AWE student builds the business of her dreams in Costa Rica

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For Hazel Naranjo, having her own construction and home accessories business has meant learning to navigate a man’s world.

However, through the US State Department’s Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) in Costa Rica, Naranjo met many other women who run their own businesses and learned skills that would help her overcome the challenges facing her. ahead, including the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. .

“Construction is clearly a male environment, but with AWE I have met a lot of women entrepreneurs and learned that as a businesswoman, I am not alone,” she said.

Hazel Naranjo (Photo courtesy of Hazel Naranjo)
Naranjo says that the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs taught her to run her business more efficiently. (Photo courtesy of Hazel Naranjo)

Naranjo is one of 200 women entrepreneurs in Costa Rica who have been empowered by AWE since 2019. The US government exchange program gives women the knowledge, networks, and access they need to launch and scale a business. More than 16,000 women in 80 countries have participated.

Naranjo launched her business, Kay Concept, in 2014 after years of designing ornamental fixtures, trim, mosaic, and other accessories for homebuilders. As a 40-year-old mother, she decided that working for someone else meant too much time away from her daughter.

At first, Naranjo worked from home with a computer, drawing on his 20-year industry knowledge and business contacts in interior design. His first order was a batch of cement tiles and construction materials exported to Panama.

3 people looking at large pots (Photo courtesy of Hazel Naranjo)
Naranjo’s desire to spend more time raising her daughter prompted her to open her own business selling accessories for home construction. (Photo courtesy of Hazel Naranjo)

Over the next five years, Naranjo’s business grew. He bought machines, rented space and hired 15 employees. However, Naranjo realized that he had more to learn. “I have my design degree,” he said. “But that doesn’t teach you anything about business management.”

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In 2019, he signed up for AWE. She learned how to design a business plan and that sometimes less is more. Instead of producing hundreds of different types of ceramic mosaics, moldings, and vessels, he reduced his production line. “AWE helped me focus on our flagship products, which are our tiles,” she said. “Learning how to better market our flagship products actually helped me make more money in the business.”

He also learned not to see his business model as static. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, sales dropped 30% in 2020. However, Naranjo adjusted his business model, stayed open and continued to pay his employees. “I still had to pay the families of the artisans who work for me,” she said. “If you are a family, how are you going to survive without salary?”

3 people creating tile design (Photo courtesy of Hazel Naranjo)
AWE taught Naranjo to grow his building accessories business by focusing on ceramic tiles that became his flagship product. (Photo courtesy of Hazel Naranjo)

In May, Naranjo and 15 other businesswomen met with First Lady Jill Biden in Costa Rica to share their experiences with AWE and other US government exchanges. Naranjo says the meeting was both inspiring and a recognition of the accomplishments of women. “There’s always fear, always uncertainty, always those people who say you can’t do it,” she says. “But you have to follow the dream of your heart, because the heart never lies.”

A version of this article was previously published by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.