Lourdes Mena sits in an office surrounded by local crafts that she helped communities in El Salvador design

Seeds of Joy

Salvadoran women transformed, one bead at a time

Lourdes sits in front of ceramics and fabrics that she helped communities in El Salvador produce

Lourdes Mena—Lula, as she’s affectionately called—has a smile that lights up the room.

She laughs often, and she’s got a silly side that gets other people laughing too.

She’s the kind of person who sees the beauty in the world, something that has come in handy in her work as a gifted designer. Lula creates more than beautiful jewelry, though: “I use my designs as agents of social change,” she says.

Lula works with Salvadoran communities to create eco-friendly and Fair Trade products.

In a country where a third of the population lives in poverty, much of her work is with people who lack full-time jobs and struggle to make ends meet—people like Ana Mindy, María, María Victoria, Ana Marina, Vidalia, and Evelyn.

Lourdes talks with a group of Salvadoran women on how they can create eco-friendly and Fair Trade products
A wide selection of Fair Trade goods that people, who Lourdes works with, produced

Seeds of Joy

These women live in El Palmeral and have spent the past four years helping Lula create sustainable jewelry.

Lula designs the products, and then the women make them by hand, painstakingly combining different-colored strings, seeds and nuts to make unique, meaningful creations.

They call their line of products ‘Seeds of Joy.’

A woman from El Palmeral puts together a piece of sustainably sourced jewelry
Lourdes inspects a piece of jewelry
Some of the handcrafted materials that the woman from El Palmeral use to create their jewelry

At first, Lula explains, the women’s husbands were skeptical of the endeavour: “You’re not going to be able to do it,” the men said.

“In El Salvador...there is a machismo attitude that women can’t handle taking care of children and housework while also holding a job,” Lula says.

Through their work with seeds of joy, these women have proven them wrong. Many make triple what their husbands make and are able to support their families.

A woman adds fine details to a piece of jewelry
Ana Mindy inspects a white necklace that she helped make
Ana Mindy adds detail to a part of the piece of jewelry that she is making
Ana Mindy smiling after a day of work

Thanks to her work, Ana Mindy can send her young child to school, while providing extra money for meals and extracurricular activities. She now has financial independence and wields new control in family decisions.

Ana Marina smiling at the end of her work shift

“I’m in charge”

Ana Marína says her husband depends on her now: She’s the one who pays for transportation and buys groceries for her family.

“I feel that I’m in charge,” she says with a laugh.

Though the women are grateful for stable jobs and economic security, they say coming to work is about more than money. They have become a family, encouraging each other when times are tough, and providing daily support and love.

They describe the inspiring pep talks that Lula and her colleagues often give, reminding the women to be confident, to advocate for themselves, and to find happiness.

A group of women working together to produce pieces of jewelry
A woman adds a bead to one of the necklaces she is working on at the moment
Several of the El Palmeral women share a joke as they work on their jewelry

If the women are inspired by Lula, the feeling is mutual.

Lula spent four years working with them, watching their smiles become wider, their children better cared for, their homes more harmonious, and their dreams bigger.

“I feel a profound admiration towards these women, and I see how they are improving their lives and are succeeding. It fills my soul,” Lula says.

USAID shares Lula’s admiration—that’s why we’ve provided marketing and business support and helped her showcase work at international design fairs. She now exports to eight countries, continuing to feature innovative designs around the world.

Today, her business supports 70 artisans and has generated 120 new jobs.

By supporting Lula and promoting women-led businesses and decision-making, we’re determined to achieve gender equality and economic development for all.

The sign for Lourdes’ main office
Lourdes inspects the jewelry produced by the women working in El Palmeral
A portrait of one of the woman working for Lourdes in El Palmeral
A portrait of one of the woman working for Lourdes in El Palmeral
A portrait of one of the woman working for Lourdes in El Palmeral
A portrait of one of the woman working for Lourdes in El Palmeral
Several pieces of jewelry created by the women in El Palmeral

Lula’s shop is filled with intricate handiwork—an array of beautiful flowing beads, multi-colored strings, and elaborate tree nut necklaces. But it’s also full of stories of empowerment, sustainability, love and joy. With each piece sold, the stories spread—and the Seeds of Joy continue.

About this story

In El Salvador - a country flooded with gang violence, economic disparity and low education rates - USAID works to promote economic development and gender equality.

One of the areas that those goals intersect is through support of women-owned businesses. USAID has assisted over 9,000 small and medium Salvadoran businesses, including nearly 3,500 women who have received training in business and trade. Over the last four years, our support has generated nearly $100 million in domestic sales and exports, and over 15,500 new jobs.

USAID began partnering with Lula Mena in 2012, supporting sustainable economic opportunities for 70 artisans, most of them women. Explore her designs at: lulamena.com/collections.

In El Salvador and around the world, USAID empowers thousands of female entrepreneurs to access new economic opportunities.

Photos and video by Dave Cooper