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.

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.

PACE_MD_1

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-coffee-supply-chain

 

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.

Thinking Outside the Box in Latin America

“There has never been an example of an economy that has suffered as a result of giving women access to capital, knowledge, networks, and entrepreneurial tools. The only places where women don’t add as much to the economy as men are places they aren’t allowed to. The world has too many problems to only have half our brains working on them.” – Anne Welsh McNulty

Business has provided billions of people around the world with endless opportunities. From personal laptops to affordable air travel, innovative business models have provided us with a wealth of comforts the world over.  However, there are still those who live day to day without products, services, and opportunities that so many take for granted.

More than 20% of Peruvians (6.5 million) do not have access to electricity. 35% (16.7 million) of all Colombians are unbanked, as is 65% of the population of all of Latin America. (1) Nearly 54% (8 million) of Guatemalans live below the poverty line ($1.25/day), while 75% (11.3 million) of the population participates in the informal economy. (2)

Though these statistics may seem daunting at first, three regional innovators are successfully tackling these challenges – Alicia Kozuch, Founder of Buen Power (Peru), Ana Barrera, Founder of Aflore (Colombia), and Sophie Eckrich, Founder of Teysha (Guatemala). These entrepreneurs are harnessing the power of business to electrify remote rural communities, build trust in often uncertain financial systems, and create a direct connection between artisans and customers – all while making a profit and shifting the way their respective industries view success.

Alicia, Ana, and Sophie are all 2014 McNulty Fellows, an annual scholarship award funded by the McNulty Foundation. Each year, the McNulty Foundation selects three outstanding women entrepreneurs accepted into our Accelerator program and funds their participation in an effort to amplify market-driven solutions to pressing issues in Latin America.

LIGHTING UP PERU

IMG_5211 (1)In Peru, the combination of the Andean Mountains and Amazonian Jungle creates a complex geography that often prevents entire communities from connecting to electrical grids. It’s these conditions that motivated Alicia to look beyond the problem and look to a solution.

Buen Power doesn’t just provide an affordable and sustainable source of light to off-the-grid rural communities; the company has built a business model that creates local micro-entrepreneurs by integrating teachers as distributors of dLights. “We are utilizing teachers – since they are going to these remote communities anyway. While they are back in their home cities on the weekend, we train them in solar energy, and provide them with sample lights and specially created picture books which we have designed. They then hold community meetings in the communities where they work – and teach the community members about solar energy and its benefits and offer the lights for sale. These teachers earn a commission on sales. We are also creating other micro-entrepreneurs – by supporting about 50 other locals who buy our products at wholesale and sell at retail in their very distant communities.”

Q'ero girls with dlight - Buen powerAlicia recently received an email from a friend who works in remote Peruvian communities that stated, “Last week, we arrived in Q’ero well after dark. We saw a light in the distance which slowly moved towards us. These three beautiful girls came to meet us with you will never guess what – one of your dLights! What an amazing sight – never before have we been greeted in the dark.”

Alicia recalled, “The story brought tears to my eyes as I could clearly see, from an outside source, that our work was touching lives that we didn’t even know about. What an incredible feeling! It’s these moments that keep me going through the hardest days.”

Buen Power is currently in the process of opening 6 new locations in Peru. Next, the companies plans to replicate this distribution system country-wide. They recently received a $100,000 grant from USAID to pursue their “radical new distribution method for rural electrification”. (3)

BRINGING TRUST INTO FINANCIAL SERVICES IN COLOMBIA

IMG_4547 (1)Ana is thinking big. “Within the next 5-10 years I would like to see that Aflore has revolutionised the way of addressing the unbanked [adults who do not have bank accounts], in such a way that it has inspired others to innovate and develop other products and services to serve them properly.  After spending so many years working at the forefront of financial innovation in large investment banks,  I now believe that it is actually in this market segment where innovation should really happen, and most likely, the only segment where it really matters.”

Besides the unbanked, Ana has found that many of the people in Colombia who do, in fact, have bank accounts withdraw their money as soon as it lands in their accounts. She believes that this problem of financial inclusion is not an issue of access but rather one of engagement. Ana explains that, “Aflore’s main innovation is the channel: distributing financial products through a network of informal advisors. These informal advisors are people that are already trusted in their communities and who are seen as financial role models. We leverage these existing trusted relationships not only to get people to engage in financial services but also to access information about our clients (personal and financial) that allows us to do risk assessments of a demographic that the banks are not attending.”

