Melissa Ortiz, an Olympic soccer player, knows that the true Olympic spirit is about so much more than gold medals. Recognizing the opportunity to make a lasting difference in so many lives, Melissa founded Vakano Bracelets (www.vakanobracelets.com and @vakanobracelets on Instagram), through which this bacano (awesome) #girlboss shares the beautiful jewelry of her native country while providing a more sustainable income to the local artisans handcrafting it.
What is it like being an Olympic soccer player?
Being an Olympic soccer player is a major accomplishment and responsibility. Our daily schedule during season includes hours in the gym, training on the field, and eating/sleeping right. It is a true testament that you can do anything you work hard for and set your mind to. I’ve played for the Colombian Women’s National Team for over 8 years and it was always my dream to play in the Olympics. My parents immigrated from Colombia over 35 years ago, but always instilled within us the Colombian culture throughout our upbringing. For me to represent the Colombian flag is true honor, because not only am I playing for the country of my family’s heritage, but I am also inspiring a new generation of female soccer players in a still some-what “machismo” society.
What inspired you to found Vakano?
I believe a series of events led me to start Vakano. In June 2015, I suffered a major injury (Achilles tear) just 4 days before the FIFA Women’s World Cup. I had always dreamed and worked hard to make the final roster to play in the World Cup, but during one of our practice preparation matches, my dream quickly turned sour. During my first months of recovery and rehabilitation, I kept on receiving many compliments about the bracelets I would wear around town. From a young age I always loved artisan hand-made jewelry, especially from Colombia. One day, while browsing through the internet, I randomly came across a bracelet company called Pura Vida Bracelets. I was so amazed by their success from selling hand-made bracelets from Costa Rica that I said to myself – “why can’t I do this?”.
Soon after, during one of my trips to Colombia, I walked down a street that led to a flea market. I entered and I glanced down at one of the artisans’ large collection of bracelets. I instantly fell in love with his work, and I knew it was some sort of sign that was telling me if I wanted to start a business, these were the bracelets to start with. I received such a great vibe after conversing with the artisan, but, unfortunately, he didn’t own a cell phone where I could contact him. A few days later, I found him again on the same street and told him I wanted 100 bracelets. His eyes started tearing up out of the excitement. It was at that moment I knew I found my calling — to sell these beautiful hand-made bracelets while also giving back to help provide artisans with a more sustainable income.
Vakano (or Bacano) in Colombia is a slang word for something or someone that is awesome, unique, and cool. When choosing a name, I wanted to base it around the Colombian culture but also have a hip and catchy meaning to it. I started to say a bunch of adjectives in both English and in Spanish while sketching out a logo on sticky notes. When I said the word “bacano,” I became attached to it. To make it more attractive, I then switched out the “b” for a “v” and the “c” for a “k.”
How do you find time to play soccer, be an entrepreneur, and have a personal life?
Time is precious for any entrepreneur. To be honest, I don’t really have a social life. Some would say it’s a sacrifice, but when you love what you do, you don’t even realize the time you dedicate into something. I currently have a full-time job until Vakano becomes more profitable. I also make time to work out in the morning, train in the evening, and leave at least an hour or two to work on Vakano at the end of the day and all day during the weekends.
How does Vakano help local artisans in Colombia?
Vakano helps provide sustainable jobs for artisans in Colombia. When I first started with William, my head artisan, he couldn’t even afford a cell phone. Not only does he now own a cell phone to communicate, he is also able to pay his rent for living and work space. Recently, my orders are larger, 500 bracelets or more, and he employs three other artisans to assist him with production. It is growing into a small community of artisans that benefit from each bracelet purchased. It’s a wonderful feeling knowing that every time a bracelet is purchased, we are helping people in need.
Do you have a favorite design?
My favorite design is the Inka Collection. They carry such vibrant colors and unique designs that I feel it just gives me a positive energy every time I wear them.
What is your advice for anyone wanting to start a business?
My advice to those who want to start their own business is to not have any fear. As an athlete, I was always taught to not fear any opponent or circumstance. You need to risk to see an outcome. So, if you have the drive to start a business, go for it!
What has been the most challenging part of starting your business?
The most challenging part is having the courage to walk into stores to see if they are interested in selling my products. I was so nervous the first time I asked a boutique and didn’t even know the correct words or terminology to say in the retail world. Now, my bracelets are in three stores and I am becoming more experienced with speaking with boutiques and potential stockists.
Do you do trunk shows on college campuses? Would you like to?
I would love to do trunk shows on college campuses. So far, I vended at the Wynwood Farmer’s Market in Miami, as well as Fresh Fest 2016 in downtown West Palm Beach. Now I am starting to build a list of brand ambassadors for Instagram, and my next goal is to attend pop-up shops at universities.
Do you have a favorite quote or other inspiration?
“If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough.”