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The girls: supernova entrepreneurs - Gatopardo

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At 7:30 p.m. on the pedestrian bridge in front of the Azteca Stadium, southwest of Mexico City, at that time Andrea Quiroz meets me because her other job —in a local government cultural program—, although it is temporary, the rest of the day. "I come with a green jacket and a blue backpack," she writes in a brief message.

She arrives on time. She is thirty years old, although she appears to be several years younger: smooth skin, hardly any makeup, well-groomed brown hair. Everything about her is impeccable, from her sneakers to the vocabulary she uses to explain the processes with which she makes soaps: that such a compound affects acidity, that it is a petrochemical derivative, that the SCI surfactant works as an emulsifier. She sounds like an alchemist, but she did not study Chemistry, but Social Communication at the Autonomous Metropolitan University. She learned how to make soaps by watching tutorials on the internet while she was researching on her own. She decided to do it as a way out of the “very strong recession”, as she refers to this languid time, a consequence of the pandemic. Selling soaps was a lifesaver as she submitted over 150 job applications with no success.

It's the last minutes of a June afternoon. Andrea comes to deliver an order of ten colored soaps with a delicious aroma. She works since she was seventeen years old. She was employed mainly in shopping centers, whose hours prevented her from continuing her studies. She then made a decision: she had to undertake. “I've been in 'entrepreneurship' for seven years but, somehow, since I was a child I was always good at negotiating and looking for my own purchasing power. I used to sell my Halloween candy, my dolls' clothes, and fresh water outside the house. With it, I bought items of my preference, such as food or toys, ”she recalls. She has sold supplies for restaurant staff and various other things. This is how she paid for her independent life: “I was able to furnish my apartment, travel to get to know my country and improve my living conditions.”

About ten years ago the jobs she aspired to offered salaries of fifteen thousand pesos a month on average. In her most recent search, she found that for the same responsibilities they now pay between five and eight thousand pesos. And for her, a young woman with a university degree, perfect English and studies of Chinese and German, the same option always presents itself, the last: to work in call centers that, especially in Latin America, recruit armies of overqualified young people. to answer phone calls. That flexible, exhausting and poorly paid job, whose temporary contracts and payment by fees prevent the generation of seniority and access to social security. That's why Andrea keeps betting on her microenterprise: temporary jobs come and go and what she thought was an extra ended up being the only sure thing. She knows, however, that it is not always achieved: "Sometimes it is complicated, because one puts all the enthusiasm, all the energy, but ultimately it depends on the consumers." To be an independent entrepreneur, she needs mettle.

I found Andrea Quiroz's soaps by reviewing some thirty publications of women who sell products on social networks: cyber spaces where there is no room for haggling over prices. The logic of digital micro-entrepreneurship seems to be trusting that the price offered is the necessary one. When I place my order for ten of each type of glycerin soap, she responds via Facebook direct message and uses a smiley face to break the ice: “Sure. I have to make the little soaps in advance, would you like to tell me what ingredients you want or I'll make you an assortment for various skin conditions?

She immediately sends me a catalog and takes into account my request that they not be too perfumed. “I made you a list that explains what each one is”, she tells me, handing me a small white sheet, blue ink and neat handwritten print. The soaps come in a shoe box so they don't get damaged.

Andrea Quiroz named her brand “Kueponi”, which in Nahuatl means “sprout, grow and emerge”. She paid attention to every detail: her products are natural, organic and zero waste. She uses glycerin, natural essences and does not wrap in plastic, but in paper. She set the prices low to sell more: “it's a win-win”, she says.

CONTINUE READING

Illustration by Maria Luque

***

The nenis are women, mostly young, who undertake using social networks. Although the phenomenon also exists in other countries of the region, in Mexico this word arose to denominate them, that of neni.

It was in February 2021 that some men, “vatos”, “rat men”, one will say, spread memes making fun of them. In a screenshot, which was published on Twitter, it could be read: “The new urban tribe; 'The Neni'. Definition: Being that sells through social networks and comments to all its clients with the words 'beautiful, beautiful, cute, baby' and the like”. And this was one of the messages that made gunpowder. Social networks erupted in discussions for and against. The nenis took the pejorative term as a flag of pride. They responded with even more mocking images, the hashtag #SoyNeni and memes of them supporting the world and the national economy; them as the fat puppy that triumphs over a Godzilla; them counting wads of bills in a public square. “The man from 'nenis' began as a classist and misogynistic mockery, but in recent days it has had a revaluation to refer to all the women who do the impossible to contribute to their homes and who, in every sense, are micro-entrepreneurs ”, posted Entrepreneur.

