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.
I set off with Luisa Lombera and Gates Gooding, the founders of a company named Pixán, (which means happiness, soul or essence in Maya), joining them in their quest to find the raw material that had thus far eluded them. Fresh from Agora Partnerships’ Entrepreneur Retreat held in Granada, Nicaragua, we were infused with an invigorated sense of purpose.
Gates and Luisa applied to the Agora Accelerator with the aim of turning Pixán into a flourishing business that will double the income of coffee farmers in the Pixán supply chain. Searching for an opportunity to create impact in the coffee sector in Latin America, they were inspired by the Yemeni traditional practice of making a drink called kishr (or qishr), which is a kind of chai made with coffee fruit, ginger, cardamom and cinnamon. Luisa and Gates took to the idea and are now looking to produce a beverage made with an infusion of dried coffee fruit, also known as “cáscara” (skin or peel – in Spanish).
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.
Aida Patricia is the founder of Oscaritos, a textile business that she started in Nicaragua in 1996 with only 100 dollars from a microfinance loan. In November 2013, Aida completed the repayment of a debt investment from Pomona Impact, an angel investment group founded in 2011. We had the opportunity to speak with Aida and congratulate her on the successful repayment.
Aida, tell us a little about your history with Pomona.
I entered the Agora Accelerator so I could prepare my company to receive investment and had the opportunity to present my company to a group of investors. It was in Granada, in 2011, where we met Pomona. They paid a lot of attention to our company and when we spoke with them, they directly asked us how much we need, and that is how it happened. They gave us a loan of $30,000 that we invested as working capital. This investment has really helped us to grow, in fact we doubled our sales this year. We are working on a report where we document our significant growth and the impact is has had for us and on the lives of our many employees.
How was the process of working with Pomona?
The link was Agora. Agora was always aware of our relationship and served as an intermediary, helping us communicate with Pomona and prepare the right documentation throughout the entire process. Sometimes, as a SME it is hard for us to understand what investors need and their way of thinking. Agora helped us establish the relationship with Pomona and was there every step of the way. However, the relationship became more than just a business deal. Our colleagues told us that it is amazing what we have with Pomona, a relationship was more than just about a loan. They really came to be part of the Oscaritos family. It was a successful investment and we thank them very much for that trust they had in us. I want to send Mark and Rich our deepest appreciation from everyone at Oscaritex. I do not have the words needed to thank all that we have achieved thanks to Pomona.
Richard Ambrose, co-founder of Pomona Impact, added a few remarks on Aida and the investment process:
In our opinion, Aida represents the untapped entrepreneurial energy in Central America that is ready to be unlocked. I credit her and Oscar (husband) for the courage, vision and uncompromising honesty needed to get the business started WHILE delivering on her social mission. Instead of mimicking the harsh working conditions that many garment manufacturers use to drive production, she built an open-air production facility that invites natural light and fresh air as well as a respectful working environment for her employees.
Agora was instrumental first in identifying her as a worthy candidate for its accelerator and second in providing the additional training necessary to help get Oscaritos ready for investment. Throughout the life of the investment, Pomona even received additional support from Agora to assist with some reporting issues that Oscaritos was having trouble completing. This translated to both cost and time savings for us (Pomona). Quite simply – Agora continues to impress!
We received the final repayment of the loan from Oscaritos on time and with an equitable financial return. We maintain a close relationship and look forward to collaborating on future projects. Thanks to all involved!
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.
After months of work, we are delighted to announce that we are opening up our application process for the class of 2013. We are looking for outstanding early-stage impact entrepreneurs who have the potential to create significant positive impact in their communities, but need some support to reach that potential.
We define “early-stage” as companies with revenues between $25k and $2M – companies that have shown some proof of concept, but that need growth capital in order to grow. We define “impact entrepreneurs” as for-profit entrepreneurs managing their business to create positive change in the world.
Recruitment efforts officially got underway this week with a weeklong stop in Guatemala, home to four of our past accelerator entrepreneurs – Quetsol, Recelca, Kiej de los Bosques, and ByoEarth. In Guatemala, Agora representatives visited Guatemala City, Antigua, and Xela and met with entrepreneurs, NGOs, universities, government bodies, business leaders, and women’s groups spreading the word about our Impact Accelerator.
Guatemala represented the first stop on a tour of Latin America. Through these country roadshows, we aim to both raise the Accelerator’s profile and spread the word on impact investing, as well as dentify partners to further our work and impact. Our goal is to recruit 30 companies from an assortment of industries stretching from Mexico to Chile.
