Entrepreneur Exits Successful Startup Helping Latin American Artisans to Explore Future Through UVA Darden
By Dave Hendrick
Sophie Eckrich (Class of 2021) has had an acute curiosity regarding the disparity in global opportunity for as long as she can remember. Growing up in the cultural crossroads of Austin, Texas, with a mother from Mexico and a father from the United States, cross-border travel and cultural exchange were a way of life.
On trips south of the U.S. border, Eckrich, a First Year at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, said it was often clear that her peers in Mexico were not afforded the same path of advancement that seemed evident to her in Austin.
“I remember noticing that there were a lot of differences between my life and opportunities in Texas versus the kids who were my age I was meeting in Mexico,” said Eckrich. “I had an innate sense that I was privileged to have the opportunities that I had in Texas. That sparked a lot of questions for me about why things were different and how those differences had developed.”
It wouldn’t be long before Eckrich helped carve a path of opportunity for a set of skilled artisans working in Central America.
In Austin at the University of Texas, Eckrich’s studies focused on international development, sociology and nonprofit management. She learned about microfinance and eventually took an internship with the Whole Planet Foundation and the Grameen Bank in Guatamela, a pioneer in micro-lending
“I saw amazing women, who, if they just got a $150 loan, they could actually do something with it,” said Eckrich. “So that was very inspiring to see how a relatively small amount of money could actually lead to a lot of big changes.”
Eckrich wanted to continue to work in the region and started to think she could develop her own approach and platform working with the region’s artisans.
In Panama, Eckrich met women producing gorgeous textiles and fabrics but with little market for their wares. Desiring to help produce a quality product that people would actually use — and remembering a pair of cowboy boots she had bought in Guatemala a few years back, Eckrich decided to become an artisan footwear entrepreneur, launching a venture that would become Teysha.
“I didn’t have any idea of how difficult it would be, which was probably good,” Eckrich said. “If I had known all of the challenges I would face, I would have probably thought ‘that sounds too complicated, too hard, let me just do something else.’ Instead, it was just one foot in front of the other.”
Eckrich began by commissioning a few pairs, which she brought back to Austin, a community naturally disposed to supporting “different and unique items and small businesses,” Eckrich said.
“I found a good reception there and really just hit the ground running from Day One, learning something new every day — how to build the supply chain, how to market, how to hire people, how to run a team and how to open a store,” said Eckrich. “We were just running really fast.”
Propelled by the continued rise of e-commerce, interest in sustainable fashion and strong word of mouth, Eckrich and her team eventually built a shoe factory in Guatemala and helped connect consumers to artisan footwear products through a retail store, partner retailers like Nordstrom and Whole Foods, and through the Teysha web site.
Eckrich successfully ran the venture for seven years after graduating from college. And then, it became time to take a step back and reassess. While Eckrich is proud of what she built with Teysha, she realized there was a wide world in which she could also find more ways to create impact.
“I really felt like I had tried enough things on my own, and I was really looking for that next step, the next level of challenge,” Eckrich said.
Looking into an MBA program, Eckrich said Darden’s messages around purpose resonated with her, and the offer of a Batten Scholarship helped seal the decision to attend school in Charlottesville.
Eckrich decided to step away from Teysha when she got to Grounds, but the company continues to thrive. Many of the artisans who started with the company are still there, and others have used savings made from their handiwork to pursue educational opportunities or other ventures.
The early days of Darden have challenged and stretched her, Eckrich said, and she said she’s enjoyed retroactively applying what she’s learning in class to her previous business decisions, which were often guided by little more than intuition.
For a socially minded entrepreneur, Eckrich said she’s been pleased to find herself surrounded by students and faculty who are concerned with business practices beyond the bottom line. Her finance professor wants to talk about societal impact alongside investing returns, Eckrich said, and while everyone wants a great job, “there’s a sense of purpose and passion running through them.”
Eckrich remains interested in entrepreneurship but is also curious about the possibility of working for a large organization for the first time. Consulting, with the promise of learning a great deal about a range of sectors, is appealing, she said.
“I really want to know that I’m fully fluent in a lot of different possibilities and places,” said Eckrich. “I know that I love retail and consumer products, but maybe there’s something else that I don’t know that I could love as well.”
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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