Category Archives: Commentary

2016 Retreat: 25 companies, 4 days, 1 community

Agora’s 2016 Entrepreneur Retreat was held from March 14th-March 17th in Granada, Nicaragua. We welcomed an extraordinary group of over 70 attendees, made up of entrepreneurs, investors, alumni, staff, and partners to kick off the 2016 Accelerator. 

The Retreat consisted of the four core themes Impact, Business, Growth, and Network that are essential to launching successful, impact-driven businesses. During the Retreat, entrepreneurs were able to build a sense of community with the broader Agora network, participate in peer-to-peer learning, and launch into the Accelerator curriculum alongside their consultant. Reflecting on this year’s Retreat, Agora’s Accelerator Director Erin Milley remarked, “The Retreat is one of those unique events where you leave refreshed, motivated and in awe of the strength of community. It was inspiring to witness the Agora network coming together to support a new class of extraordinary entrepreneurs working to make this world a better place.”

Below are some of the Retreat highlights:

Day 1: Impact

Highlights: Introduction to Agora Partnerships, how to create and measure change, hiking Mombacho Volcano, and entrepreneurs declaring their commitments to their businesses

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Day 2: Business

Highlights: Exploring and scaling innovative business models, entrepreneurs working on their business models and presenting them to a panel for review, and attending FuckUp Night

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Day 3: Growth

Highlights: Learning about the impact investing landscape through an investor panel, strengthening entrepreneurs pitches, and attending a special reception in Managua to present the Class of 2016 to the Nicaraguan business community

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Day 4: Network

Highlights: Building your brand and leveraging the Agora network, reflecting on the Retreat at Isleta el Corozo, and ending the Retreat with a closing circle and certificates

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The Retreat is the official starting point for the Agora Accelerator cycle, a place where entrepreneurs dive into a four-month process of financial models, growth strategies, network building, and personal reflection.

“The Accelerator provides more than information, coaching, and a network,” David Evitt of Agora ’16 company Estufa Doña Dora remarked. “The consultants join your team to help turn insights into actions that move the business forward.”

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After a successful 2016 Retreat, we are excited to see what the next four months hold as our Class of 2016 entrepreneurs refine their business models with their Agora consultants to prepare for growth.

Check out the full Retreat agenda here and learn more about our Class of 2016 here.

From the Mayan Biosphere to the World

The Pat family is demonstrating how it is possible to insert a rural indigenous community into the global economy and to preserve the environment at the same time.

I have to admit that I have often regarded ventures of this type as exercises in nostalgia rather than as serious business propositions. Also, too many of us in the development community are in a constant quest for scale and large numbers instead of measuring the intensity of impact for those affected. This project made me look at things in a new way.

The Pat family lives in the Mayan community of Tankuche of about 1,000 residents in the state of Campeche in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. They have taken what was formerly a hobby –beekeeping – and turned it into a business that produces as much as 10 tons of pure organic honey a year. The bees are raised on communal and public lands within the Los Petenes biosphere reserve, and their cultivation requires the preservation of the ecology of reserve, thus aligning economic incentives with conservation. Don Vidal, the father of the Pat family, is currently in the process of formalizing the company as a cooperative, which will allow for easier access to financing. Getting past the bureaucrats who delight in making things as difficult as possible is just one of the many challenges he has to overcome.

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Don Vidal is a highly spiritual man and a visionary. He wants to provide an example to the rest of the village of how hard work can help people raise themselves out of poverty. His whole family is entrepreneurial. His wife, Isabel, is involved in providing healthcare, formally and informally, especially to pregnant women in the village. One of their daughters, Josefa, runs an outsourced garment operation employing women of the village and their other daughter commercializes the honey in Cancun. Their son, Rogaciano, currently manages the beekeeping with the help of three employees. Last year, with some public funding and a reinvestment of profits, the family began constructing a collection center. The center still needs about $50,000 to install the bottling operation and to build the warehouse and shipping center that will allow the family to manage not only their own production, but that for another 32 family producers, 8 of whom already produce with Vidal. The idea is to eventually incorporate as many honey producers in the village as possible.