When I ask for references from babes, the doors open to a gigantic galaxy. “Feminist Market against Economic Violence”, recommends Eréndira Barajas, a woman in her early forties, mother of two children. "I am also in the Mercadita group, there is a lot of support and solidarity," says María Teresa Priego-Broca, writer and feminist. They are the first to respond. Then follows a waterfall, a list as extensive as it is surprising: cakes, used clothing, fabrics, organic creams, designer jewelry: everything. An expanding galaxy, because this happens throughout the country. This is confirmed by a private statistical report: there are 5.2 million microentrepreneurs in Mexico (tala, Metrics and Estafeta, 2020).

His ventures range from his own brand and design to auctions, discounts and strategies to keep his clients captivated: an auction at a certain time, offers only valid the following weekend, two for one if you buy with a friend. The nenis are the evolution of the catalog seller, which existed for decades, towards a new form of self-employment that does not depend on a brand —now they own their catalogs and products— nor does it require engaging other sellers —like the controversial pyramids— . They no longer meet at someone's house to offer Tupperware: from their cell phones and computers they launch offers directly on Facebook walls, in Instagram stories and in WhatsApp groups. Some have previous training, others do it with pure intuition, facing challenges of finances, communication and competitiveness.

Just as there are those who undertake from their accounts on social networks, others manage to pay for a web page and many more bet on the new public square: the digital tianguis, group spaces within Facebook itself, where you buy and sell as much as exists: the fan business is impossible to summarize. And there are explicit rules for all participants, such as the prohibition of aggression, political or religious propaganda, and implicit, but just as rigorous, such as loving treatment. "Beautiful", "girls", "beautiful", "competites" are said in each exchange. In these crowded flea markets are the most nenis among the nenis: almost all of them deliver their products exclusively in subway stations and safe points on public roads, a strategy of survival and security in a country where ten women are murdered a day. In this search I find on the networks a photograph of a girl holding a sign on the Zócalo during the protest of last 8M: "I'm a kid and I'm afraid I won't return from my deliveries," she says.

Las nenis: emprendedoras supernova - Gatopardo

In Jalisco, Yummtopía makes cookies, cupcakes, and cakes that are hard to cut: a lot of color and masterfully applied fondant. “Fun cuisine and high quality products”, they say about themselves. Apparently, they are doing well: they have more than thirteen thousand followers on Facebook. In Puebla they recommend Ana's Bakery, which makes cakes to order: there is no way to go through her face without craving a perfect “red velvet”. There is a lot of food on offer but, above all, pastries; also clothing and footwear, more than anything, second-hand, with an ecological-ideological component that he proposes to reuse to combat fast fashion. At the risk of complaints and anger (because they will be a few examples), Bromelia Clothing, with some twenty thousand followers on Instagram, sells and auctions used clothing that is wasteful, true finds that they get who knows where (they say that sometimes they travel to the United States and Japan in search of garments). Smaller, Stilo Rotten sells plain cotton underwear with printed superheroes and cartoons, which he delivers to the Chabacano subway station. And there are also those that sell fantasy, silver, stones; opal, quartz, lapis lazuli set in small, delicate pieces.

Another growing world is that of needles, fabrics and embroidery. The girls from the Hilando Sueños cooperative launched masks as soon as the pandemic began and have not stopped working since then: whoever wants one will have to sign up on a waiting list with fifty orders ahead. Azucena Citlali Jaso weaves Medusa brooches, from Greek mythology, "against the evil eye" and embroiders masks with the feminist fist; her mother, Magdalena, crochets Zapatista dolls, Fidel Castro dolls or any other character. In the same digital market, Violet Desires appears, a sex toy venture: "Ultra-powerful motor, velvet touch, twelve speeds, rotary hammer...", says the description of a vibrator on offer, among publications of calls for feminist marches and self-defense courses for women. women.

"Yes, it is an unsafe activity and one has to take precautions," admits Andrea Quiroz, the soap alchemist. Her protocol is: “I always go to the profile of the person who is contacting me, I ask for their telephone number, I tell my partner or my family where I am going and sometimes someone comes to accompany me. Always in public places, very busy, during the day. I hardly do deliveries at night.”