Jeny, one of Aflore’s first clients, illustrates the success of this business model. Jeny has been unable to get a loan from a bank in the past because she withdraws her minimum wage salary each month as soon as it is deposited. In steps Yaneth, an Aflore advisor.

In addition to being an advisor, Yaneth is also one of Jeny’s closest friends. Yaneth has built a small but successful clothing manufacturing business from her home and has become a trusted source of financial advice for Jeny and other women in her community. When Jeny’s mother fell ill, Yaneth offered Jeny a $100 loan to visit her family. When Jeny repaid this loan, she was then extended a $500 loan to buy a washing machine. Jeny has also repaid this loan and is considering borrowing an additional $1,000 to invest in her husband’s business.

“This year, we are focusing on proving and building the channel. We aim to finish the year with a network of 120 advisors,” Ana concludes. “We aim to put in place an operation that will allow us to scale our business significantly during 2015.”

HUMANIZING FASHION IN GUATEMALA

IMG_5312 (1)The Teysha team “wants to see a fashion industry that values the creators of the goods just as much as the design and look”. They believe “that in order to create a more vibrant and prosperous world for all, we need to know each other better and value each other’s talents more”.

10250257_644211412316537_6710091512219631956_nWith this philosophy in mind, Teysha has built a business model that creates social, environmental, and economic value for all stakeholders, every step of the way. Sophie explains the Teysha business model: “We work directly with groups of artisans to connect them to our customization platform, combining the forces of textile makers, leather workers, shoe makers, to make one of a kind goods. Our customers are able to customize their goods by learning about the various villages and techniques we feature. Through this model, we create a direct connection between the customer and the maker, and create a bridge between cultures.”

10155167_640971995973812_3946401823499050900_nThis model has the potential to revolutionize artisanal fashion in the region because rather than simply analyzing market trends, producing a product, and selling it – Teysha is building a platform to connect the producer and the consumer and empowering them to work together to create a product that uses the skills of the artisans and satisfies the desires of the person purchasing the product. By bringing this human element to the fashion industry, consumers consciousness and product transparency is reaching an entirely new level. Sophie affirms that “we are working to make ethically and authentically made goods the norm within the fashion industry”.

IN CONCLUSION

These three women have overcome countless barriers in incredibly difficult business environments. The McNulty Foundation recognizes the importance of this type of innovation, values the passion, endurance and leadership these women have shown, and is committed to supporting the growth of these game changing businesses.

Anne Welsh McNulty, co-founder of the McNulty Foundation, believes “Women don’t need to be told to be leaders or to find solutions to economic and social problems in their communities. All they need is access to the economic tools and networks traditionally denied to them and they will build the solutions on their own, because that is a human desire, not a gendered one.”

Successful Impact Investment in Nicaragua

photo 1 (1) (4)Aida Patricia is the founder of Oscaritos, a textile business that she started in Nicaragua in 1996 with only 100 dollars from a microfinance loan. In November 2013, Aida completed the repayment of a debt investment from Pomona Impact, an angel investment group founded in 2011. We had the opportunity to speak with Aida and congratulate her on the successful repayment.

Aida, tell us a little about your history with Pomona.

I entered the Agora Accelerator so I could prepare my company to receive investment and had the opportunity to present my company to a group of investors. It was in Granada, in 2011, where we met Pomona. They paid a lot of attention to our company and when we spoke with them, they directly asked us how much we need, and that is how it happened. They gave us a loan of $30,000 that we invested as working capital. This investment has really helped us to grow, in fact we doubled our sales this year. We are working on a report where we document our significant growth and the impact is has had for us and on the lives of our many employees.

How was the process of working with Pomona?

The link was Agora. Agora was always aware of our relationship and served as an intermediary, helping us communicate with Pomona and prepare the right documentation throughout the entire process. Sometimes, as a SME it is hard for us to understand what investors need and their way of thinking. Agora helped us establish the relationship with Pomona and was there every step of the way. However, the relationship became more than just a business deal. Our colleagues told us that it is amazing what we have with Pomona, a relationship was more than just about a loan. They really came to be part of the Oscaritos family. It was a successful investment and we thank them very much for that trust they had in us. I want to send Mark and Rich our deepest appreciation from everyone at Oscaritex. I do not have the words needed to thank all that we have achieved thanks to Pomona.

