If you were to pluck co-founders from a crowd, Monica Peraza O'Quigley and Sydney Sherman would not make an obvious duo. But when O'Quigley, a mother of four who was then running the online importing business Alegreea, sat down at an Austin coffee shop in early 2019 to meet with Sherman, a 28-year-old traveler who splits her time between Guatemala and New York City, both felt it was kismet.
"There was an incredible connection," says O'Quigley, "and within the first 15 minutes, we said: Let's do this together," this being the ambitious goal of raising the incomes of women in developing countries by creating an online marketplace to connect them directly to conscious consumers in wealthier markets. The Etho, launched last August in Austin, features hundreds of items--jute-rope coasters, radish-root body creams, shoes hand-embroidered in a traditional Palestinian style--whose sales benefit 4,500 female business owners and their employees.
O'Quigley, with four businesses under her belt, calls adjusting to the KPIs of a social venture a learning curve. "In a company, the bottom line is it. In a social venture, you need to be very savvy about how the dollars are creating impact and the ripple effect of that impact," she says. Sherman, the company's co-CEO and head of technology, is developing a new platform that will roll out later this year. "Yes, we're interested in creating revenue, but we know that revenue needs to enable these women to scale their businesses and lift their way of life," O'Quigley adds.
O'Quigley is no stranger to hitting the ground running with a new venture. The only child of entrepreneurs in Mexico City, she started her first business at age 7, selling water-filled bracelets to friends and family. "In that entrepreneurial environment, it felt like a question of when, not if, I would build something," she says.
Years later, her first true business fell into her lap: Her then-husband was running a fledgling medical-equipment rental company, keeping the nation's telenovelas stocked with convincing hospital props, when he decided to take a full-time gig elsewhere.
O'Quigley, who had spent the previous decade sprinting through school and raising kids, had little work experience. Yet she suggested she take the company over rather than let it close. She then revamped it, and persuaded Mexico's largest television network to let her oversee not just equipment rentals but also the build-out of hospital sets tailored to individual shows and scripts.
O'Quigley loved the challenge of parachuting into a new niche and mastering the details, but nothing about the business really made her heart sing. When her largest client restructured, O'Quigley pivoted--with dry eyes--to a new field: handling document deliveries for one of Mexico's largest banks. She built a team of 50, and then, when her family relocated to New York City in 1997, she sold the business, again without losing sleep.
"I knew I had to start something new, to feed the side of me that loves starting at square one," she says. And because O'Quigley was a bit homesick, she turned to importing high-end Mexican homewares. That business, Dalma Imports, grew over the next 14 years to supply 3,000 boutiques, museum gift shops, and national retailers, including Bloomingdale's. When demand shifted more downmarket, she followed, getting space in T.J. Maxx. "She's not afraid to go after what she wants," says Sherman. (She closed Dalma in 2012 and took over Alegreea that same year.)
For O'Quigley, bold moves are the only way to shake free from the inertia of business as usual. "We need a shift in consciousness, in how we're living life and treating the planet and treating one another," she says. And O'Quigley hopes the Etho won't just be on the frontlines of that shift but will also inspire other entrepreneurs to follow suit.