Social Innovation Incubator Profiles: Georgia Kirkpatrick, Founder of Silvania
“Collecting insects in grunting lizard town” is not, typically, the answer you receive when asking what inspired an entrepreneur. But Georgia Kirkpatrick is not your typical entrepreneur—she is a social entrepreneur. Her inspiration came in seeing that she held the tools and skills to help alleviate poverty in Peru, in part by following a model pioneered by her entrepreneurial grandmother.
In 2009, Georgia worked with the global nonprofit Textile Exchange to assess the environmental health of organic and conventional cotton farms by comparing insect populations from each. While conducting research in Peru, she spent two weeks at the farming town Mórrope, named for the grunt-like “murrúp” of a local lizard. The families of “grunting lizard town” grew cotton, beans, corn, and fruit trees on a few acres each, trading food amongst themselves and relying on cotton as their only cash crop. With the support of Textile Exchange, the women of Mórrope wove coin purses and toys to earn additional income.
As Georgia lived among the families, collecting insects with their help in the day and drinking corn-based chicha with them in the evening, she came to realize a difficult truth:
I learned in Mórrope that a social enterprise can solve different problems than a nonprofit. While I was there, most farms had trouble selling their cotton crops because they relied on a single fabric mill that did not need cotton that season. Meanwhile, the pamphlets Textile Exchange had made for the women’s woven purses had not brought them clients. I saw that, for all the great research, education, and global networking Textile Exchange had generated, what cotton farming families in Mórrope needed more than anything were clients to buy their cotton and handcrafts—something only a business could do.
Georgia knew exactly what type of business could help the farmers of Mórrope—her late grandmother, Silvia, had formed and successfully run such a business in Peru for more than 50 years.
Silvia von Hagen was only 23 when she set out with her husband, archaeological historian Victor von Hagen, on an expedition to follow the ancient Inca road system. While Victor conducted research for his books (click here to read Highway of the Sun, Victor’s account of their travels), Silvia copied down pre-colonial artwork. She later used this art as the basis for patterns on pima cotton clothing she designed, manufactured and sold in Peru as Silvania Apparel. When Silvia passed away, her entrepreneurial legacy seemed destined to disappear as well, until Georgia reinvented the company as a sustainable business casual apparel firm.
Georgia designs and sources her own items for Silvania, buying organic cotton from small-scale farms, working with independent, ethical workshops, and employing indigenous women to create detail work based on their own artistic traditions. Her designs are being featured in the Alley 33 Fashion Event, and she is currently looking for additional publicity, networking, and sales opportunities for her upcoming lines.
Like the textile traditions of the women she buys from, Georgia carries on a family legacy from her grandmother: one of entrepreneurship. The traditional artwork and textiles of the people of Peru live on as well, introduced to a new generation as wearable art. Most importantly, the women of towns like Mórrope have new clients and greater opportunities, so that they, like Georgia and Silvia, can also succeed as entrepreneurs.