The commercialization of the Pat family’s honey is being assumed by Mercado delaTierra, an entity formed by The GreenSquids, a company created by architect turned social entrepreneur Enrique Kaufmann who is dedicated to developing sustainable businesses in rural communities. The GreenSquids in turn has participated in Agora Partnerships’ Accelerator program and remains an active member of the Agora community. The GreenSquids is also working on a comprehensive community development project in the Mayan community of Nuevo Xcan in the state of Quintana Roo.

Mercado delaTierra is positioning the honey as a premium, pure organic product. Honey can also be differentiated by qualities such as acidity, color, and flavor derived from the type of flower that produced the pollen. Mercado delaTierra has already signed a contract with Thrive Market to distribute the honey in Thrive’s California stores and is seeking additional contracts for the remainder of the Pat family production. Due to declining U.S. production of honey, attributed to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the causes if which are still being debated, honey prices in the U.S. have risen more than 80% since 2006 and about 65% of US supply is now imported. In addition, much of the product marketed as honey is impure or adulterated.

However, in Campeche, the very biodiversity of the Los Petenes reserve appears to protect the bees from natural enemies. There is a great opportunity to increase production. With a small amount of additional financing for the collection center (anyone thinking crowdfunding?), this business can be taken to the next level. This would indeed produce a sweet result for the Pat family, their village, the biosphere, and very satisfied honey lovers all around the world.

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 brouhaha in the philanthropy and social entrepreneurship worlds. The piece drew praise and criticism, notably from Matthew Bishop, and some buzz for a time, and then faded away.  For me, the criticism missed the point, which I thought was right on.  I decided to write about the topic when one of our young 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.

Continue reading Is Philanthropy Ready For System Change?

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:

Continue reading Entrepreneurial Success: 7 Simple Actions

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.

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

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.

Continue reading Valores Fundamentales – lo que buscamos cuando se seleccionan emprendedores

Retreat 2014: Accelerating the Shift Toward a New Economy

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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.”

 

 

 

 

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.

Are Millennials the key to Impact Investing’s Success?

There has been a lot of talk recently about the so-called “Millenial” generation. This distinctive group of idealistic, well-traveled twenty- to thirty-five-year-olds has been successful in carving out a niche for itself in popular culture. It is a bunch that has been typecast as earnest, educated, and intent on pursuing social good. And while their ambition is admirable, the question remains about how this group will ultimately leave its mark on the greater worldwide movement to create impact through business.

Among the wide range of commentary describing Millennials in recent memory, one thought sticks out among the rest in trying to pinpoint some common factor within this diverse Facebook Generation: money. Or, more specifically, what Millennials do with it.

Take Institutional Investor, for example, which recently ran an article on the rapidly expanding world of impact investing:

“ ‘Today, that view is still pretty pervasive, that there’s capitalism and making money on one side, and philanthropy on the other. I think the younger generation is seeing that as a false dichotomy, or at least something that will increasingly become a false dichotomy.’…Millennials are more likely to embrace a philosophy that financial interests and social interests ought to directly overlap, thereby ostensibly benefitting both wallet and world.”

And here’s essayist William Deresiewicz, writing in the New York Times in November 2011 on “Generational Sell”:

“The millennial affect is the affect of the salesman….Here’s what I see around me, in the city and the culture: food carts, 20-somethings selling wallets made from recycled plastic bags, boutique pickle companies, techie start-ups, Kickstarter, urban-farming supply stores and bottled water that wants to save the planet. Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business…. Nonprofits are still hip, but students don’t dream about joining one, they dream about starting one. In any case, what’s really hip is social entrepreneurship – companies that try to make money responsibly, then give it all away.”

Well, maybe not all of it – but, nevertheless, the social enterprise is the new skinny jean. The skyrocketing growth of the “impact space” in recent years is evidence enough that Millennials are taking seriously the desire to solve the problems they see in the world around them.

The Millennial Generation is digitally savvy and well connected, but is that enough to push the conscious capitalism movement forward?

