Empowering Women Through Manicures, In Colombia’s Once Most-Violent Neighborhood

In Comuna 13, where Pablo Escobar once reigned, a new organization is teach female empowerment through entrepreneurship.

Fleury Rose is an artist. Her canvas is the fingernail, and her nail art clients have included celebrities ranging from Emma Watson to Whoopi Goldberg. But a few weeks ago she found herself in front of a very different clientele: A group of a dozen impoverished single mothers (and one man) in the city of Medellin, Colombia, teaching basic lessons on how to run a successful nail business.


Rose was leading a small workshop hosted by the CadaVida Foundation, an organization dedicated to empowering low-income single mothers in the city’s Comuna 13 neighborhood. This would be an important cause anywhere, but it is especially crucial in a place like Comuna 13, which, in the height of drug lord Pablo Escobar’s power in the ’80s and ‘90s, was the most dangerous neighborhood in the most violent city in the world.

Today, two decades after his cartel’s downfall, crime and poverty are still significant problems, but the area is often pointed to as an example of urban regeneration. (You can take any number of walking tours of the neighborhood today that highlight this resurgence. It will even be the site for its first TEDx event in a few weeks, hosted by the Cada Vida Foundation.)

Still, women in particular face many challenges. “Columbia is a very patriarchal society. It is very difficult for women to find a job–and even more for single women who don’t have the support of their husband,” says Viviana Cadavid, a social entrepreneur who returned to her home country in 2014 to launch the foundation. More than one-third of children under the age of 14 in the country live in single-parent households, and most of these are headed by women, she says. Women don’t have equality in education, especially at the university level.

What’s interesting is the foundation’s approach to female empowerment through the lens of beauty. Colombia has a deep interest in beauty. After Brazil, it has the second most number of plastic surgery operations in South America. Hair and nail salons are also popular.

“Women like beauty here, so this is the tool we are using to empower their life,” says Cadavid.

This has included both training women in how to become entrepreneurs in various aspects of the beauty industry, especially as manicurists, as well as sessions designed to increase their own self-esteem. The foundation has held workshops helping women learn how to dress for the workplace and conduct themselves on job interviews. So far, about 400 women have come through different programs, some of which have received in-kind donations from various companies in the fashion and cosmetics industry. The overall goal is encouraging both financial and emotional independence.


Rose, the world-famous nail artist, experienced that when she led her course. Even though many had experience giving manicures, she taught them professional and entrepreneurial skills, such as how to market themselves on Instagram and other social media platforms.

“Even in a week, there was such a transformation of the people in the class. Not only was it important for me to teach an actual skill, but we also really wanted to teach empowerment–that these women should be proud of their careers,” says Rose.


About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.