The digital wave of female micro-entrepreneurs skipped corporations like Facebook's free commerce sub-platform, Marketplace. Groups with a feminist and even separatist profile (which only accept women) appeared. To enter you must answer a questionnaire that includes questions such as: "What is feminism for you?". It is not an exaggeration to think that there could soon be more stalls in digital markets than in traditional ones: looking at just two groups, Mercadita Feminista and La Tianguita Feminista, both have more than sixteen thousand members. There, among themselves and their clients, they speak to each other by calling themselves "little girls", "sisters", "friends", "beautiful and cute women", "chicxs", "beautiful". Some speak in “Spanglish” and the language of the internet: “LOL, XOXO, I'm looking for hoodies”, writes a client. But not everything is business in these groups: there are also free workshops, requests to recommend a gynecologist and collections to help someone. They are supportive spaces. One woman recounts: “I just left my toxic emergency home with my daughter. I'm with a friend but, really, I have nothing but a bed and clothes, I sold my laptop to be able to go out." In the following five hours, twenty-six comments appear, ranging from words of encouragement to second-hand furniture offers and those who say "I'll give you this."

***

Mexico is the country of informal work, with millions of people who want to work —and do— without social security, medical coverage or benefits; without retirement aspirations or retirement pension because they do not receive a fixed salary or, if they do, it comes through temporary contracts or cash payments in an envelope. In the last fifteen years, official figures from the International Labor Organization show that about 60% of Mexicans who are considered Economically Active Population (pea), that is, of working age, have not been able to integrate into the formal labor market. . The latest data from Inegi indicate that we are 29.2 million people in these conditions. And by the time covid-19 arrived, some states reached overwhelming figures: 79.7% of workers in the informal sector in Oaxaca, 76.1% in Guerrero and 74.2% in Chiapas.

The coronavirus pandemic caused 1.6 million jobs to be lost during the first half of 2020. A year and a half later, estimates by specialists such as Enrique Díaz-Infante Chapa —director of the Financial Sector and Social Security at the Espinosa Yglesias Study Center ( ceey)—show a much worse unemployment picture: one million establishments closed. This implies about twelve million jobs lost, of which only 1.4 million were formal and the rest informal. The tertiary sectors, shops, restaurants, lodging and micro-businesses were the most affected but, above all, women: the covid-19 removed 1.3 million women from the labor market at the end of the first quarter of 2021 (according to Inegi), who earned , for the most part, between one and two minimum wages.

But a crisis, it is known, also results in opportunity. It was the case of Araceli Márquez, in the port of Veracruz. Cheli, as they call her, is 29 years old, she is a graduate of Communications and has always sold decorative objects, an item very affected by confinement. Her story is the same as that of 10.9% of the graduates of this career who, due to the lack of opportunities, end up dedicating themselves to retail, according to data from the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (Imco). In May 2020, when the running of the bulls began to take hold, Cheli used her savings to buy a combi and adapt it. It took five months, but finally he was able to go out to walk the streets, neighborhoods and bazaars: "I'm selling hamburgers, hot dogs, potatoes, nuggets, banderillas... a little of everything, really," he says by audio messages in moments that he steals from the work and raising her child. “We had to do something in a pandemic, right? Without lowering our guard, but we had to get ahead.”

La Kombi, as she called her business, resulted in a space to offer food without violating social distancing. She rides her blue and white combi through the port while on Instagram she posts offers, the menu and other notices about topics that interest her, such as recommendations to protect the blue crab. Her mobile business has not stopped growing, but she is not satisfied: she also sells stickers, dolls, key chains and paintings. “I already have another plan in mind,” she says with a laugh.

The girls not only undertake for money.

Laura Barrionuevo is Argentine, with a degree in Social Work and a doctorate in Sociology. Until five years ago, she was a researcher at the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research in her country. But one day, she says, "fate came before me." Her mother, Teresa, suffered from a painful terminal illness and allopathic medicine no longer worked for her, even in high doses. They experimented with cannabis and herbal options, which relieved her pain, while opening up a world to Laura's eyes. She moved to the Mexican Caribbean and Germinaré was born there, a naturist brand of health and beauty products that she manufactures herself. It already has a wide catalog that can be seen on its Facebook wall, stalls at fairs, stores and personalized consultations, but there is more: "It has changed my life being the manager of my own work, knowing that the capacity and the force to motorize my income, decide my schedules, the people with whom I connect and where I move. This autonomy of work has absolutely changed my vision of life”.