If you know of great impact entrepreneurs who might benefit from our program, please forward them this email and encourage them to apply. Thank you for helping us spread the word.
16 Entrepreneurs, One Retreat
For three days in March, the picturesque colonial town of Granada, Nicaragua, a centuries-old city on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, was home to 16 early-stage entrepreneurs who are working to create jobs and improve livelihoods in some of the poorest, most underdeveloped regions of the Western Hemisphere.
The entrepreneurs are participating in Agora’s Accelerator and collectively lead nine companies from throughout Central America and Mexico. They represent a range of industries from vermicomposting and recycling initiatives to telecommunication and financial services. Collectively, Agora’s Class of ’12 is on target to create more than 300 new jobs in the next three years and be a catalyst for wide-spread positive social, economic, and environmental impact in their local communities.
“A Spa for Entrepreneurship”
The retreat offered the opportunity for these impact entrepreneurs to begin preparing for the upcoming Investor Conference May 22-25: Impact Investing in Action. Over the course of the retreat, the entrepreneurs practiced presenting their pitches to their peers and gained instant feedback from fellow entrepreneurs, investors, and Agora staff.
The retreat aimed to help entrepreneurs better understand and clarify their business models, discuss what investors look for, and deepen their leadership skills in order to be able to better create impact through their business. As with the inaugural 2011 retreat, the event served as a unique platform for these often-isolated men and women to come together and learn from one another.
Aside from panels and workshops, the retreat was characterized by scenes of entrepreneurs meeting, talking, and collaborating with one another. “It’s difficult being a social entrepreneur at times,” Maria Pacheco, a member of Agora’s 2011 Class, reflected. “Getting the chance to meet with other entrepreneurs who are working on other great projects is so inspiring. It’s so great to know you’re not alone.”
The retreat laid the foundation for the development of a community among the entrepreneurs. Now they have stories, experiences, and visions that apply to each other on a variety of levels. They became more than just associates; they became connected by their common vision to use their businesses to make the world a better place. The retreat created a sense of trust and collaboration among the participants that prompted one entrepreneur to describe the event as a “spa for entrepreneurship.”
“It’s a great opportunity to get away from the day-to-day,” Francisco Cordero, the owner of 2012 Accelerator Class company Laudex, stated, “and recharge your energy with new insights, deep introspection, and a fresh outlook for the future of our companies.”
“The synergy created when people are working in the same direction creates a power rarely seen in other walks of life,” Ricardo Destarac of 2012 Class member DoGood, stated. “ It also entails an immense responsibility to remain committed.”
“Starting a relationship with an investor is like falling in love.”
The retreat was highlighted by panel discussions and presentations from various corners of the impact investing paradigm. Oftentimes, the most pressing questions on the minds of the entrepreneurs involved how to adequately attract investment. What are investors looking for? How can I best prepare myself to attract investment?
“I’m interested in companies that have decided to take a more difficult path in business terms but are doing a lot in social terms,” angel investor Marc Jacobson stated. “Does the business really have a significant social impact? We’re looking for passionate entrepreneurs. We are open to all sectors.”
“Our purpose in the last 10 years has been to push for a lot of growth in impact investing and to also make a lot of noise,” Morgan Simon, Executive Director of Toniic reflected. “We’ve been very happy with our experience with Agora. Through Agora, we’ve worked with some of the best impact entrepreneurs in Central America.”
“Agora’s role can be enormous,” Rahul Desai of the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) added. “Starting a conversation with an investor is like falling in love. If you give a good impression, the whole relationship can go well. Sometimes, entrepreneurs are so involved in the business and stuck in the details. Agora can highlight the most important features for the investors and help entrepreneurs make a positive first impression.”
Impact Investing in Action
At dawn on March 10, the entrepreneurs began filing out of the stunning Hotel Granada and boarding vans and taxis destined for Managua International Airport. The late-night pool parties, evening galas, motivational talks, and coaching sessions were over. Now, each entrepreneur was tasked with taking what they had learned to further prepare themselves for May’s Impact Investing in Action.
Though the retreat was over, the chairs stacked, and caterers sent home, the entrepreneurs are left with an intangible, though very real community of support and inspiration that will help guide them along their respective journeys.
“The retreat was a unique gathering of inspiring and world changing entrepreneurs,” Maria Rodriquez, the owner of 2012 Class member ByoEarth, concluded. “These businesses are making the world a better place and bringing prosperity to Central America [and Mexico]. I am truly humbled to be a part of this.”
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