The will to help is certainly there, but not everyone sees the Millennials as having the necessary skill set or temperament to actually instigate meaningful change. As David Brooks of the New York Times opined earlier this year, “It’s hard not to feel inspired by all these idealists, but their service religion does have some shortcomings.”

“The Millennials bring a lot of positive energy to the impact investing space, which is great,” said one social entrepreneur who is actively involved in the impact-investing space. But that isn’t enough. He continued,

“Millennials are certainly having a positive effect on the movement, but they have to replace some of that youthful energy and blind optimism with a more grounded sense of practicality and discernment. At times, they come across as downright self-involved, droning on and on about ‘how much good’ they’re doing on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. They’re going to have to trade some of that energetic fluff for a critical eye in order to truly bring impact investing into the mainstream of society.”

In other words, they need to do something substantive. Liking and retweeting alone does not a global movement make. These actions by themselves are not game-changing.. It may get you a write up in Vanity Fair, if you’re lucky, but it doesn’t forward the larger concept of a socially conscious capitalism.

What is clear is that the Millennial generation has in spades the aspirations necessary to do good, innovate, and improve the world around them – all while gleefully throwing a wrench into the notion that profit and progress are diametrically opposed. So the question then becomes whether caring about the plight of those around you by RT’ing about it is really enough to accomplish what this group of eager aspirants wants to get done.

The gap between enthusiasm and action is of course a hard one to bridge. But remember – Millennials have money, and they want to feel good about what they do with it. In order to be taken seriously, however, the Millennials’ emotional energy needs to be harnessed, converted, and applied into real-world action that takes this generation beyond their newsfeeds and into the news cycle.

So, You Want to Start a Social Enterprise?: The Seed

You’ve heard the buzz, and you want to start a social enterprise. That’s great – but where do you begin? Just as every tree begins with a seed, every enterprise begins with an idea. Maybe you already have an idea. If so, congratulations – you’ve come to the right place! This is the first post in an ongoing series on how to get your social enterprise off the ground.

Identify the Problem   

What is a social enterprise? Basically, it’s a solution. The successful impact entrepreneur identifies a problem that no one else has solved, and then solves it. The first step is to identify a problem. How do you identify problems? Look around you. Talk to people. When in doubt, a good place for inspiration is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Does everyone in your community have food to eat, water to drink, and a place to sleep? Maybe you can help with employment, health, or physical security.

Create a Solution

You’ve identified a problem. The second step is to create a solution. Now, before you run off and come up with The Next Big Thing, do some research. Maybe you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There may be a business model out there that you can adapt, and it may not even be used in a social enterprise. Look at Grameen Bank. Mohammad Yunus

Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank

didn’t invent finance – he just adapted it to the bottom of the pyramid. Or look at Sustainable Harvest. David Griswold didn’t invent coffee exporting – he just adapted it to include local farmers. Consider that your solution may not require revolutionary innovation – it may just require inventive adaptation.

Be Sustainable

So – you’ve identified a problem and created a solution. This means you’re already ahead of the curve, but you’re not done yet. The third step is to make your solution sustainable, whether that means your solution is practical and scalable (in the business sense), or minimal in its impact on the environment and resources. (Ideally, it’s both.) For example: mosquito nets in Africa. For decades, aid agencies imported mosquito nets to Africa. The aid agencies identified a problem (malaria, which, untreated, causes the deaths of nearly 1 million people in Africa every year), and then created a solution (distribution of mosquito nets). But their solution wasn’t sustainable – if funding dried up, aid agencies would no longer be able to distribute mosquito nets. This presented an untenable scenario.

Workers producing mosquito nets at A to Z Textile Mills in Tanzania.

A more sustainable solution to the malaria problem would be to develop and grow mosquito net production in-country.  A to Z Textile Mills, a Tanzanian company that received start-up capital from Acumen Fund in 2003, is doing just that. A to Z is not only addressing the malaria epidemic, it is lowering shipping costs for each bednet, and creating jobs for Africans.

Problem leads to solution leads to sustainability. And, if you’re lucky, Jacqueline Novogratz mentions you in a TED Talk (at 12:20).