Socially conscious online market selling goods from Guatemala that reflect the Mayan culture with a trendy twist… sound familiar? That’s what the established brand Stela 9 is devoted to.
Founder Jess Bercovici collaborates with indigenous artisans to create locally sourced products. Stela 9’s focus is to provide work and compensation in a country with a struggling economy. Jess’s entrepreneurial philosophy is that local, handmade goods are unique and thrive in an international market, and also embedded in Stela 9. Her goal is to offer these unique goods to others, while simultaneously creating sustainable jobs for Guatemalan artists in an economy overrun by mechanically manufactured products.
Woven apparel, embroidered denim, and traditional huipiles grace the cyber walls of the online shop — each item is more detailed and more colorful than the next. Gorgeous garments aside, the creation of Stela 9 is an interesting tale. Former archeologist Jess Bercovici launched the brand after a trip to Guatemala during the Summer of 2007. She explained, “It didn’t take very long for me to fall in love with this place, the people and especially the handicrafts. I started purchasing items from local artisans and reselling them as a way to sustain my travels after I finished my research.” It was not long before this eventually grew into a business.
The name Stela 9 has archeological roots. Jess clarified, “because archeology was the reason that I came to Guatemala initially, I wanted the name of the company to reflect that journey somehow. A ‘stela’ is an archeological term for an upright stone carving. They’re numbered at sites throughout Mesoamerica, and I just thought ‘Stela 9’ had a nice ring to it.”
Stela 9 is a standout brand because of the collaboration that happens between Jess and the Guatemalan artisans. For bronze pieces and embroideries, Jess sketches the design and it is then turned into a product by the artist. “We design and produce our products directly with our artisan groups in Guatemala. It’s very important to me that all of our work supports the local economy. This is why all leather, thread and stones are sourced locally,” she described. The kind of relationship that Jess has with the community seems more intimate than strictly producer and distributor. Her concerns towards the Guatemalan community are deeply appreciated by workers and consumers alike. But more than that, Jess loves seeing the businesses grow among the Guatemalan artist communities. Jess elaborated, “most of our artisans worked on their own before Stela 9 and resold their items to market stall owners. Now most of our artisans have a full team working under them and cannot only produce for us, but for other businesses from around the world.”
“Lead by example through your passion, dedication, and integrity,” explained Jess, “I like to think that Stela 9 is a direct reflection of most things I care about. I hope this is evident to our customers through our products and social media.” The wanderlust in all of us is enchanted by these Guatemalan pieces with a story. Getting to where she is today took 14 years and a few career changes, but most importantly confidence and strength.
Jess recounted a story about a long trip she took from central Mexico to Honduras. One portion was to San Cristóbal de las Casas, heading back through Guatemala. On what was expected to be a luxurious bus ride across the Guatemalan border, after four months of traveling, a landslide occurred, blocking the path. Heavy luggage in tow, Jess had to climb over fallen boulders and take two “chicken buses,” cramped former American school buses functioning as public-transit, for several hours before reaching her final destination, Todos Santos.
This story worked as a metaphor for Stela 9’s creation. The physical boulders and metaphorical ones that come with starting one’s own business are well worth it. Her journey through Guatemala both as a traveler and as collaborative entrepreneur illustrates how Stela 9 is a bridge between Guatemalan heritage and our expressions and explorations. What advice might Jess have for fellow female entrepreneurs who want to start her own business? She said: “You are going to have to work so very hard. Prepare your mind and body for that. It will be more difficult than anything you’ve ever done in your life and take more courage than you thought possible. But if it is something you truly love, then it will all be worth it, and you will never be able to imagine yourself doing anything other than this ever again.”