of success is very low. One needs to find the 'right' time to jump in, especially if you have a family. Persistence matters the most. Starbucks had only one store for 17 years. If you get lost along the way, always remember why you started in the first place. As an entrepreneur, you will have to wear many hats. Don't be naive – it's going to be hard. Don't keep things secret, I suggest you should share the ideas with as many people as possible. Most importantly, keep a day job, if possible, to pay your bills especially at the beginning, as I still do.
Awards won by Chilote House Shoes:
Premio Chile Diseño 2009, Chile
International Design Excelence Award: IDEA Winner 2011, USA
IDSA Responsability Award Winner 2011, USA
Coree 77 Design Award: Design for Social Impact 2011, USA
Eco Choice Award NYIGF: Most Innovative Use of Material 2011, USA
A’ Design Award: Golden A for Social Design 2012, Italia
Selección III Bienal Iberoamericana de Diseño 2012, España