by SANDRA GUZMAN
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — When San Juan native Matilsha Marxuach launchedConcalma, a designer line of tote bags 10 years ago, she turned to a local collective of seamstresses in the mountain town of Utuado to manufacture her fashion forward handbags. The small business owner and artist said her company's mission is interwoven in the product: to raise awareness of fair trade, to promote local manufacturing and sustainability.
The CEO of the bestselling cotton carriers was one of eight hundred women who participated at the recent Animus Summit, one of the largest female innovation conferences in the Americas.
The San Juan, Puerto Rico gathering of female entrepreneurs—from students to boomers—brought together innovators and entrepreneurs from an array of industries including agriculture, fashion and beauty, healthcare and technology looking to network, be inspired, and connect with potential investors.
"What you feel in the atmosphere here is magical," said the event's co-founder, Carlos Cobián. "Women that are full of hope getting inspired and getting ready to act on their dreams and on how to help society, how to help Puerto Rico specifically, and take action."
Lucienne Gigante, the other co-founder of the summit now in its second year, noted that Latina-owned businesses in the U.S. increased by 137 percent in a fourteen-year period beginning in 2007, representing the highest growth among minority-owned women firms.
She particularly cited the impressive number of innovative projects headed by women in Puerto in the last decade.
"Women offer an untapped engine of growth that can help in the current fiscal crisis," she said. "Women are change makers, they believe that their contribution makes a difference and they believe they can be part of a transformation," she said.
According to Gigante, sixty percent of women in the labor force on the island live below the poverty level. Investing in them and their potential is key to solving the island's economic crisis.
"If you think about that stat, it's unacceptable. What happens when you invest capital resources in women?" she asked. "That sixty percent becomes 55, 50, 45—there is an opportunity in investing in women as a solution."
Many of the women participating noted the island's crushing financial situation — a $70 billion debt now being restructured by a controversial Congressional appointed board— has posed deep challenges to growth. In particular, some of the women said that the programs and tax incentives favor large businesses and the ultra wealthy while ignoring smaller owned businesses and mom and pop shops around the island.
Despite these challenges, participants said the crisis has fueled them to take risks and invest in their own businesses, organizations and future.
"The growth is definitely based on the difficult political and economic situation we have been living for the past ten years where people have had to decide to bring out what is best in them," declared Marxuach founder of the popular handbags.
Kenelma Figueroa, a mother of three who was one of forty speakers featured in the daylong summit, exhorted women to be the agents of change not just in business but also in their communities.
After seeing that young girls in her town of Maunabo were suffering from low self-esteem, she started a grassroots mentoring organization, Modelos para la Sociedad (Models for Society).
"I saw that girls needed to learn confidence and explore all the different ways that they could contribute to the world," explained Figueroa, who works full time with victims of violence at the Department of Justice.
"We help build self-esteem through wellness and leadership and offer them tools that can take them for the rest of their lives," she said.
In the four years since its founding, 350 girls have completed the eight-month program, which brings together an array of experts — from therapists to counselors to wellness and fitness coaches — to work with them.
Among the other speakers at the summit was Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor who kicked off the day in a separate morning conversation encouraging participants to be fearless about pursuing their dreams.
Frances Colón, who was born on the island and now lives in Washington D.C. working as Deputy Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State presented a workshop on what it takes to be a change maker.
According to Colón, the island has a thriving and under the radar technology sector which she believes that can be key to Puerto Rico as it weathers the crisis and beyond.
"There are tech entrepreneurs really shaking things up," Colon said. "There is a strong movement -- scientists learning how to take their inventions to market and it is all happening sometimes under the radar. I think it is what will drive Puerto Rico within the crisis ad in the future."
One of the few men showcased in the summit was island-born actor Berto Colón who plays Cesar in the hit show, Orange in the New Black. The actor, now a southern New Jersey native father of two daughters, was particularly impressed with the energy of the women in the summit.
"We all have to contribute, we have to find a way to come back and bring a smaller part of your business or talent here because otherwise this place is going to be deserted," said the Ponce-born actor, who said a pilot he recently shot for Amazon called Tick has been green lighted.