I joined Agora Partnerships for this summer, tasked with answering the question (more or less): Where are all the women impact entrepreneurs?
This seemingly simple query led me to…Guatemala. Over the past month, I designed and implemented a series of recruitment presentations for Guatemala—the country that has yielded two of Agora’s most successful and charismatic women business owners: María Pacheco of Kiej de los Bosques and María Rodriguez of ByoEarth (“the Marías,” as we affectionately call them in-house). My recruiting team included: the effervescent Sara Lila Cordero, who heads all things marketing and communications in Agora’s Nicaragua office, and Rodriguez, an Agora Class of ’12 entrepreneur who is locally known as “the worm girl,” thanks to her on-the-rise organic composting business.
During our week-long “roadshow” in Guatemala, we spread the word of Agora’s 2013 Accelerator program, making stops at the major metropolitan—and entrepreneurial—centers of the country: Guatemala City, Antigua, and Quetzaltenango. The level of individual activity and collective energy we encountered during our visit far surpassed expectation.
In five action-packed days, we met with: international NGOs like the Rainforest Alliance and Counterpart International; regionally-focused investor groups like Grupo DNA; and dynamic local change makers, including Nikki Bahr (founder of CSR consultancy Sustainable Strategies), Daniel Buchbinder (founder of rural entrepreneurship group Alterna), Gabriela García Quinn (Guatemala director of Central American social change outfit Glasswing International), and Ivan Buitrón (leader in AGEXPORT, which supports, literally, thousands of export-ready Guatemalan businesses). We also met with prospective entrepreneurs, paying a visit to the ultra-cool Campus Tecnológico in a gritty corner of the city, as well as presenting at the up-and-coming, “green” HUB space.
Everywhere, we shared our vision—to be a one-stop shop for early-stage impact entrepreneurs serious about scaling their business and, in turn, their social impact. And everywhere, we heard the same story: while there are many one-off interventions, there are no comprehensive solutions like Agora’s Accelerator that gets small to mid-sized enterprises ready for growth capital and connect them with a growing network of impact investors.
As I met with actual entrepreneurs, I was struck by their hunger for additional resources and supports. At Quetzaltenango, for instance, Sara Lila presented on the Accelerator to a group of 120 rural women, largely micro-business owners, affiliated with the Vital Voices network. We had the enviable position of presenting right before lunch. However, the interest lasted far beyond our ten-minute “pitch.” Dozens of women approached us afterward. Hidden in their questions, I heard hope—that the Accelerator would be the solution for their businesses.
In Guatemala, the market of scalable social enterprises may be finite, but the vision and collaborative attitude of its leading players is anything but. Take, for example, Philip Wilson’s award winning company Ecofiltro, which is popularizing a simple yet effective clay filter as an ecological solution to water filtration. We toured his factory at the base of Antigua’s volcanoes, which he hopes will serve as a model operation for emerging countries globally.
“The Marias” are generous-spirited leaders, who when they encounter problems or gaps, create smart solutions. In addition to her innovative business venture, María Rodriguez is in the process of helping to incorporate the HUB in Guatemala City, which will provide much-needed convening space for start-up talent. And, María Pacheco brought international women empowerment non-profit Vital Voices to the country to tackle economic disparities along gender lines. The secret sauce to Agora is its people, and the human potential in Guatemala last week felt limitless.
Neela Pal joins Agora Partnerships from the Yale School of Management, where she is studying social sector management and organizational behavior. For her summer internship, she is helping Agora develop a recruitment strategy to increase women-owned and managed business enterprises in its Accelerator program.