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.
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.
Vega is solving a major problem in the coffee industry: 80% of coffee farmers worldwide (20 million farmers) are trapped in a cycle of subsistence farming, earning around $1 per pound of coffee which is ultimately sold for upwards of $20 per pound. Typical coffee supply chains include around 20 middlemen and can take up to 6 months for the coffee bean to reach the consumer.
Vega empowers coffee farmers in Nicaragua to process their own premium beans, and connects them directly with coffee lovers on their online marketplace.
Luciérnaga distributes small solar lighting technologies that affordably meet the
lighting and device charging needs for energy poor populations in Central America. Luciérnaga fights energy poverty, delivers clean energy, and strengthens markets. The company has sold 3,400 solar lights, providing 17,000 people with access to light and allowing them to save up to $220 per year.
Luciérnaga participated in the 2014 Agora Accelerator. We interviewed the Founder and Managing Director, Sebastian Africano, to learn more about why he decided to apply for the Accelerator and what value he gained.
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.
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
“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.
It’s been about 2 weeks week since I returned from Agora’s Entrepreneur Retreat in Nicaragua, and I am still processing the experience. During a week of many powerful moments and intimate conversations, a few stand out. They stand out for me not just because of their poignancy, but because they show the powerful, disruptive potential of the accelerator model for creating and scaling change.
The Ambassador’s Address
It’s Thursday, January 31 at the Casa Dingledine, a beautiful old house perched on a cliff overlooking Managua and the surrounding lake. About 60 people are packed into the living room – many of them are entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs representing 27 businesses stand up, one by one. They introduce themselves, explain their business, and state their commitment to creating a better Latin America. I glance around at the people watching the entrepreneurs talk.
The room is filled with members of the Managua business and diplomatic community. The head of the World Bank for Nicaragua, the DCM (#2) of the US Embassy, And Agora co-founder Ricardo Teran’s entire family are there to support us. And so is Soon Tae Kim, the Ambassador of South Korea to Nicaragua.
The fact that Ambassador Kim is present is by no means random. We invited him and are delighted he was able to make it. It’s taken us nearly 7 years, but we finally received a grant of about $230,000 from the Inter-American Development Bank to help support the Agora Class of 2013. The actual source of the funding comes not from the bank itself, but from the Government of South Korea. There is something very special about this money. It feels hard earned, both by us and by the Koreans. The Koreans have talked the talk and walked the walk. The most successful and sustained assault on poverty in human history was launched by the Koreans in the 1960s and continues to this day.
In 1960, Korea had a GDP per capita of $79, compared to $128 in Nicaragua and $13,414 for the U.S. After the Korean War, the country was in shambles. Today the country has a GDP per capita of about $32,100, ten times that of Nicaragua and, among many accomplishments, has created the only product that can compete with the iPhone (the Samsung Galaxy). All of us at Agora feel honored to be receiving this funding from the people of South Korea – funding that was generated through incredible hard work and a focus on innovation by a people with no natural resources to speak of, bordered by a hostile, totalitarian regime.
As the entrepreneurs are introducing themselves one by one, I steal a glance at the Ambassador, who is standing by the wall, listening intently – what does he make of this scene of entrepreneurs from 13 Latin American countries talking about their vision and
commitment? The entrepreneurs continue talking. They are on a roll; the energy in the room is building. The businesses are all unique, representing 10 distinct impact areas, but the sum is greater than its parts. The introductions form a collective voice, the voice of a new generation that has taken it upon themselves to create the change they want to see in the world. All of a sudden, anything seems possible. After the last entrepreneur sits down, we invite Maria Pacheco, a Guatemalan from Agora’s Class of ’11, to say a few words. Listening to her, I hear, this time in Spanish, some of the words she spoke in San Francisco at the main stage at SoCap 2011. Maria finishes speaking and Ricardo tells everyone we will soon be showing a short video of last year’s Impact Investing in Action conference. He thanks the guests and the Ambassador. And then it happens. Ambassador Kim steps forward and asks if he can say a few words. The room falls silent. He thanks us, and praises the entrepreneurs. Then he says, “50 years ago we were one of the poorest countries in the world – poorer than most countries in Africa; Poorer than Nicaragua. What we did to grow was to come together and to focus on entrepreneurship and innovation. You are doing exactly what we did. You are coming together as a community. This is the right way to create development.”
He spoke for about 10 minutes and talked about his life and his work throughout Latin America. It turns out that 20 years ago he helped start the program that is now funding us. Listening to Ambassador Kim – representing a people who have learned how to develop through iteration, innovation, and partnership among government, civil society, and business — was a welcome tonic. Change can happen – it has happened – it is happening – and everything is possible.
The Importance of Community
It all starts with people coming together. Before you can quantify impact, before you can conduct randomized double blind studies, before you can have a chance of creating long lasting change, you need first to get people together in a room and commit to a shared vision of the future. That commitment, from entrepreneurs and then eventually from government and other actors, is the basic soil from which the seeds of change can grow.
When I was in college, we learned that most of the problems in Latin America boiled down to an underdeveloped civil society. But the definition we learned of civil society usually excluded the markets and business. Business was not seen as a key component of civil society. In many places this is still the rule, but it’s a rule whose time has come and gone. Now it’s time to create a new rule. Ambassador Kim and the amazing entrepreneurs of the Class of 2013 are telling us that entrepreneurship must be an important part of civil society for real growth to happen. When people come together with a shared vision of the future and support each other – whether they are entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, consultants, or ambassadors, change accelerates. It happened in South Korea. And it’s happening right now in Latin America.
Agora Partnerships, a Washington, D.C.- and Managua-based nonprofit dedicated to accelerating the growth of early-stage, impact companies throughout Latin America, today announced a partnership with The Eleos Foundation that will unleash the potential of women in Latin America through the power of entrepreneurship.
