Oceania - often pictured as tangerine skies, azure waters and palm trees - has a rich and complicated heritage.
Kiva borrower Tiffany Lacsado, founder and co-owner of Oakland’s The Lei Company Cooperative, Inc, is using her business to honor her Pacific Islander heritage on her own terms. She is a Chamorro-American from Guahan (Guam), and like more than 1 million Pacific Island Americans, she now calls the U.S. mainland her home.
Maybe it was fate that she was my first Kiva U.S. borrower when I moved to Oakland from Hawaii. Like many Pacific Islanders I have come to know, she has a certain resilience of spirit. A strong vision for the future.
Her's: To empower Pacific Island Americans in the Bay Area through lei making - a Pacific Islander artform.
She found inspiration for The Lei Company Cooperative after seeing lei for sale on street corners and shops in the Bay Area, commonly made from candy, ribbon and arbitrary colors.
They were often from Thailand, and sellers had little knowledge of their origin and significance. They lacked meaning.
Her mission has since become to, “reclaim and re-imbue the sacredness and mana of our art forms for the benefit of Pacific Islander artisans,” as she states in her blog.
This mission has deep personal meaning for Tiffany.
She mostly grew up stateside, but preserved her connection to Chamorro identity through dance and lei making alongside the aunties at her church.
The lei that she now sells are elegant, islander designs in the vein of what the aunties passed on to her. Some do have a modern twist—ribbon and money lei, for example—but with a thorough Islander aesthetic.
Lei don’t just have personal significance for Tiffany. They have value for her community as a generative tradition that can both advance Pacific Islander cultures and pay homage to their past.
As a cultural form, they are sacred and powerful. Only some lei makers understand this.
What distinguishes Tiffany from the rest is that she cares about lei not just as a product, but as a set of relationships that go into their production.
At The Lei Company Cooperative’s early inception, something about the business’ hierarchy didn’t quite fit with her and her employees’ cultural mores.
Pacific Islanders tend to be very communitarian, if not completely egalitarian, in their outlook. This is why Tiffany chose to transition to a worker cooperative business model last year.
"Lei do not just belong to me,” she says. “They belong to all of us.”
All the Pacific Islanders who make lei under her roof—including women, the formerly incarcerated and other underserved or at-risk populations—deserve to profit equally from lei.
“At the beginning of our cooperative transition, other co-owners would jokingly call me ‘chief’,” she laughs.
This is no surprise - Tiffany is good at taking charge.
Besides, Pacific Islander societies may be communitarian, but they often rely on leaders and elders in matters of decision making.
Tiffany is essentially trying to re-locate what it means to be a Pacific Island entrepreneur in the American business landscape under a California co-op business model.
This is virtually unprecedented here, and they are the first Pacific Islander employee cooperative in the Bay Area.
Tiffany and co-owners welcome this challenge with great confidence, however.
With a Kiva loan, The Lei Company Cooperative will secure a physical workspace. Right now, they primarily work in owners’ garages.
It has been difficult to keep up with demand without adequate, permanent space.
In the future, they hope to create franchises in Pacific Islander communities throughout the United States and begin sourcing materials from owners’ home islands.
Their Kiva loan has already helped them begin developing a new style of tapa-cloth ribbon with The Nokonoko Women group of Vanua Levu, Fiji for a new line of lei.
Ultimately, The Lei Company Cooperative dreams of becoming the Jostens (a major memorabilia manufacturer) of Pacific Island handicrafts.
They are what we here at Kiva U.S. are all about: assisting ambitious, mission-driven businesses that need a first “hand up” on the capital ladder.
The communitarian ethic of mutual responsibility that lies at the core of her business model—what they refer to as chinchule’ in the Chamorro language, or kuleana in Hawaiian—is the very ethic that drives Kiva’s products and mission, and we are proud to do what we can to elevate and magnify businesses such as The Lei Company Cooperative.