Summer Team: Sergio Figueroa Sanz

If you want an opportunity to change the world around you start by asking around

by Sergio Figueroa Sanz

After a few intense months of researching, interviewing, emailing, and pulling all the tricks in the graduate students’ bag of summer internship search and engagement, my path lead to Agora Partnerships. Writing this during my third day as an enthusiastic Summer Associate for Agora makes me reflect on what brought me here in the first place. Certainly, this is not merely circumstantial, yet an element of good luck can’t be ignored. After all, I’m new to this sector that people “in the know” label in as many ways as politicians and policy makers in my home country –Mexico, label their ideologies and adherence to schools of thought. So, how is it that a Master in Public Administration candidate with an academic background in economics and law and roughly five years of experience in a ratings agency finds himself in Washington D.C. over the summer at Agora? Short answer: I asked around. Sounds like a reductionist’s response but there are a few things about it you may find useful thinking about yourself.

Agora is, at the core, an initiative for business from the business sector. Cofounded by accomplished business and finance professionals, it recruits talent from top business schools and benefits from the advisory of the sector’s tip of the spear. From a business sector world perspective, this is as good as it gets. However, I pursued graduate studies in the field of economic and political development with a clear interest in veering away from that microcosm. My goal for a summer internship was to find a place where the analytic and problem solving skills my private sector experience had honed would be valued to provide for solutions–or at least to collaborate in providing for solutions, to the world’s most challenging developmental hurdles. This place, ideally, should also explore alternative approaches to such problems instead of replicating standard –and futile, models for development. Food security, peace, stability, health, education, equality, justice, prosperity, and perhaps even and ultimately happiness… all of these causes that populate headliners every day and to which everyone seems to have an answer but no one has the political will and resources to put them to action captivate my imagination and motivate my academic and professional choices. I searched for an internship experience among the usual suspects in the international institutions construct, represented by all too well known acronyms, and whose loss of legitimacy seems gradual yet unavoidable. None seemed to be truly shifting gears towards testing new approaches and most seemed to be satisfied with conforming to the development aid paradigm along with all its flaws. So, I asked around.

Continue reading Summer Team: Sergio Figueroa Sanz

Looking Back on Nine Months in Nicaragua

by Emma Taylor

Me and some of my co-workers in Nicaragua.

Hola Readers.  I am new to the Agora blog, but unfortunately, I think that this will be both my first and last post.  I officially end my Fellowship this Friday after spending the last nine months living and working in Managua.  The time that I have spent here has been incredible – both from a personal and professional standpoint, and I wanted to take a moment to share my reflections with all of you before I pack my suitcases and step on the plane.

I distinctively remember my introduction to Nicaragua.  I landed at Managua’s airport, prepared for two-weeks of intensive Spanish before starting my Fellowship. I anxiously searched the airport lobby for my pre-arranged taxi driver.  Forty-five minutes later as I neared a stage of slight panic, he arrived.  With my limited Spanish, I could barely understand his exhausted explanation – he had been caught up in traffic caused by Granada’s annual horse parade and fiesta.  We sped off towards the city, and as we hit the first pothole, I reached for a seatbelt.  He turned around smiled.  “It’s not necessary,” he explained.  I was not so sure that I agreed.

As I prepare to leave Nicaragua, I would be lying if I said that after that first pothole, there were no additional frustrations – learning the language, navigating unnamed streets, hitting a few of my own speed bumps along the way.  But, the memories that I will take home with me are overwhelmingly positive. The people – willing to drop everything to give you directions or push your car out of a rut.  The magnificent beaches of San Juan del Sur.  The colonial buildings lining the streets of Granada.  Sandboarding in Leon.  Visiting a homemade yogurt restaurant set amongst the cowboys of Esteli.  The twin volcanoes of Ometepe.  And my adopted home of Managua – a little frayed around the edges but the location of some of my favorite memories and some of my best friends.  If you have not been to Nicaragua, trust me, it’s worth the trip.

