Every day is an incredible experience. It reminds me how lucky I am and why I love living in America. Hello, my name's Julio Zegarra-Ballon and this is my story. I’ve called St. Louis my home since 1998 and this is where I opened the doors to Zee Bee Market, in one of my favorite neighborhoods, South Grand. My store offers customers beautifully hand-crafted and Fair Trade products from around the world. My business gives the artisans and farmers behind these products a better life. I first came to the U.S. from Peru in 1990. The U.S. is truly the land of opportunity. Had I lived in Peru after graduating from college, I would not have been afforded the same resources and possibilities to continue to learn and grow as I found here in this country.
My family and I moved to St. Louis after a promotion at work and I love this city! In 2009 I was introduced to Partners for Just Trade, an organization based in St. Louis that connects artisans living in extreme poverty and consumers in North America. Many of these artisans are from Peru. Soon, I was volunteering, selling their products and involved with Fair Trade at the local and national level.
Fair Trade is a producer-centered supply chain model. It provides workers a fair wage for their hard work and sets standards for healthy, positive and safe work environments. Through Fair Trade, I’m able to provide opportunity to many talented artisans by opening markets for their products here in St. Louis.
I built a career in retail and gained invaluable experience in buying, merchandise planning and marketing. I also completed an MBA at the University of Missouri St. Louis and my entrepreneurial spirit rose to a new level which helped me launch my business.
The support of my family has been incredible. My wife was born in the U.S. but we met and got married in Peru. She’s been a friend, an advisor and my biggest fan, from giving feedback on the logo selection to choosing paint colors for the store. Both our daughters inspire me to pursue my goals. Our oldest has said “I am so inspired by how driven you are papá, seeing you pursue your own dreams makes me feel like it’s possible for me to also follow mine no matter the circumstances.” It warms my heart to see my children appreciate that hard work is an important factor in making one’s dream a reality.
I started my small business as a mobile retail operation. I attended farmers markets, events and festivals around St. Louis. I also launched my online store a few months later. Immediately, people from all over town gravitated to Zee Bee Market and started asking for a storefront.
The nature of handmade products typically prevents people from ordering online because they know their purchase won’t match the product photo exactly. People love knowing they can own a unique, handmade and often one-of-a-kind article, but it does make selling online somewhat challenging. We carry beautiful products that sell best when the consumer can touch and feel what they are getting. This fueled my desire to open a brick-and-mortar store.
After doing some research, I concluded the thriving South Grand commercial area would be a good home for my store. Retail spaces are not readily available so I enlisted the help of the local Community Development Agency. I found the place and it needed quite a bit of work. It wasn’t hard, however, to envision the beautiful and welcoming store it is today. South Grand is an international restaurant destination already, a testament to St. Louis welcoming people from around the world and being a stronger community for it. Immigrant business owners make this possible; their entrepreneurial spirit prevails despite the language and cultural barriers. St. Louisans appreciate and value products and services that transport them to foreign places without ever leaving home. I’m proud to be an immigrant business owner that connects people in this city with unique, handcrafted products from around the world.
The new store means so much to me. It’s not just about making more sales. I have the ability to bring more Fair Trade to more people in St. Louis. I printed out beautiful posters that explain the Fair Trade principles so customers can see the impact their purchases make in the lives of countless producers. It’s about creating a better world. It’s about giving talented artists a chance for a better life. With this new store, I can work with more artisans and have a bigger impact on the economies around the world and right here in St. Louis. It also helps me tell the story of Fair Trade to more people.
I’m extending the Fair Trade philosophy to my employees, too. If I support Fair supply chain practices that protect artisans, I should pay a fair wage to my employees. I believe this creates trust and develops commitment to the employer. I would love to have sales associates who want to stay with Zee Bee Market for years and can share my passion for socially conscious shopping.
To me, being an entrepreneur is about having the power to build a business that makes a difference and about doing something unexpected. Zee Bee Market does that. Most of the things we buy are mass-produced and customers don’t get any say in how they were manufactured or how the people that made them were treated. Fair Trade items are hand-made and they stand for equality. They stand for dignity. They stand for beauty.
In my business, a website isn’t enough. I don’t have a digital product at the core of my business. That stands out as the world gets more dependent on computers, harvesting big data and automation. I’m investing in people all over the world, their talent, and an experience rooted in the human touch.