Tag Archives: ben powell

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.

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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.

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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.

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The most important impact investing conference….that has nothing to do with impact investing

Ben Powell, Founder and Managing Partner of Agora Partnerships

“The purpose of the university…is impact, not output.”

– Michael Crow, President, Arizona State University.

I’ve just returned from the future, and I’m pumped. Ashoka U Exchange 2012 was a fantastic conference. Unlike many conferences out there, this one had a clear point of view: today’s university needs to change – fast – to meet the challenges of our times.

The conference, hosted February 10-11 at Arizona State University – a university that has integrated entrepreneurship throughout its entire curriculum – promises to have tremendous long-term influence on the impact investing movement.

Begun in 2008, Ashoka U is a relatively new initiative of DC-based Ashoka. In the hands of Marina Kim, one of the ablest social entrepreneurs working today, and her team it can now be called a huge success, albeit one that is just getting started. Its purpose is to revolutionize the way higher education works by infusing social innovation, real-world problem solving, radical collaboration, and entrepreneurship (in the fullest sense of the word) into the DNA of college life.

Today, too many universities are stuck with old ways of thinking – professors have PhD’s but little practical experience, learning is silo-ed, and students have few ways of actively using their skills to make a difference in the world. Even innovations like internships and experiential learning can be updated for the times  – why, for example, do internships need to end after the summer – why can’t they be continued during class? If practitioners are just as good if not better than tenured faculty at teaching leadership, teamwork, creativity, and empathy – four critical skills for the 21st Century – then why aren’t there more of them teaching? What I learned is that increasingly they are – and the trend is deepening.

What I found so powerful about the conference – aside from the meticulous curation of the panels and relentless focus on the need for change – were its implications for impact investing, especially Agora’s focus on early stage entrepreneurship.


In the not-so-distant future, students at the best-run schools are going to have the chance to become true partners with real world organizations in a variety of fields – especially impact investing. We already know that MBA students are becoming an increasingly important part of international development – providing key consulting to organizations and small businesses alike, and in the future this work will only deepen and expand to undergraduates as well. Student-run investment funds, research and assessment projects, entrepreneur support initiatives, incubators and accelerators, and the development of long-term partnerships between universities and civil society organizations, including businesses, are only a few of the many ways universities will engage in the impact investing space.

Universities are increasingly teeming hubs of impatient students who are eager to get out of the ivory tower and into the field.

Universities are increasingly teeming hubs of impatient students who are eager to get out of the ivory tower and into the field. The amount of human, social, and financial capital at universities is staggering – how much of it is being channeled to address our most pressing problems? Does anyone seriously believe universities are doing enough, given their tremendous resources?

Visionary students and faculty today are re-imaging the structure and role of the university and creating new ways to collaborate with non-profit leaders seeking targeted, skilled support. In a world obsessed with massive scale, universities and small businesses have the potential to create human scale partnerships that provide more transformative educational experience than any classroom alone ever could, while also improving the human condition. Now, that is something to get excited about.

Three Key Camps at the Heart of the Impact Investing Movement

Ben Powell, Founder and Managing Partner of Agora Partnerships

If you are like many people, you are new to impact investing, have a mild notion of what it is, and believe that it could be important, maybe even revolutionary. But this notion is tempered by massive confusion surrounding the term.

Understanding the different agendas of the three key camps under the impact-investing umbrella can help you navigate this complex conversation.

Impact-First Investors (also called “Social-First”)
The origins of the term impact investing begin with a handful of foundations and non-profit organizations (incidentally, nearly all of which were founded by entrepreneurs). These groups believed that investing in entrepreneurs was a better way to solve social problems around the globe rather than the project-based approach that has dominated development assistance since the 1960s. These foundations wanted to get affordable, “patient” capital to real entrepreneurs who could then turn it into measurable impact. For this group, which includes most of the founding members of ANDE, the primary purpose of impact investing is social – to serve the needs of society, as quickly and tangibly as possible

A good example of an impact-first investor is Kevin Starr at the Mulago Foundation, author of an excellent recent post on the dangers of impact investors chasing returns over impact. His definition of impact investing is:

The practice of putting money—loans or equity—into impact-focused organizations, while expecting less than a market rate of return