Richard Ambrose, co-founder of Pomona Impact, added a few remarks on Aida and the investment process:

In our opinion, Aida represents the untapped entrepreneurial energy in Central America that is ready to be unlocked. I credit her and Oscar (husband) for the courage, vision and uncompromising honesty needed to get the business started WHILE delivering on her social mission.  Instead of mimicking the harsh working conditions that many garment manufacturers use to drive production, she built an open-air production facility that invites natural light and fresh air as well as a respectful working environment for her employees.  

Agora was instrumental first in identifying her as a worthy candidate for its accelerator and second in providing the additional training necessary to help get Oscaritos ready for investment.  Throughout the life of the investment, Pomona even received additional support from Agora to assist with some reporting issues that Oscaritos was having trouble completing.  This translated to both cost and time savings for us (Pomona).  Quite simply – Agora continues to impress!

We received the final repayment of the loan from Oscaritos on time and with an equitable financial return. We maintain a close relationship and look forward to collaborating on future projects. Thanks to all involved!

Retreat 2014: Accelerating the Shift Toward a New Economy

IMG_6749 (1)

John Kohler, Co-Founder of Toniic and leader in the field of impact investing, stated it bluntly: “I’d rather fund a medium business plan with excellent people, rather than a great plan with medium people.” When it comes to entrepreneurship, particularly at the early stage, the founding team of entrepreneurs plays an absolutely indispensable role. They are the ones making the decisions, taking the risks, and creating businesses that have the potential to shift the way that business functions in society. They bring a unique energy that is truly indispensable, an energy that could be felt powerfully throughout the week of January 27 in Granada, Nicaragua during the Agora 2014 Entrepreneur Retreat.

IMG_6030 (1)The Entrepreneur Retreat serves as the launch event for the Agora Accelerator, an intensive, 3-stage program designed to give entrepreneurs access to the knowledge, networks, and capital they need to scale their business models and their impact. The 2014 Retreat was designed with the intent of strengthening three key components of the early stage ecosystem: the community, the business, the individual. The agenda challenged the entrepreneurs to dive deep into both their business models and their own decision-making as leaders. However, as the week came to a close, the development of the community became a top priority for many present

IMG_4441“Back home we are already feeling SAUDADES, a word in Portuguese that describes the feeling when you miss people who, for some period of time, were a part of your life, and for whom you will forever have wonderful memories,” Raquel Cruz, Co-Founder of Brasil Aromaticos, recalled. “I want to convey my gratitude for the opportunity to be with people so special. People who are ahead of the times with their businesses; who are creating both profit and impact…and above all, people who know that it is always possible to do more. I feel honored to have been in a group of people who believe, share their dreams, and are ready for action AGORA (Agora in Portuguese means NOW)”.

At Agora we believe that building this community is critical to accelerating the shift in business from business that focuses solely on profit creation to models that create value for all shareholders. Each of the entrepreneurs in our Accelerator is taking an enormous risk. They are challenging traditional models and building new approaches in some of the most difficult environments in the world. They are creating platforms for marginalized farmers to access and share invaluable data; they are employing prisoners to produce hammocks in high demand; they are bridging the gap between tourism, indigenous communities, and the exquisite natural beauty of Mexico; they are revolutionizing mobility in Brazil with the first ever electric car sharing program; and they are re-foresting Mexico by selling and re-planting carefully-extracted, live Christmas trees. These entrepreneurs are are doing it because they truly believe it is possible to build a dynamic, competitive, and inclusive economy that creates value for all and walks the often misunderstood line between purpose and profit. The Agora Retreat is just one step on the journey of these modern-day pioneers towards accelerating the full impact of that collective vision.

IMG_4382“I returned to Mexico with a complete paradigm change,” 2014 Entrepreneur Kitti Szabo, Co-Founder of La Mano del Mono, concluded. “Now I can dream big.”

 

 

 

 

Ricardo Terán: 8 Years of Passion for a Purpose

Ricardo speaking at RetreatDear Friends,

As some of you know, over the last few months I have been transitioning out of my day to day role with Agora Partnerships, an organization I had the privilege of co-founding and managing next to my friend and mentor, Ben Powell. For over eight years, I’ve been blessed to have worked alongside some of the most passionate and intelligent individuals in the world. These young professionals have committed a part of their lives to serve others, using their skills and education to bring knowledge, networks, and capital to help entrepreneurs in the developing world unleash their potential to create massive social and environmental impact.

