Is Philanthropy Ready For System Change?

On July 26th, 2013 Peter Buffett wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times that caused a little bruhaha in the philanthropy and social entrepreneurship worlds. The piece drew praise and criticism, notably from Mathew Bishop, and some buzz for a time, and then faded away.  For me, the criticism seemed rather petty and missed the point, which I thought was right on.  I was moved to write about the topic when one of our younger team members from Nicaragua forwarded the op-ed to our whole team. The piece did for him what every good piece will do – it made him feel and it made him think. Even better, it energized him and made him realize that he was not alone.

I drafted my piece and submitted it to the Forbes blog. What I sent them was way too long and really not the right fit for that platform. Happily, they agreed to publish an edited version.  I am now publishing the original piece because I believe that the conversation about the role of philanthropy in our world today has become more urgent than when the piece was originally written. The essay below is essentially the same as what was first submitted to Forbes, but I did make a few minor edits after seeing it with fresh eyes.


Last week a 23-year-old Nicaraguan named Andres sent an email to our team with the subject “great read!” The piece he forwarded had been published that day in the New York Times and was written by Peter Buffett, the son of the world’s most successful and admired investor, Warren Buffett. In it, Buffett argues that the philanthropy industry is not thinking big enough for the range of challenges humanity currently faces. The problem, according to Buffett and to many others who spend time thinking about the role of private wealth in society, is that the conventional wisdom of the aid/philanthropy world lacks creativity and ambition. It is focused on amelioration, when what the world needs is insurrection, like the original act from which the word philanthropy ultimately derives – Prometheus’s revolt against the existing power structure to steal fire from the Gods and give it to humankind.

The philanthropy and development industries, Buffett argues, suffer from the sin of complacency. They work to create small scale change while remaining complicit in a system that produces untold wealth for a few, poverty for billions, and a planetary ecosystem being strained to the braking point.  The choice philanthropists need to make is whether they want to focus on addressing the symptoms or the root cause – the economic, social, and belief systems that have produced a world where most people never get a chance to reach their potential.

Our current system of globalized, industrial capitalism has produced wonders for human progress. At the same time, it has put us on a path that is no longer taking us where we need to go. We live in a profoundly unequal world where, according to Forbes, the wealthiest 1,200 people in the world have more wealth – and therefore more power – than more than 1.5 billion of their fellow human beings, most of whom are not even able to provide for their children’s most basic needs. Our social and ecological systems are buckling under the pressure; we know it, but we can’t quite figure out how to work together to change it.

We need a new and better way of defining what a successful and sustainable society looks like and how to build it. To some, this might sound radical, Utopian, or even threatening. It should not. Throughout history we have shifted into various gears as technology, entrepreneurship, and policy have combined to create new opportunities to work together differently, with more respect, and to mutual advantage. We are in one of those times now – a time of instability as one set of norms evolves into another. This shift seems to be a natural and necessary progression in human evolution. Once people have a taste of agency they will not give it back under any circumstances. As younger people have become better educated, more aware of the magnitude of problems facing the world, and armed with communication technologies that they wield more effectively than their elders, they are becoming increasingly powerful players in this shift in ways we are only just beginning to understand.

The pace of these shifts is accelerating. A great example is the commercialization of the mass produced automobile, which democratized physical mobility for the first time in history. The arrival of cars represented a fundamental change in how people came to view themselves and their interactions with their environment. It’s this kind of transformational shift that should be the true north of visionary philanthropy. The challenge is that too many in the philanthropy and development community have a mindset similar to most people at the turn of the 19th century. At that time people spent untold energy trying out ways to clean up all the horse manure that the horses pulling horse-drawn carriages ceaselessly dumped onto the cobblestone streets. The situation is the same today. We don’t need more advanced pooper scoopers. We need to invent cars.

The problem is that it’s not clear the philanthropy industry is completely on board with its new role as venture capitalist for mankind. There are exceptions, of course, but in general it is easier and requires less work to be a provider of largesse, operating in a silo with little accountability, than it is to be an investor of scarce resources, accountable to the future. But this is where philanthropy needs to head and the most thoughtful philanthropists understand this: spend less time on manure collection and more time inventing cars.

So why is so little philanthropic risk capital flowing?  Here are a few reasons.

  1. Many philanthropists don’t realize that we need system change.
  2. Incumbent non-profit leaders or aid contractors who benefit from the current industry have little incentive to change it.
  3. Philanthropists, reliant on an industry of handlers, and a social capital market that is still in its infancy, don’t know how to efficiently discover the system changing start-ups.  
  4. Many philanthropists don’t feel like they understand the risks well enough or, retreating to the more familiar ground of business, are reluctant to fund anything that won’t immediately result in quantifiable social impact.

