With his new company, Vern Clothing, Viktor Mak ‘15 builds for stability in the Guatemalan highlands
In 2013, Viktor spent the summer in the highlands of Guatemala and fell in love. He fell in love with the incredible Santiaguito and Santa Maria volcanoes, the colorful open-air markets, the picturesque Lake Atitlan, and the vibrant culture. But most of all, he fell in love with weaving – the handmade textiles, the backstrap loom, and the story each piece told.
But among the beauty, Viktor also became acutely aware of the harsh realities and challenges of Guatemalan life. These weavers were hard workers, putting in countless hours at their trade; but even so, they still face extreme economic uncertainty, discrimination, and underdevelopment.
That’s why Viktor decided to found Vern Clothing, a socially responsible apparel company that partners with Guatemalan weaving cooperatives to provide fair wages and economic stability in their communities.
“We were touched by the story of the Mayan weavers. After the Guatemalan civil war took the lives of many indigenous men, the women turned to weaving beautiful and elaborate textiles to support their families. Our mission is to share their talents with shoppers in America while providing opportunities for indigenous weavers,” said Viktor.
This July, the apparel startup caught the attention of the Colgate Entrepreneurs Fund. The venture capital fund awarded Viktor a $15,000 grant and summer office space in Hamilton to grow his company. With the support of the CE Fund, Vern made huge strides in marketing strategy and production.
But more than just growing the company, Vern founders were careful that the money circled back to what was really important: the people in Guatemala.
“When we got the grant, we were excited to make some huge leaps in the functioning and scope of Vern, but what was most important was how we could grow that money to send even more back to our communities. Thanks to the push we got from Colgate Entrepreneurs Fund we are not only economically empowering our workers, but also directly investing in two community projects, the Clean Stove Building Project and the Education Fund,” said Viktor.
This July, Vern was spurred to action by the border crisis – thousands of child refugees from Latin American countries fleeing violence at the U.S. border. The company held an official launch, but also paired it with a fundraiser and sale in hopes of sending even more back to Guatemala, the country of origin for over a third of the children.
“That day was probably the craziest we have had. But when we closed up shop that night and were going over numbers, I remember having my jaw drop when I realized that, on top of all of the money we were sending back to the workers, we were also going to be able to send 5 kids to school through the Education Fund,” Viktor commented. “So much work still needs to be done, and we are heartbroken by the current immigration crisis, but with our partnerships and contributions we hope to provide Guatemalans with economic and educational opportunities, which will hopefully incentivize them to stay,” he added.
Vern sells their apparel downtown at 20 Utica Street and online at http://www.vernclothing.com.
Viktor Mak ’15 is a student of Global Studies and Philosophy at Colgate. He started Vern last year in the TIA Student Incubator with his business partner and high school friend, Matthew Kordonowy, a student at Washington and Lee University. In addition to TIA, Viktor is involved with SGA, Konosioni, the Benton Scholars, and the Open Society. In his free time, he enjoys traveling, learning, and leaving a place just a little better than he found it.