The Agora-Eleos LatAm Women’s Fund, a collaboration between the two organizations, will provide gender-lens investing opportunities for early-stage impact investors to accelerate the success of women-run companies, as well as those that support the empowerment of women and girls, in Latin America.
“The Agora-Eleos LatAm Women’s Fund embodies the very heart of the Agora mission,” said Agora Partnerships CEO and Founder Ben Powell. “Leveraging the power of the market to create an environment ripe for social entrepreneurship gets at the core of what we do. And with a special focus on providing gender-lens investment opportunities, the fund with Eleos creates a special kind of economic and social force that will positively impact communities for years to come.”
Agora Partnerships, through its Impact Accelerator, surfaces high-potential
entrepreneurs seeking to create impact and then provides them with the strategic consulting, mentoring, leadership development, and a community of peers. The Eleos Foundation, working with Agora, conducts due diligence on companies in the Accelerator that meet its investment criteria and then assumes the role of lead investor in those companies in which it decides to invest. Individual and institutional investors are given the opportunity to co-invest in selected deals through individual series LLCs set up by Eleos Investment Management LLC. The structure of this partnership fills a critical need for both entrepreneurs and investors.
Those interested in learning more about Agora Partnerships, the Eleos Foundation, or the Agora-Eleos LatAm Women’s Fund should contact Becky Bailey (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Karla Newendorp (email@example.com).
About Agora Partnerships
Agora Partnerships is an early pioneer of the impact-investing and -entrepreneurship movement, with a core focus on supporting ventures at the seed and early stages. Launched in 2005 as an alliance between entrepreneurs from both Nicaragua and Columbia Business School, Agora created the first impact-investment fund of its kind in the region, trained thousands of small-business entrepreneurs in Nicaragua and has helped drive approximately $5 million into more than 40 small businesses across Central America. Today, through its Accelerator program, Agora is committed to creating a pipeline of small-business entrepreneurs (between about $50,000 and $1 million in revenues) from across Latin America: entrepreneurs who are ready, willing, and able to build a more sustainable and successful economy. Agora’s mission is to unleash their potential and the potential of business’ new role in solving our common challenges.
About The Eleos Foundation
The Eleos Foundation and Eleos Investment Management LLC, invest in and partner with social entrepreneurs who effectively implement high impact, early stage, pioneering market based solutions in the fight to eradicate extreme poverty. Eleos provides opportunities for co-investors to invest in funds at the forefront of pioneering markets. Eleos also develops and facilitates partnerships with social entrepreneurs, negotiates alongside them, and empowers them to get to scale and attract the necessary capital investment.
To learn more visit www.theeleosfoundation.com.
Entrepreneurs around the world are joining a growing movement to create positive, sustainable impact through private enterprise. At Agora Partnerships, our mission is to accelerate those visionary entrepreneurs who are redefining the role of business in society.
We are in the middle of an ambitious recruitment effort for our 2013 Impact Accelerator. This highly selective program provides access to human, social, and financial capital for a unique community of entrepreneurs throughout Latin America. The Accelerator kicks off with an entrepreneur retreat in Central America, followed by strategy consulting and investment readiness services, and admittance to the Impact Investing in Action conference hosted in the United States.
Over the past two years, we have worked with 18 company operating in some of the poorest regions of the Western Hemisphere. Over 70% of or Class of ‘11 received millions of dollars in investment, propelling these impact companies to an average 80% growth rate.
Now, we are expanding from our base in Central America and searching for 30 new companies spanning the whole of Latin America to help accelerate impact for the region.
If you are an entrepreneur interested in applying to our Accelerator or if you’re interesting in helping us spread the word, please contact Inga Schulte-Bahrenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find more information about how the Accelerator program works, former entrepreneurs, a summary overview, and the results of our Accelerator on our website.
Furthermore, we’ve prepared ready-made Twitter, Facebook, and blog copy for you to share with your networks.
The deadline to be considered for scholarships is October 8. The final deadline for all applications is October 22. So, Click here to apply now!
The DCIMPACT League joins Agora Partnerships in its goal to raise $10,000 within the next year to support, empower, and unite impact entrepreneurs throughout Latin America. Agora is leading the charge to find real solutions to real problems in Latin America. We are joining their mission to accelerate the growth of early-stage impact entrepreneurs in the region.
When I first met Agora Partnerships’ co-founder and CEO, Ben Powell, he explained to me the Greek origin of “Agora;” a marketplace for exchanging goods, ideas, and great conversation. He outlined the need for human potential alongside access to capital to address the world’s most pressing socioeconomic and environmental issues. I was immediately enthralled.
As a Latina, I find unique meaning in the term “agora.” In addition to its Greek etymology, I cannot help but be reminded the word’s Portuguese meaning – now. It evokes a sense of urgency, an imperativeness that is so needed in today’s change makers.
The mission of DCIMPACT is to support and engage local thought leaders and young professionals with the growing global need for impact. Hosting events around the District, we can begin to bring light to the world’s most pressing socioeconomic needs addressed by Agora Partnerships and engage our network with needed solutions.
I am joined by a group of stellar board members and supporters throughout DC. We unite in our shared vision for equity, access, and solutions to the gross socioeconomic disparity experienced by individuals not just in Latin America, but around the world. Each of us brings a unique excitement to DCIMPACT, Agora Partnerships, and Agora’s impact entrepreneurs from Mexico to Chile as they are facing and solving some of the region’s most intractable challenges.
To learn more about the DCIMPACT League, our mission to raise $10,000, and how you can get involved, email us at email@example.com.
Un saludo cordial,
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.