Philanthropy can also benefit from adopting much more of a collaborative approach that moves beyond the still-prevalent mentality that recipients of grants are grateful beneficiaries as opposed to highly committed entrepreneurial teams capable of finding new solutions to our social problems at a fraction of what it might cost of governments or businesses. Since the philanthropy industry is essentially accountable to no one, it should at least find ways of making it more accountable to itself. In the venture capital world, investors who miss out on great investments or who pour money into ineffective organizations get fired. Philanthropy needs similar urgency and discipline. The best philanthropic investors should be publicly celebrated and honored the way we honor investors like Warren Buffett.

What if every foundation with an annual giving budget of over $1 million committed 5% of that budget as risk capital to fund innovation – to fund for example, 1-3 early stage ventures or collaborative initiatives focused on long-term system change? Coordinating with other foundations would ensure there is enough capital for the venture to be able to prove a concept – or fail fast. Pipeline should not be a problem if you know where to look.  As with early-stage venture capital, not every project has to succeed for the money to be well spent.  Without experimentation and risk taking, we won’t get the innovation or build the trust that can lead to system change.

Peter Buffett’s refreshing piece has started a conversation about what really matters: our collective need to change many of our patterns of social and economic relationships, to strengthen our communities, and to promote the dignity, freedom, and agency of everyone on the planet. To build this “everyone a changemaker” world, we need to bring the same creativity and relentlessness that we bring to launching a new company and apply it to what is turning out to be the great challenge of our time – and the defining challenge for the millennial generation – how to shift from our old patterns and create new patterns that build community and create value for all stakeholders.

We can see these new patterns emerging all over the world, from Kiva loans to new corporate law in Delaware. Everywhere we see the rise of socially-focused media, the empowerment of women, cleaner technologies, new standards of doing business like the B Corp movement and impact investing, programs to increase government accountability, and global fellowships and partnerships that build social capital and community.

It’s in no ones interest to tear down the edifice of capitalism. But it is in all of our interest to define what we value in human, not just market, terms. It is in all of our interest to build a society that understands that we are all inter-connected and inter-dependent, and that we are in fact capable of designing and building new kinds of markets that can solve our problems more effectively than our current system.

The good news is that there has never been a better time to be a philanthropist. Organizations like Ashoka, Echoing Green,Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, Agora Partnerships, New Profitand many others are working to identify entrepreneurs with new models to create system change. New communities and fellowships are forming with the primary purpose of addressing social problems. The most popular club at all the top business schools today is invariably the Social Enterprise Club. Much of the top entrepreneurial talent wants to be involved in shifting the world to a more sustainable path. Businesses want to be a part of this shift as well, and the best ones understand that their future is riding on it. The opportunity for philanthropy to catalyze these entrepreneurs – whether non-profit or for-profit – is breathtaking.

The son of the world’s uber-investor said we need to shift our gears; he said, implicitly: Give me great ideas, give me passion, give me something I have not seen before that will likely fail, but if it works, it will help shape a new story. Give me this, and I will help. A Nicaraguan sent it around to his team. It spoke to him. It clarified his purpose and gave him strength to deal with the challenges of his job.  And that, in the end, may be the most important legacy of Buffett’s piece. It is rippling across the planet now. Things that needed to be said were said, and the forces for change are mobilizing.   

This article was reposted from Forbes. See original article here.

A Brighter Idea for the Future

One idea lights a thousand candles.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Imagination and light go hand in hand. A bright idea is commonly depicted with a light bulb, or more specifically, a traditional incandescent bulb – the very same kind that was invented more than 100 years. Our ideas have evolved greatly over the past 100 years, so why has the object used to depict them remained static?

Try to imagine a solar lamp of versatile and sustainable design, a base from which to explore your creativity, adaptable over time to fit the needs of the future. This is a much more accurate representation of the ideas emerging from society today.


Our generation has reached a new level of awareness about our surroundings and the effects of our consumption on the environment. Sustainability has become a buzzword used nearly as much as progress and economic development. But what does sustainability mean in today’s world? How can we live more sustainably? A large part of the solution lies, surprisingly, with businesses. There is a huge opportunity for businesses that seek to create value for society as a whole, including the environment. The most successful of these businesses are deploying sustainable, market-based solutions to today’s challenges that are both profitable and respect the environment, allowing it to regenerate for generations to come.

On an individual level, many of us are looking to shift to more sustainable lifestyles. We are making small changes in our day-to-day lives ranging from recycling, to eating local produce, to trading in our car for a bike or a bus ticket, to simply using less – less plastic, less water, less energy. These seem like small steps in the scope of the world’s problems, but as more people commit to these changes, the effects multiply. Once we have mastered the smaller habit changes like recycling, have become friends with the produce vendor at our local farmers market, and look forward to our bike ride to work, we can start to take the next, larger steps. What else can we do? How can we contribute to the solutions? Where do we begin?

