Tag Archives: human capital

ChurecaChic empowers women through fashion

“Agora has acted for us as a seal of approval to get other accelerators, organizations, and investors to be interested in us.”

Andrea Paltzer believes in the power of innovative fashion to drive hundreds of women into the formal economy. She spent much of her 20s working in various NGOs across Central and South America, dealing with children’s health, poverty, and education. Eventually, she arrived at a NGO focused on educational infrastructure in Nicaragua, and found herself enraptured with the question of how to help generations of adults without any formal education access stable careers.

It was around this time that she learned of La Chureca, a municipal and industrial landfill, more aptly described as the largest garbage dump in all of Central America, and home to a shockingly large, impoverished community. This community worked and played amongst the trash, making their living sorting through the scraps for bits of metal and plastic. Andrea’s heart was touched by the perseverance of these people, surviving in such terrible conditions, and she decided she had to help.

Andrea knew that their greatest challenge was not a lack of money, but a lack of the education required to make a living in the formal economy. Furthermore, as officially listed residents of La Chureca, these individuals carried a debilitating label, earning them only discrimination and scorn from potential employers. The solution, therefore, had to go beyond simple welfare payments. Andrea had to change the individuals. She thus launched the Earth Education Project (EEP), a job-skills education program specifically catered to La Chureca’s women, funded by a series of scholarships from its community recycling business.

The program enrolls women with neither formal education nor experience in the formal economy in a year of reading, writing, and computing classes. It extends beyond the cultivation of these hard skills, teaching self-esteem, conflict resolution, and household management to psychologically empower the women, allowing them to successfully hold onto employment once they enter the formal economy. Upon completion of the program, graduates are placed through organizational partners into steady jobs across the country.

Despite the EEP’s laudable mission and initial success, Andrea knew from experience that NGOs are hard to sustain. A steady source of income was necessary if she was to maintain the Project, and so she came up with an idea for how to generate profit. And, just like that, Chureca Chic was born.

Launched in 2013 as an independent fashion label and registered officially in 2015 as a social enterprise, Chureca Chic takes recycled materials from the dump and transforms them into beautiful pieces of unique jewelry. The company provides full-time employment to several EEP graduates, and its profits are funneled back into the Project to expand its scholarship program. Andrea’s greatest achievement, however, is that her company has empowered dozens of women, placing 150 graduates into formal jobs and employing seven women itself. Fany Guerrero, who used to work for $5 a month at a jewelry co-op, now makes $220 a month, running the production line at Chureca Chic and more confident in her abilities than ever before.

Hoping to expand her vision, Andrea applied to Agora’s Accelerator and was accepted to its 2016 class. Her company, just founded, was an exception, a couple years behind the rest of her social entrepreneurial peers. But with the help of a patient and committed consultant, Andrea bridged this divide. She reorganized her projects and financial statements and emerged from the Accelerator with a clear investor report, a strengthened growth strategy, and contacts for potential sources of funding and partnerships.

Today, Andrea is focused on increasing national sales and expanding throughout the region. She plans to incorporate recycled plastic and wood into Chureca Chic’s raw materials, diversifying her products and eventually reaching the European market. Andrea hopes to one day absorb all running costs of the Earth Education Project, and is well on her way to meeting that goal.

Andrea is inspired everyday by the women she sees transformed through the EEP and empowered by formal employment. She believes that persistence, resilience, and consistent innovation have transformed the idea of La Chureca from something detestable into something beautiful. Andrea runs her company on the values of commitment, responsibility, and honesty, and her team of women are changing the world, one recycled string of beads at a time.

Learn more about ChurecaChic at www.eartheducationproject.org.

Agora Partnerships Joins with MovingWorlds to Empower Entrepreneurs and Drive Sustainable Solutions

In 2015, international leaders came together to discuss the myriad issues facing our global community and identify 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to address these challenges by 2030. Achieving the Global Goals will take creativity, tenacity, and an unwavering dedication to creating a better world. At Agora Partnerships, we believe that entrepreneurs will lead the charge to realize the future envisioned by the SDGs.

