W&L Junior Wins Entrepreneurship Award and Grant
Matthew Kordonowy, a junior business administration major at Washington and Lee University, was awarded a $15,000 grant by the venture capital fund Entrepreneurs of New York this summer. Kordonowy and co-founder, Viktor Mak, a student at Colgate University, were also provided with office space in central New York to grow their company, Vern.
Vern, launched in July 2013, provides fair trade and socially-responsible apparel such as hand-woven neck ties, bowties, belts, scarves, bags and accessories online and in independent boutiques across the country.
The company works with The Association of Highland Women based in Quetzeltenango, Guatemala, a weaving cooperative of more than 4,000 women weaver-members in 17 villages. The cooperative pays them a fair wage and provides a secure venue to sell their textiles. Vern also donates 10 percent of its profits back to the community to help fund an education program for the weavers’ children.
“There are a lot of fair trade organizations that sell clothing items, but our goal is to connect upscale college students and young professionals with a socially-responsible company,” explained Kordonowy in a 2013 interview.
The Guatemalan civil war of 1960–96 claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Guatemalans, mostly men. With little access to education, the women had few opportunities to earn money and turned to weaving elaborate textiles to support their families.
According to Kordonowy, the weavers’ backstrap loom is an ancient technique that has been practiced for hundreds of years in the Guatemalan highlands and requires much skill, patience and creativity. “The women use dyes from plants and berries, and the items they produce are beautiful, brightly colored and unique. We think they will be popular with American shoppers,” said Kordonowy.
The two entrepreneurs, both from Fort Myers, Fla., have a long history together of generating ideas for businesses, but this is the first one to generate revenue. The idea for Vern came in summer 2012 after Mak, his co-founder, volunteered at the Guatemala weaving cooperative and introduced the concept of selling the weavers’ textiles to Kordonowy.
“We were touched by their story,” said Kordonowy, “and our mission is to help these women reach American customers so they can stay off the streets of Guatemala.”
In a press release from Entrepreneurs of New York, Kordonowy said “We were heartbroken by the current immigration crisis. By partnering with fair wage cooperatives we hope to provide people with opportunities to stay in their country and succeed economically.”
Vern began with a $1,500 investment by the co-founders. “The hardest part of building something is having the nerve to get started,” said Kordonowy. “And the biggest positive thing we’ve learned is that it never hurts to start something. Don’t be afraid to jump in, because that’s what we did and it’s been pretty successful so far.”