Venture Acceleration Fund Fosters Creative Jobs in Native American Communities
Etkie On Track to Double Employee Rolls Annually
Every year, people flock to New Mexico to experience the culture and history, and most take a bit of it home with them in the form of jewelry or art. However, a majority of artisans, despite their talent, are excluded from being able to earn a living through their traditional and cultural expertise. Sydney Alfonso, CEO of the jewelry brand Etkie, is taking their talent to the world and creating long-term sustainable opportunities for New Mexico artisans in the process.
Etkie, founded in 2014, is a luxury jewelry brand with a twist. Alfonso has a sharp eye for design, and a commitment to sourcing her talent from underemployed communities in New Mexico. Previously, she worked with women’s co-ops in Turkey and Mongolia, helping them modernize products for a western market. Now she provides Native American beadworkers a platform to create contemporary designs using the artistic traditions passed down from generations. The artists live on the Navajo Nation where the roads to work are long and the jobs are nonexistent. Many of them elect to work from home on the land and in the community where their roots are deeply planted.
Alfonso’s business philosophy has deep roots in social responsibility, and she views Etkie as a vehicle to preserve cultural traditions that are at risk of disappearing. A New Mexico native, she wanted to start a business in her home state, utilizing the talents that are already here and creating a way for Native American artisans to support themselves.
It was the combination of a smart business plan geared for growth and commitment to cultural preservation that led to recognition by the Regional Development Corporation (RDC) in 2015. After applying for the Venture Acceleration Fund (VAF), a program administered by the RDC, Etkie was named a recipient of funds to help build the infrastructure of the young company.
The VAF is the only program that provides seed money for early-stage startups and growth-oriented companies that often lack the collateral for debt financing. Alfonso knew of the VAF as a fund with primary investments in technology and manufacturing startups but, as she made her way through the application process, was impressed to learn of the importance the VAF also places on community building.
“You don’t build a healthy community if you don’t think about everyone,” she says. “If you’re mindful about building [a healthy community] from the very beginning, it’s going to be a much better holistic approach to building the entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
Throughout the VAF application process, Alfonso was mentored by the MBA intern program at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “It was great to have someone working at the Laboratory who was in business school and could help us along with some of the projections and financial modeling,” Alfonso says. “It’s wonderful they are willing to extend those resources to the community.” Other mentors include Creative Startups, an incubator in Santa Fe with a focus on helping creative entrepreneurs scale their ideas.
Alfonso says that she began the application process soon after the company’s founding. There were orders streaming in, more than they had the time or resources to fill. They had already done a lot of the legwork, but needed capital and support to grow. In 2015, the company had three employees. In 2016 that number jumped to eight. This year, an additional three people will be hired. Alfonso says that those numbers are directly related to receiving the funding from the VAF.
From the time the company became an awardee in 2015 to 2016, revenue increased by 24%. The company used the VAF money to build the core foundation. “We set up a lot of systems and structures that needed to be built, and going forward, we are hitting our goals to grow 40% this year.”
One year after receiving the VAF award, Etkie was once again named a leader in the region by the RDC. In 2016, Etkie became one of six companies honored with the Northern New Mexico 20/20 Campaign Award. The campaign was created by the RDC in 2012 to honor at least 20 high-growth companies creating jobs in Northern New Mexico before the year 2020. To date, 38 companies that span technology, manufacturing and creative startups like Etkie have been recognized.
“New Mexico is creative,” says Alfonso. “We have diversity, we have talent, we have culture, and yet, we’re one of the poorest states.” Alfonso emphasizes the importance of building the creative economy, and of having high-end, luxury profit margins return to the communities that are crafting the goods.
“The RDC will continue to support Etkie and their mission to develop stable, high-paying jobs within New Mexico communities,” said Val Alonzo, RDC Executive Director. “We look forward to where Sydney takes her vision next.”