17 years at Vital Voices

This  month I was in Washington DC with the privilege of sharing a stage with Sec. Hillary Clinton and 4 other powerful and dedicated women.  It brought me back 17 years when I first sat a table like this.    We were also in Washington D.C.  As I shared my dream for Guatemala, one in which women would have a source of income to make their dreams a reality, one where they would not have to choose which child to try to save, or which child to try to send to school – I started tearing up. I felt so heard, so seen, so relieved.

It was 2006. There were 18 women coming together from different part of the World for the First Vital Voices Fortune/State Department Mentorship Program. Joining us were women from the United States from Fortune 500 Companies, from the US State Department and from Vital Voices.   

For the first time in a long time, I no longer felt alone in my dream.  And all of a sudden it was like the weight of this dream got lighter.  I realized all the women sitting at that table had similar dreams, some with harder realities than others.   One of my African mentee friends said – Maria, you don’t cry here in Washington.  It’s not professional.  But by the end of the week, they were also shedding tears, I believe because of the gift that these women in the US had given us – all by example. 

To see Sec. HIllary Clinton and. Senator Kay Baily Hutchinson, a. Democrat and a Republican, come together to start and grow Vital Voices was so powerful.  It was created as a place where women around the world could support each other so that each of our voices could get stronger and louder.  A place where each of our missions would have more impact, so that women would be elevated to tables, to Boards of Directors, to spaces of power – a place where  we could bring in our unique perspectives, visions and ways of leading.  To see women in Fortune 500 companies set aside a few days in their busy lives to listen to us, to share their stories, to make us visible – to make us feel important was a milestone.  To see strong women serving at the State Department, at the White House, breaking glass ceilings and leading in a different way. This all made our hearts grow big and led us to believe nothing was impossible. 

As I finished our week in Washington and 3 weeks with my mentor, Kathy Kalvin, at the United Nations Foundation, I felt a full heart, a bigger dream, a sense of pride for being a woman, a sense of gratefulness for the great gift these US women had given us – the gift of women supporting women.


As I went back to Guatemala, I wanted to recreate this new energy I had felt in Vital Voices. 

It’s been 17 years since my mentorship program and 15 years since we got started with a Central American Vital Voices Network and Guatemalan Chapter. I shared with my friends (many from the Central American Leadership Network from Aspen Institute) and other  professional women what I had experienced and how we should do it in our region.  I. shared the vision that if every  woman in  Central America could make their light shine stronger, we would be a new region.    

What we haved seen since then gives me hope.  In Guatemala, we are working with girls clubs – called Circle of Friends- for girls between 8 and 15 years of age.    

Circle of Friends

These circles provide a safe space for girls to learn; they provide social capital for them in their villages and knowledge that will allow them to become their dream.  We are also working with a program for young women leaders (18 to 22) called “She Impacts.”  We learned this as I had had the opportunity to be a mentor for such a program in the US.  We have done it now for 6 years, and for the first time, we did a Central American She Leads Program – girls from the region are being empowered, connected and reassured in their dreams and that their roles are important.

Women on Boards

We also do entrepreneurship programs and a program called Get Women on Boards.  We have become networks of women supporting each other, growing together, becoming empowered, transforming reality alongside men that see the importance of the balance. 

As for me and my dream that women could have a source of income to make their dreams a reality – we continued to grow the Wakami System, as a system that creates value chains in handmade products, coffee and regenerative agriculture.   

Wakami System

This system connects women, mostly in rural communities – to local, national and international markets.  We have created a system where we can produce high volume, high quality products (bracelets, bags, clothes, home décor) that are sold nationally and exported around the world, and that created constant sources of income for women.  We are now celebrating Wakami children graduating not just from high school but from college (in a country where the average school attendance is 4.5 years). And 60% of children that come into the system with chronic malnutrition, start recovering 1 year after their mothers begin generating income through Wakami (in a country with 50% malnutrition). We are making collective change through key partnerships that complement what we do with organizations such Rotary International, the Sinapi Foundation, the McNulty Foundation, among others). 


Being in Washington DC celebrating 25 years since Sec. Clinton began the program, allowed me to be able to give thanks to her, and the Vital Voices Women.  Their gift keeps on giving.  Their gift keeps inspiring new generations to come.  Because it’s not only about women supporting women.  When women are inspired and strong, men also support and work alongside women. 

Everybody with a seat at the table!!! 

Watch the replay below: