Professional Profiles

Sustainability grad hopes pop-up business will revitalize communities

Mariana Garcia, a local business owner, is a graduate of SFU's Sustainable Community Development Certificate.

By Amy Robertson

Mariana Garcia came to Vancouver from Brazil in 2008 in search of a dramatic change—and found exactly what she was looking for.

In her home city of Belo Horizonte, Garcia had built a successful career working for a large firm that specialized in helping businesses reduce costs and increase profits—but something about it “felt wrong,” she says. There was almost a singular focus on money, and little concern for employees who were affected by restructuring and downsizing.

Garcia had travelled through Canada and many other countries, and she noticed something different about Vancouver: the people here were the most socially conscious she’d ever met.

“Vancouver leaves everything behind,” Garcia says. “It’s like a different planet.”

Woman moves to Vancouver with plans to make a difference

Garcia immigrated to the city with plans to work in the non-profit sector—she wanted to do something that would help people. Within a few months, she was coordinating a project that empowered artisan women who lived in the Downtown Eastside. In addition to creating opportunities for them to teach, make art and build confidence, Garcia used her business savvy to open a shop that helped the women support themselves by selling their creations.

A few years later, after a stint operating two other retail businesses, a new idea began to percolate. It came, in part, out of a concept Garcia had studied at SFU.

While working on the Downtown Eastside, Garcia had wanted to learn more about sustainable community development and business practices. She’d also wanted to connect with other community leaders. Her search led her to the Sustainable Community Development Certificate at SFU Continuing Studies.

“It was very inspiring,” Garcia says.

Green economy course inspires a different kind of business

One course in particular resonated with her—Green Economy Frontiers and Opportunities. It advocated methods that were the opposite of what her firm in Brazil had practised. Rather than mass production and a primary focus on profit, “green” economic practices stressed local sourcing, community needs and treating employees well.

Garcia had learned in her work with Eastside artisans that profit didn’t need to be separate from social consciousness. She’d also seen the value of local products. Why not begin a business that focused on local industry, but with a social twist?

There was one challenge Garcia had encountered again and again in her years in retail: Business was cyclical. Some stores hummed in the summertime, but crawled in January. The problem was that overhead costs were the same all year.

Her new business venture is providing a service that addresses this problem—and the practice is already popular in the United States and overseas: pop-up shops. Garcia sees her new business, called The Pop Villa, as a way to help businesses improve their performance, develop community partnerships, showcase products and connect with customers.

Her pop-up shops will be about far more than sales—they’ll also help revitalize communities by bringing something exciting and fresh to empty retail space. The shops will incorporate opportunities for musicians to perform, experts to provide workshops, and shoppers to interact—practices that are already common in Garcia’s home country of Brazil.

First pop-up to feature cake boutique

One of Garcia’s first pop-up shops will feature a Vancouver pastry chef who specializes in high-end wedding cakes. The shop will invite community members to taste new flavours, listen to music, socialize and more while they shop.

Garcia believes local products, conscientious employee practices and engaging activities will help local businesses thrive, leave a smaller carbon footprint and, ultimately, foster stronger, healthier communities.

“It’s a way to help make communities more vibrant,” she says. “It’s also a way to respect the local identity, culture and habits. Let’s analyze that and bring something that fits.”