Huaraches For Hope: This Fierce Founder is Providing Clean Water For Guatemalans

Huaraches For Hope:

This Fierce Founder is Providing Clean Water For Guatemalans

She may not be Irish, but Francesca Kennedy has luck on her side.

“Despite my Irish-sounding name,  I’m 100 percent Guatemalan,” says Pennsylvania-born Kennedy, who launched her charitable fashion label, IX Style in March, 2013. The company, which has grown from a small solo operation to a robust brand backed by Rebecca Minkoff, has thrived thanks to its founder’s uncanny knack for being at the right place at the right time. “I always, always knew it was going to work,” she says. “I just make it happen. I will not take no for an answer.”

IX, which is named after the Mayan word for water, is a bright, cheery collection of hand woven huarache sandals, handbags and other accessories, all made by artisans in Guatemala. With the goal of providing clean drinking water for residents of her homeland, Kennedy donates 15 percent of all proceeds towards water sanitation efforts for residents who live in the towns near Lake Atitlan, a volcano-adjacent “magical” body of water, three times the size of Manhattan.

Lake Atitlan

“I was baptized in Lake Atitlan; it’s where I learned how to swim, it’s where I spend my summers,” says Kennedy.  “It’s been a home and inspiration for some of our greatest artists, intellectuals and revolutionaries over the years. Brave New World was written and inspired by the lake. The Little Prince was written and inspired by it. Che Guevara lived there, Pablo Neruda lived there, Ingrid Bergman lived there. It has this juju magic awesomeness to it.”

Kennedy told SWAAY that back in 2009 she went back to visit her beloved sanctuary and was devastated to find it in a deplorable condition, filled with cynobacteria, thanks to agricultural runoff, sewage plants (destroyed after a hurricane), as well as imported fish (which ate the animals that would keep this dangerous blue green algae in check). “My cousins had called me before I went and they said, ‘we’re warning you, the lake is completely destroyed,” says Kennedy. “‘It’s completely contaminated, every inch is covered in what looks like sewage water. You can’t even fathom what it looks like.’”

According to Kennedy, right after she saw her favorite body of water in that state two formative things happened that would take her on an unexpected business and philanthropic journey: 1. She read the book Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie, the Founder of Toms, and 2. She noticed little girls collecting water to drink from that very lake, which turned her stomach. “I thought nobody in their wildest dreams would drink this water,” says Kennedy, who decided then and there to do something to save the lake. “You hear these crazy stories happening in these remote parts of the world, not like the most magical place.”

With a mission in mind, Kennedy then visited the usually bustling local market, which was quizzically empty. While there, she saw her favorite vendor, a huarache sandal maker named Maria, who said bluntly “the tourists have stopped coming. I don’t know what I’m going to do, how am I going to feed my kids.” Kennedy decided to buy 100 pairs of the leather sandals, telling the artisan she would try to sell them in the US for a profit, which she would bring back to Guatamala. Although Kennedy wasn’t exactly sure how to get it done, she felt there was a way create a business that would help bring the lake back to its original glory and provide clean drinking water until then. 

“I asked [Maria] if she could make some modifications like updating the leather and she said ‘of course let’s do it,” recounts Kennedy. “What started as a simple idea to help this one woman, has morphed into working over 600 women around the lake.”

Upon  her return to the states, Kennedy- who was a Goldman Sachs wealth management professional at the time- began her passion project. She says she would work on the website and PR outreach at night, going into the office the following day completely drained. “I’d go in when it was dark and leave when it was dark and had no work life balance,” says Kennedy. “I was not happy.”

So, she decided to make her side hustle her full-time job. And that’s when things just started happening.

“I took on everything, from PR to website design,” says Kennedy, who began reaching out to industry friends and contacts, pitching her shoe line. It wasn’t long before editors began falling in love with IX.

First came a placement in People Style Watch, and next Harper’s Bazaar. Amazed by the traction she was getting, Kennedy turned to the influencer set to make bigger waves for the company. She began by stealthily leaving a pair of IX shoes at Gwyneth Paltrow’s apartment in Tribeca. “We Googled her shoe size, where she lived, dropped off a handwritten note and forgot about it,” says Kennedy.  “Six months later, a few days before Christmas, all these sales start coming through and I’m like ‘wow, a lot of people are doing last minute Christmas shopping.’ I go to our Google Analytics page and I see everything is coming from Goop [where they were listed as an editor’s favorite]. Immediately I knew that she got the shoes  and I started crying, jumping and dancing.”

Two days after her unexpected Goop mention, Paltrow’s buying team asked Kennedy if she would be interested in an exclusive collaboration. Kennedy send swatches and samples, and selling out of all her merchandise in three weeks. After noticing the line, buyers from The GAP put their order, and next came J. Crew, thanks to a cold email to the company’s Creative Director.  “I cut through the back and forth, which can be a waste of your time,” says Kennedy. “If the top person says they want it then they make the magic happen.”

Kennedy says that during her crusade to put IX on the map, there were many chance encounters that helped her along the way. “I always laugh about the power of a pedicure,” says Kennedy. “I went to get a pedicure one day and Hanneli Mustaparta  [the former face of Calvin Klein] was sitting there drying her toes. And I’m like, this is great, she can’t run away! I can pitch her!”

Kennedy, who happened to be wearing a pair of her shoes at the time, told Mustaparta, a Norway native, her story. Mustaparta then gave Kennedy her agent’s email, which, of course, Kennedy used straightaway. “The agent responded the next day and said, ‘she loves them!’ After that, she  did all those posts for free and we have never paid for PR and I never will.”