A few years ago, while doing my fellowship at Yale, I was able to reflect deeply about the future and what I was passionate about. The answers were clear to me: I am an entrepreneur with a passion to serve people by helping them unlock their full potential and fulfill their dreams. I am committed to being a bridge to bring the best of the world to my country, and taking the best of my country to the world.

At the time, I knew that my work with Agora with the most important thing I had ever done, and I was deeply passionate about it. But I also knew a few other things. One, my young family was quickly growing, and my time was becoming more precious. Second, I was once again full of ideas and energy to launch a new project.

But the timing didn’t seem right. I didn’t feel that neither I nor Agora were quite ready for me to move onto my next adventure, particularly because we had neither a complete nor sufficiently experienced management team, nor a fully scalable product, and we did know where the funding was going to come from in a few months. When those three things happened, I said, I would know the time had come.

Now, the time has come. Over the last two years, we have been extremely fortunate to have attracted a world class management team who is taking our organization to new frontiers – literally. We have opened up offices in Mexico and today have staff distributed in the US, China, Germany, Colombia, and Nicaragua. We have built a world-class Accelerator, which has served close to 50 entrepreneurs in over 13 Latin American countries, attracting several million dollars in impact investments, and creating hundred of new jobs. The potential for the accelerator model to continue expanding to new countries, as well as to other market segments in countries we currently operate in, means we can scale our impact significantly in the coming years. We’ve grown our program revenues substantially and we have a stronger core of partners than we’ve ever had.

When I saw these pieces in place, I knew it was time. But making the decision to actually move on was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made, but with the support of Ben, the Agora staff, and my family, I had the guidance and strength to take the next step in my entrepreneurial career.

I decided to go back to my roots and  bring technology access to BOP markets, particularly focused on the education sector and micro and small enterprises. This is a once In a lifetime kind of project, with the added bonus that I am teaming up with my Dad again to do it. We have partnered with an incredible Indian entrepreneur to develop an ultra-low cost, Android-based tablet called Mochila Digital (Digital Backpack). More importantly, through strategic partnerships with Telco’s in the region, we can provide access to the internet for under US$2 a month. This is the lowest cost internet access anywhere in Latin America, and we feel, is game changing.

On the education front, we have built an extensive ecosystem of preloaded educational apps and digitized content that is part of the mandatory curriculum of the Ministries of Education of the countries where we are working. For micro and small enterprises, we are working with leading software companies to help entrepreneurs more effectively and efficiently manage all the aspects of their businesses that impact cash flow.

I am incredibly thrilled, and slightly terrified, of the next phase of my life. I am very much looking forward to staying in touch with the Agora community through my strategic work as a Senior Advisor and Board member, but also as a lifelong believer in the power of entrepreneurship to create great things in the lives of people and system-change in the lives of countries. I know Agora is on the right path to creating this massive change and I am as excited as ever to see our mission getting accomplished.

As for my new projects, I invite all of you who may be interested in learning more to contact me. I certainly need ALL the help I can get! In the coming weeks we will be launching our website and social media platforms, so stay tuned. You can always reach me to my Agora email or my personal email, ricardoteran@gmail.com. Or you can reach me by phone at +505-8851-4500.

I want to thank all of you for your incredible support and friendship over these last few years. You have been invaluable to me and to all the people we have served. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. Please keep in touch.

I wish you all happiness, love, and éxitos.

Ricardo

Reflections on Agora’s 2013 Entrepreneur Retreat

Agora's Accelerator Class of '13
Agora’s Accelerator Class of ’13

It’s been about 2 weeks week since I returned from Agora’s Entrepreneur Retreat in Nicaragua, and I am still processing the experience.  During a week of many powerful moments and intimate conversations, a few stand out. They stand out for me not just because of their poignancy, but because they show the powerful, disruptive potential of the accelerator model for creating and scaling change.

The Ambassador’s Address

South Korean Ambassador to Nicaragua Soon Tae Kim at Agora’s 2013 Entrepreneur Retreat
South Korean Ambassador to Nicaragua Soon Tae Kim at Agora’s 2013 Entrepreneur Retreat

It’s Thursday, January 31 at the Casa Dingledine, a beautiful old house perched on a cliff overlooking Managua and the surrounding lake.  About 60 people are packed into the living room – many of them are entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs representing 27 businesses stand up, one by one. They introduce themselves, explain their business, and state their commitment to creating a better Latin America. I glance around at the people watching the entrepreneurs talk.

