A couple years ago, three Notre Dame undergraduate students – Christian Estrada, Roberto Pellas and David Kenney – wanted to assist people in Nicaragua struggling with the crushing weight of poverty. They were connected to the artisan communities in Nicaragua and knew if they could connect them to the Notre Dame community, all parties would benefit. Here is the story of Custom Elevation, a home grown, Notre Dame social enterprise .
How did you and your co-founders (who are) come up with the idea for Custom Elevation?
“The idea for Custom Elevation sprang up from a desire to assist the lower classes in Nicaragua, particularly the rural artisan communities. In thinking of ways to help, my co-founders, Roberto Pellas and David Kenney, and I realized that our greatest strength was that we were part of the Notre Dame community. Not only did we have unbelievable resources and mentors available to us on campus to help us find and execute a solution, we had direct experience with the greater Notre Dame community and fan base, who not only have a reputation for helping others, but also for enthusiastically supporting their school. We realized there was an opportunity to connect the artisans to Notre Dame. In doing so, the Notre Dame community got access to awesome Nicaraguan art customized the with the Notre Dame logo, while more importantly, the artisans received, and continue to receive, a major increase in revenue.”
What are your biggest challenges?
“Starting Custom Elevation from scratch required us to each take on multiple roles at one time. It is definitely difficult to stay organized in fulfilling all of those roles for the company while still balancing a class schedule at school. In addition, Custom Elevation in particular is challenging in that it incorporates a multi-step international supply chain. All of our products are locally transported and produced in Nicaragua, then internationally and indirectly shipped to South Bend, and then distributed. Making sure that the transportation of the goods from Masaya to our customers runs smoothly and on time is always difficult.”
Have you had to compromise the social value of your project to succeed in the market?
“We have not had to compromise the social value of Custom Elevation to find success. However, we have definitely seen the difficulty that social entrepreneurs, particularly in manufacturing and importing, may have in succeeding. Our priority is the artisans. Through Custom Elevation, we are providing an increased, and steadier income, and we are able to provide it to an increasingly larger number of artisans. We are assisting them in brining more revenue into their community. However, on the distribution side, it has definitely been a challenge for us to work with retailers to find a wholesale price that we can both agree on. We need a price that not only covers the increased financial agreements that we have made with the artisans, but also covers our working capital needs to pay for shipping, marketing, boxes and a number of other costs.”
“In many ways, success in this field is immeasurable. We want to help as many independent, lower class artisans become financially successful. We want to provide opportunities for their children to go to school. We want to eventually expand into more communities in Nicaragua and throughout Central America. So again, because there are always people who will need our help promoting their work, I do not know if there is ever going to be a definitive point of success. But as long as we continue to help artisans, we will be happy in our work, and if all of us ever get the opportunity to work on the company full-time after our time at ND is over, that would be even better.”
What is your favorite story or memory about starting Custom Elevation?
“Last Spring, delivering the first order of products to the delivery bay of the Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore, was extremely rewarding. Having gone through the steps of writing a business plan, legally establishing an LLC, organizing and working with the artisans, renovating their facility in Masaya, going through the collegiate licensing processes and paperwork with the CLC and packaging and shipping the products to South Bend, to finally deliver them to the bookstore was amazing. It symbolized the beginning of the end of our “start-up phase” and the beginning of our shift into an operating phase, in which we could really begin to help the artisans.”