In an effort to expand upon our core mission of supporting and empowering entrepreneurs, Agora Partnerships is thrilled to announce a new partnership with MovingWorlds.  Through the partnership, Agora entrepreneurs have access to the skills of talented professionals who will donate their time and expertise towards solving business and technical challenges.

It’s called Experteering, and it was designed by MovingWorlds to connect social impact organizations with highly-skilled professionals. Experteers have years of experience and go through a training and planning process to ensure that they start making a positive impact on your organization from day one.

As a fellow social enterprise, MovingWorlds believes that social impact organizations should not pay for help and, thus, will not charge your company for Experteer services. All MovingWorlds asks is that you provide an immersive experience and local benefits to your Experteer, which normally means providing the Experteer with free accommodation.

Already,  Agora entrepreneurs have reaped the benefits of working with Experteers. One such organization is Suyo, a Colombia-based company that uses technology and microfinance models to support displaced populations with affordable, reliable property formalization services. In order to establish trust in the unreliable formalization sector, Suyo needed to enhance their user interface to convey professionalism and dependability. MovingWorlds matched Suyo with an Experteer, Felicia, who moved to Medellin, spending months getting to know Suyo’s customers and developing an effective user interface.

Through the partnership with MovingWorlds, Agora entrepreneurs can access more human capital than ever before and overcome business and technical barriers, allowing them to take their organization to the next level of growth and impact.

To learn more about the partnership, or to sign up to be an Experteer for Agora entrepreneurs, visit our partner page.

How your company can benefit:

If you are a current or alumni Agora entrepreneur seeking support, sign up to be matched with an Experteer at MovingWorlds.org. Through your affiliation with Agora Partnerships, your organization will experience increased traffic on your MovingWorlds profile and receive additional matching support from the MovingWorlds team.

Get started today by signing up at MovingWorlds.org and indicating your Agora Partnerships affiliation on the organization setup page!

How you can support entrepreneurs:

If you want to increase support to Agora entrepreneurs, Experteering is a fantastic way to make a unique and lasting impact. By becoming an Experteer, encouraging your friends to sign up, or promoting Experteering projects on social media, you can help bridge the talent gap and provide invaluable support to high-potential social entrepreneurs.

Browse all Agora-affiliated projects or sign up on Movingworlds.org to get started!

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.

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

Thinking Outside the Box in Latin America

“There has never been an example of an economy that has suffered as a result of giving women access to capital, knowledge, networks, and entrepreneurial tools. The only places where women don’t add as much to the economy as men are places they aren’t allowed to. The world has too many problems to only have half our brains working on them.” – Anne Welsh McNulty

Business has provided billions of people around the world with endless opportunities. From personal laptops to affordable air travel, innovative business models have provided us with a wealth of comforts the world over.  However, there are still those who live day to day without products, services, and opportunities that so many take for granted.

More than 20% of Peruvians (6.5 million) do not have access to electricity. 35% (16.7 million) of all Colombians are unbanked, as is 65% of the population of all of Latin America. (1) Nearly 54% (8 million) of Guatemalans live below the poverty line ($1.25/day), while 75% (11.3 million) of the population participates in the informal economy. (2)

Though these statistics may seem daunting at first, three regional innovators are successfully tackling these challenges – Alicia Kozuch, Founder of Buen Power (Peru), Ana Barrera, Founder of Aflore (Colombia), and Sophie Eckrich, Founder of Teysha (Guatemala). These entrepreneurs are harnessing the power of business to electrify remote rural communities, build trust in often uncertain financial systems, and create a direct connection between artisans and customers – all while making a profit and shifting the way their respective industries view success.