There are thousands of companies around the world that are enabling this transition to a more sustainable lifestyle that so many of us desire. Instead of focusing on charity as a means to create impact, these companies are creating innovative products that appeal to customers because they are both the best in the market and they provide the average consumer with an easy way to create real impact.

SULI, a portable, multi-functional solar lamp is one such product.


When consumers purchase a SULI lamp, they are reducing their CO2 consumption and helping provide a lamp to an off-the-grid community. Solar lamps are not a new innovation, however. They have been around for decades and there is plenty of competition. Similarly common is the business model that creates impact by directing a portion of profits to disadvantaged communities. However, SULI takes the concept of conscious consumerism one step further. SULI’s open-source model enables anyone to develop new ways to use the SULI lamp by designing accessories for 3-D printing.

“We want to create a SULI community, allowing us to develop new ideas together, through a model open to everybody, where we can inspire creativity and innovation. This way, every user can be a part of our team – designing, creating, building and sharing new ways to use the SULI light.”


The SULI model provides customers with the opportunity to create direct impact in a collaborative setting. The SULI team has essentially built the foundation for light innovation – so that you and I can create a myriad of unthought-of ways to bring solar light to more places. The SULI lamp itself will continue to be improved through this community feedback loop – democratizing not only access to a renewable source of light, but also allowing owners of the lamps to create accessories together and be a part of the innovation.

The SULI team has launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to support their first massive production. This campaign, similar to the SULI open-source design model, invites the public to be a part of the SULI story and to shape your own reality by co-creating the solution.

Let’s re-imagine the light bulb of our generation as a symbol of new ideas, creativity and collaboration focused on developing real solutions to today’s challenges. What can we create together?




SULI is currently participating in the 2015 Agora Accelerator. Applications for the 2016 Accelerator open on August 3rd. Learn more here.

Entrepreneurial Success: 7 Simple Actions

enerselva3I joined Agora because I was inspired by its work to promote the development of social entrepreneurs in Latin America. After selecting entrepreneurs generating positive social impact in Latin America, Agora facilitates these entrepreneurs’ access to financial, social, and human capital to increase their success and impact. I am currently advising four social social enterprises in Peru: two in clean cookstoves, one in solar lamps, and one in organic smallholder agriculture.

Having worked in microenterprise, small business training, and consulting in Africa and Latin America, I believe human and social capital are even more important to individual, company, and country development than financial capital. Here are the most important verbs I have identified for successful entrepreneurs:


  • Don’t attempt too many activities at the same time with limited resources.
  • Determine and focus on your most critical issues and growth bottlenecks.
  • Think before you spend.


  • Clearly define tasks and delegate and communicate them to personnel.
  • Think of everything you do and which of these tasks you could assign to someone else.


  • Develop a 60-second pitch to interest customers in your product or service.
  • Increase awareness and knowledge of your business with signs, advertisements, and social media.
  • Remember that the customer comes first and that your business is nothing without customers.


  • Keep basic records of sales and expenses.
  • Calculate all costs before setting prices.
  • Separate personal finances from those of the business.


  • Listen carefully to the opinions and concerns of employees and customers.
  • Tell employees clearly what they need to do.
  • Tell suppliers clearly what you need.
  • Tell distributors and customers clearly why they should buy your product or service.

Follow Up:

  • Talking and planning are of limited value without follow-up.
  • Set and adhere to clear deadlines.


  • Set realistic objectives and coordinate financial, human, material, and other resources to meet those objectives.
  • Don’t count on good luck to succeed.


These concepts are simple but can have a powerful impact on entrepreneurs and their communities. This is what I find especially appealing about Agora and its work.

There’s a Lot More to Coffee Than Beans

I set off with Luisa Lombera and Gates Gooding, the founders of a company named Pixán, (which means happiness, soul or essence in Maya), joining them in their quest to find the raw material that had thus far eluded them. Fresh from Agora Partnerships’ Entrepreneur Retreat held in Granada, Nicaragua, we were infused with an invigorated sense of purpose.

Gates and Luisa applied to the Agora Accelerator with the aim of turning Pixán into a flourishing business that will double the income of coffee farmers in the Pixán supply chain. Searching for an opportunity to create impact in the coffee sector in Latin America, they were inspired by the Yemeni traditional practice of making a drink called kishr (or qishr), which is a kind of chai made with coffee fruit, ginger, cardamom and cinnamon. Luisa and Gates took to the idea and are now looking to produce a beverage made with an infusion of dried coffee fruit, also known as “cáscara” (skin or peel – in Spanish).

In the best of cases, coffee cáscara is used as a fertilizer, though it is too acidic to be effective unless it is altered via vermicomposting. Most producers just leave it to rot in piles, causing residues to wash into rivers and lakes. This acidifies soil, disrupts nutrients levels in waterways, and creates anoxic zones in bodies of water.

