Every business begins with a vision. But Francisca Romero’s idea of a vocational school was more than a business; it was a social enterprise. She wanted to provide career options, empowering young women in her impoverished rural community who had little prospects beyond peasant life.
A vision of opportunity
But starting a school is hard work, and doing it without capital in a remote rural settlement seemed impossible. So Francisca did it the only way she could: under a tree behind her parents’ house. In 1973, she started teaching young girls the skills she’d learned in church – sewing, knitting, embroidery.
Forty years later, Francisca’s professional institute occupies a building adjacent to her house in the city of Concepcion, some 250 miles north of Asuncion, Paraguay. Similar in scale to her first class under the tree, the school building started out as one room.
Without access to any formal financial services, Francisca slowly expanded that one room with money she borrowed from family members. It was a tedious process, requiring enormous patience and determination. In 2010, however, Francisca learned about Accion partner Fundación Paraguaya from one of her students. She applied and got her first loan, which she used to build more classrooms.
Today she employs five part-time teachers, many of whom are graduates of the school themselves. The institute offers no less than 13 different courses of study, from esthetics — hair styling, manicures, and pedicures — to electricity, cooking, decorating, and more. Most take one to two years to complete.
Empowering young women
A sturdy woman in her mid-sixties with a pleasant voice, Francisca gives us a tour of the facility. We pass by student manicurists, who have to learn 100 different nail styles and rehearse them on one another. She pauses to correct one of them, indicating how to position the client’s hand properly and grip the brush more steadily.
Though her school is successful — no doubt due to Francisca’s personal touch — it is still very much a small enterprise. Francisca does everything from enrollment to payroll, teaching, and advertising.
“Girls start knocking on my door as early as 5 a.m.,” Francisca says. “They want their lessons before catching the 8 a.m. bus back out of town to attend to their daily responsibilities.”
Francisca’s steadfast commitment to education has earned her recognition. In 2000, Paraguay’s Ministry of Culture and Education granted Francisca’s school official status, meaning that Francisca can issue diplomas, which, in turn, can help her students access jobs more easily.
“My dream is to get a government salary, so I can lower my fees,” Francisca explains, referring to the potential but challenging process of obtaining a teacher’s salary from the government to run the school. “It’s important to note that I serve very low-income people from the surrounding villages. My students are very poor, and it’s hard for them to pay for both the classes and the school supplies they need.” Her school currently has 270 students enrolled in classes.
Later that afternoon we visit a young mother running a bodega out of her home in the vicinity. When asked about her aspirations for her business, she tells us she wants to enroll in Francisca’s school because, in her own words, getting an education is the only real chance to ensure a more promising future for herself and her family.
Whether the coursework was conducted under a tree or in one of several classrooms, the success and impact of Francisca’s school are undeniable — something of which we were privileged to have been a small part.