Return-First Investors (also called “Finance-First”)
This is a group of mostly mainstream investors interested in creating products for their clients that allow their money to generate a triple bottom line return – meaning a market rate of return and a measurable (or at least ratable) social and environmental return. Much of the attention around impact investing has been focused on these big players like JP Morgan and Prudential. The hope is that traditional finance companies will unlock billions in investment capital that also demands to know its social impact.  Return-first investors are trained in closing deals that make money. For them, the defining feature of an impact investment is that it can favorably compete with the financial returns of a traditional investment. Ignia Fund is a good example of this approach, as is the official definition of impact investing from the GIIN.

Entrepreneurs and Field Builders
The third group doesn’t consist of investors at all, but of non-profits and some foundations that are focused on entrepreneurial eco-system development and supporting the field at the entrepreneur level. This group includes many of the founding ANDE members and smaller start-ups.  As a whole, this group believes that the key drivers of development are entrepreneurs, not investors, and that now is the time to focus our efforts on entrepreneurs. For this group, impact investors are key allies, but they lament that not enough of them are yet willing to pull the trigger, especially with smaller, angel deals, where their impact can be greatest.  The basic allegiance of this group is to the entrepreneurs on the ground. An impact investor might ask, “How can I find good deals that created blended value?” The entrepreneur camp, on the other hand, asks, “How can we help entrepreneurs make better decisions that result in increased growth and increased impact?” B Lab is a great example of this camp.

A working definition of impact investing for this group is Agora’s own:

The practice of investing in impact entrepreneurs.

Working Together
While each group has its own motivations and agendas, they must all rely on one another if we are to put ourselves on the path to a more sustainable capitalism for the 21st Century. Whether these groups can coordinate their resources effectively and work together is one of the most fundamental questions facing the movement today.

Panel at SOCAP – Building the Impact Entrepreneur Movement.

This week, Agora staff are live at SOCAP11 in San Francisco. Today, Founder Ben Powell will be participating in a panel alongside Agora Entrepreneurs Tegu, CO2 Bambu, and Michelle Viegas, Operations Senior Associate at the Inter-American Development Bank. The panel, “Building the Impact Entrepreneur Movement: Perspectives from Top Early Stage Entrepreneurs in Central America”, will be live at 1:45PM PDT.

We’ll be live-blogging the panel, so stay tuned for updates! If you want to watch the panel live, tune in to the SOCAP livestream.


Can we sprinkle SoCap’s pixie dust to the developing world?

SOCAP11 Logo

Starting Tuesday over a thousand people will descend on Fort Mason Center in San Francisco for Social Capital Markets or SoCap. The conference, in its fourth year, is a paean to the sustainable capitalism movement. It will be filled with the kind of people who are, relative to the rest of the population, off-the-charts optimistic. (Most especially about the power of human endeavor to fix our common problems.) I’ll be one of them, and I’ll admit, I’m looking forward to entering that cocoon where everyone is interesting and bright, brimming with passion and conviction about how to course-correct the planet.

At SoCap, the stars are the entrepreneurs, including three phenomenal entrepreneurs (Tegu, Kiej de los Bosques, and CO2Bambu) from Agora’s Accelerator program, who were also selected as part of the top 16 entrepreneurs to pitch at the conference. I’ve always been impressed how SoCap seems to put an extra effort to put entrepreneurs front and center. After all, it’s the entrepreneurs on whose shoulders the success of building a more sustainable capitalism ultimately rests.

Certainly in the U.S. there is a lot of momentum around sustainable entrepreneurship, but it also appears that very little of that momentum is seeping into the places that need it most. Entrepreneurs and investors from the Coastal US are a great start, but we are going to need a lot more people from decidedly less wealthy parts of the globe to make the sustainable capitalism revolution happen globally, which is how it must happen. Even in the poorest parts of the world, talented entrepreneurs with high potential are out there, but they are, for the most part, alone, disconnected from a vital community of support and investment. They have never heard of SoCap, nor experienced that culture, with its high aspirations and expectation of what is achievable.