However,  coffee fruit is very rich in antioxidants and when properly dried, the coffee cáscara can be transformed into a healthy product. By diverting coffee cáscara to productive uses, negative environmental impacts can be reduced and coffee farmers can earn incomes by selling something they previously threw away. This is exactly what Pixán aims to do and they plan to position their tea-like beverage as a healthy, moderately caffeinated option.

This plan sounds so simple, genius even, which should have told me something. It turns out that drying coffee fruit properly is rather difficult and can result in material that is not fit for consumption. It is also not widely practiced in Latin America, so the odds were against the Pixán team in their search for a supplier of raw material.

Meeting Alumni Along the Trail

-Rob & Noushin of Vega, along with Luisa & Gates of Pixán
Gates and Luisa had heard of someone who had successfully produced dried coffee cáscara in northern Nicaragua, near the border with Honduras. It took some resolve to hit the road after the exhausting Retreat, but we were determined to check out the potential source.

Heading north from Managua, we first stopped in Estelí to pay a visit to Rob Terenzi and Noushin Ketabi of Vega Coffee, 2014 Agora Accelerator Alumni. Just last year the Vega team was also facing the unknown. They had a mission to help coffee farmers earn a fair living, but did not yet have any revenues. Vega cuts out the many middlemen in the coffee value chain by selling “Farmer Roasted Coffee”, enabling farmers to garner the profits they deserve. Vega has built a roasting and processing center in the heart of Nicaragua coffee country that is run by the farmers themselves. Vega empowers farmers with the tools and trainings to roast and package their own beans. The final product is then shipped by Vega directly to customers.

As Vega had successfully raised capital through the Agora Accelerator, hearing their story was just the sort of reassurance Luisa & Gates needed to renew their confidence. The animated exchange between the two couples was heartwarming, and I got the feeling that things were heading in the right direction.

Reaching the Quarry

Continuing further north the next morning, we arrived at the Beneficio Santa Lucila. We were greeted by Rina Paguaga of Café Vidita, a company that grows and processes coffee from the surrounding highlands. A few years ago, Rina had caught wind of specialty coffee purveyors who occasionally served cáscara tea, somewhat as a novelty.  As a result, Café Vidita recently began producing a limited supply of coffee cáscara for export.

-Rina of Cafe Vidita with Gates & Luisa-

An accredited coffee taster, Rina set up a proper cupping for us to evaluate the three vintages of cáscara that she had, two saved from previous years. We spent hours discussing the details of growing and processing good coffee, and I learned a lot about the precision and selectivity involved. It is difficult to obtain the best beans and sustain supply in a cutthroat global market. Characteristics of the coffee plants and growing season factors also affect the taste of tea made from coffee cáscara, adding another layer of complexity.

Rina shared a great deal of advice, and helped the Pixán team flag potential improvements in their plans to find coffee cáscara suppliers. Luisa and Gates hope to work with Rina in the future to extend the cáscara-processing competency to coffee farmers in other parts of Latin America.

Meeting the Patriarch of Nicaraguan Coffee

After lunch we paid a visit to Rina’s father, Jose Rene Paguaga, a 90-year-old gentleman who is a noble figure in the Nicaraguan coffee industry. Still ebullient, he shared stories of how he built a coffee empire, lost it all, and built it back up again from almost nothing. We began to appreciate the strong-willed people behind Nicaragua’s proud coffee tradition and marveled at its recent ascension towards the top of international coffee rankings.

Looking to the Future

Luisa and Gates were excited to have met Rina, and to have tasted Café Vidita’s delicious cáscara tea, and were ready to return home to Mexico to start the next journey: launching Pixán.


In the past few months, Luisa and Gates have taken large strides towards helping coffee producers get more out of their harvests, and hope to for years to come. The Pixán beverage recently made it’s debut at farmer’s markets and retailers in Colorado.


Shared Values: what we look for when selecting entrepreneurs for the Agora Accelerator

Ben Powell - Impact Investing in Action 2013 (1)The Agora Accelerator is designed for entrepreneurs with real potential to make a significant positive contribution to the world. When we select our classes, we look at a number of factors including business model innovation, scalability, and social impact. But the most important factor by far is the quality of the entrepreneur.  Figuring out who are the most promising entrepreneurs for the accelerator is one of our hardest jobs, especially given the tremendous energy and innovation we are seeing among entrepreneurs working throughout Latin America.  We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we have found that using core values as a framework can be incredibly helpful in understanding the power an entrepreneur will eventually wield to propel his/her company to success.

For Agora, we look for entrepreneurs with unambiguous clarity of intention to create great businesses that address key community and environmental needs.  While many entrepreneurs have this intention, we’ve found it’s the ones who embody a few simple core values that are most likely to grow businesses that create change at large scale. These core values also correlate to entrepreneurs who, by their very orientation to the world, are most likely to add real value to other entrepreneurs in the Agora community.