Illustration by María Luque.

***

Ana Victoria García appears in the lists of the most powerful people in Mexico (Forbes, Fortune, Expansión). Not for being a millionaire or for having climbed in some transnational. She has been a judge on the Shark Tank Mexico program, regional director of Endeavor and in 2012 she founded Victoria147, one of the most recognized business accelerators in the region, which has trained more than ten thousand women and generated more than 1,128 million pesos alone. in 2019. She is a teacher of entrepreneurship. From New York, between meetings and trips, she sends audio messages. She starts with the basics: among the various forms of entrepreneurship, she says, are aspiring to have your own company with employees or betting on freelancing: “and that type of entrepreneurship is called 'self-employment'. I do not dismiss or devalue it. There are also other concepts to create jobs. Neither one is better."

But self-employment, although it sounds easy, can become a swamp. Because opening a company in Mexico is complicated: "A lot of bureaucracy: it's paperwork, it's slow, it's expensive," she explains. There she underlines what the girls are doing, because by changing our buying and selling behavior, “the rules of the game will change and we are going to see more and more boys and different ways of undertaking through their own talent. First as self-employment, but in the end they could also generate resources for suppliers, freelancers and whoever is around them. Although it seems accidental, it will not be. They will generate wealth. And distributed wealth. A phenomenon that we should observe”.

Enrique Díaz-Infante Chapa, from the CEEY, did not know about the phenomenon. The early exit of women from the formal market for reasons related to motherhood or early expulsion for reasons of opportunity cost are "the reasons that lead women to market products through social networks," he says. And at first glance, he looks at it warily. “The enterprises [of the nenis] do not seem to be the type that helps GDP growth. They do not pay taxes, they do not generate jobs or growth.” That his ventures are “somewhat unproductive” for the national economy, he explains, does not lie in any limitation of his but in “the limited access of the girls to financing. By not having a credit history, a solid record in the credit bureau, a constant source of income, and not being able to give their property assets as collateral, the financing they obtain is generally informal or of poor quality in terms of term and amounts. They don't help build a scalable business, but rather a small, informal one." Seven out of ten Mexican women do not have access to financial institutions, according to Global Findex. There are no banks and institutions that trust them. So, the wave neni, is it a mirage?

All in all, whether it sounds utopian or not, as of July 2021, the girls generated more than 9.5 million pesos a day in their trade through social networks, according to the tala-Metrics-Estafeta report, which also details that the majority are between thirty and fifty years old, almost half are married and more than 80% have one or two economic dependents. These figures of many zeros challenge a present in which Mexican women have less inclusion in the formal market and lower salaries.

Ana Victoria García, 37, tall, blonde and very articulate, measures the macroeconomic difficulties, but she is blunt: “I think that the informal sector should become formal as soon as possible. I think if you come to a game with different rules it's not fair to the rest. So, if there is someone who is paying taxes and you are not, they are supporting an activity for which you are not contributing. It seems to me that informality should become formal”.

Just the opposite is the opinion of Adriana Benítez, a girl in her thirties who lives in Xochimilco and makes glasses with recycled glass. “We don't want to have anything to do with the sat [Tax Administration Service]. As long as we can keep it that way, it goes”, she says with the accelerated speech of someone who is up to a thousand things.

She didn't study industrial design or anything like that. She is a psychologist. "But I realized that she applied more as a patient than as a therapist," she says with a laugh. She worked for several years doing visual effects for movies until she and her partner, Mauricio Cruz, began “to feel nostalgic for our lives, our friends, for the creative part, for traveling. We were in the office all the time, spending the best years of our lives in an office.” They let go of what they had insurance to undertake something of their own: “We left the 'godinazo' and Madrecitaloba was born”.

They used a YouTube tutorial, created their own tools —“all spells,” they proudly say— and, albeit with some accidents, managed to reuse glass bottles to transform them into short, long, and mezcal glasses. Mastering the technique was not as difficult as dealing with clients: "There are people who do catch the wave a lot, but there are others who write to me, get angry and call me a thief" (because the raw material is garbage). "And competing with the market is also difficult: a glass in Superama costs twenty pesos and one of ours, fifty."

