Unleashing The Potential of Impact Entrepreneurs With Ben Powell of Agora Partnerships
The Trailblazers for Good Q&A Series sits down with the most world shaking individuals leading the movement to align impact, profit and purpose. Here we pick the brains of top social entrepreneurs to learn first hand from their stunning accomplishments, utter failures, and stiff challenges in leading the revolution of doing well by doing good. Join us as we explore the collective consciousness that drives and inspires these individuals.
Ben Powell is Managing Partner at Agora Partnerships. Ben became convinced of the power of small business to transform poor communities in Mexico, where he co-founded CityGolf Puebla, a miniature golf course and family recreation center. After working as a Presidential Management Fellow at the Office of Management and Budget, he left to attend business school and launch Agora Partnerships. Since graduating in 2005, Ben has been named a Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation Entrepreneur, a BMW Foundation Young Leader, and an Ashoka Fellow. He was a Social Venture Network Innovation Award honoree in 2009 and named one of the top 40 under 40 development leaders in Washington, DC in 2010. He has an MBA from Columbia University, where we was awarded the inaugural alumni social innovation award, and an MSFS with distinction from Georgetown University. Ben has a BA with high honors from Haverford College, where he co-founded Tres Nacos Quesadillas Delivery and the Lighted Fools improv troupe. A native of Cambridge, Mass., Ben lives in Washington, DC with his wife and three children.
Can you tell us a little bit about what Agora Partnerships does, and what inspired you to start it?
We are a non profit organization that identifies the best investment opportunities to create social impact in Central America and Mexico. Our goal is to build a community of investors and entrepreneurs who want to use business to solve humanity’s toughest problems like extreme poverty, inequality, and climate change. We really believe that to build a more sustainable world we need to find the entrepreneurs operating in very poor areas who have both the values and the management skills to turn a vision for change into reality.
The way we work is to identify the very best small business entrepreneurs defined as having the most potential to create positive impact in the world. There’s a broad range of backgrounds, one entrepreneur – she makes children’s clothing – got her first loan from a microfinance bank for $100 and now has 50 employees, another – who has created a wooden toy company, used to work on Wall Street. What they have in common is commitment to practicing a better, more sustainable kind of business focused on profits, planet and people.
Our job is to accelerate their impact and we do this by giving them leadership training, building a community around them, helping them learn the language of venture capital, and then connecting them to mentors, supporters, and investors. When they get capital and grow, they create social impact more efficiently than any other kind of program because they are a profitable business.
When I was younger I launched a miniature golf course in Puebla, Mexico. It is still running today and it taught me that the best way to fight poverty in the developing world is through entrepreneurship and innovation. One of our employees, Maribel, is a single mom and she got a government loan that allowed her to buy her own apartment – which to her symbolized independence. When I saw the impact on her life, how critical a job in the formal economy is, I realized I was making more of a difference in the world with the Minigolf course than at my day job at the White House Budget Office, so I quit to go back to school and start Agora. We have an equation that informs our work: human potential + capital = impact. We need to level the playing field for entrepreneurs who believe in sustainable capitalism. Doing so gives you the best bang for your buck in fighting global poverty.
Can you tell us about one of the entrepreneurs you have invested in and how things have changed for them.
I love Maria Pacheco from Guatemala. She runs an incredible company called Kiej de los Bosques that through its Wakami brand is transforming the tired handicrafts market into something really exciting. She is passionate about giving rural Guatemalan women a chance to access global markets. She does this through Wakami’s products which are imbued with strong stories about how we are all connected together. I can’t think of a company that is more dedicated to their producers than Maria’s. Fifty percent of Guatemalan children are malnourished so Wakami measures the height and weight of the kids of their producers to track impact and ensure the income they help generate translates into real impact. We helped them with their finances and connected them with a number of investors who are getting ready to invest.
Maybe more importantly, we’ve created a community so people like Maria don’t have to feel alone. She was just at the SoCap conference in San Francisco and she was the only non-American to be selected to speak on the main stage. Her pitch was incredible and left the room breathless. People like Maria who have the commitment and drive to make a difference need to be surfaced and supported. That’s what motivates our work.
How do you select who is accepted into the program?
We look at the person, the business model and social impact, in that order. The person is by far the most important thing we look for. Without an ethical, passionate, committed entrepreneur, nothing else really matters. We want people who are fired up to make a big difference in their communities, and maybe the world, and who have vision and maturity to build teams and grow a business. What they need is access to opportunity. We look at the business model with an investor’s eye – if it makes no business sense, no matter the potential impact, we can’t support it. It needs to be viable. A good business idea that serves a real need is key. Third, we look at social impact. A great entrepreneur with a good idea that creates clear social impact and that harnesses market forces – that’s a winner for us.
Agora was founded on the principle that “untapped human potential is the greatest resource for creating a better world” What things do you believe are needed to help unleash that latent potential?
Our experience is there are 3 key factors that help unleash potential. The first is access to human capital, to mentors, to knowledge, to business acumen. The second is access to social capital: networks of trust, visibility, and access to people like care2 readers who believe in supporting entrepreneurs from very poor parts of the world who are doing their part to build a better world. And finally, access to financial capital is obviously critical. These entrepreneurs need investors who believe in them and who want their money to create impact. They especially need early stage investors who are willing to take risk and who realize that investing in good entrepreneurs could create more impact than a charitable donation. Typically, early stage entrepreneurs need all three types of capital to succeed.
How can our general readership push forward your mission?
Well, we are trying to bring the values of a community like Care2 to the poorest communities in our hemisphere outside of Haiti. You can help us by just getting informed about the power of start-ups to create jobs and provide products like bamboo housing or solar lights that people really need. You can check out our blog and Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. Learn about the entrepreneurs and give us feedback if you think they are really improving the world through their business.
The world of impact investing is still very small and we need more people to realize there is no better way to make a difference in global poverty than to invest your time, networks, or money to help an entrepreneur build a good, viable business in a very poor community. It’s simply the best bang for your buck out there.
Finally, we are looking to find mentors, donors, investors, and others who want to engage with us to build a sustainable capital movement that crosses borders. Applications are also open for the next Accelerator class and we’d love you readers to forward the announcement (in English or Spanish) to their networks to make sure this opportunity reaches the most people in the region.