By Joel Wigelsworth
Albuquerque Journal, N.M.
“A big part of our ethos is sharing the creativity and diversity of the Southwest with the rest of the world,” said Sydney Alfonso, founder and CEO of Etkie, on representing her company’s jewelry line at Paris Fashion Week. “It had this crazy energy — you feel like you’re in the midst of of making things happen, which is really exciting.”
Etkie is a year-old New Mexico business that works with Native American artists to produce high-end jewelry inspired by traditional indigenous textiles. “What we’re trying to do is take the Southwest look and modernize it, and make it hip and fashionable for younger generations,” Alfonso said. This modernization includes beadwork that uses high-quality Japanese glass beads, and sterling silver and 24-karat-gold Czech beads. “We’re doing extremely well in Paris — one of the orders sold out in a week.”
Etkie’s model is based on ethical business practices. The full-time manufacturing team consists of three women from To’hajiilee, a community that Alfonso says is full of skill and talent, yet has a 70 percent unemployment rate. “We’re thinking about the big picture. How do we not just create jobs, but how do we create great jobs for people in New Mexico?”
Etkie was selected to participate in the grant-subsidized Creative Startups business accelerator, which “taught me the business fundamentals to take my ideas and company to the next level,” Alfonso said.
A considerable amount of hard work, and a little good luck, have served Alfonso well and she wants to pay it forward. “As a New Mexican who was able to go out and get a great education, I feel a pretty strong responsibility to help my community.”
Alfonso encourages Native women with beading skills to join her team, and to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Etkie’s job-creating goals were recently recognized with a financial award from the Venture Acceleration Fund by Los Alamos National Security.
Alfonso’s conscience also leads her to support local businesses, and seek out like-minded suppliers.
The deerskin that lines select pieces in the jewelry collection is ethically-sourced in New Mexico, and a small workshop south of Las Cruces will be making handbags from New Mexico leather and cowhide, which will be given extra flair by Etkie artisans.
“We need to stick to our guns. We need to support the mom and pop shops.” Alfonso adds that she has mentors in large, international fashion houses who seek out suppliers who don’t exploit labor or resources. “No matter how big or small you are, if you have people that you trust creating products that actually create a beneficial impact, it’s just like — it’s a no-brainer.”
Not so glamorous
Alfonso attributes her personal and professional success not only to ethics, but also to diversity — a word she’s quite familiar with.
The 24-year-old Alfonso, who is fluent in English, German, Spanish and Turkish, grew up on a ranch near Estancia and spent summers in Los Angeles.
In high school she was awarded a Congressional scholarship to attend school in Germany, where she found herself living in Berlin’s Turkish district. That led her to spend a year in Turkey while attending Middlebury College, an institution that later awarded her a grant to teach jewelry-making workshops to Turkish and Kurdish women.
These experiences more than prepared Alfonso for the harsh realities of business and fashion. “If you can survive southeast Turkey by yourself, you know, New Mexico’s a piece of cake,” she said.
The young CEO wants to dispel any misconceptions anyone may have about her international fashion lifestyle. Alfonso arrived at Fashion Week exhausted, broke and too worn out to decorate her booth in the accessories tent.
“A lot of fashion isn’t glamorous. A lot of it is setting up, organizing, talking to people, and getting treated (poorly),” she said. Even with her exhaustion and lack of decoration, her Fashion Week appearance garnered $30,000 in orders.
Etkie’s first two collections can be found in 20 cities across five countries, and at etkie.com.
Despite the challenge of growing a small business, Sydney Alfonso wouldn’t have it any other way. “I can never envision working for anyone else,” she said, “so I think the entrepreneurial track is definitely set in stone.”
Alfonso occupies many roles within Etkie. “I do the selling, design and distribution, the packaging, shipping, mailing — even the janitorial work.”
Alfonso wrote her college senior thesis on the geopolitics of fashion, so she knows the fashion industry can be exploitative, and believes that needs to change. She said she wouldn’t want to buy a product that harms anyone in its production process, and added, “There’s plenty of room in the market for ethical lifestyle brands.”
Etkie, which is Turkish for impact, wants its impact to be beneficial at every step — from sourcing materials, to labor, to sales.
“We’re not a nonprofit; we’re a business. But we’re doing good things in the world at the same time,” Alfonso said, “which is how all businesses should be, right?”