Alicia, Ana, and Sophie are all 2014 McNulty Fellows, an annual scholarship award funded by the McNulty Foundation. Each year, the McNulty Foundation selects three outstanding women entrepreneurs accepted into our Accelerator program and funds their participation in an effort to amplify market-driven solutions to pressing issues in Latin America.

LIGHTING UP PERU

IMG_5211 (1)In Peru, the combination of the Andean Mountains and Amazonian Jungle creates a complex geography that often prevents entire communities from connecting to electrical grids. It’s these conditions that motivated Alicia to look beyond the problem and look to a solution.

Buen Power doesn’t just provide an affordable and sustainable source of light to off-the-grid rural communities; the company has built a business model that creates local micro-entrepreneurs by integrating teachers as distributors of dLights. “We are utilizing teachers – since they are going to these remote communities anyway. While they are back in their home cities on the weekend, we train them in solar energy, and provide them with sample lights and specially created picture books which we have designed. They then hold community meetings in the communities where they work – and teach the community members about solar energy and its benefits and offer the lights for sale. These teachers earn a commission on sales. We are also creating other micro-entrepreneurs – by supporting about 50 other locals who buy our products at wholesale and sell at retail in their very distant communities.”

Q'ero girls with dlight - Buen powerAlicia recently received an email from a friend who works in remote Peruvian communities that stated, “Last week, we arrived in Q’ero well after dark. We saw a light in the distance which slowly moved towards us. These three beautiful girls came to meet us with you will never guess what – one of your dLights! What an amazing sight – never before have we been greeted in the dark.”

Alicia recalled, “The story brought tears to my eyes as I could clearly see, from an outside source, that our work was touching lives that we didn’t even know about. What an incredible feeling! It’s these moments that keep me going through the hardest days.”

Buen Power is currently in the process of opening 6 new locations in Peru. Next, the companies plans to replicate this distribution system country-wide. They recently received a $100,000 grant from USAID to pursue their “radical new distribution method for rural electrification”. (3)

BRINGING TRUST INTO FINANCIAL SERVICES IN COLOMBIA

IMG_4547 (1)Ana is thinking big. “Within the next 5-10 years I would like to see that Aflore has revolutionised the way of addressing the unbanked [adults who do not have bank accounts], in such a way that it has inspired others to innovate and develop other products and services to serve them properly.  After spending so many years working at the forefront of financial innovation in large investment banks,  I now believe that it is actually in this market segment where innovation should really happen, and most likely, the only segment where it really matters.”

Besides the unbanked, Ana has found that many of the people in Colombia who do, in fact, have bank accounts withdraw their money as soon as it lands in their accounts. She believes that this problem of financial inclusion is not an issue of access but rather one of engagement. Ana explains that, “Aflore’s main innovation is the channel: distributing financial products through a network of informal advisors. These informal advisors are people that are already trusted in their communities and who are seen as financial role models. We leverage these existing trusted relationships not only to get people to engage in financial services but also to access information about our clients (personal and financial) that allows us to do risk assessments of a demographic that the banks are not attending.”

Jeny, one of Aflore’s first clients, illustrates the success of this business model. Jeny has been unable to get a loan from a bank in the past because she withdraws her minimum wage salary each month as soon as it is deposited. In steps Yaneth, an Aflore advisor.

In addition to being an advisor, Yaneth is also one of Jeny’s closest friends. Yaneth has built a small but successful clothing manufacturing business from her home and has become a trusted source of financial advice for Jeny and other women in her community. When Jeny’s mother fell ill, Yaneth offered Jeny a $100 loan to visit her family. When Jeny repaid this loan, she was then extended a $500 loan to buy a washing machine. Jeny has also repaid this loan and is considering borrowing an additional $1,000 to invest in her husband’s business.

“This year, we are focusing on proving and building the channel. We aim to finish the year with a network of 120 advisors,” Ana concludes. “We aim to put in place an operation that will allow us to scale our business significantly during 2015.”

