A few weeks ago, on an island on the Lake of Nicaragua, I had the unusual task of leading 36 emerging business leaders from across Latin America through a World Café exercise.
Organizations use the World Café to unearth group insights around big questions through a series of structured conversations. In this instance, we were grappling with the hypothetical idea of a Latin American economy run by innovation and impact entrepreneurship—and trying to imagine what that reality would look like. Seated around the tables were some of the best brains on the topic—the entrepreneurs themselves.
It was the fourth and final day of Agora Partnerships’ Entrepreneur Retreat. “Retreat” is too restful a term for the week that just transpired. Packed with personal development exercises, group bonding, and investment readiness and business model sessions, the retreat launched the organization’s third class of Accelerator companies (27 total, from 13 countries across the region), with vigor.
Agora Partnerships, a nonprofit organization that is also a founding B-corporation (through a for-profit subsidiary), has been iterating for the past seven years on a cost-effective formula to support and scale small and growing businesses in Latin America working to create positive change. It calls its target companies “impact businesses,” and the people who run them “impact entrepreneurs.”
I am a newcomer to Agora (last year, I spent my three-month MBA summer internship in the organization’s Washington, DC and Managua, Nicaragua offices). Prior to business school, I worked in a series of nonprofit organizations run by Ashoka Fellows. While Ashoka arguably vets best-in-class nonprofit leaders globally, I found myself disheartened by the recycling of organizational dilemmas: the continual resource crunch, funder fickleness, and stagnant career paths. I came to business school in search of alternate models for moving the needle on access and equity, both domestically and globally.
Enter the impact entrepreneur. A curious breed of pragmatic business-person and inspirational visionary, these individuals—at least, the thirty-six I met at Agora’s retreat in Nicaragua—intrigue me.
I spent five days listening to statements like: “We don’t sell poverty. We sell a methodology to alleviate poverty.” This particular statement was made by Gabriela Flores, the energetic founder and CEO of Kirah Design, a high-end home goods company that employs artisans in Bolivia at a living wage. The essence of the comment reverberated throughout the retreat for me: How can we design durable companies that intentionally—and not because of guilt or obligation—take on chronic social ills?
Underemployment, water access, health and sanitation, gender equity—the very founding of the 27 companies in Agora’s third Accelerator class was motivated by something other than profits. And yet, to be successful, turning a profit reliably and delivering a return to investors is essential. As I listened and offered feedback to business pitches, I could hear, firsthand, this constant and real tension between focusing on the social versus financial health of the business.
After Sasha de Beausset presented on her brand-new company NutriPlus, which will be delivering nutritional supplements to malnourished Guatemalan children, several of the entrepreneurs in our break-out group wondered if her company sounded “too much like an NGO”—a feel-good project and not a business to be taken seriously. This discussion thread continued throughout the retreat.
By the time of my World Café session, we—the entrepreneurs, Agora staff members, a handful of investors, and me—were many hours into knowing each other. In four eventful days we had moved from being a random set of strangers motivated by similar yet abstract goals, to a cohesive group deeply vested in seeing each other succeed. As I listened to each entrepreneur articulate a one-liner on their company purpose at one of the final dinners, I found myself emotional.
Ricardo Terán Terán, Agora’s co-founder and a successful Nicaraguan businessman himself, at one point announced to the entrepreneurs: “The solutions to our problems are in your hands.” At the time, I appreciated the statement for its rhetoric though wondered whether we were overstating reality for the sake of poetics.
But, in the fading light of the day, as we concluded the World Café, I watched animated, mostly youthful faces like mine, scrunch in thought, break into smile, and passionately express convictions in response to the questions posed by yours truly. And, I couldn’t help but think—we are on to something.
A subset of the 27 companies will reconvene in May 2013 in Washington, DC for Agora Partnerships’ annual Investor Conference. They will spend the intervening six months deep in business model consulting through Agora’s signature Accelerator program.