Yara Simón - La Joya Nicoya

Yara Simon

Growing up in Miami, Yara Simón was immersed in Nicaraguan culture. But when she moved to New York City, she became disappointed with the lack of Central American representation in her city and the rest of the country. 

As an editor of an online Latinx publication at the time, Yara had covered small business owners and had yearnings to kickstart her own project. “It was really exciting to see people be so passionate about the projects they had, and sell things that really spoke to people’s culture,” says Yara, who describes herself as Nica-Cubana. “While obviously there are other business owners who are doing fantastic things in [the Central American] space, you don't see enough of it.” 

She approached her business from a place of play and started by experimenting with crafts. She remembers tinkering with circular, wooden chips with the intention of turning them into pins. Her efforts were met with frustration. 

While crafts might not be her strong suit, what Yara did know was that she wanted to start her own company.

So she reached out to her cousin, Amy Vilela, about collaborating on a small venture. Amy also had the desire to start her own side business. Amy is artsy and has a flair for design. Yara is a seasoned editor and writer with a deep love of language. They put their heads together and combined their talents to launch their online store, La Joya Nicoya

The initial incarnation of La Joya Nicoya, which means “the Nicaraguan jewel,” currently features clever, crafty wares that celebrate Central American culture. While they are both Nicaraguan-Cuban-American, they feel like there should be more representation of Central America in mainstream culture. 

As of late, the co-founders are working on shifting La Joya Nicoya’s offerings to books representing the isthmus. 

Azlo chatted virtually with co-founder Yara Simón—who is also Azlo’s content manager—on what it’s like balancing a side business with a full-time profession, and gradually pivoting their businesses with a new focus and offerings. 

Representing Central American Culture 

While La Joya Nicoya might not seem as inclusive by name—the word Nicoya is used to refer to Nicaraguans–the duo has made it a mission to celebrate the diverse cultures and accomplishments of Central Americans. They also want to change the narrative. 

“Central America at large is thought to be this really terrible place,” Yara says. “Gang violence. Environmental issues. Lots of trauma. And of course, those things are happening and need to be discussed, but it can’t be the only thing we focus on. There’s a lot of beauty to Nicaragua and the rest of Central America.” 

The first set of offerings on their online platform are a testament to the inherent beauty of Central American language: A pin, with a nod to retro comic book sound effect bubbles, that reads “!A La Púchica!,” a beloved, well-used phrase in Central American households; and a sticker and tote bag with the words “No Jodás,” generally a not-so-gentle way tell someone to cut it out or to stop bothering you.

Both of these products feature phrases that are incredibly versatile—they can be used in a negative or positive way as well as in a serious or joking manner. And for outsiders looking in, they may seem like any words in Spanish, but for those in the community, they will recognize Central American slang or the use of voseo (that is, when Spanish speakers use “vos” instead of “tú” for the word “you”). 

While Nicaraguan culture is present in what Amy and Yara do, La Joya Nicoya is also very much about the isthmus. “It’s because we’re so interconnected, and our stories are really tied,” Yara says. “To me, it makes sense to represent everybody I can in that space.

Yara Simon Azlo Entrepreneur Story Photo 1

On Shifting Focus 

While Yara and Amy are proud of the products they’ve created and launched on their online platform, in recent months, they’ve homed in on publishing books, which they feel more strongly suited to do. 

“Once my cousin and I got to talking about the underrepresentation, La Joya Nicoya was born, with the purpose of highlighting all things Central America,” Amy says. “My cousin is the writer and I’m the illustrator; it’s a perfect match.”

The first book will be an illustrated children’s book on the ABCs of Nicaragua. They’re also planning on releasing a children’s book about what it means to be Central American. Yara and Amy hope to complete both books within the next year. It’s an ambitious goal, especially when the two founders are juggling day jobs and live in different parts of the country. 

“Central American history, culture, and life is something I’ve never seen depicted anywhere really, much less children’s books,” Amy says. “Usually all you hear about when it comes to Central America is violence. I think it’s important for kids to grow up connected to their roots, especially such a beautiful part of the world like Central America.” 