These are the four core values that we hold as an organization and that we look for in our own hiring as well as in selecting entrepreneurs for the Agora Accelerator.

  1. Agency – Agency means believing we can actively influence our destiny, and then having the courage to act on that belief. It is the conviction that you can make a difference, that you have some control over your own destiny; that you are a player, not just a spectator. Entrepreneurs with agency believe the following:  I have a stake in the system and I have the power to change it for the better; therefore, I will. Agency is the fundamental value all entrepreneurs must possess to make any difference in the world.
  2. Empathy –  Empathy means understanding at a fundamental level that we are interconnected, with a shared humanity and a shared destiny. It’s the root of kindness and compassion and the foundation of trust and community. It is basic respect for the dignity of the human race, and for the planet on which we live, and humility in knowing that we may not always be right. It’s a key component of creativity and social problem solving, team dynamics, and effective collaboration and co-creation. It’s an indispensable ingredient for successful business leadership in the 21st century.
  3. Curiosity  –  Human curiosity is the foundation for human ingenuity, invention, and progress. It’s a mindset relentlessly focused on the need to understand ourselves and our environment more fully so that we can more effectively allocate time and resources to our own, and everyone else’s benefit.  A curiosity mindset questions the status quo, recognizes flaws in systems and patterns, and constantly looks for ways to improve the way things are done.  It is the root of our desire to learn and evolve and to question authority.
  4. Perseverance –  Perseverance means not giving up while there is still hope. Entrepreneurship is almost always a slog, requiring day to day blocking and tackling punctuated by frequent crisis and failure. How we adjust to challenge, how we deal with disappointment and stress, how we show up every day is probably the single most important factor to any entrepreneur’s success.  Grand strokes of genius or creativity can launch a company but attention to detail, diligence, discipline, and grit are what grow a business, and a person.

In a world of accelerating complexity, uncertainty and competition, core values remaining unflinchingly constant is key to successfully taking an idea and turning it into an organization.  I’ve found that it pays to work with entrepreneurs who live with strong core values, whether they are conscious of it or not.

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Valores Fundamentales – lo que buscamos cuando se seleccionan emprendedores

Ben Powell - Impact Investing in Action 2013 (1)La Aceleradora Agora está diseñada para emprendedores con potencial real para hacer una contribución importante y positiva al mundo. Cuando se seleccionan nuestras clases, nos fijamos en una serie de factores que incluyen que tan innovador es el modelo de negocio, la escalabilidad y el impacto social; pero el factor más importante es la calidad del emprendedor. Averiguar quienes son los emprendedores más prometedores para la Aceleradora es una de nuestras tareas más difíciles, sobre todo en vista de la enorme energía y la innovación que estamos viendo entre emprendedores que trabajan en América Latina. No pretendemos tener todas las respuestas, pero hemos encontrado que el uso de una serie de valores fundamentales como marco puede ser increíblemente útil para comprender la motivación de un emprendedor, para impulsar su empresa al éxito.

En Agora, buscamos emprendedores con claridad de intención para crear grandes compañías que solucionen las necesidades claves de las comunidades y del medioambiente. Mientras que muchos emprendedores tienen esta intención, hemos encontrado que son los que encarnan unos simples valores fundamentales los que tienen mayores probabilidades de crecer compañías que crean cambios en gran escala. Estos valores fundamentales también están ligados a emprendedores que, por su misma orientación al mundo, son los que tienen mayor probabilidad de aumentar el valor real a otros emprendedores en la Comunidad Agora.

Los cuatro valores fundamentales que tenemos como organización, y que buscamos tanto al contratar miembros de staff, como al reclutar emprendedores son: agencia, empatía, curiosidad y perseverancia

  1. ACCIÓN – Agencia significa creer que podemos influir activamente nuestro destino y, consecuentemente, tener la valentía de actuar sobre la base de esa convicción. Es la convicción de que se puede hacer la diferencia, que uno tiene control sobre su propio destino; que es un jugador, no sólo un espectador. Los empresarios con agencia piensan: tengo un rol en el sistema y tengo el poder de cambiarlo para el bien; por lo tanto, lo haré. Agencia es el valor fundamental que todos los empresarios deben poseer para hacer alguna diferencia en el mundo.
  2. EMPATÍA – La empatía significa comprender en un nivel fundamental que estamos interconectados, con una humanidad compartida y con un destino común. Es la raíz de la bondad y la compasión, y el fundamento de la confianza y de la comunidad. Es fundamental respetar la dignidad de la raza humana, y el planeta en el que vivimos. Es un componente clave en la creatividad para poder resolver los problemas sociales y en el trabajo en equipo. Es un ingrediente indispensable para que una empresa tenga éxito en el siglo 21.
  3. CURIOSIDAD – La curiosidad es la base para el ingenio, la invención y el progreso. Es la necesidad de entendernos a nosotros mismos y a nuestro medio ambiente con el fin de asignar con eficacia más tiempo y recursos para nosotros y para los demás. Una mente curiosa cuestiona el status quo, reconoce fallas en los sistemas y los patrones, y busca constantemente maneras de mejorar la manera de hacer las cosas. Es la raíz de nuestro deseo de aprender y evolucionar.
  4. PERSEVERANCIA – Perseverancia significa no darse por vencido mientras haya esperanza. Ser emprendedor es difícil, el día a día es una lucha constante. Cómo nos adaptamos a los retos, cómo tratamos con la decepción y el estrés, cómo nos mostramos cada día es probablemente el factor individual más importante para cualquier empresario exitoso. La creatividad puede iniciar una empresa, pero la atención a los detalles y la disciplina son las que hacen crecer el negocio.