My time at Agora has been similarly a period of small adjustments and many accomplishments.  Coming from a traditional New York for-profit firm, I initially had to learn how to work in a smaller, leaner office – one in which everyone pulls more than their fairshare of weight.  At times, our program coordinator is also our marketing expert.  Our development head is also our photographer.  But, what will always stay with me is the staff’s dedication – their commitment to the mission and dedication to Nicaragua, Central America, and to improving the opportunities for entrepreneurs who walk in the door each day.  Over the past nine months, I have worked on a diverse assortment of projects: reviewing our fund investment and monitoring procedures, founding our NYC Young Professionals’ board, leading a team of consultants assessing our access to finance initiatives, judging a business plan competition, participating in the ANDE Conference in Granada, and most recently developing our LiderES Initiative aimed at providing capacity development training, networks, and investment for impact entrepreneurs across Central America.

As I embark on my next journey, I cannot help but feel a slight sense of sadness and nostalgia.  My time in Nicaragua with Agora has been a wild ride for sure, but some of the most exciting, life-altering months I have ever had.  As I prepare to leave, I already know that I will continue to look back, committing my ongoing support to Agora and remaining forever grateful for the unparalleled opportunities that it has afforded me.

The Women Who Inspire Us

by Lissette Cuadra

Hi Everybody!

Every day we work with women entrepreneurs who are fighting and struggling to develop their businesses, their hard work is the base for the family’s well being and their vision searches to guarantee the sustainability of the community.

We’re very proud of the work that Agora has been doing to increase the success of these women owned businesses and we’d like to share our latest efforts focused on women.

As some of you may know, Agora Women’s Initiative  is a program that along with other partner organizations is trying to spread knowledge, contacts, and resources for women to succeed in this economy.

A few weeks ago, in Managua, Agora gave a brief presentation about Small Business Development, as part of the Vital Voices 2010 first “Induction Session for New Mentees.” During an hour and half we got to talk about the main issues of these small enterprises, the challenges of the economy, but mostly we highlighted how important micro and small companies are, in terms of number of businesses and job creation. What these women are doing is impressive and we want to support their efforts by providing a few solutions, strategies and access to markets. I had so much fun sharing with this intimate group of 40-45 women, and what I loved the most is how enthusiastic they are about their businesses, they won’t let any crisis get in their way.

Agora also played an active role in the First Workshop to Strategize about the creation of a Nicaraguan Network Organization for Women in Business organized by the  Danish Federation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises, Danish Network for Women in Business (WiB) and the Association of Producers and exporters in Nicaragua (APEN).

The event gathered women entrepreneurs, NGOs, and donors to talk about the current situation and the needs of a Nicaraguan Business Women Network and we started drafting a Strategic Framework and Structure of the Business Women’s Network of Nicaragua as well as the action and financing plans. We have a lot of work ahead.


And last but not least, I wanted to mention how excited we are to participate in Vital Voices’ Conference and Dialog for Central American Women, May 25th in Guatemala.

More to come in an additional blog post to learn about the results of the event and more ideas around it.

To conclude, I would just like to say “Thank You” to ALL entrepreneurial women for making a change in this world and for never giving up on their role. Agora will stay by your side working to assure women entrepreneurs are represented, listened, and assisted.

Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship

by Roger Teran

Washington, DC was abuzz last week, but not for reasons you might expect. There was no high-powered political gathering of foreign presidents and cagey defense ministers, nor was there another raucous Tea-Party rally taking place outside Capitol Hill. Instead, DC was turned upside down by a seemingly paradoxical event: The Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship.

Co-hosted by the Department of State and the Department of Commerce, the event convened more than 300 business leaders, development organizations, government officials and impact entrepreneurs from around the globe. The summit sought to accomplish the following objectives:

  • Highlight the inspiring work of impact entrepreneurs
  • Identify ways to foster a culture of entrepreneurship
  • Expand entrepreneurial networks
  • Most noticeably, provide a platform for participants to stress current or broadcast new entrepreneurial initiatives

I had the honor of representing Agora Partnerships in two summit events: a Social Capital Markets (SoCap) workshop on How to Build an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem and a panel on The Next Generation of Global Entrepreneurs. During the SoCap workshop, excellent ideas and recommendations were bounced around, such as the importance of sharing both best as well as worst practices, strengthening the governance of development intermediaries, creating innovative incentives to reel in more capital, and defining more clearly and concretely exit strategies for new ventures. As Cliff Kellogg from ShoreBank bluntly, albeit elegantly, put it, “Equity – Exit = Charity.”

