Economics grad launches project to help her native Peru

Boutique hotel and community center was inspired by Toms business model.

By Mary Beth Faller

Zoila Bardales Harris found inspiration while she was a student at Arizona State University, and the new graduate is ready to head back to her home country of Peru with a big idea.

Harris, who is graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics always knew she wanted to do something to help her fellow Peruvians. The fifth of eight children, she had a difficult childhood, eventually living with a foster family because her parents couldn’t afford to raise her. She got her high school diploma, moved to the United States with her husband, learned English, and enrolled at Glendale Community College.

Harris then transferred to ASU to study economics and was enthralled with what she was learning.

“I was reading everything about the United States, and I was thinking, ‘This is so interesting. Why don’t we do things like this in Peru?’”

Then she took a business writing class from English instructor Elizabeth Ferszt, who uses the book “Start Something That Matters,” by Blake Mycoskie, the founder of Toms Shoes. His venture uses a one-for-one model — a pair of shoes is donated for every pair that’s purchased.

“It changed my view about how we help people. I have a passion for helping others, but how do I do it efficiently?” Harris says.

“I wanted to be an entrepreneur like him, using entrepreneurship to help people.”

Harris had the idea of creating a community center in Peru to house a library, clothing exchange, and food bank. Ferszt encouraged Harris to enter the idea in the Changemaker Challenge pitch competition last year, where it won $2,500. Harris used the money to create a 501c3 nonprofit organization called Zoila’s Closet.

“But we needed a project that would be sustainable and not rely on donations. That’s why I came up with the idea for the hotel,” she says.

Harris’s family had given her some land in northern Peru very close to a highway to the major tourist destination of Kuelap, a walled fortress built in the sixth century.

Zoila’s Suite Escape will be an eco-friendly boutique hotel that will house Zoila’s Closet and employ local people. The gift shop will be filled with crafts made by local artisans.

The hotel is about half completed, started with money from the couple’s savings, Harris says. Eventually, she’ll look for investors.

Harris worked full time at a hospital as a behavioral health aide while she finished her final semester and juggled the demands of supervising construction in another country.

“Sometimes at work I get a text saying, ‘Call me immediately. How should we do this?’" says Harris, who returned to Peru with her husband in December.

Harris answered some questions from Ideas Unlimited:

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: When I came to the United States, I wanted to help my country. Eventually, after running the hotel successfully, I’d like to run for office because I want to do things right. I want a system that can be sufficient for everybody. I wanted to be a journalist but my husband said, "Why don’t you study economics and help your country that way?"

Q: What advice would you give to those still in school?

A: We all have something to give, and you need to do it with passion and commitment. Don’t ever feel like you’re less than anyone else. I’m 35 and I don’t function like an 18-year-old student. I wasn’t planning to do this when I came to ASU, and now I’m a CEO.

Q: What was your favorite spot for studying and why?

A: I like the outdoors and I feel connected with the weather, so I like to sit near the Dean’s Patio fountain. The sound of the water relaxes me, and I can read there.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would invest it in my business. I would expand. I want Zoila’s Suite Escape and Zoila’s Closet to expand all over Peru, and, if I have the means, I’ll do it internationally. Like Toms.

Latest news