The field of business, laws, taxes appears again. Incorporating the informal into the formal economy is desirable, but not so easy. Ana Victoria García says that the State should change its position: “Today companies are very unprotected because the government believes that it should only defend the employee and that is where the balance is not fair. Clearly we all have obligations, we all have responsibilities, but I think it would be worth equating them, understanding the dynamics of companies and encouraging greater formality, instead of companies looking for ways to be informal”.

As long as she can, Adriana, the girl with the glasses, will continue in the underground economy. Entrepreneurial whirlpool that she is, she also sells used shoes, cooks in a restaurant, and experiments with mixing glass and ceramics. “I have always had the ideology that you have to have a plan B, C and D”. She ends the call and goes to Cuernavaca to deliver an order.

***

Because there is a lack of work, because they are paid little, because they do not like to feel like slaves to an office, a schedule and a boss, but also because they want to give birth in their own way, grow professionally or simply because they like to try out: all these reasons they are in the life and work of Ana Varela, forty years old. With a Chihuahuan accent, she speaks by video call from Coatepec, Veracruz, between threads and fabrics, with her sewing machine next to the stairs of the house. Her daughter Lucia and her dog Flora haunt her. She studied Plastic Arts in Veracruz, where she began to experiment with cloth dolls as amorphous as colorful; beings that she draws, cuts and sews under the Mangle Verde brand. She started in 2005 and her designs caught on immediately. She came to make almost a thousand dolls per year; she then added notebooks, dreamcatchers and now, clothes too. And although she has had “many times”, variables in economy and inspiration, Ana Varela proudly says that she has been an entrepreneur “for sixteen years: all my working life”. However, “my parents' questions still continue. For example, 'Why don't you get yourself a job with benefits?' All those things that I don't know —laughs— and well, I grab my ovaries and tell my mom: 'Because if I do that I'd be putting aside my dream, what I really want to do.' And what I want to do is produce. What do I want more money for? So that someone can come take care of my daughter? No. I have chartered myself. Being an entrepreneur gives me that freedom.”

***

“How do you feel about being called 'neni'?” I asked them all. The little ones laughed: it doesn't offend them to be named like that. Those with more experience and also, more years, did not even know that the term existed. Some friends who are going through economic difficulties were encouraged to tell me "I'm also a neni". Whether we call them nenis or entrepreneurs, we always talk about women who own alternative, local businesses and, in many cases, feminists. More than five million Mexican women who understand the economy as a space that can be supportive.

For Andrea Quiroz, the neni of soaps, more exciting than selling her soaps is exchanging. “It is part of a rescue of the economy in solidarity with other entrepreneurs. I believe that these alternative forms are the basis of a large proportion of the informal economy. 'Bartering' is taking into account the use value rather than the exchange value”.

She while Ana Varela, the artist who sews, keeps an account that moves her: “Since November of last year I haven't bought a single shampoo: I 'barter' shampoo and soap, all handmade. And since December I haven't bought a loaf of bread, because I also have a super barter with a lady who makes sourdough bread. She is great”.

Although Ana Victoria García often insists that she does not want to sound radical or final, in the middle of her explanation she drops two powerful ideas: the feminine way of undertaking and the ability to "restore capitalism." In her words: “I see particularities and differences in how women do things, in what moves them, and I think that the economic structure is breaking down for a resurgence of much more feminine projects. Projects that focus on local impact, that we are no longer lying to the consumer and that we give a product that is worthwhile, that something that is not is not sold, that the products are natural, organic, that do good. That vision is trying a little to replace the extreme capitalism that we have been suffering. I think women come to change it.” She mentions male-led projects that focus on the feminine. The transition from the model of "unicorn" companies, with accelerated growth and a valuation of more than a billion dollars, to small companies that are "more real, more authentic, more reliable." With the girls in the lead.

Looking at her world, just by asking a question on Facebook, dozens of recommendations appear: first friends and then friends of friends, the neighbor's sister's cousin. Ecological, creative, innovative proposals. It is impossible to stop. “One and now”, you think as you realize that you are going for the third, the fifth, who knows how many more pages, catalogs and products.

"A galaxy", says the RAE, "is a huge set of stars, interstellar dust, gases and particles, which constitutes an autonomous system within the universe". Just by looking at social networks, the enormous group of women-stars who are self-employed out of necessity and life project emerges, who also constitute an autonomous system within the market-universe. Entrepreneurs who found solidarity economies. And to the ideals of recycling and local consumption, they add a third premise: buy from cool women, from girls. They are the supernova.

Illustration by María Luque.

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