Tag Archives: Agora Partnerships

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?

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

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.

Continue reading Con Ágora Partnerships, uno siempre tiene más de lo que espera

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.

Continue reading Completing the Puzzle: how the Agora Accelerator helped PACE MD piece together a complicated business model

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.”

 

 

 

 

4 Influential People in Impact Investing You Need to Know – Part 4

Taryn Goodman is the Senior Manager of Impact Investing at RSF Social Finance, a nonprofit financial institution offering investing, lending, and giving services that support social and spiritual renewal. Inspired by the work of Rudolf Steiner, RSF has made over $200 million in loans and over $90 million in grants since 1984 to social enterprises in the areas of Food & Agriculture, Education & the Arts, and Ecological Stewardship. At RSF, Taryn manages the $40 million Donor Advised Fund Impact Investing Portfolios as well as the newly launched Program Related Investing Fund focused in food & agriculture.

How important are accelerators to the future of impact investing?

In the current impact investing sector, there is a lot of finger pointing – entrepreneurs saying there isn’t enough early-stage capital and investors saying there aren’t enough ‘investable’ businesses.  No matter what the answer is, we do need people and organizations that can provide guidance to new social enterprises, improving their work.  Accelerators clearly fill this need by providing guidance, networks and, at times, financial support to social enterprises.

Investors are putting money to work across the globe and across impact areas.  Accelerators heighten their ability to do this in a more efficient manner by providing local technical assistance that enables enterprises to be investment-ready either for an initial investment or for follow-on capital.  Beyond their importance to investors, accelerators also provide a community for entrepreneurs in which they can lean on each other and learn from one another – something that is hugely important as entrepreneurship can be lonely.

How do you think Impact Investing in Action has helped to build the field?

The conference was able to bring together the integral players across the early-stage investing spectrum – entrepreneurs, accelerators, and investors – highlighting the importance of the work each one does.  Beyond this, the conference created a platform for collaboration and sharing among the parties in attendance.  This was created due to the presence of Village Capital and Agora Partnerships who, as accelerators, inherently act as a bridge between entrepreneurs and investors – evaluating opportunities and making  connections to capital where appropriate.

What are the main challenges facing impact investing?

I think one of the main challenges is that we are constantly trying to fit a square into a circle without always recognizing it.  Specifically, we are using business to solve social and environmental problems across sectors and geographies and in doing so are using investment vehicles – venture equity, debt, etc. – that might not be appropriate.  If the focus is on progress and positive change through business, we need to determine the best financial instrument to support that work.

What does the future hold for the impact investing movement?

I think the future is incredibly bright and exciting.  When I look at the many intelligent and driven people I get to work with both internally at RSF and in the greater impact investing arena, I find myself incredibly inspired.  I know that with these great minds and passion, we will affect change, and impact investing will no longer be a niche market, but rather the only way to invest.

4 Influential People in Impact Investing You Need to Know – Part 3

Prof. Shannon Mudd

Shannon Mudd is head of Haverford MI3 (Microfinance and Impact Investing Initiative) and Visiting Assistant Professor of Economics at Haverford College located just outside Philadelphia. His research focuses on banking, international finance, and development economics. In addition to his academic pursuits, Prof. Mudd has also served as a consultant for various international governments and development projects, as well as an analyst for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

How important are accelerators to the future of impact investing?

From my understanding, accelerators respond to two major issues in the sector, locating good firms and addressing the transactions costs associated with due diligence.

What I hear from investor managers is that there are funds available to invest in impact firms in the small and growing business sector. The problem is finding promising investments, especially in firms that have business models with the potential to achieve significant scale. This is the first area in which accelerators play an important role. They develop networks both on the ground among entrepreneurs and in the financial sector among investors. They then help facilitate connections between the two. This specialization by the accelerators lowers the time, resources, and costs of finding good matches.

Another issue that frequently arises both from investors and entrepreneurs is the high cost of the due diligence process. Investors worry about how due diligence costs reduce returns. Entrepreneurs are concerned about the time involved in responding to multiple investors seeking information that is not always readily at hand. Some business accelerators are already helping, particularly with early-stage entrepreneurs, by preparing them to go before investors and conducting some due diligence themselves. There may be potential for accelerators to expand this role by serving as a clearing house for information across investors to reduce the duplication and redundancy of requests to the entrepreneurs.

How do you think Impact Investing in Action has helped to build the field?

The Impact Investing sector is still nascent. As was emphasized at the conference by Andy Lower and others, the eco-system needs to be built out. What happened there was good communication of different experiences, perspectives and needs across the diverse types of players.

On a more practical level, I have heard reports of strong interest and continuing talks among many of the entrepreneurs and investors in attendance. The matching process is always difficult and such gatherings can be quite efficient.

And personally, as someone new to the industry, the discussions were very instructive at a high level, without becoming incomprehensible due to internal, sector-specific jargon with which only those already in the know are familiar. I also met some very interesting people with whom I expect to stay in touch as my own work in the area develops.

What are the main challenges facing impact investing?

Impact investing is a single term that describes a wide variety of different types of investments in terms of targets, sources, social impacts, structures, etc. This conference was mostly focused on small early-stage investment opportunities as opposed to investments in established, larger scale firms. There is a real concern that this small, early-stage impact investing may not be self-sustaining because small scale firms cannot produce sufficient returns to cover the transactions costs that are relatively fixed and independent of scale (due diligence, legal constructions, etc.).

The VC model in standard investing works because of an expectation that, while the vast majority of investments may not cover such costs, one or two may result in a very high payoff, allowing the portfolio to earn a positive return commensurate with the risk. I am unsure such high payoffs can be expected in impact investing. I do not envision firms earning very large returns (even when they do make it to scale) and become wildly successful. So, dealing with these transaction costs is where partnerships with philanthropists may be key. But in what form will these partnerships arise? Government subsidies can hinder an industry from reaching scale when its intervention is limited in size and scope, especially when subsidy recipients become unwilling to accept market rates from more plentiful commercially-priced funding. Might the same risk arise from philanthropic support?  This is an interesting question that needs to be addressed.

What does the future hold for the impact investing movement?

The future is promising. The infrastructure is being built.  However, I could not help but feel, at least at this small, early stage part of the sector, that there is a discontinuity between the push for standardization in metrics and the investors’ primary focus on the entrepreneur.

Overall, however, what I find compelling about impact investing is that it explicitly allows investors to have goals beyond simple financial returns.  As individuals, we make decisions about where to sell our labor based on many factors beyond just salary. Impact investing recognizes that many of us would like to do the same when selling our capital, i.e., take into account other factors in addition to financial return when choosing our investments.  When investors have goals beyond profits, this explicitly allows firms to pursue goals beyond just profits. There will be tradeoffs and this will have to be dealt with in the governance of the firm. But when firms are closely held, there is definite scope for multiple objectives to be pursued and we can see firms organized effectively to achieve a double bottom line, i.e., do well financially but also work to address its social and/or environmental objectives.