And so before I leave for the halcyon glow of SoCap, I keep thinking about all the would-be
entrepreneurs in places like Central America and Mexico who are still on the sidelines, afraid to pull the trigger. I’m reminded of Thursday’s blog post, highlighting a tricky problem for those of us who believe we need to make the world more entrepreneurial as fast as humanely possible. To recap:, highlighting a tricky problem for those of us who believe we need to make the world more entrepreneurial as fast as humanely possible. To recap:

“Outside Silicon Valley, the world is not so enthusiastic about entrepreneurship. In Central America, where we work, the word has a stigma. I found this out when our team in Nicaragua reported that some entrepreneurs were rebelling against using the term for entrepreneur in Spanish: emprendedor. While the word entrepreneur has achieved almost mythic status in the U.S. – so much so that it’s now used to describe anyone from the next Steve Jobs to the miserably self- employed, the word does not have the same glow in the rest of the world for reasons that say a lot about the development challenges humanity faces.”

There has been progress in the poorest parts of the hemisphere to elevate the importance of entrepreneurship, but it’s just too damn slow given the potential impact entrepreneurs have to solve social problems a fraction of the cost of government. The culture of SoCap does not extend far enough. The adjective social is still toxic to most local banks and investors in Latin America, easily dismissed before facts can be summoned. Good intentions, a desire to build something that is needed by the poor, not just wanted by the wealthy, is automatically viewed with suspicion.

Were they to attend SoCap, many of these capitalists who pooh-pooh anything social would not understand what they see. But after a while I suspect many might just let themselves be seduced by the crowd’s absolute belief that capitalism can and must be saved, that business and society must come together. SoCap’s message is: we can have our cake and eat it too, but we need to make a new recipe for the cake and it’s going to taste different, not worse, just different.

Is it really a problem for the world that most entrepreneurs in it are not as dewy-eyed and optimistic and ambitious in their visions of the future as the entrepreneurs who will be attending SoCap? I believe it is. The tonic of optimism and can-do-ness I expect to receive in San Francisco will do my spirits good — but I think it would do entrepreneurs in the world’s most difficult places even more good.

The fact is, entrepreneurs in the developing world — and the mostly barren ecosystems that try to support them — need SoCap, need that culture, more than people like me. I can’t wait to go, see old friends, make new ones, and take deep breaths of that rarified San Francisco air that is filled with conviction that potential is a thing to be realized: that ambition to improve upon or destroy the status quo, as needed, is the best kind of ambition there is. I only wish more entrepreneurs and investors from the developing world could be there.

Better yet, I wish I could replicate SoCap — create a modified version and bring it to the development and business community in Central America. I wish the pixie dust of Socap and other conferences like it could be bottled and spread around universities in poor places that need to hear its message. But at least for the rest of the week in San Francisco the many entrepreneurs attending from all over the world can soak up a culture that values, above all else, the potential of emprendedores to make the world better.

Entrepreneurs vs. Empresarios

Outside Silicon Valley, the world is not so enthusiastic about entrepreneurship. In Central America, where we work, the word has a stigma. I found this out when our team in Nicaragua reported that some entrepreneurs were rebelling against using the term for entrepreneur in Spanish: emprendedor. While the word entrepreneur has achieved almost mythic status in the U.S. — so much so that it’s now used to describe anyone from the next Steve Jobs to the miserably self- employed, the word does not have the same glow in the rest of the world for reasons that say a lot about the development challenges humanity faces.

Forsaking emprendedor, many entrepreneurs in Central America prefer the word empresario, which basically means an already-arrived businessman. The key difference between emprendedor and empresario is that the former is full of potential, while the latter fundamentally represents potential realized. One implies inexperience, risk and delusion, the other power, status, authority. One represents the uncertain future, where everything will undoubtedly go wrong; the other security, the ability to let up for a second. Certainly there are some empresarios who think, care, and actively plan for growth, for the future, and who take risks — but they are in the minority. This is what keeps poor countries poor — not enough empresarios growing their businesses.

We had a lively debate about which word to use – we ended up using both. I personally much prefer the word emprendedor because of the potential and innovation inherent in it, two words that are key to the future. There’s another reason too, call me old fashioned; status should be earned, not given, and no one works harder to earn it than entrepreneurs.

