Economic Empowerment

from Hugger Island to Colombia

If even profound change begins with small steps, then Connection Challenge Fellow Viviana is another wonderful example that DOers go the extra mile. She has devoted herself to empowering people through emotional education and economic participation in her native Colombia, a country in upheaval, scarred by decades of armed conflict. But not in the way that you would expect.

“‘I can’t do it,’ ‘I don’t know how,’ ‘This will never work out’–I am working to change the beliefs that make it harder for people to get out of poverty,” says Viviana. Her venture, Hugger Island, uses design to foster positive change in people’s mindsets, to provide encouragement and a sense of hope and opportunity. Her first product perfectly encompasses that feeling. It’s a warm hug to take with you for whenever and wherever you need it. “The Hugger is a doll with long arms that come over your shoulders. But more importantly, it comes with a powerful story about the magical Hugger Island for which we’ve even created a book,” explains Viviana. “The Hugger also hugs itself, expressing that loving yourself and believing in yourself is so important. That’s a message that poor people and especially children really need. I realized, in my 10 years of working as a teacher, that self-love and respect are key to people’s well-being and their ability to change their lives for the better.”

Fuzzy feels aside, there are some good hard facts and calculations underlying Viviana’s project. Through her intricate understanding of economic empowerment, she is aiming to create a larger network of cooperation: she will train women from poor communities to produce the Hugger dolls and other products she intends to integrate into her portfolio, providing more opportunities for locals to learn and apply new skills–and to feel that their efforts count for something. “It’s important to send a powerful, positive message to people: ‘You can do this,’ ‘Believe in yourself.’ Because poverty is perpetuated when people completely lose a sense of their own agency.”

Despite being only a few months into the Implementation Phase, Viviana has already made considerable strides towards her goal–she has sold many of the 500 prototypes made by 11 women from two neighbourhoods of displaced people. Through her “buy-one-donate-one” business model, she is raising awareness around the importance of emotional education in helping people make positive changes in their life. And she is bringing Huggers to people who can do with some encouragement: children in need. So far, she has put smiles on over 100 little faces by donating Huggers to kids in the process of adoption as well as to a cardiovascular hospital in Medéllin. The latter has even commissioned her to design a special doll for children with heart problems.

And although positive change sometimes starts with a hug, it doesn’t end there. Right now, Viviana is gathering resources to scale up production and expand her product portfolio in 2017. Her next steps are building her “magic forest” production site as a lovely, enchanting space for the women who make her toys. To spread this sense of well-being even further, she also wants to create another magical Huggers space in a children’s hospital–“the sea around Hugger Island, with whales swimming by on the projector,” she muses–as well as a website of interactive games devoted to emotional education. “To meet my targets, I will have to train many, many more women,” says Viviana. “Think about it: you train one woman in sewing who maybe did not have any income before. Her new skill and confidence can make a difference for her entire family. At the same time, I’m trying to give hope to children in need. Of course, there’s a long way to go for me still. I have to find more investors, and go to lots of design fairs to find distributors and so on. But this project has changed my entire life–and it’s so good to be doing what I believe in.”

Let it be said that we, too, believe in Viviana’s vision.