Making Progress in Puerto Rico
Designer Karla López Rivera 04 FD returned to San Juan to launch Isleñas, a socially responsible footwear company.
Through a startup called Isleñas, entrepreneur Karla López Rivera 04 FD is helping to revive Puerto Rico’s struggling economy.
Designer Karla López Rivera 04 FD is among the residents of Puerto Rico who are working to pull the US territory out of a crippling, long-term recession. Even before Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017 and left the island literally powerless to rebuild, local businesses were navigating a debt crisis that caused many to close up shop.
But now Puerto Rican startups are on the rise, and Isleñas (Islander), the socially responsible footwear company López launched after returning to the island in 2018, is among them.
“Maria really pushed the decision for me to move back,” López says. “I’d been away for 14 years [but] I had those feelings of urgency to come back and help.”
After relocating from New York City, López partnered with the sustainability platform Retazo and the education- and healthcare-focused nonprofit Centro Sor Isolina Ferre (CSIF) to design and implement a training and manufacturing program that is providing opportunities for underrepresented communities in Puerto Rico.
Working out of a tiny factory in San Juan that houses two sewing machines and a blanket stitch machine, López and her small team of seamstresses are producing colorful and comfortable espadrille sandals that are available online. Some of her employees have been struggling to find work since they lost their jobs in the 1980s and 1990s when large garment factories in Puerto Rico closed.
“Today we are a team of five with the intention of growing production and opportunities locally,” López explains. She adds that the ongoing motivation behind Isleñas is simple: “look good, feel good, do good.”
Matilsha Marxuach 94 CR, Amy Devers MFA 01 FD and Jerrelle Guy 12 IL spoke about how the flexibility they learned at RISD has helped them pivot professionally.
With support from a Slavin Family Foundation Fellowship, dual degree student Kate Reed BRDD 21 ID is strengthening her commitment to socially engaged design.
Two art students from Puerto Rico are studying at RISD this semester as part of an AICAD exchange program initiated in the aftermath of Hurricane María.