HUMANIZING FASHION IN GUATEMALA

IMG_5312 (1)The Teysha team “wants to see a fashion industry that values the creators of the goods just as much as the design and look”. They believe “that in order to create a more vibrant and prosperous world for all, we need to know each other better and value each other’s talents more”.

10250257_644211412316537_6710091512219631956_nWith this philosophy in mind, Teysha has built a business model that creates social, environmental, and economic value for all stakeholders, every step of the way. Sophie explains the Teysha business model: “We work directly with groups of artisans to connect them to our customization platform, combining the forces of textile makers, leather workers, shoe makers, to make one of a kind goods. Our customers are able to customize their goods by learning about the various villages and techniques we feature. Through this model, we create a direct connection between the customer and the maker, and create a bridge between cultures.”

10155167_640971995973812_3946401823499050900_nThis model has the potential to revolutionize artisanal fashion in the region because rather than simply analyzing market trends, producing a product, and selling it – Teysha is building a platform to connect the producer and the consumer and empowering them to work together to create a product that uses the skills of the artisans and satisfies the desires of the person purchasing the product. By bringing this human element to the fashion industry, consumers consciousness and product transparency is reaching an entirely new level. Sophie affirms that “we are working to make ethically and authentically made goods the norm within the fashion industry”.

IN CONCLUSION

These three women have overcome countless barriers in incredibly difficult business environments. The McNulty Foundation recognizes the importance of this type of innovation, values the passion, endurance and leadership these women have shown, and is committed to supporting the growth of these game changing businesses.

Anne Welsh McNulty, co-founder of the McNulty Foundation, believes “Women don’t need to be told to be leaders or to find solutions to economic and social problems in their communities. All they need is access to the economic tools and networks traditionally denied to them and they will build the solutions on their own, because that is a human desire, not a gendered one.”

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.

IMPACT INVESTING AND THE UNIVERSITY

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.

How Tegu is using Social Media to Fight Poverty in Honduras

Tegu founders Will and Chris Haughey

MARKETING, MEDIA, & DEVELOPMENT
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube – social media terms now dominate the language of mainstream marketing. Companies around the world have adopted a barrage of digital tools to debut new products, gain feedback from consumers, and, more generally, communicate in interesting and compelling ways with their consumers. Though social media has emerged as the go-to toolkit for traditional profit-seeking companies, could it also be one of the key components of impact-oriented businesses to fighting poverty in the developing world? Agora entrepreneurs Will and Chris Haughey, along with their wooden toy company, Tegu, seem to think so.

TEGU, MAGNATES, & HONDURAS
Will and Chris launched Tegu (short for Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras) in 2009 out of the desire to create jobs in Honduras and to become the employer of choice in the impoverished nation. The company, which now employees 56 people in Honduras and six in the United States, has reinvented the traditional wooden block by incorporating magnets into its design. This simple addition allows for more play possibilities beyond simply stacking blocks one on top of the other.

Tegu Products

“Our first priority when we started Tegu was to address unemployment in Honduras,” Will explains. “The more products we sale, the more jobs we create. If we can engage people with our story, then we can engage people with our products. Engaging people in our products and story ultimately results in more employment opportunities for people living in Honduras.”

LIKES, FOLLOWS, & VIEWS
Will admits he had limited experience in the social media space before starting Tegu. In fact, he did not create a Facebook account until 2008. However, over the past two years, Tegu’s social media accounts have grown appreciably. Currently, the company amasses over 3,600 Facebook likes, more than 1,800 Twitter followers, and nearly 30,000 views on its branded YouTube page. Though Tegu’s digital presence is strong across multiple platforms, Facebook has emerged as the centerpiece of its digi-strategy.

“We like to use Facebook to highlight new products and share images of what we’re doing in Honduras,” Will notes. “We currently have two products that were named on Facebook. We posted a new product and asked our followers to help us name it. We took their suggestions and acted on them.”

