Placencia’s Gold: Khajdija Assales wins YLAI Ambassador of the Year
Thousands of young entrepreneurs apply every year to the Young Leaders of Americas Initiative (YLAI). 280 are chosen to participate in their fellowship program. Only one wins their Pitch Solution Award and becomes the YLAI Ambassador of the year. Placencia’s very own Khadija Assales is that one! The Young Leaders of Americas Initiative was launched in 2015 by the U.S Department of State with a mission to empower emerging entrepreneurs from North, South and Central America and the Caribbean. From 37 nations in these areas, they select a handful of business owners, under the age of 35, to be matched with a host business in the United States that will help them address their business challenges and foster their earning potential. Having previously applied for one of these prestigious placements to no avail, Khadija made another submission in 2021 knowing it was her last opportunity. She explained to the YLAI review committee that while she had started experimenting with jewelry making in her stepmother’s workshop when she was 14 years old, it was eight years later that she was inspired to make a living by it. While working in her friend’s clothing shop one afternoon, she had been idly tinkering with a vile of glass beads she’d purchased on a whim. She’d placed the resulting pair of earrings by the register and marked them for sale. They sold that afternoon and, inspired, she handed in her two weeks notice. During those two weeks, she got to work. She applied to the Village Council and was granted a lease to some roadside land. She applied to the bank and was approved for a ten thousand dollar loan. Improvising as she went, she built the 10×12 structure that still boasts the name Kaj Expressions by the football field on Placencia Main Street. She hand painted the outside and made all the shelves on the inside herself. As customers shopped, she filled the shelves with her gold wired treasures. At the age of 22, and as a young mother of two, with no formal training, she had started her own jewelry business. A few years later, while selling her wares at Lobsterfest, she was given the gift of purpose by Jen Chapman of the Lionfish Working Group. Jen had learned from Ocean Conservationist, Phil Karp, how to use the spines and tails of the predatory Lion Fish in jewelry and, in support of the greater good, Jen was willing to share how it was done. A single pair of earrings could save the lives of as many as 70,000 juvenile fish and contribute in a meaningful way to the preservation of Belize’s beloved barrier reef. The beautifully striped skin of this underwater parasite became a signature staple in the Kaj Expressions jewelry line. Her challenge, she explained to the panelists, was that, after ten years in business, she was finally becoming known in Belize and suddenly the growth felt exponential. She had opened a second store in San Ignacio, followed by a third in Caye Caulker, and was trying to keep pace with the demands of online sales through social media and her website. She now had a production team of three making as many as 250 pieces of jewelry a week based on her designs. With a mission to hire and train young Belizean women in need of opportunity, she also had several sales associates in each store. In order to maintain momentum, she rationalized, Kaj Expressions desperately needed to optimize its operational efficiency. YLAI matched Khadija with a maker space company called Generator in Burlington, Virginia and, with the support of her mother who came to watch her now 3 children, she set off for a 6 week adventure in the United States. Khadija worked at Generator from 9-4 daily, she learned to solder and was mentored in how to identify and hire an Operations Manager. In her last week there, she recorded her Solutions Pitch and headed to the YLAI Summit in Washington D.C. Unlike a typical investor proposal, YLAI expected their candidates to propose a solution to their initial business challenge gleaned from their sponsored internship. Kaj faced the camera and told her story to the committee. She explained how she had had no formal business education, no savings and had had two babies when she started out. How her time in the States and, with guidance from her Belizean mentors, Ed and Flo Boulouy of Bravo Motors, had changed her mindset from HOW to WHO. Instead of asking HOW she could deal with her challenges and WHAT she could do to overcome them, she learnt to consider WHO could help her grow her business and put proper practices in place. She’d hired an Operations Manager, Therese Jonch, her lifelong friend and passionate Kaj Expressions supporter. After being announced as one of the 10 YLAI Pitch Finalists, Khadija presented her solution live to a cross-cultural audience of 300 in the nation’s capital. A self-professed, soft-spoken introvert, Khadija recalls how she cried in her room after her presentation, sure she had failed. She couldn’t yet see how she had appeared both calm and confident in her delivery. She had explained the threat of the Lionfish invasion and the impact it would have on the thousands who make their living from the reef in Belize. She had woven a tale of her multilayered purpose to empower young Belizean women in the workforce and explained to the crowd of eager entrepreneurs that you didn’t need a formal education or to come from a wealthy family to be successful and make a difference. As good as any America’s Got Talent Golden Buzzer moment, the instagram highlight reel of the symposium will leave you verklempt and covered in goosebumps. “From Belize…Khadija Assales of Kaj Expressions is your 2022 YLAI Ambassador!” Kaj will spend the year making appearances at different YLAI Events and will return to Washington next year to mentor the new wave of YLAI Fellows. Her advice to young entrepreneurs? “Embrace discomfort and surround yourself with people who light up when you tell them your ideas”. On behalf of the Village of Placencia and the Country of Belize, congratulations Khadija!