Agora’s 2016 Entrepreneur Retreat was held from March 14th-March 17th in Granada, Nicaragua. We welcomed an extraordinary group of over 70 attendees, made up of entrepreneurs, investors, alumni, staff, and partners to kick off the 2016 Accelerator.
The Retreat consisted of the four core themes Impact, Business, Growth, and Network that are essential to launching successful, impact-driven businesses. During the Retreat, entrepreneurs were able to build a sense of community with the broader Agora network, participate in peer-to-peer learning, and launch into the Accelerator curriculum alongside their consultant. Reflecting on this year’s Retreat, Agora’s Accelerator Director Erin Milley remarked, “The Retreat is one of those unique events where you leave refreshed, motivated and in awe of the strength of community. It was inspiring to witness the Agora network coming together to support a new class of extraordinary entrepreneurs working to make this world a better place.”
Below are some of the Retreat highlights:
Day 1: Impact
Highlights: Introduction to Agora Partnerships, how to create and measure change, hiking Mombacho Volcano, and entrepreneurs declaring their commitments to their businesses
Day 2: Business
Highlights: Exploring and scaling innovative business models, entrepreneurs working on their business models and presenting them to a panel for review, and attending FuckUp Night
Day 3: Growth
Highlights: Learning about the impact investing landscape through an investor panel, strengthening entrepreneurs pitches, and attending a special reception in Managua to present the Class of 2016 to the Nicaraguan business community
Day 4: Network
Highlights: Building your brand and leveraging the Agora network, reflecting on the Retreat at Isleta el Corozo, and ending the Retreat with a closing circle and certificates
The Retreat is the official starting point for the Agora Accelerator cycle, a place where entrepreneurs dive into a four-month process of financial models, growth strategies, network building, and personal reflection.
“The Accelerator provides more than information, coaching, and a network,” David Evitt of Agora ’16 company Estufa Doña Dora remarked. “The consultants join your team to help turn insights into actions that move the business forward.”
After a successful 2016 Retreat, we are excited to see what the next four months hold as our Class of 2016 entrepreneurs refine their business models with their Agora consultants to prepare for growth.
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.
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 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.”
To see more photos of the Retreat, like us on Facebook page HERE.
What is the hardest kind of capital for entrepreneurs to find in the developing world?
A strong argument can be made that it’s social capital – basically a feeling of trust, community, and mutually agreed upon norms and expectations that together benefit the community. The complete lack of social capital has prevented many incredible entrepreneurs from realizing their potential, and for good reason. Without social capital, investors have a harder time building trust. Transactions that could be simple take forever, and information that should be cheap and easy to find simply isn’t.
A lack of social capital begets a lack of investment capital.
Without social capital, the law of reciprocity – one of the most powerful laws of leadership and getting things done – doesn’t work. Ultimately, where there is little social capital, opportunity and potential are squandered, which is why the societies with the most social capital in the world are also the most successful.
Did we build social capital at our first retreat? I think we made an excellent start, and we did it really only by creating a space and a frame for extraordinary people to realize just how extraordinary they are .
We are told that Central Americans, like many others in countries with significant problems like poverty and crime (in this case, violence indirectly caused by oblivious American illegal drug consumers) have a culture that is anti-entrepreneurial. Overly conservative, distrustful, stratified, fearful of change, afraid to fail, tied to the status quo – these are words that describe parts of the business culture in Central America, there’s no denying it. But as Jose Bolaños, (one of the most inspiring and thoughtful life coaches in the region), said as he wrapped up the retreat, “Here, the status quo has been broken .”
If there is a lack of social capital in Central America, it will not be found among the entrepreneurs I met at our retreat. If there is fear of failure, that fear was not evident. When you are part of a community, you know that you are not confronting all of the challenges solo.
“I realize I am not alone and that together we are more powerful than we are individually,” said Guillermo Jacoby of Ostuma Farms, the most sustainably managed family-owned farm in Nicaragua we know about.
Central America is one of the most unequal, socially stratified places on earth. That is not something you can change overnight. Agora has begun the process of creating a community that can overcome class background — one whose glue is values, not where you went to high school.