Tegu product named by Facebook fans

Will adds that Facebook has been a critical outlet for receiving feedback from customers, ultimately helping the company craft even better products. Just a quick scroll through their page reveals countless company “@mentions” by followers and a stream of shared photographs and videos from customers around the world. Tegu often responds to many of the posts as a way of keeping the conversation active, a process Will describes as “ongoing.”

A LAB COAT, NATIVITY SCENE, & THE MONA LISA
One of Tegu’s more innovative digital marketing campaigns involved showcasing the varied and often unexpected ways the magnetic blocks can be configured. The campaign, titled “Tegu Live,” employed Livestream, a live streaming video platform, as a means of interacting with their digital audience.

Over the course of the campaign, participants could communicate with a Tegu Genius on Tegu.com (via Twitter, Facebook and Livestream). Once navigated to the site, viewers found a mysterious man in a Tegu-branded lab coat, a stark white table, and a jumble of multicolored Tegu magnetic blocks. Viewers typed in their requests, watched as their vision was assembled by the unnamed “Genius,” and, in a matter of minutes, the mass of blocks was shaped into a helicopter, a ship, a checkered board, the Nativity Scene, and even the Mona Lisa, among other creations.

 

FACEBOOK, ENGAGEMENT, & IMPACT
“Using social media is a great way to engage people in your company or product,” Will concludes. “For us, when people are engaged and buying our products, then they are helping us to create critical employment opportunities for people living in Honduras. In that respect, using social media is an important part of achieving our aim of serving the poor through profit.”

 

 

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.

CO2 Bambu: How Bamboo is Impacting Education in Rural Nicaragua

CO2 Bambu founder Ben Sandzer-Bell

Rural Education
Rural education in Nicaragua is struggling. Official UNICEF figures narrate the story in grim statistical detail. With a net attendance rate among rural primary school students of 70.5%, only 19.1% among rural secondary school students, and a startling 6.1% among the rural poor, the Nicaraguan education system is in trouble. Enter Nicaraguan entrepreneur Ben Sandzer-Bell and his innovative construction company, CO2 Bambu, who offer a solution to the inaccessibility of education in Nicaragua.

CO2 Bambu, a company selected to be part of Agora’s 2011 Accelerator Class, constructs sustainable housing for marginalized populations in remote areas of Nicaragua and post-disaster regions (e.g., Haiti) using guada bamboo as the primary raw material. However, in January of this year, the “eco-struction” company entered a new realm of impact – the field of public education.

Boats, Mules, and Bamboo
“There is a deficiency of rural schools throughout Nicaragua,” Sandzer-Bell states. “The Ministry of Education here typically focuses on urban areas when it comes to education.” Sandzer-Bell explains that government schools are built using heavy, bulky blocks of concrete. Transporting these materials to remote rural regions can be extremely difficult, if not impossible in some instances. As a result, literacy and attendance rates lag in areas like the Raan Autonomous Region of Nicaragua’s North Atlantic coast.

The Raan Autonomous Region

CO2 Bambu’s team felt it was possible to modify its current model for creating low-cost, durable homes and re-orient that strategy towards constructing schools in remote regions like Raan.

“There are very few roads in Raan,” Sandzar-Bell states. “We had to transport materials by boat and mule to the construction site.  It was difficult at times, but because bamboo is lighter than concrete, it was possible.”

The two-room structure was completed the first week of January and declared open for business the following week.

The school CO2 Bambu completed earlier this month in the remote Raan Autonomous Region in northern Nicaragua.

Innovation through Bamboo
The current presidential administration in Nicaragua has a keen interest in making access to education more readily available to rural communities. CO2 Bambu’s “light-weight” approach to school construction could be the answer to Nicaragua’s “concrete problem.”

As a result, on Jan. 10, the structure was handed over to the Ministry of Education as an example of what could be possible in rural areas throughout Nicaragua with a different approach to construction. CO2 Bambu hopes to build more schools like the Santa Maria project in the future.