The room is filled with members of the Managua business and diplomatic community. The head of the World Bank for Nicaragua, the DCM (#2) of the US Embassy, And Agora co-founder Ricardo Teran’s entire family are there to support us.  And so is Soon Tae Kim, the Ambassador of South Korea to Nicaragua.

The fact that Ambassador Kim is present is by no means random. We invited him and are delighted he was able to make it. It’s taken us nearly 7 years, but we finally received a grant of about $230,000 from the Inter-American Development Bank to help support the Agora Class of 2013. The actual source of the funding comes not from the bank itself, but from the Government of South Korea. There is something very special about this money. It feels hard earned, both by us and by the Koreans. The Koreans have talked the talk and walked the walk. The most successful and sustained assault on poverty in human history was launched by the Koreans in the 1960s and continues to this day.

In 1960, Korea had a GDP per capita of $79, compared to $128 in Nicaragua and $13,414 for the U.S. After the Korean War, the country was in shambles. Today the country has a GDP per capita of about $32,100, ten times that of Nicaragua and, among many accomplishments, has created the only product that can compete with the iPhone (the Samsung Galaxy). All of us at Agora feel honored to be receiving this funding from the people of South Korea – funding that was generated through incredible hard work and a focus on innovation by a people with no natural resources to speak of, bordered by a hostile, totalitarian regime.

Agora’s Entrepreneurs

As the entrepreneurs are introducing themselves one by one, I steal a glance at the Ambassador, who is standing by the wall, listening intently – what does he make of this scene of entrepreneurs from 13 Latin American countries talking about their vision and

An Agora entrepreneur presents his business to the crowd at Casa Ding
An Agora entrepreneur presents his business to the crowd at Casa Dingledine in Managua, Nicaragua.

commitment? The entrepreneurs continue talking. They are on a roll; the energy in the room is building. The businesses are all unique, representing 10 distinct impact areas, but the sum is greater than its parts. The introductions form a collective voice, the voice of a new generation that has taken it upon themselves to create the change they want to see in the world. All of a sudden, anything seems possible. After the last entrepreneur sits down, we invite Maria Pacheco, a Guatemalan from Agora’s Class of ’11, to say a few words.  Listening to her, I hear, this time in Spanish, some of the words she spoke in San Francisco at the main stage at SoCap 2011. Maria finishes speaking and Ricardo tells everyone we will soon be showing a short video of last year’s Impact Investing in Action conference. He thanks the guests and the Ambassador. And then it happens. Ambassador Kim steps forward and asks if he can say a few words. The room falls silent.  He thanks us, and praises the entrepreneurs. Then he says,  “50 years ago we were one of the poorest countries in the world – poorer than most countries in Africa; Poorer than Nicaragua. What we did to grow was to come together and to focus on entrepreneurship and innovation.  You are doing exactly what we did. You are coming together as a community. This is the right way to create development.”

He spoke for about 10 minutes and talked about his life and his work throughout Latin America. It turns out that 20 years ago he helped start the program that is now funding us. Listening to Ambassador Kim – representing a people who have learned how to develop through iteration, innovation, and partnership among government, civil society, and business  — was a welcome tonic.  Change can happen – it has happened – it is happening – and everything is possible.

The Importance of Community

It all starts with people coming together. Before you can quantify impact, before you can conduct randomized double blind studies, before you can have a chance of creating long lasting change, you need first to get people together in a room and commit to a shared vision of the future.  That commitment, from entrepreneurs and then eventually from government and other actors, is the basic soil from which the seeds of change can grow.

When I was in college, we learned that most of the problems in Latin America boiled down to an underdeveloped civil society. But the definition we learned of civil society usually excluded the markets and business. Business was not seen as a key component of civil society. In many places this is still the rule, but it’s a rule whose time has come and gone. Now it’s time to create a new rule. Ambassador Kim and the amazing entrepreneurs of the Class of 2013 are telling us that entrepreneurship must be an important part of civil society for real growth to happen. When people come together with a shared vision of the future and support each other – whether they are entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, consultants, or ambassadors, change accelerates. It happened in South Korea. And it’s happening right now in Latin America.