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
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.
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
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.