En un mundo de creciente complejidad, incertidumbre y competencia, los valores fundamentales son clave para que una idea se convierta en una organización. He descubierto que vale la pena trabajar con los emprendedores que llevan su vida con valores.

View the post in english here.


Con Ágora Partnerships, uno siempre tiene más de lo que espera

IMG_6309Marcelo Hernandez Mahecha y Alexander Valencia participaron en La Aceleradora Agora 2014. Su negocio, CAIA Ingeniería, provee servicios de consultoría de energía y emisiones para empresas en industrias de alto consumo energético en Colombia. Luego, CAIA brinda servicios para implementar las mejoras recomendadas, a través de innovadores contratos de rendimiento de ahorro energético, que reducen o hasta eliminan las salidas de flujos de sus clientes.

Hablamos con Marcelo sobre su experiencia en La Aceleradora Agora y esto fue lo que nos contó.

¿Cómo era tu relación con tu consultor Agora?

Muy buena – muy cordial y muy profesional. Daryl, nuestro consultor Agora, nos dio muy buenas ideas que nos hicieron cambiar de perspectiva varias veces. Así mismo, debido a que era ingeniero, logró entender rápidamente nuestro modelo de negocio y nuestra oferta de valor.

¿Cuál fue el mejor consejo que les dio su consultor?

¡Nos dio muchos consejos! Recuerdo que nos obligó a contar la historia de nuestro negocio, no solo a enfocarnos en el tema técnico. También, nos dio ideas en cada fase de la consultoría que realmente ampliaron nuestra visión. Por ejemplo, aportó muchísimo a nuestro modelo de negocio ya que durante su revisión de nuestro modelo financiero se dio cuenta que la deuda que adquirimos para crecer es exactamente igual al incremento en activos. Eso nos permitió no solo modelar nuestro crecimiento, sino también tener momentos importantes de negociación con los inversionistas. Finalmente, nos ayudó a generar nuestra estrategia hacia los inversionistas ya que nuestro consultor sabía que tipo de recursos necesitábamos y la mejor manera de contar nuestra historia para poder obtener esos recursos.

¿Qué consejo darían a un emprendedor que esté pensando en aplicar a la Aceleradora?

Le diría que no lo dude, que aplique. La verdad considero que son muchas las razones para aplicar. Primeramente, te da la oportunidad de que alguien externo te ayude a comprender las debilidades y las fortalezas del negocio y como crecer a partir de ahí. Segundo, es un ambiente de gente muy motivada, brillante y comprometida; para un emprendedor, esto es muy importante ya que encontrar ese tipo de gente te ayuda a llenarte de energía y a volverte más fuerte. Finalmente, el contacto con inversionistas y la metodología de los deal discussions (dinámica de Agoradonde un emprendedor presenta su proyecto de inversión a posibles inversionistas) es sumamente útil. Agora ayuda tanto a los emprendedores como a los inversionistas a estar más tranquilos, para un emprendedor, saber que hay alguien atrás que está validando lo que uno está haciendo es sumamente importante.

IMG_6164Realmente es una experiencia que nosotros valoramos muy positivamente, que cambió mucho la perspectiva de nuestro negocio y que nos dio las herramientas para continuar. Después de SOCAP (la conferencia de inversión que asistimos como parte de La Aceleradora) logramos entablar una relación con un inversionista en Colombia y con otros en Estados Unidos. Actualmente estamos negociando con los inversionistas y vamos a ver qué se logra. El acompañamiento de Ágora en estos procesos es fundamental.

¿Algún otro comentario?

Con Ágora uno siempre tiene más de lo que uno espera. Viendo retrospectivamente, el costo-beneficio obtenido a través de la Aceleradora es bien grande. Tiene muchos beneficios a un precio que es muy económico y accesible.

