Passion into Profit: Nubia Echevarria of The Monkey Project on taking a leap of faith
Although a personal loss led Nubia Echevarria to Peru, something positive came out of that experience — a new direction and passion in her life in the form of The Monkey Project. Inspired by the talent of artisans living in Huancayo, Peru, she hit upon the idea of having them create crocheted sock monkeys, to which she's given names that signify their positive attributes. Otis the Love Monkey and Penelope the Friend Monkey can be purchased on her website now, with more to come, and Otis will also be the main character in a related forthcoming book. Profits from The Monkey Project go directly back to the Peruvian artisans, as well as other grassroots charities.
What inspired you to move back to your parents' country of Peru for a year?
My parents are from Peru, though I was born here in the U.S. The majority of my family (grandparents, aunts/uncles and cousins) live in Peru. After the sudden loss of my beautiful dad, I wanted to be around my family in Peru and just experience life the way my parents did. I wanted to immerse myself in their/my culture. I moved there for a year and lived half the time in Lima and the other half in Huancayo, a small town in the Andes mountains.
What did you take away from that experience? What surprised you about life there?
When I lived in Huancayo, known as the Artisan capital of Peru, I was amazed by the amount of talent and craftsmanship the local artisans possessed. Their wares were beautiful and so well-made by hand. You could find anything from knitted pieces, handmade jewelry, leather goods, ceramics — the list was endless. I also discovered these high-quality handmade goods were super affordable to a fault and that most of the artisans were living in poverty. Seeing these hardworking, talented artisans that were eager to work and provide for their families was the catalyst that started The Monkey Project.
How did you land on the idea of making sock monkeys? Are they popular in that area?
Huancayo has a large community of knitters and I noticed that knitted finger puppets were a popular toy. And I've always loved monkeys — I think they're super cute. I remember as a little girl my dad had given my mom a Dakin hugging monkey set and thought they were the cutest stuffed animals. It represented a sweet gesture of love. So my thought was to take an old American staple, the sock monkey, that everyone could relate to and make it philanthropic. Apart from employing women in Peru, my second motivation was to educate the younger generation on giving back. I wanted each sock monkey to represent a different characteristic, like love, hope, friendship, faith, etc. From there, the idea of creating monkey characters and telling their story evolved. Our first sock monkey we launched was Otis, who represents love (I named him after one of my favorite musicians, Otis Redding). In the children's book, he's an orphan who has a love for music and wants nothing more than a family to call his own. I'm so happy with the story — it's very sweet. To me, adoption is was one of the truest forms of love. That's why I made Otis the love monkey and orphan in the story. The percentage of the sale of each book will be donated to a charity that aids orphans and orphan care. The book is coming soon!
How long have you been doing the Monkey Project, and what has the response been like here in Nashville?
I officially launched The Monkey Project in 2012 but it really didn't get off the ground until 2013. The first year was spent creating the foundation of our brand, and since I have a full-time job, I have limited time to work on The Monkey Project. However, it is a passion project of mine, so finding the time is easy. The response has been great so far in Nashville. We're moving forward and gradually building our platform and our brand.
What effect has the project had on the lives of the Peruvian women who make the sock monkeys?
The effect on our women has been very positive. Our head crocheter, Berta, is putting her daughter through college with the earnings of TMP. We initially started with three women and now we've grown to five. There has been a steady increase in demand for our sock monkeys, which is encouraging. We're hoping to increase the number of employed women as demand increases — there is a need and an abundance of talented women eager to work.
What advice would you give to a person who wants to turn their creative passion into a business?
My advice is to go for it, and it doesn't have to be perfect to start. If your idea or product isn't 100 percent perfect, I say keep taking the necessary steps to move forward, even if they're just baby steps. I'm a perfectionist, which is hard in this line of business, so I'm constantly reminding myself that I can always tweak and refine as I go. Plus, it's always great to invite other people into your dream — they can provide you tremendous insight and perspective.
What do you do for work outside of the Monkey Project, or is it a full-time venture?
I work full-time as a product developer for Thomas Nelson/ HarperCollins Christian publishing. It's been a great education in the world of publishing, and it has inspired me to create children's books for TMP. However, I'm hoping to eventually work on TMP full time. I'm currently meeting with investors/partners to see what my options are.
Have you found it challenging to manage your job with this creative passion?
I'm not going to lie: It has been very challenging. As much as I enjoy my day job, to grow The Monkey Project is my passion. You only have so much free time to invest in a side project when you have a full-time job. I know at some point I'm going to have to take a leap of faith, which I'm excited to do. I just want it to be a wise leap of faith, in other words, I'm waiting for the stars to line up while working to make it happen.