President Barack Obama participates in the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI) town hall at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru in Lima, Peru, Nov. 19, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Finding My “Something Big”: Voices of the Young Leaders of America Initiative

By José Luis Reyes

My job used to involve traveling around the world. It was a fashionable life, spending time promoting Mexican footwear brands at big, international shows. But five years ago, I decided to leave this job because of my bosses. But not for the reason you may think — each one of them was a genuine entrepreneur who had grown to own their own factories that employed more than 6,000 people altogether.

José Luis Reyes

I wanted to be like that — to create something that was my own, and that would let me leave my own imprint on the world. Then, in a conference in Guadalajara, Mexico, I had a chance to meet Professor Muhammed Yunus, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his efforts to create social and economic change from the bottom up by providing much-needed credit to the poor. He noted my strong desire to do “something big,” but encouraged me to build something that was not only big but was something useful for my community.

I didn’t know right then what that would be. But one day, sitting outside a public hospital, I saw a guy — one who certainly lived modestly — crossing the street in a Nike t-shirt. He was clearly proud of wearing it, and I thought — how did he come by such an expensive article of clothing that clearly brought him joy? Did he have to sacrifice something else he needed in order to get it? Was it fake? Did he buy it second-hand? If so, was it a terrible experience for him, with disorder, dirt, and dust?

I decided to look into it, and in my studies, I discovered that there are 80 million people in Latin America who are living in poverty, without enough money buy decent clothing. That man’s smile made me realize that the reverse could be true as well: Being forced to wear clothes you didn’t love because you couldn’t afford better could result in low self-esteem and social inequality, and thus, help spur the continuous cycle of extreme poverty without the opportunity to develop educationally, professionally, or personally.

This was my “something big.” I started Estrenón, a for-profit social enterprise that helps disrupt the poverty cycle by promoting the reused clothing movement in Mexico by dignifying second-hand retail stores. We buy gently used clothes from middle economic levels, then we select them, tag, and sanitize them, and we send them to our stores mainly for low-income families so they can buy and use them for the very first time starting at prices from $1. Right now, Estrenón has 26 stores in 3 different states in Mexico, generating 95 full-time employments and serving 556 thousand families per year. We work every single day to leave a legacy in our world through the reusing and recycling culture in Mexico.

That’s why I was so proud to be part of President Obama’s Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI). Yesterday, he dropped in on my YLAI colleagues in Lima, Peru. Watch it here:

Being part of YLAI was both a profession and personal experience for me. I got the chance to go to Ball State University in Muncie. Being in a small city in Indiana with a great group of fellows from nine different countries helped me enjoy the present, to keep moving forward and to strive for change.

I was placed in one of the biggest organizations of Second Hand Clothes in the World: Goodwill. It was amazing getting to know other unique people like us, making new friends, and a whole new family — all of whom are dedicated to thinking about the ways we can change our world. As young leaders, we have the chance to make a profound difference in our world, and to empower the people with fundamental human rights and equality.

José Luis Reyes

I’m back in my enterprise, with a new plan to empower more people and to scale-up my business model internationally. By 2020, I hope to have 100 stores in 13 states across Mexico, serving 2.2 million families with access to good clothes at affordable prices, and generating 400 new jobs. Then, I hope to spread this across Latin America. I’m not sure how I’ll do that quite yet, but I know I’ll think of that big “something.”