Completing the Puzzle: how the Agora Accelerator helped PACE MD piece together a complicated business model

In Mexico, more than 3 million neonates die in their first month of life, almost 300,000 women from complications at birth, and more than 750,000 children die of diarrheal illness each year. And this is just the beginning. Haywood Hall, founder of PACE MD, discovered that a significant amount of these deaths can be averted with proper training. Mexico suffers from a “Medical Knowledge Gap” in which health care providers lack fundamental training and/or continuing medical education opportunities to provide consistent high quality care.

PACE_MD_3PACE MD is solving this problem by selling continuing medical education and training packages in Mexico and Latin America to improve medical care and system efficiency in emergency situations. They use an innovative model of skills training and certification, knowledge networks, and tele-mentoring to reach from medical centers in major cities all the way out to the last mile of the chain of survival.

PACE MD has trained and certified more than 20,000 medical providers since 2006 and was credited by the Health Ministry of Chiapas with helping to reduce the Maternal Mortality rate in Chiapas 32%. PACE MD is a certified B Corp and Haywood Hall is an Ashoka Fellow. Like many businesses operating in Latin America, PACE MD faced a number of challenges to growth.

Agora had the opportunity to speak with Haywood about his experience in the Agora Accelerator and how the program helped PACE MD to overcome of the challenges it faced.

Which aspect of the Agora Accelerator were you most apprehensive about prior to starting the program?

Haywood Hall: [A Business Accelerator] is a very different orientation from everything that I have been doing so far to build my business. As a physician with background in emergency care, I hadn’t been very involved in the more formal business aspects. I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to understand the business parts as quickly as my peers. I also had many time constraints. However, as an entrepreneur, I was excited to get outside the “day-to-day” aspects of my job.

What was the most helpful aspect of the Accelerator consulting process for PACE MD?

IMG_6323Haywood Hall: When I started the Accelerator, I had a general idea of where different components of PACE MD fit together, but I knew we had a long way to go. Participating in the Accelerator taught me different ways to structure businesses, a lot about how organizations run and think, and the many kinds of tools that can be used to run a business. In particular, I learned the importance of focusing on the financial aspects of the business (and how to do so). I had a very low level of financial knowledge before the Accelerator. There’s still a lot of room for improvement, but my financial knowledge improved significantly.

Throughout the Accelerator, you had the opportunity to pitch PACE MD to a number of different investors. What did you learn from that process?

Haywood Hall: Prior to participating in the Accelerator, there was a confusing cloud in the air of what our mission was – in terms of its social function versus its business function. I had a lot of trouble maintaining both of those things and sometimes found myself discussing the social impact and downplaying the financial aspects, and vise versa. Through the Accelerator, I had a number of opportunities to practice selling different things to different people. I learned that people need to hear different things and that you need to figure out exactly who your audience is.

As PACE MD’s Agora Consultant, what was the most transformational change you saw in PACE MD over the 8-months you worked with Haywood and the rest of the team?

Joana Videgain: PACE MD significantly strengthened their business model during the Accelerator and showed real change in three major areas.

  1. Pitching the Business: At the very beginning of the Accelerator (at the Entrepreneur Retreat), the PACE team had a conversation with an investor and after an entire hour, the investor still could not understand the different pieces of the business and how they fit together. 8 months later, at Agora’s Impact Investing in Action at SOCAP, Hawyood successfully and clearly presented his entire business model in 10 minutes including an explanation of how their many different programs fit into the company’s theory of change.
  2. Linking the Vision and the Operations: I have seen many companies where the operational team is excluded from the core mission of the business. I worked closely with Haywood to find ways in which the entire team could spend more time together and could focus on the “why” of their work. After a few months, I was able to see the links between the operational team and the visionary teams forming and strengthening.
  3. Building the Network: With improved communications, PACE MD attracted many allies and investors. In addition, through Agora’s mentor and investor matchmaking and multiple opportunities to host Deal Discussions at industry conferences, PACE MD gained a much stronger and more prominent position within the larger industry of impact investing and PACE MD is now part of other programs that will continue to help them grow and strengthen their business.


The Value of Community Along the Road Less Traveled

Vega is solving a major problem in the coffee industry: 80% of coffee farmers worldwide (20 million farmers) are trapped in a cycle of subsistence farming, earning around $1 per pound of coffee which is ultimately sold for upwards of $20 per pound. Typical coffee supply chains include around 20 middlemen and can take up to 6 months for the coffee bean to reach the consumer.

Vega empowers coffee farmers in Nicaragua to process their own premium beans, and connects them directly with coffee lovers on their online marketplace.



Vega participated in the 2014 Agora Accelerator. We had the chance to speak with one of the Co-Founders of Vega, Noushin Ketabi, about her experience in the Agora Accelerator.

You were more early stage than many of the other companies, but had very high (and fast) growth potential. What value did you gain from the Entrepreneur Retreat?