Learning through the process. “We’ve been taking it super slow, and making sure we’re building it the right way,” Yara says. “It’s been really exciting, especially since I’ve never read a book [originally] in English by a Nicaraguan author.”

And while it’s a passion project, it’s still a lot of hard work. “The first book, in particular, has been really hard,” Yara says. “It’s not easy cranking out 27 illustrations and accompanying text. It’s a lot.”

The process of designing and illustrating for La Joya Nicoya has been challenging, but wonderful and enlightening, Amy adds. “I’ve always had issues with feeling something I’ve designed is complete, but this takes that to a whole other level,” she says. “We’re both constantly learning so much while making things come to fruition.” 

Tapping into social media. To stay connected to their audience, during the pandemic they’ve used Instagram and created content on their blog. And with their regular posts about books and illustrators, they have also hinted at what’s to come. 

“With everything happening in the world, we weren’t in the best headspace to create fun content,” Yara says. “But as there was a lot of Black Lives Matter protests happening, Amy was like, ‘Hey. We should speak out on it.’ And she was right. So one thing we’ve tried to do every week is to highlight the range of people who are from Central America, particularly Afro-Central Americans. There’s a misconception that there are no Black folks in some parts of Central America, and that’s absolutely not true.”  

Adjusting in the COVID Era

Because of COVID, Yara and Amy haven’t been able to meet in person like they normally would. These in-person meetings were a time where they could brainstorm ideas, catch up, and map out plans for their business.

“Now, texting is our main source of communication, and we make it work, but it’s definitely not the same,” Yara says.

Being sensitive to others’ financial situations. When the pandemic hit, Yara and Amy decided to hold off on promoting their products. “With so many people losing their jobs and not having a lot of disposable income to spend, I didn’t want to be like, ‘Here, buy this; buy that,’ because it didn’t feel like the right time. I had just lost my job, too.” 

Taking a break from creating. With the upheaval, stress, and anxiety that the pandemic has created for many, there were days when Yara didn’t feel motivated to create. For weeks, Yara’s sleep patterns were off. “I was constantly on The New York Times reading about the pandemic,” Yara says. “And that’s probably why I couldn’t sleep at night.”

She gave herself permission to not be as productive or inspired to create. Instead, she turned to her love of books to get her through. 

“Once I limited my news intake, I felt I could once again focus on the future,” Yara adds. “I’m still worried about the pandemic, but now it’s not the only thing I think about.” 

Yara Simon Azlo Entrepreneur Story Photo 2

Balancing a Passion Project With Daily Obligations

As both co-founders have to juggle both personal and professional duties outside of La Joya Nicoya, they’ve found ways to carve out space for their business. 

Being keen on time management. Yara asserts that time management is everything. As Azlo’s content manager, which operates on a West Coast time zone, Yara has carved out time before and after a full day of work to focus on her two books. Amy, who lives on the East Coast, uses nights and weekends to illustrate. 

Working with a digital banking platform with no account fees 

Because La Joya Nicoya remains a passion project, the pair didn’t want a bank that had account fees to begin with. In case they had to hit “pause” on their business, monthly maintenance fees weren’t something they wanted to worry about.

“We’re not really posting a lot about our business at the time because we’re more focused on creating these books,” Yara says. “So it’s really helpful for us when we’re trying to do something completely different with our business, and we don’t have to worry about another little thing.” 

As they work on their first two books, it’s surely an exciting time for Yara and Amy to see their vision come to life. “We started off with a small idea and now we have these big plans for our business,” Yara says. “We’re really excited to do something that I think will make more of an impact. Neither of us had ever read a Nicaraguan children’s book in English before, and we’re putting so much of ourselves and our culture into this book so that we can bring our community something we wish we had when we were growing up.” 

Amy is equally excited about what’s to come. 

“The other half of La Joya Nicoya is the real brains of the operation. and she inspires me,” Amy adds. “I’m so excited about all future projects in mind and the thought of passing on stories of our people to others.”

Yara Simon Azlo Entrepreneur Story Photo 3


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