Is it true then that a problem with much of the planet is that it doesn’t sufficiently value the concept of potential, because the ceiling of potential that most people can imagine is not the stars but, maddeningly, only a couple of inches above their heads? Should it really concern us that most entrepreneurs in the developing world are hoping not to crush but to join the status quo? Absolutely it should concern us.

It’s no surprise that in societies with large amounts of socio-economic mobility, the word potential packs a lot more punch than in more conservative societies lacking social mobility. In static societies, the word entrepreneur just means that you are starting out on your own, with few resources, most likely few contacts, and historically little if any chance of overcoming the thousands of nicks and cuts conspiring against your success.

This limiting view of potential makes it hard for entrepreneurs to be taken seriously, and the mere act of just trying to take oneself seriously can become exhausting. In a world where the deck is stacked against you, where the net present value of the word potential is near zero, you don’t want to be the striver and dreamer taking a sledgehammer to the status quo. You want to be the status quo. You want cash in hand. You want standing in the system, even if the system is intolerably broken. The idea of fixing the system probably never occurs to you. (If it does occur to you, and you are reading this post, go to our website right now and apply to be in the second Accelerator class!)

Low expectations and lack of faith in the future among entrepreneurs is a very tricky problem in our industry, and one that demands more attention. But there is cause for a lot of hope. One of the most optimistic, positive gatherings of entrepreneurial-minded people is happening next week. More on that on Sunday.

Francisco Noguera Repost

Francisco Noguera

June 22, 2011 — 02:45 pm

Agora’s Recent Entrepreneur Retreat, in Granada.

Agora’s Impact Investor Conference: Accelerating the Central American Deal Flow

In the midst of all the talk and philosophical discussions about the promise of Impact Investing, I would actually like to read and write more about deals, the ins and outs of the investments through which this idea is coming into fruition. Such reading material is scarce though. I dare to say that actual deals taking place are equally so.

A topic that needs more analysis is the seemingly massive intermediation gap in this industry. We read about investors and entrepreneurs, but rarely about the wide and expensive gap that exists between the two. Actual figures are difficult to find or estimate, but costs associated with finding and preparing enterprises that match a certain impact area and geographic focus seem considerable for investors. Add to this the costs of due diligence and the lengthy process involved in getting a company to “investment-readiness”, a fuzzy, often-used term.

Agora Partnerships is acting on this gap and taking investment-readiness preparation to a level that I was, until now, unaware of — as far as the small and growing business (SGB) space is concerned.   In July, they will host the first Impact Investor Conference in Granada, featuring nine early stage enterprises that went through a competitive selection process to reach the Agora Accelerator Program. These ventures are, in effect, ready to engage in a transaction with an impact investor.

But what does this actually mean?

Through Agora’s Accelerator Program, all companies received business, leadership, and communications training, as well as intense consulting on the implications of seeking and receiving impact investments. Financial and legal reviews will be available for most of the firms, conducted by third party providers with high credibility and a strong track record in the Central American context. All companies are GIIRS rated, and thus fully invested in the impact investing philosophy, placing as much emphasis on their business strengths as on their abilities to generate social and/or environmental value.

Agora’s proposition brings tremendous value to the domain of impact investing, making it more likely for deals to start occurring. I encourage you to read more about the conference, which should undoubtedly yield deals and lessons to be shared with the broader sector.


Agora Founder Speaks at Georgetown Graduation

A month ago, Agora’s Founder Ben Powell was given the opportunity to address Georgetown University’s Masters of Science in Foreign Service graduates, along with Madeleine Albright. Being a graduate himself, Ben used this chance to tell the group of their newfound responsibilities — both to themselves and to the rest of the world. The crux of what he shared with the crowd is the following:

Image: Ben Powell at Georgetown Graduation

The story I want to tell is not about how I started Agora Partnerships — the non-profit that I run — or the rejections, mistakes, the highs and lows I’ve experienced building this organization — that’s a better story for the pub. But the idea of Agora, that’s what I want to talk about.

And this idea is pretty simple.

Developing world entrepreneurs can solve many of our problems better than governments or aid programs, if we only paid attention to them.

To read the full transcript of the speech, click below.

(PS. Now, you can catch up with Ben via Twitter at @BenAgora.)

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