But it was during the panel on The Next Generation of Global Entrepreneurs that I got chills running down the spine of my back. While listening to the Co-Founder of FEED, Ellen Gustafson, I had one of those rare and life-altering “Aha!” moments. You see, Ellen runs a for-profit company that sells an eco-friendly (and chic) bag. Each FEED bag raises much-needed funds and awareness for the UN World Food Program school-feeding operations. By generating positive bottom-line returns, Ellen effectively shattered the prevailing notion that a social enterprise cannot run like a business.

Ellen had just exemplified the power and importance of entrepreneurship. Think about it. Economics 101 tells us that long-term economic growth can only stem from greater productivity and innovation. And who are the innovators in every society? Entrepreneurs.

In a world cluttered with populist demagogues promising to revolutionize the status quo, entrepreneurs afford the genuine leadership necessary to destroy – through innovation rather than violence – the presiding social order.


A Fellow’s Reflections on Agora

by Matthew Pietras

Hello readers! Saturday was Labor Day in Nicaragua.  With half of Managua sectioned off for the impending protests, parties and excited crowds, I felt that this would be a good time to reflect on why Agora does what it does.

With over 132 million people living on less than $2 a day in Latin America, it is hard for any of us to truly understand that level of poverty. But, what we do know is that aid without guidance is not a sustainable solution for the developing world. Agora’s mission is aimed at fighting poverty through entrepreneurial business, and not just any form of business but rather businesses that have a larger impact on the communities they inhabit. Agora has branded this form of entrepreneur as the ‘impact entrepreneur.’ I know, I can feel the hush go through the crowd as I type it!

To be more specific an impact entrepreneur is one who along with creating a successful business endeavor also works to entwine the notion of giving back to the community in their everyday business practices. For example, it can be as simple as creating jobs in their neighborhood. Panaderia Corazon de Oro, is an amazing bakery that Miguel Duarte and Luz Chow began in Masaya. With the help of Agora they have expanded to two locations with over 50 employees, and distribution nationwide. Through their business, Duarte and Chow have given back to their local community by giving others the chance to earn a steady wage. The ripple effect of their business prowess can be seen throughout Masaya and the neighboring communities.

Agora aids Latin American impact entrepreneurs to ensure the creation of a sustainable business. Our organization works one-on-one with these entrepreneurs and makes a strong commitment to their endeavors. It goes beyond the idea of ‘if they succeed, Agora looks good,’ and is ‘if they succeed, we can turn that $2, into $4, and so on, slowly alleviating the mass poverty that plagues the developing world.’ I feel personally connected to this mission and look forward to serving its promise during my fellowship, and continuing to support the work of Agora for many years to follow. If you would like to aid in ensuring the continuance of Agora’s work in Latin America, please donate today. Together, we can create a brighter future for all generations of developing nations.

Que pasen un feliz fin de Semana!

Always, Your Fellow

MicroMentor: Partnership with MercyCorps

by Lissette Cuadra

Uff.. this week I’m packed with so much work!! That’s natural after spending a wonderful week in Colombia, meeting very bright people and enjoying the lovely weather/culture! For the Spanish speakers, there is a Nicaraguan saying: “Despues de un gustazo, un trancazo!” Haha.

Anyways, I’ve mentioned to you all our new initiative with MercyCorps…But to save you some trouble, I’m going to recapitulate and elaborate:

As ANDE members, Agora and MercyCorps recognize that growth-focused entrepreneurs have the potential to be a potent driver of sustainable economic development and job generation in the developing world; particularly when they have access to the advice, know-how, and connections needed to build a thriving enterprise.

This is why we have developed a new pilot project called “GLOBAL MENTORING PLATFORM FOR SMALL & GROWING BUSINESSES”, with this project, Agora Partnerships and Mercy Corps will offer a new and innovative approach to providing business mentoring to small and growing businesses (SGBs) in developing economies worldwide—dramatically increasing entrepreneurs’ access to the critical business management know-how and industry-specific expertise needed to start and grow a successful enterprises. The project will adapt Mercy Corps’ MicroMentor service for the international SGB market, offering ANDE members and the SGB sector-at-large with a scalable mechanism for efficiently providing mentoring services to their clients and more effectively engaging volunteer business professionals in their work.

