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By Jennifer Sasseen For The Herald Business Journal

The founder of a Lynnwood company that imports Panama hats directly from 10 women weavers in Ecuador said he’s dreamed of helping others his whole life.

Since he was a small boy exploring mountainous terrain with his dog in his native Ecuador, he’s felt a responsibility to do some good, said Yuri Parreno, of Ultrafino Panama Hats in Lynnwood.

“I saw the world in a different way,” he said. “I loved nature and the mountains.”

The lush beauty of the landscape in Ecuador, which straddles the equator, opened his eyes to the poverty and homelessness co-existing around him.

“When you live in a third-world country,” said Parreno, 46, “you can see many things that can change your life.”

His parents cautioned him against giving money that could be used to buy drugs, he said, but the desire to help the poor never left.

Forty years later, Parreno’s dreams are coming true through Ultrafino Panama Hats; a company Parreno founded and co-owns with his wife, Ivonne Jurado, also 46. Aside from a few male master weavers of Panama hats — which originated in Ecuador despite the name — most of the weavers are women, many of whom have five or more children, Parreno said.

Buying directly from the weavers cuts out the middleman — Ecuadoran companies that buy the weaving, then finish the brims and machine-press the hats to ready them for sale — and enables Ultrafino to pay more to the weavers, Parreno said.

“These women are helping their families,” he said. “So they are making the difference, not the men.”

For Parreno and Jurado, being able to help make a difference began with immigration to the United States 16 years ago.

“Ecuador is a beautiful country with beautiful people,” Parreno said. “But unfortunately, you don’t have too much opportunity.”

He didn’t give this too much thought until their first son was born, he said. He and Jurado were working in marketing and administration, respectively, but Ecuador’s economy was poor, and their son’s future looked bleak.

Jurado had been an exchange student in Kansas, and some members of her family were living in Seattle, so the choice to immigrate seemed easy. Adapting was not so simple. Their degrees didn’t count for much and rent was expensive.

Jurado found a secretarial-receptionist job at a community center, but Parreno’s English was not as good. He ended up working as a driver, a waiter and in fast-food restaurants like Arby’s, where he did everything including mopping the floors. He worked as many as three jobs at a time, he said, and was so tired sometimes he would fall asleep on the bus and miss his stop.

One cold night he had to walk a mile in the snow without the proper footwear.

“Sometimes my eyes start trying to cry because sometimes you start losing your power,” he said. “And you say, ‘What am I doing here?’ “

His family still lives in Ecuador and calls him “the crazy one” for leaving, he said.

“But I feel very proud that we keep moving forward,” he said.

He and Jurado started importing various arts and crafts from Ecuador, selling them at street fairs and on e-Bay to find what customers wanted. When Panama hats proved the most popular, they formed Ultrafino Panama Hats in 2003. At first, they worked out of a 750-square-foot space in their garage and basement and sold strictly online.

Not only did they have to educate themselves about the hats, including how to finish the brims, press the hats into various shapes and trim them with ribbons, etc., but they also had to educate the Ecuadoran weavers on what they wanted, Parreno said. They still receive incorrect orders sometimes, he said, and have to figure out how to fix them. The more they learned about the Panama hat, though, the more they grew to love it, Jurado said.

“It’s fun, it’s stylish, you can wear it for all occasions — summer, or if you’re going to concerts,” she said. “Hats make you feel good.”

Something happens when a customer dons the right Panama hat and looks in the mirror, Parreno said. The smile tells the story.

“Your self-esteem is going up because you feel great,” Parreno said.

Handwoven from straw made from the toquilla palm plant that grows on Ecuador’s Pacific coast, the iconic hats can be traced back to the Incas and have been worn by such famous people as Gary Cooper, Winston Churchill, Sean Connery and Anthony Hopkins.

Prices average $100 to $200 a hat, but can go as high as $5,000 for collectors’ hats, which have a very fine weave. Depending on the fineness of the weave, Panama hats can take anywhere from one week to one year to make, Parreno said.

Theories abound as to why they came to be called Panama hats, but several websites attribute the start of their widespread popularity to the California Gold Rush in the mid-1850s, when American travelers bought them while passing through Panama.

Ultrafino Panama Hats has been growing in popularity. With the help of a $50,000 loan from Business Impact NW, a nonprofit dedicated to helping under-served entrepreneurs including women, minorities, and veterans, Parreno and Jurado moved their business out of their garage last year and into a 6,000-square-foot space in Lynnwood.

They learned about Business Impact NW while taking a business class at the UW Consulting and Business Development Center. They had tried borrowing from banks, Parreno said, but didn’t have the amount of collateral the banks wanted, so were shocked when Business Impact NW took only a month to approve their loan.

Joe Skye-Tucker, co-executive director of Business Impact NW, called Parreno and Jurado “incredibly persistent” with a strong business sense and the kind of steady growth that gives him confidence.

Located at 6333 212th St. SW, Suite C, Ultrafino’s new space includes a warehouse, offices and a Panama hat showroom to help customers find the right hat. The showroom is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.

Ultrafino’s Panama hats can also be found at a number of summer festivals, including in Fremont and Bellevue and at Folklife in downtown Seattle. The company now has six employees and “many, many” Panama hats in stock, Parreno said, as well as a selection of American-made winter hats and newsboy-type hats like those worn in the movie, “Newsies,” or seen on the golf course.

“Right now our main goal is to keep working hard, having fun and finding ways to make history, to help to make a difference,” Parreno said. “Not only in Ecuador, but here, too.”

August 01, 2016

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