Shoes for Social Change

Peter Sacco, F17, draws on the expertise of the Tufts community to launch a business that will help Guatemalan artisans live well
Peter Sacco
“If we’re successful in this, it will be because of the university community,” says Peter Sacco of his social enterprise shoe company. “It changes the game.” Photo: Anna Miller
November 15, 2016

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Peter Sacco, F17, has been wearing the same pair of stylish two-tone brown leather wingtips every day for months—sometimes even with gym shorts. The shoes are prototypes, handmade in Guatemala, for the startup he’s about to launch, so he’s both testing and promoting his product.

“I’ll take one off,” he said recently in the Fletcher School’s Mugar Café as he loosened the laces to reveal elements of the insole and outsole that will change in the final design. He also pointed out the full-grain leather upper and precise hand stitching on the welt, which attaches the upper to the outer sole.

Sacco is counting on his social enterprise, Adelante Shoe Co., getting a boost from a $30,000 Kickstarter campaign that launches on Nov. 25, the post-Thanksgiving Day shopping extravaganza known as Black Friday. More than 180 supporters have committed in advance to buy a pair of shoes that day in exchange for a Founders Club discount of $25. The shoes will go for $175 a pair during the campaign.

A 25-year-old Massachusetts native who has lived and worked in Guatemala, Sacco touts the social impact of his business, which takes its name from the Spanish word for “forward” or “ahead.” His goal is to ensure that the Guatemalan artisans making the shoes can earn enough to support their families comfortably.

Sacco wants to ensure that the Guatemalan artisans making the shoes can earn enough to support their families comfortably. Photo: Anna MillerSacco has arrangements with 10 craftsmen in Guatemala to make shoes for the U.S. market, starting with a line of four designs for men and four for women. He will tap more workers to scale up production as needed.

He’s pledging to pay the artisans more than the usual fair-trade wage, instead working with Fletcher School professors and students to develop a new model for a “living well line”—the earnings level at which a member of a certain community can support a family and live well.

Unlike other fair-wage calculations, this one incorporates input from community members about what they value. Preliminary calculations suggest that the Guatemalan craftsmen should be paid twice the $10 a day many of them now earn by selling their cowboy boots and other shoes in local markets, Sacco said.

“Our social impact model is new,” he said. “But everything we’re doing, we’re doing at a higher level than anyone else—quality, style, affordability, social impact.”

Sacco conceived of the project a year ago, hoping to fuse his interest in helping Latin Americans better their lives with his desire to work for himself. After an exploratory visit last winter, he returned to Guatemala for six weeks this past summer, supported by a Tufts Institute for Global Leadership Empower Fellowship, and built relationships with shoemakers, learned about their craft and finalized his initial product lines.

He has three business partners in Mexico City, two Americans and one Guatemalan, all of whom have equity in the firm. They help with everything from website construction to marketing, design and social media. They’ve organized photo shoots in Mexico City and Boston with chic models, including some Fletcher students, and gathered in Guatemala to create a launch video in early October. Sacco is also working with other Fletcher students and Tufts undergraduates on aspects of the initiative, including strategies for breaking into the Boston market. Fletcher entrepreneurship coach Rockford Weitz, F03, F08, helped develop his business plan.

“If we’re successful in this, it will be because of the university community,” Sacco said. “It changes the game.”

For now, though, Sacco’s primary focus is getting the word out about the Kickstarter campaign. “You need to crush it in the first day,” he said. “If we can show proof of concept [through Kickstarter support], we can get investors.”

He has many ideas he’d like to pursue—from using technology to create custom-made shoes remotely to bringing on a staff member with extensive footwear design experience—but first he needs more financing than a boot-strapping graduate student can provide. He promises financial transparency for consumers, who will be able to see the breakdown of where their money goes. And while he hasn’t been paid yet, he hopes to devote himself to the business full-time after graduation and eventually turn a profit.

“Making money is OK,” he said. “What’s not OK is making money at someone else’s expense.”

Contact Heather Stephenson at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.

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