IMG_6016The Retreat really marked the start of Vega. My cofounders and I had just left our previous jobs, and in the weeks before the Retreat, two of us had moved down to Nicaragua to start in-country operations. Our consultant Mary was an awesome resource, and the cohort structure helped us really get to know our fellow entrepreneurs, and understand their businesses and experiences. The sessions on leadership, investment structures, business models, and pitching were instrumental for us in starting our venture off on the right foot, in particular because we were so early stage. We made friends from countries throughout Latin America, and learned so much!

What did you learn from your peers in the Agora Accelerator that had businesses at later stages than you?

We learned the power of perseverance from our fellow entrepreneurs. Everyone, in the story of their enterprise, had some fundamental experience(s) that was either arduous and/or didn’t go at all as they had planned. Talking to our fellow entrepreneurs and learning how they applied patience and creativity to work through those obstacles taught us a lot. Although we had been planning to start Vega for a while, hearing first-hand actual risks and difficulties inherent in starting a new venture abroad (and that you could tackle them!) was a great way for us to adjust our expectations and apply a realistic perspective moving forward.

Although you did not receive full consulting, how did being part of the agora community contribute to your fast growth rate and success pitching to investors?

Vega_3Our consultant Mary was always there for us whenever we needed her. Immediately post-Retreat, she helped us start thinking through Vega’s mission and values, and define our respective roles as co-founders. This higher consciousness organized us, so we could start functioning like a real company. Mary gave us fantastic advice and feedback as we applied to funding opportunities, and was 110% there for us with anything we threw at her — interview prep, financial projections, comparative market analysis, whatever! We couldn’t be where we are today as a company without Mary or the other Agora staff, who were always on hand to help with any specific questions that we had along the way.

What advice would you give to someone considering participating in the Accelerator?

Vega_1Absolutely apply! From start to finish, being a part of the Agora family has been a wonderful experience. From the first day of the Retreat to today, I feel as though I am a part of a supportive—and awe-inspiring—community of changemakers. When you decide to take the road less traveled, there’s nothing more valuable than finding that community. Also, the connections we made with funders and advisors over the course of the Agora accelerator has been critical to us as we seek our first round of funding and take Vega to the next level.


Applications for the 2015 Agora Accelerator are open until November 3rd.

Agora Accelerator Provides Birds-Eye View for Entrepreneurs in Latin America

Luciernaga1 (1)Luciérnaga distributes small solar lighting technologies that affordably meet the
lighting and device charging needs for energy poor populations in Central America. Luciérnaga fights energy poverty, delivers clean energy, and strengthens markets. The company has sold 3,400 solar lights, providing 17,000 people with access to light and allowing them to save up to $220 per year.

Luciérnaga participated in the 2014 Agora Accelerator. We interviewed the Founder and Managing Director, Sebastian Africano, to learn more about why he decided to apply for the Accelerator and what value he gained.

Why did you decide to apply for the agora accelerator?

I was in the process of starting Luciérnaga at the time and had many gaps and questions about the business model that I wanted to answer. I was looking for support in different places and wanted increase the visibility of the company.

What I liked about Agora was the focus on Latin America and the fact that Agora had an office in one of the countries where Luciérnaga has operations and where I have worked regularly over the past 10 years. This regional focus makes Agora more aware of the situations and circumstances that are particular to Latin America. Agora also offered a broad diversity of enterprises, peers and colleagues. So I did some more research on the program, applied, and got in.

What were the two things about the consulting that were the most helpful in developing your business model and preparing Luciérnaga for growth?

A)   The process.  Looking at every part of the business model and looking at where the gaps existed was very helpful. The process allowed me to zoom out and view my business model from a 10,000-foot vantage point to identify the strong components as well as the weaker ones that needed to be removed or changed. I saw everything from new perspectives and found a number of blind spots that had previously been ignored.

In addition, having an Agora consultant, Maria, working with me each week provided a new set of eyes that were objectively looking at everything. Maria provided very helpful support in financial planning and modeling in particular. I had someone pulling their hairs alongside of me! Finally, I appreciated having someone who really understood the Central American context and the challenges of running a business in Latin America.

B)   The contacts that Agora has. Agora’s network is really impressive. I made a lot of good contacts from Agora’s partnership with the Mentor Capital Network (formerly known as the William James Foundation) and during my participation at the Biennial of the Americas’ Mexico City Summit where I hosted an Agora Deal Discussion. I also had the opportunity to participate in a business plan competition with the Mentor Capital Network where I had access to even more mentors and feedback on my business model.

IMG_6034 (1)What would you tell someone who is unsure about applying for or participating the program?

Be realistic about the time and financial commitment.

It’s worthwhile because you will be in a community that shares a lot of the challenges that you have in your new business, that shares opportunities, and introduces you to new networks. You will gain access to many new opportunities including feedback on your business model and endless communication/network opportunities.



Applications for the 2015 Agora Accelerator are open until November 3rd.

Accelerating Businesses Creating Positive Impact