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She has a head for business and a heart for service

Women in La Guajira, Colombia, have an advocate in Amber Hammond ’15, who created a fashion brand to sell their handywork and help lift them out of poverty.

Stylishly dressed, a young black woman in a white suit sits surrounded by handbags

Amber Hammond founded Ciela Handmade to help break the cycle of poverty in La Guajira, Colombia. Her day job: a business intelligence coordinator who mines and leverages data for global manufacturer Allied Mineral Products, based in Columbus. (Photo by Jo McCulty ’84, ’94 MA)

When Amber Hammond’s 25th birthday came around in 2018, she asked her Facebook friends to let her know of Columbus families experiencing difficulties so she could cater some meals for them. Her goal was to feed 25 families, one for each of the years “God has blessed me with.”

That same year, and a continent away, Hammond ’15 came face-to-face with unrelenting hunger and poverty, and she decided to do something about that, too. A friend had invited her on a trip to visit family in Colombia. While there, Hammond was taken by the colorful mochilas, or bags, handwoven by the indigenous Wayuu women of La Guajira, a desert peninsula in Colombia and Venezuela that stretches into the Caribbean Sea.

A Colombian woman and an American woman sit outside weaving

Rosmeri Patricia Riviera Epiayu teaches Hammond to weave a mochila. Thirty-five Wayuu women work up to two weeks on each bag and pass the artistry from mother to daughter. (Photo courtesy of Amber Hammond)

Back home in Columbus, where she works as a business intelligence analyst, Hammond began researching the history of the Wayuu culture and the artistry of the women who make the mochilas and pass their craft on to their daughters. Hammond returned to La Guajira later that year to immerse herself in the ways of the Wayuu people. It was on this trip that she saw beyond the beauty of the bags to witness the debilitating poverty in the community. Human Rights Watch reports that in La Guajira, malnutrition claims the lives of one in 10 children younger than 5.

“I was struck by the inequity of it all,” Hammond says. “More than 90% of children leave school by the time they’re 13 years old to find work to help feed their families. I kept thinking, ‘there must be something I can do,’ but I didn’t know what or how.”

Determined to do something, Hammond purchased bracelets from the Wayuu women to take home to Columbus. She would sell the accessories and send the money to the women for food and clothing. It was a short-term fix, she knew, but she couldn’t leave La Guajira without a tangible reminder of the women who lived and labored in such dire conditions.

Buoyed by how quickly the bracelets sold back home, Hammond began to mull over the idea of a true partnership with the Wayuu women, one that would showcase their one-of-a-kind handmade bags and provide the artisans a platform to become financially stable. With her knowledge and love of business and fashion, she landed on the idea of an enterprise that would use fashion as an agent of social change.

“I didn’t want to build another fashion brand that just makes money,” she explains. “I wanted to create a business with a purpose, to make a positive difference in the lives of the women and children in La Guajira.”

Things began to fall into place in 2019 when Hammond attended an international women’s conference in Cartagena, Colombia, and met Tania Rosas, CEO and founder of Fundación El Origen, a nonprofit dedicated to ending illiteracy and extreme poverty across Colombia. Rosas introduced Hammond to Marieth Elena Riviera, a Wayuu artisan.

Inspired to action, Hammond founded Ciela Handmade, a fashion brand providing employment and entrepreneurship training for Wayuu women artisans and raising funds for education and training for the region’s children. A brand built on an ethical foundation, Ciela’s products are handcrafted and sustainable while prioritizing income and training for marginalized communities. Hammond picked the name Ciela because of its proximity to the Spanish word for sky, cielo.

“Whether you’re born in the U.S. or in La Guajira, Colombia, we are all born under the same sky,” says Hammond, “and the women and children of the Wayuu deserve the same opportunities to live and work in a safe, healthy and stable environment.”

Riviera is Ciela Handmade’s production manager. The mother of two supervises 35 Wayuu women artisans who labor one to two weeks to create each bag. These sales are their sole source of income.

Before the Wayuu women began working with Hammond, Riviera says, sales of bags were spotty at best, dependent upon the few tourists who might find their way to La Guajira. They now have a more consistent and reliable source of income.

“Ciela is so important for us,” Riviera says through an interpreter. “We now have money for food for our families. And if there is a little left over, we can help our children so they can stay in school.”

Hammond adjusts a necklace worn by a model during a photo shoot

Hammond preps models Sondos Alsaery, left, and Raheal Yemane for a photo shoot of Ciela Handmade’s spring-summer collection. (Photo by Jo McCulty ’84, ’94 MA)

Helping a woman start and sustain a business creates a powerful ripple effect that impacts the entire community, Hammond says. “First, you help her to unlock her God-given abilities. Second, you enable her to provide for her family. And lastly, through success, she is able to inspire and hire others in her community.”

