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Company sells economically sustainable goods

By Charlie Ducey | Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Custom Elevation, a company three Notre Dame students created, aims to elevate the lives of Nicaraguan artisans by selling customized handcrafted hammocks and wooden wine-bottle caddies at the Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore. 


Senior Roberto Pellas and juniors Christian Estrada and Dave Keeney said their company “seeks to broaden these artisans’ exposure to international markets, provide them with a safe and well-equipped working environment and help them earn a steadier and more substantial income.”


The three students began planning their company in the summer of 2012 in response to the challenges artisans in the Nicaraguan town of Masaya faced.


“Tourists come from all over the world just to buy hammocks in Masaya,” Pellas said. “The problem is there is a saturation of shops in a confined space and the competition drives prices down.” 


Pellas and Estrada, natives of Nicaragua, said they have admired the hammocks made by these artisans since their childhood. As a result, Custom Elevation sells Nicaraguan hammocks, known as Amakas, as well as wooden wine caddies, called Vineras.


“These artisans have talents with two materials – cotton and wood,” Estrada said. “We wanted to find the best product in these categories that suited the [American] market.


“The Vineras are made of niambar wood, one of the best in Nicaragua, with a laser engraving of the Notre Dame logo. The Amakas are hand-woven, a skill that has been passed on through many generations in Masaya.”


Kenney said the company’s biggest challenge was designing products that would appeal to Americans.


“Our products went through several redesigning stages in order to achieve what we consider to be a high-quality hammock that appeals to the [United States] customer base,” Kenney said.


Pellas said the hammocks are especially marketable to college students because they enable students to relax in a cool and unique way. Custom Elevation plans to release a seat hammock next semester that Pellas said could hang from a lofted bed. 


The company founders said a building was renovated to provide a safe place for the Nicaraguan artisans to produce these handicrafts, complete with three workrooms, storage and a bathroom. 


“It really gives them a sense of dignity to work in an organized, professional manner,” Pellas said. 


The artisans ship the products from Nicaragua to Miami. Notre Dame takes care of transporting them from there to the Hammes Bookstore.


Custom Elevation debuted its Amakas and Vineras during the Blue-Gold weekend. It sold approximately 60 percent of its total inventory, which the Custom Elevation members said they expected because the products were new to the market. They said they hope their newly launched Twitter and Facebook accounts will help them clear out the rest of their inventory.


“We believe that social media is vital to our company,” Pellas said. “We want people to see that purchasing a product from Custom Elevation is not only an investment in a world-class piece of art, but also a step towards giving these artists the recognition that they deserve.”


Custom Elevation received the Fellow Irish Social Hub award out of a pool of 200 companies, many of which are led by much older entrepreneurs, Estrada said. The award provides $7,500 for research and development, as well as support from mentors with experience in business ventures.


“Not only did we appreciate [Notre Dame’s] recognition of our work this far, but more importantly, we really think this award can take us to the next level as a company,” Estrada said. “We now have access to Innovation Park and a team of Notre Dame alums that have successful entrepreneurial business experience.”


The company founders hope their future will include high sales at the bookstore and the introduction of new products, such as a seat hammock, pencil holder and cup holder, opening the possibility of expansion.


“We really want to make it work at Notre Dame, and once we are well-integrated, then we want to expand to other universities,” Pellas said.


Kenney said Custom Elevation may even involve itself elsewhere in Central America in the future.

 “We want to bring money into economically-depressed communities in Nicaragua and eventually other countries as well through promoting community-owned businesses,” he said.


At its core, Custom Elevation grounds itself in the Nicaraguan community.


“We are collaborating with Mentores Solidarios [a Nicaraguan non-profit] to provide high-school scholarships for the children of the artisans,” Estrada said. “It’s not just about giving them jobs. We consider these people family.”

Contact Charlie Ducey at
[email protected]