“Our goal in 2012,” Sandzar-Bell states, “is to capture several contracts through the government and repeat this in other rural regions throughout Nicaragua. We’re one step closer.”

Gratitude to the Servant Leaders of B Lab

B Corporation Logo

Recently, I walked into one of the most beautiful and magnificent rooms I have ever seen – the walls were completely covered in vines and flowers. In front of me were three charming men, each offering me and the other guests in the room a class of wine.  Their names were Jay, Bart, and Andrew, the founders of the B Corp movement.

For those who don’t know B Corp, it’s an incredible community of businesses that commit to operating at a higher level of impact, accountability, and transparency than what society has come to expect from business. B Corps represent a new kind of business led by a new kind of entrepreneur – they represent in the established market of the U.S. exactly the same ethos around the role business must play that we advocate in Central America and Mexico. Agora Partnerships is proud to be a founding B Corp.

A few weeks ago, I attended the opening reception of the B Corp Champions Retreat, an annual gathering of B Corps. Seeing Jay, Bart, and Andrew welcoming us got me thinking about how far the organization has come since it was launched in 2006, about a year after Agora.

In a year with so much bad news, pessimism, and uncertainly, the B Corp gathering was marked by determination, resilience, and even optimism.  It’s an optimism born out of the conviction that business must do more to solve our common problems –that it can do more, and that, at least when B Corps are concerned, it is doing more. As business as usual and government as usual fail to address our common challenges, there’s a growing recognition that the B Corp-way is the future of business. What’s so powerful about the B Corp vision (to use business to solve social and environmental problems) is that this movement is something we can be for, as opposed to all of the things we are against.

Southern California's Salton Sea

As I entered the room in opulent Longwood Gardens outside of Philadelphia, the simple collective gesture of Bart, Andrew, and Jay personally welcoming everyone and offering them food and drink seemed to express, in a snapshot, everything that has made B Lab so successful (a level of civilization that contrasted distinctly to the legendary first B Corp retreat held amid the rugged sands dunes near California’s Salton Sea.). What has made the B Corp community so successful is the servant leadership of the founders.

Longwood Gardens

Servant leadership, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a leadership style that prioritizes the needs of the team or the customer over that of the individual leaders. These guys bring a humility and service ethic that always puts the B Community first. Their leadership – and the work of the great team they have assembled – has led B Lab to accomplish more than most non-profits, with less money, and within shorter increments of time.

It’s time to call out these humble guys for what they are – some of the most effective, high-impact social entrepreneurs operating today.

The following overview will give you a sense of the momentum that B Lab is helping to create:

To date, 892 legislators voted in favor of Benefit Corp Legislation, 62 voted against.  There are presently 470 B Corps, up from 339 at the close of 2010.  B Labs is on pace to certify 500 B Corps by January 1, 2012, and in the next 12 months, will be targeting major Legislative wins in New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, Washington State, and Oregon. The GIIRS impact rating system it developed is being used by dozens of funds and could become a global standard for impact investing.

All of this happened because a lot of people have come together to make it happen. But there were a few ambitious servant leaders – Bart, Andrew, and Jay – who have gone above and beyond the call of duty to spearhead this community. It’s hard to thank them because when you try, they instinctively thank you.

The absolute commitment to the B Community and the elite entrepreneurial and management skills this trio brings have turned a timely idea into a vibrant community powered by an inspired and growing professional staff.  Nothing was assured when B Lab was founded, but it’s flourishing – it’s potential only just becoming truly visible to those who care to look. However, none of this happened by accident.

During this time of Thanksgiving, I think Bart, Jay, and Andrew deserve a collective “Thank You.” They have rallied other like-minded entrepreneurs to build something that is exactly what the world needs today. More than just an important idea, B Lab is an important idea with great leadership and a great team. I, for one, am very thankful.