In addition to arming the women with income and training, Hammond supports the efforts of the Fundación El Origen to give the youth of La Guajira a second chance at education. All proceeds of sales from Ciela Handmade’s Origen Shop help Rosas’ foundation provide instructional courses for La Guajira students in their indigenous language, via an app they can use without an internet connection.

“The partnership between Ciela and the foundation is so crucial to providing the children of La Guajira with the opportunity to succeed,” Rosas says. “Eighty-two percent of the students who get the app stay in school.”

While Hammond works most evenings and weekends to raise awareness and sales of Ciela’s unique products, she spends her daytime hours mining data for Allied Mineral Products. Her work for the Columbus-based global manufacturer of industrial ceramics fulfills her passion for market research, forecasting and analysis.

“I love opening up a spreadsheet or table and finding the meaningful information and patterns almost hidden in all the rows of data,” she says.

Hammond began working for Allied as a strategy and corporate development analyst in 2017. Fellow Fisher College of Business alum Phil Wenzell ’01 MBA, a vice president with Allied, hired Hammond to prepare financial forecasts and market research for the company’s some 1,000 employees working across 12 manufacturing facilities in eight countries.

With Wenzell’s support, Hammond designed a new job for herself in 2019, that of business intelligence coordinator, to help Allied better leverage its data. She designs dashboards and reports to guide decision making and operational efficiency for leadership and also leads data literacy and visualization classes for her colleagues.

When Wenzell, a former Peace Corps volunteer, learned of Hammond’s endeavors to help the Wayuu artisans and their families, his first reaction was to tell everyone at the company. “No one is surprised,” Wenzell says. “Amber has a big heart, and we know that she can do great things.”

Associate Professor of Marketing Curtis Haugtvedt sensed those qualities when he met Hammond at a 2019 Ohio State summit on alleviating poverty through entrepreneurship. They struck up a conversation, and Haugtvedt invited Hammond to speak in his classes on social marketing and public policy.

“What Amber has accomplished through Ciela Handmade made her a great role model for my students,” Haugtvedt says. “I wanted them to see that when you combine your passion as an entrepreneur with your passion to help others, it’s social entrepreneurship at its best.”

The pandemic has been hard on businesses, and Ciela Handmade is no exception. Hammond is not able to travel to La Guajira; she talks with Rosas and Riviera on WhatsApp. Fortunately, she has enough inventory to continue to fill orders until she can travel, which she hopes will be soon.

In the meantime, Hammond is learning how to develop a more sustainable and impactful business model with consultants from SEA (Social Enterprise Accelerator) Change, a Columbus-based nonprofit helping social entrepreneurs reach more people in meaningful ways.

Hammond was named a SEA Change Signature Finalist in 2020, providing her with access to an enterprise training program and help crafting a new website.

Hammond cut her teeth in sales when she was a very young girl; she sold handmade artwork to neighbors, earning her $20. When Hammond’s mother learned of the venture and made her return the money, Hammond regrouped and launched a series of well-organized, parent-approved business ventures — garage sales, car washes and ubiquitous lemonade stands. Her father gave her a book on moneymaking projects for young entrepreneurs, and she’s never looked back.

“The bug hit,” says Hammond, who in high school started a fashion club, aptly named The Fashion Club. “I wasn’t yet focused on marketing,” she says, laughing at the no-nonsense title.

Founding Ciela Handmade has allowed Hammond to work in the two arenas she enjoys the most, business and fashion. What brings her joy, though, is knowing this labor of love is helping people she has come to love.

The benefits of group dynamics

Amber Hammond credits her involvement in student organizations with giving her the confidence and leadership skills to further her business career. Ohio State students have access to more than 1,400 student organizations to help them find community and deepen their connections to one another and the university. The groups give students the opportunity to broaden their horizons, build their skills and network with others — especially alumni, who can provide valuable insights and connections after college.

Hammond was a four-year member of the Council of Black Students in Administration (CBSA) and served as its treasurer.

“I wanted to learn and grow as a Black business professional, so I took on the duties of securing corporate sponsorships and speakers for CBSA events and managing the organization’s finances. I had to quickly learn how to find and work with experts in the business world and the appropriate way to ask for advice on finances, event-planning and career readiness.”

As someone who loves fashion, Amber jumped at the chance to join Scarlette Magazine, a student-run publication showcasing individuality through fashion, art and words. She spent four years with the organization, serving first as a member and later as director of the marketing staff before moving on to the role of executive director.

“I learned how to manage and lead two very different teams — one creative and the other business. My time at Scarlette taught me how to help others learn to collaborate and work toward a common goal. Because magazine layout and publication are so dependent upon deadlines, I quickly learned how to manage my time and navigate stressful and oftentimes chaotic situations.”

Amber spent three months in Florence, Italy, learning about fashion design and illustration through Ohio State’s Education Abroad program.

“It really took me out of my comfort zone — being in a foreign country, essentially alone. I had to jump right into my classes, learn how to get around the city and adapt, and make new friends in a short period of time. I came back home a much more confident person.”

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