As the pilot gets underway, we will be seeking volunteer business mentors who speak Spanish and ideally who understand the local business context in Nicaragua and El Salvador (or, more broadly, Latin America). If you would like to learn more about the project, or about getting involved as a mentor (including involving your corporate or professional networks), please contact me.

This past week we added the final touches to the budget, and are currently finishing a more detailed statement of work. We will begin working on the project in May!

This means we will be working alongside MicroMentor to provide feedback on our local market research, conduct client surveys and/or focus groups, provide feedback on pilot program roadmap and develop internal pilot roll-out plans… and this is just Phase 1! I can’t wait!

Development Marketplace Latin America and the Caribbean

by Lissette Cuadra

This past week I had the good fortune to travel to Colombia to attend the 2010 Development Marketplace Latinoamérica y el Caribe (LAC).

The Development Marketplace (DM) is a grant program led by the World Bank, and supported by different organizations such as IDB, Young Americas Business Trust (YABT), OAS, amongst others.

The DM identifies and finances innovative projects in their early stages with the potential to create a positive impact in the development of their communities. This year’s focus is on opportunities for the development of youth under the theme: Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Sustainability.

The LAC DM brought around 500 ideas in the region, 44 finalists went into the final round of selection which included an exhibition booth, workshops and an wonderful award ceremony. The majority of finalists were NGOs, government entities, academics and private sector. The first friends I made at the conference were all the winners! I guess I brought them good luck!

Amongst the highlights, I was glad to meet again Kevin Marinacci and Rafael Merchan, from Asociacion Familia Padre Fabretto, not only did I get to spend some time with them exchanging experiences, but also, seeing them win the grant they had applied for was such a wonderful thing to share. Even better… we’re meeting again this week to figure out how Agora can collaborate with the project they submitted “Sustainable livelihoods in coffee-growing regions; improvement of the productivity and competitiveness for young coffee growers in Nicaragua’s rural zones”. I am really excited to become an active part of this challenge!

I was also excited to see the number of innovative start-up organization working in South America. I was so pleased to learn what a fantastic job these programs are doing. To name just a few: Agroinnova in Colombia , Cidades Sem Fome in Brazil and Instituto del Emprendedor in Mexico all in the lines of supporting socially responsible business and encouraging entrepreneurship.

Hopefully we’ll be able to work with them as we expand our programs.

Partnership with Vital Voices

by Matthew Pietras

In Managua, we have seen the temperature climb over 100° the past few days, but I am very happy to report that Agora has withstood the sweltering heat and made significant progress on our partnership with Vital Voices.

Vital Voices is a global organization whose mission aims to train, empower and enhance emerging female leaders throughout the globe. Recently, the Nicaragua division of Vital Voices launched their “Living in Democracy” initiative that will span the next two years with the goal of identifying, mentoring and educating female entrepreneurs. Agora, who also echoes these sentiments and believes that female entrepreneurs play an essential role in the developing world, will be using our past experiences to help structure key elements of the project.

First, the content for the Vital Voices: Living in Democracy website will be created and maintained by Agora over the next two years. The initial launch with occur within Q2 of 2010 and will highlight key information for female entrepreneurs, including financial models, entrepreneur guides and common FAQs. The website will also host a forum where current participants can ask questions to Agora staff and receive regular responses to their entrepreneurial queries. Two-way communication is an essential aspect of this project.

In addition, Agora will be working with Vital Voices to construct four manual-esque books for the female entrepreneurs participating in the Living in Democracy program. The four books will be as follows: 1) Finance and Accounting for Small Companies, 2) Personal Accounting, 3) Leadership based on Value, 4) Persuasion and Incidence. Agora and Vital Voices hope to have the books ready for dissemination in the early part of Q4 2010.

All of us at Agora are very excited for this opportunity as it directly correlates to our expanding women’s initiative, and future partnerships with Vital Voices.

Now, all of the above will be published primarily in Spanish, but for those interested, non-Spanish speaking parties, I am working on making both entities as globally friendly as possible! Many more updates to come on this endeavor!

I hope everyone is enjoying the Fellow’s blog, and I invite all of you to send comments and questions to each post. I look forward to hearing from my readers!

Until next time, recuerde, la innovación es clave para una economía mundial fuerte.

