What a Colombian Micro Entrepreneur Can Teach You

At IESE, the spirit of service remains strong even as an alumni. Over the summer, Fabio Rodriguez (MBA Class of 2017) took on a short term project combining three of his main interests – consulting, supporting a social cause and being in an international setting.

After graduating from my MBA at IESE Business School and prior to entering the corporate world, I spent my summer in Medellin collaborating with Interactuar.

Interactuar is a social and self-sustainable business, doing good and doing well for the last 34 years, mainly supporting Colombian entrepreneurship on the basis of a pyramid of financial and educational services. More than 95% of the population supported by Interactuar’s services belongs to low-income communities, reinforcing the foundation’s objective of poverty reduction in Colombia.

The various projects that I was involved in during this summer gave me great exposure to different initiatives that Interactuar is working on. It was also a reality check to witness the efforts and stories of dozens of people that have to support a whole family with their business. All in all, these have been my top five takeaways:

  1. Warmth of Colombian people: Despite a turbulent recent history that has shaped the life of millions of locals, every single person I met that had visited Colombia highlighted how nice the locals were, especially the “paisas” (Inhabitants of Antioquia, the region in which Medellin is located). That was a sweet contrast to what we are used to in some western countries, having myself lived for 6 years in a city like London that is often (not always) so impersonal. Within the micro entrepreneurs’ universe, it was really enriching to see how much they cared about its community benefiting from their individual gains, the cooperation among them and how they kept a smile on their faces regardless of all the challenges many of them were facing in all aspects. One of the kindest countries I have been to for sure.

    Fabio Reodriguez (MBA ’17) with micro entrepreneurs in a ranch of La Estrella attending a workshop

  2. Professionalism of the firm: Perhaps because of my lack of knowledge of this industry, I arrived thinking that with my Top10 MBA and experience in blue-chip firms I would be able to improve processes at Interactuar very quickly. Starting from a very well-prepared induction to all the meetings and interactions I had with different people from the foundation, I was positively impressed with how things were done here, the quality and quantity of projects going around and the great ideas people came up with and that were executed. Interactuar carries out and plans everything with the entrepreneur in mind, ensuring every new service or product will have a positive impact on the life of the entrepreneur, be it the management of his/her business or the quality of life of the family. (As the vast majority of businesses are family run hence there is a very thin line between work and personal life.)
  3. Impact of education: I had to visit several local businesses to understand better their business and experience first-hand their daily routine and challenges. Many of these people have never been to secondary school let alone university, so sometimes when we asked them questions like “Why did you price this cup of coffee at $1?” or “How much stock of X item are you carrying?” they just replied “Because the bar next door sells it at $1” or “My wife looks at that, I have no idea”. Of course pretty much all of them have never had a holiday and their long-term horizon was the next day. This link (http://www.interactuar.org.co/en/testimonies) showcases some testimonials from local micro businesses and the incredible transformation they underwent with the help of the knowledge services of Interactuar. Through various courses, the latter allowed these people to change their mindset and stop thinking of themselves as survivors and instead as little (and not so little) businessman.

    “El Profe” is the cook of Interactuar´s headquarters in Bello and one of the Level 2 Micro MBA students of this year.

  4. Resilience: It is mind blowing to hear stories from people who, with loans of $500, have managed to buy a couple of machines, work 18 hours per day and create a business that later would feed their family and help their local community. Many people had had large banks withdrawing their credit applications because of background checks and had had to reinvent themselves and take creativity to the next level to make their dreams come true. I met several entrepreneurs with amazing energy and positive attitude that allowed them to create a healthy micro business from literally nothing.
  5. New Order: I have been lucky enough to have travelled to 60 countries and I still believe that, despite all the challenging geopolitical challenges we are facing, things are levelling out. The level of development of a city like Medellin (with its fantastic metro system that I used every day to commute to work, and vibrant gastronomic scene in the Poblado area, home of entrepreneurial centre Ruta N, as examples) encourages youngsters to come up with business ideas that have a global appeal. A significant number of projects of the people supported by Interactuar are 100% suited for a “first-world” customer base such as an organic coffee grower from the outskirts of Medellin. Starbucks watch out!

You can tell I really enjoyed this adventure that ACTEC (a Belgian development NGO) and IESE allowed me to experience. It is never too late to think about volunteering and to get your hands dirty experiencing the different realities of our world. The smiles of the entrepreneurs when sharing their stories or their tears of joy hugging the staff of Interactuar that believed in them when nobody else did were unforgettable.

A very negative image of Colombia has been projected in recent years because of a violent era driven by the FARC and drug cartels (Netflix’s Narcos is probably what you are thinking of right now). I had some doubts about spending a summer visiting low-income neighbourhoods given all the stories in the press. In Colombia, you are assigned to one “estrato” based on where you live, with 1 being the lowest class and 6 the highest — Interactuar deals mostly with estratos 2 and 3. Luckly I decided to give it a go and I can tell now that it is a safe country overall and Medellin itselfis is a textbook success story for is unbelievable transformation in the last 10 years. If any of you had any concerns about visiting Colombia after watching Narcos be reassured that things today have very little to do with

To know more about Interactuar, visit their website (http://www.interactuar.org.co/en), follow their social media channels or drop me a line.

[This post was reposted from LinkedIn]

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