Francesca Kennedy by Angelique Hazbun

For her next stars-aligning trick, Kennedy quite literally ran into Amanda Seyfried on a run in Boston. “She’s from Allentown [PA], and I’m from Allentown so, we’re both quirky Allentown girls,” says Kennedy. “I dropped off shoes for her at the front desk of the hotel I was staying in. And again,  I didn’t hear anything until another six months later she finally did a post on her social media.”

Fast forward to today, and many people can recognize Kennedy’s brand thanks to her record-making win on Project Runway Fashion Startup. After her pitch,  judge Rebecca Minkoff pledged her allegiance to the company,  and the rest of the judges followed suit, resulting in a bidding war [a first for the show]. After reviewing the term sheets, Kennedy decided to work only with Minkoff, who invested $50K into IX Style. In the deal, Minkoff also got office space in Minkoff’s New York City headquarters as well as the opportunity to sell her products alongside the celebrated designer’s. Just how did she do it? According to Kennedy, it was another combination of luck and networking that got here there.

“I decided in manifesting journal one day  that I want really successful women to reach out to me out of the blue and help me with IX style,” says Kennedy, who was asked to speak on a panel with Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, the founder of Gilt Groupe prior to being cast on Project Runway. Wilson, one of Kennedy’s business idols at the time, would go on to become her mentor, and her introduction to the Project Runway show. “She introduced me to the producers and then all these crazy magic things happened,” says Kennedy. “They squeezed me in because they had technically closed the auditions. I got on the show and it was Friday the 13th, which I didn’t know this at the time, would end up being one of the luckiest days for me, luckiest numbers too.”

It was while Kennedy was in the Green Room before the show that some more fortuitous news came; she got a call that she won a $25K grant from women-focused accelerator,  Access Latina. “It was awesome,” says Kennedy. “Then I went in and pitched the judges. And Rebecca-who spoke first-said, ‘I’ve been to your lake, I’ve worked with your artisans, I’ve seen your video, and not only that I actually own a pair of your shoes.’

And just where did Minkoff get those shoes? Yep, it was Kennedy’s own seed planting efforts, coupled with sheer luck, yet again. “My very first year in business I became a member of the Accessories Council, and they asked me to donate 50 pairs of shoes to various influencers,” she says. Given out to stars like Iman, Naomi Campbell, Rebecca Minkoff, Tory Burch and of course, Minkoff, along with a handwritten note, Kennedy thought her efforts were all but ignored. “Except for that day three years later. Rebecca is like, ‘I own your shoes,’” laughs Kennedy.  “She has her own shoe company! So it was a big deal.”

Kennedy dancing with her artisans

Looking to the future, Kennedy is planning a fashion show alongside Minkoff, to be held in Guatemala in March, 2018. “ We will be raising funds for a great cause with the fashion show,” Kennedy tells SWAAY. “We have 15 top influencers joining the trip and a lot of surprises in store for the show!” Additionally, Kennedy will continue expanding her brand’s footprint, launching more products, including a limited-edition co-branded sandal collection with Rebecca Minkoff, coming this spring.

To date, Kennedy has provided enough water filters to help 10,000 Guatemalan citizens. But, according to the spirited entrepreneur, that is just the beginning.  “Around Lake Atitlan there are 500,000 people so we have a long way to go,” she says. “I will eventually go to other communities around Guatemala but until the lake is fixed and preserved and all the kids and every community member has access to clean water I’ll focus there.”

In addition, Kennedy  has also helped provide water filters for the 67 schools in the area [only 13 had them at the beginning of her efforts], also using the devices to incentify parents to keep their daughters in school. “Parents usually send their daughters to school to learn how to read and write and then they yank them out,” says Kennedy, who plans to distribute the water-collectors/filters amongst school parents, giving many their first ever home faucet. “We are going to give them a $300 filter, which is a big incentive for people who mostly live off a dollar a day.”

When asked about profitability, Kennedy says “I’m profitable; I mean my apartment is my office. I have no overhead. I don’t even have a warehouse in Guatemala. The artisans are helping me with my overhead costs but now I am expanding so I’ll be hiring. I need someone who is like a mini-me who can do PR, marketing, operations, everything.”

To date, the always-positive entreprenuer credits her team of 15 interns  for taking her lucky streak to the next level. “I always tell people get awesome interns because they are the ones who come up with out-of-the-box ideas,” says Kennedy, adding that her interns recently threw a pair of IX shoes over Karlie Kloss’s gate. “They are like, ‘Selena Gomez is staying at this hotel. Can we go drop of shoes?’ I’m like, ‘do your thing.’”

Clearly, you gotta be in it to win it.

Belisa Silva

Belisa is an editor with more than 10 years of experience. Prior to SWAAY, she worked as freelance writer, covering lifestyle, fashion and beauty industries. Belisa was a Market Editor at Women's Wear Daily for five years, where she interviewed rockstar business women like Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Lopez and Iman. Belisa also contributes to Cosmetic Executive Women, where she highlights female executives making an impact in the beauty industry.

1 Comment
  1. just as a heads up – i would wait on ordering these shoes. They are so cute – but after purchasing online a month ago – I still have not received them and have gotten unfriendly and unhelpful responses from their customer service.

    Really try to give my support to small ethical businesses – but at this point wish I had just given my $90 to a charity and not wasted my time on trying to get these shoes.

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