Always, your Fellow

An Extended Stay in London

by Ben Powell

Like millions of others across the globe, I am stranded far from home due to the volcanic ash cloud hanging over most of the UK. I’m here because I attended the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs first year anniversary event and the Skoll World Forum. Both took place a little over a week ago in what seems now like a completely different trip. Now that the skies over London are filled with planes again, and my travel plans back home seem to have stabilized (no freedom bus/car/train to Madrid for me, I took a different strategy – read on) it seems like a good time to jot down a few notes about what I learned these last two weeks.

– At the ANDE event, I learned that some London based former VCs have concluded that a major way they can contribute to the growth of the impact entrepreneurship industry is to mentor fund managers operating impact investment funds in the developing world – in their case, in Africa. They mentor, sit on the investment committee, and provide some grant capital and investment capital. This is quite simply a fantastic idea and an extraordinary way for successful investment professionals to give back. We ask a lot of new fund managers operating in the extremely difficult markets and we need them to learn quickly and grow professionally as fast as possible. Let’s have more retired VCs mentoring impact investment fund managers.

– At Skoll, from Paul Hawkins to the head of JP Morgan’s impact investment group to many conversations in the hallways, two critically important themes emerged. The first is that while we need growth in the developing world to fight poverty, we can’t do it at the expense of future generations. Meaning: we need ways to support a new generation of impact entrepreneurs who are not generating negative externalities but who have incorporated sustainability into their business DNA.  Second, there seems to be a growing realization that we need to support more networks, have more collaboration, and generally work closer together than many of the organizations – many of which compete for the same dollars – are used to. This is a very positive sign.

Continue reading An Extended Stay in London

New Fellow in Nicaragua

by Sarah Hiller

Hello from Managua! I am a new Agora Fellow in Nicaragua alongside Matthew Pietras. With just one week of work under my belt, I already know Agora is a great fit for me. Agora first caught my eye a couple months ago, when I checked out its website and did an informational interview with current Agora Fellow, Emma Taylor.

I learned that although Agora is a nonprofit, it seems to be run like a for-profit start-up. I also gathered that it is a no-nonsense, results-driven, social-impact focused organization that targets an underserved community. Judging by Agora’s relationship with the Clinton Global Initiative among others and recognition including the Social Venture Network’s Innovation Awards, Agora appeared to be a legitimate mover and shaker, while still a relatively young organization. Finally, and important in my decision to accept Agora’s offer, my experience talking with Emma and Paul Davidson throughout the interview process was a very good one, and I got good, smart vibes all round. I thought I could contribute the skill set that Agora was looking for, and in turn I could gain very valuable experience.

I dove in to the Agora Fellowship at the ANDE Latin American Conference in Granada, where I learned a ton and also met my colleagues in person for the first time—what would we do without Skype and email?? After that, I spent Semana Santa in San Pedro La Laguna and Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, where for the previous seven months I had lived, studied Spanish, and worked. I gained field experience as a consultant on a USAID-funded project with Counterpart International, where I prepared community groups to apply for loans to jumpstart their new businesses. I guided the development of businesses plans, financial statements, loan terms, and everything banks require for a credit application. I really enjoyed that work and knew I wanted to stay in the field. Separately, I led a workshop for loan officers and branch managers of Banco Industrial, one of the largest banks in Guatemala, on how to increase their sales of financial products.

For four years prior to that, I worked at a public relations agency in Washington, D.C, called Widmeyer Communications, with clients that include The Coca-Cola Company, Shell Chemicals, and nonprofits. Earlier, I was founder and president of Net Impact at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, where I earned a B.S. in Commerce. When I’m not working, you can find me salsa dancing, cooking, running, and exploring Nicaraguan culture.

In my first week at Agora, I’ve visited five businesses that have received consulting and/or capital from Agora: Oscarito´s, VegyFrut, Panadería Corazón de Oro, Clínica del Pie, and Fábrica Pochi. Not only was it inspiring, but for me, talking with the entrepreneurs is a critical first step that will enable me to really do my job; if I want to support people, I need to understand who they are, how they work, their challenges and opportunities. Surely I’ll have more contact with these and other entrepreneurs in the future, but for now I look forward to putting that base of knowledge to work!

Accelerating Businesses Creating Positive Impact