On the up · 8 July 2016

Okama UK: Handcrafted necklaces of Colombia’s “people from the mountain range”

Okana 1
Okama necklaces adorn and glorify the life of Colombian women

Bringing the world’s attention to the plight of Colombia’s indigenous Emberá people is as important as business success to Valeria Pacific, founder of jewellery trading company Okama UK.

Her unique, handcrafted necklaces offer consumers the chance to provide a livelheood to the Embera Chamí craftsmen that produce them. Her advice to new business owners? Being afraid to fail is waste of time.

(1) Who are you and what’s your business?

I’m Valeria Pacific, I’m from Colombia and I’m the founder and CEO at Okama UK – a company dedicated to the import and trade of necklaces from the Embera Chami indigenous community in Colombia.

Emberá Chamí, meaning people from the mountain range in the Emberá language, believe women bear the weight of the world on their shoulders. Their necklaces, called Okamas, adorn and glorify the life of women. Each Okama is a unique piece of traditional indigenous art hand crafted by artisans who put their entire heart and soul into it.

(2) How long have you been around for?

I created the company only a few months ago, and only very recently began operations, but I was working on a similar project in Colombia, before moving to London.

(3) How do you make money?

Okama UK departs from the view that its products are enormously valuable and should be sold as such. They carry not only the materials with which they are made, but the time and skill necessary to manufacture them as well as the knowledge of ancient tribal craftsmanship passed on from generation to generation. Each piece is not only a fashion item but a piece of indigenous art.

Most of our customers come via social media, especially through Instagram, but word of mouth has been great for us and we do the occasional market when the weather allows it.

(4) What makes you different and why should people take notice?

My main aim with Okama UK is to help Embera Chamí artisans, who after being displaced by illegal armed forces from their ancestral territory, have sought refuge in Bogota, Colombia’s capital city, where they face political, social and cultural problems.

They live in very harsh conditions in government shelters and their only source of income is selling traditional jewellery. Unfortunately, these are sold for barely the cost of the materials, leaving indigenous artisans who made them with a minimal profit and a very hard time getting by in the city. Additionally, they do not have a regular demand, which means that people who make them can spend days, sometimes even weeks, without selling a single piece.

Okama UK has these artisans at the heart of its business model. With each piece bought, every customer is giving indigenous artisans jobs and an opportunity to showcase their art to the world, hence helping the Emberá Chamí culture stay alive and the artisans have a better livelihood through their art.

Additionally, Okamas are simply spectacular, you won’t find anything like them. They are handmade, with each piece taking up to 20 days to make, and the designs are 100 per cent exclusive: No two necklaces will ever be the same.

While mass produced jewellery is plain and generic, with Okama UK our customers can rest assured that they are wearing something special. Handmade means the designs come from the heart.

(5) What was key in terms of getting started?

First, working with the Hamuy Munakuy Foundation in Colombia, through which I acquired so much knowledge about indigenous communities and their problematics, and the willingness to do something to help. It’s also through them that I first met the Emberá Chamí artisans and their beautiful jewellery.

Then more recently, I had had the idea of starting this business since I first moved to London, more than two years ago, but I couldn’t bring myself to actually do it until I received a bursary membership at Bathtub to Boardroom.

That was the final impulse I needed to start making my dream a reality. At that moment I thought, if there are so many people here doing things and starting businesses, then I can definitely do it as well. I now have space to work but also loads of mentors, advice and support.

Valeria Pacific
Valeria Pacific

(6) What’s your biggest achievement to date?

I’d have to say getting big international orders of customers who found me on social media after only two months of starting was really big for me. I spent most of my first two months just reading and trying to learn about branding and digital marketing since I had no previous knowledge about that and no budget for it, and I know it’s a key point for a successful business, and right after I started applying these things I had learned I got noticed, so that was a tremendous joy and a tremendous success for me at the time.

It made me realise that with enough time and patience there’s nothing that you can’t learn and nothing that is out of reach.

(7) What setbacks have you had along the way?

Starting out by yourself is hard. You don’t count on anyone for motivation or to remind you how amazing what you’re doing is so you need to strive every day to keep believing in yourself when times are tough.

Also, not having enough money for things that need to be done has been a setback for me. I’ve had to spend massive amounts of time learning how to do those things that I can’t pay for which means everything has been very slow but things are getting better now and I’m getting all this knowledge about things that I didn’t have before so I guess it all turned out well in the end.

(8) In five years’ time, I will be…

Working with many different indigenous communities, not only in Colombia but in many parts of the world, thus being able to incorporate many more products into my company but also creating support alliances to develop programmes that help these communities that don’t get enough support from local governments.

I want to be a successful businesswoman but also bring the world’s attention to indigenous communities, their problematics and the fact that there’s a lot that we can do to help.

(9) What one tip would you give to others starting out?

Don’t be afraid of failure. It’s just one more step taking you closer towards success. Also, don’t be impatient. Starting and growing a business takes time but if you put enough effort and love into what you do, everything will pay off in the end.

(10) Who are your business heroes and why?

My parents are entrepreneurs and taught me since a very young age that working for yourself is the greatest professional reward that you can have. They have both started successful businesses in the medical area and I profoundly admire and respect them.

Aside from them, I see companies such as Tom’s Shoes, Wewood and Jack’s Soap as heroes for showing us that a social business model can lead to financial success, but at the same time that businesses are not only about making money but also, and most importantly, about helping people and making a difference in the world. I’ve learned a lot from them and try to apply their example to my own business.

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Fred Heritage was previously deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and international relations from the University of Kent and an MA in international conflict from Kings College London.

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