In fact, I think we have already assembled possibly the most diverse group of entrepreneurs ever to form one community. One received angel investment from top Wall Street investors; another got her first loan ever – $100 – from a local microfinance bank. Together, Agora and these entrepreneurs are helping to build a new entrepreneurial culture in Central America .
Last week’s Entrepreneur Retreat ran from May 4th to the 7th, bringing together the best impact entrepreneurs from all over Central America and great mentors, advisors, and investors. Over those four days, friendships were formed, knowledge was shared, and business ideas thrived.
Synthesizing the impact of the Entrepreneur Retreat, Agora entrepreneur Tegu described the experience, saying:
“The event has helped me to no longer feel isolated and alone in doing business. It is incredible to see how so many people are investing in the region, not only in business but the entire community.
I see the benefit of being connected with people of this caliber. And I think it will be good to develop our ideas. That transcends our team and now we have a community of 20 people who can provide constructive feedback.”
We just wrapped up our first Agora Entrepreneur retreat and I couldn’t be more pleased exhilarated, really. From our cabins we could see in the near distance the bay of San Juan del Sur, where Vanderbilt’s ships used to ferry people to San Francisco. Except for holidays when the town pulses with energy, San Juan is normally a pretty sleepy fishing village that attracts surfers, backpackers, and locals from Managua. But the last few days were anything but sleepy. In fact, if there was one thing noticeably missing from the retreat, it was sleep.
Our goal of the conference was to bring the best early stage entrepreneurs in Central America (selected as part of our Accelerator program) together, connect them with the best trainers and coaches we could, and hope we could build a real sense of community. Our theory was that bringing people together was critical to helping the entrepreneurs accelerate their ability to attract investment and increase their impact. What we ended up building went far beyond a sense of community.
The list of reasons why the entrepreneurial sector has been so unsuccessful in Central America is long and fairly well known. Aside from a general lack of good political leadership over many decades, the problem can be boiled down to three things: lack of human, financial and social capital.
Getting to know these entrepreneurs personally, I feel better than I ever have that we have the right human capital in our Accelerator program –these are the kind of men and women that smart impact investors will want to associate with and learn from. Critically, they have the absorptive capacity to take advantage of education and opportunity and put it to work for them. They are also surrounded by additional human capital – our great staff, our fellows, retreat participants like nearly the entire senior leadership of KPMG in Nicaragua or World Economic Forum Young Leader Felix Maradiaga whose own personal journey is worthy of a Hollywood movie. The human capital is there.
We are working hard to get the right impact investors to learn about our first nine Agora entrepreneurs and to help ensure that capital flows where it can make the most impact. We were incredibly fortunate benefit from the participation of world-class impact investors like Morgan Simon from Toniic, Jorge del Castillo from PymeCapital, Ernesto Gallo from MesoAmerica, Jaime Guzman-Fournier from AVINA, Eduardo Argüello from Amzak Capital Management and Sonny Singh, a Silicon Valley investor who took part of his vacation in San Juan to share his insights on the pitch process. We often see people through their labels – investors, entrepreneurs, staff – but ultimately we are all just people trying to do a job and make a difference. At the retreat, it was the people, not their role, that stood out strongest.
These representatives of the impact investment community showed that investing is not about “us versus them” but is a relationship that is built on mutual interest. And, like all good relationships, it’s built on trust, respect and a complete understanding of what each one wants and what makes each one happy.
“The investor process is like a marriage,” said Jorge Castillo, “but with a built-in dissolution clause.” Very few of the entrepreneurs at the retreat have received investment from investors who did not know them personally. Being able to tell their stories clearly, explain what they can do with investment and how they can create social, environmental, and financial returns for investors will be key to their future success. We have a few more months to work on this for our upcoming Investor gathering in July in Granada, and I am optimistic we will be able to help address the lack of investment capital.
The final kind of capital is perhaps the hardest to quantify and to create, but it may have the longest and most important impact. A month ago, at the Draper Richards Kaplan retreat in San Francisco, a phrase that resonated with all of us was this: “Culture eats strategy for lunch.”
How do you build culture? How do you create social capital? And why is it so fundamentally important to creating the change we need? The retreat had a lot of lessons about that. And for me, they were the most important lessons. Stay tuned for more.