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Q&A with Maria Escorcia of Ashoka: Boosting entrepreneurship for social change


Photos by John Durr / Miami Herald Staff

By Nancy Dahlberg / [email protected]

Changemakers can come from anywhere, including the corporate world. Just look at Maria Escorcia, director of the South Florida chapter of Ashoka, a nonprofit that supports a network of 3,000 social entrepreneurs around the world.

Escorcia spent six years managing a corporate social responsibility program for a large Colombian multinational corporation. During her first three years, she was based in Bogotá and was responsible for the company’s community relations and implementing social impact projects where the company operated. She designed and led a project that aimed to eradicate child labor in rural mining areas, for instance. As a result, she was invited to participate as one of the first private sector representatives in the government-led Colombian Forum of Child Labor Eradication.

During the company’s expansion in Latin America, she was offered the opportunity to create a corporate foundation in the newly acquired plant in Cabaret, Haiti. “I arrived to the island in January 2009 and stayed until late 2011, which gave me a glimpse of the country before, during and after the 2010 earthquake. The foundation I established in early 2009 played an active role in the relief and reconstruction efforts after the earthquake,” she said.

After that, Escorcia learned about Ashoka while working on her master’s degree in international development at the University of Pittsburgh. Ashoka’s founder and CEO, Bill Drayton, was receiving an award and gave a keynote speech.

“Up to that point, most of my professional experience had been managing corporate social responsibility programs for large private companies, and Ashoka’s model of supporting social entrepreneurs seemed like a great next step for advancing my efforts of creating social change,” Escorcia said. “I felt inspired when I learned about an organization whose mission is to build a world where we all have the freedom, confidence and support to solve problems and make a contribution to the common good.”

She joined the organization in 2013 working for the Miami office, and took over as director in June when the chapter’s founding leader, Lorena Garcia Duran,moved on to an Ashoka leadership position in Los Angeles. The South Florida office is relatively new, established in early 2012, but actively seeks to broaden its network of entrepreneurs and mentors, produces programs for youth and is works with local universities to establish “Changemaker Campuses,” among other projects.

Escorcia recently discussed Ashoka South Florida’s programs with the Miami Herald for this Q&A.

Q. You have an interesting background working for corporations and spending a large chunk of time in Haiti. What does that experience bring to the table in your role heading Ashoka South Florida?

A. I learned valuable lessons of what works best when managing organizations that create social change. I left the private sector reassured to see that a number of corporations understand their responsibility extends beyond their shareholders to the community at large. My corporate experience afforded me the opportunity to create change in the board room and on the ground working hand in hand with disadvantaged communities.

Q. How are Ashoka fellows chosen?

A. Ashoka fellows are leading social entrepreneurs who Ashoka recognizes have innovative approaches to social problems and the potential to change the pattern in their field. They possess the vision, creativity and extraordinary determination of the business entrepreneur but devote these qualities to introducing new solutions to social problems.

All Ashoka fellows must undergo a rigorous search and selection process that has been refined over 30 years. Each candidate is evaluated against five criteria, which aim to select only the most qualified candidates who exemplify innovation, creativity, an entrepreneurial quality, a drive for social impact and a high ethical fiber.

Q. Tell me a little about Miami’s Ashoka fellow.

A. Her name is Conchy Bretos. Conchy was selected as a fellow in 2010 and she has far exceeded expectations. In her short time as a fellow she has helped change and influence state and national policy around senior healthcare. Her organization, Mia Senior Living Solutions, which she owns with her daughter Pilar Carvajal, licenses and manages affordable assisted living and related services to allow low-income and disabled senior citizens to remain in a home setting instead of being forced prematurely into nursing homes. Through her efforts, she has reduced Medicaid costs, created new healthcare jobs and kept individuals in a place of their choice. Mia Senior Living Solutions has helped clients in 23 states bring affordable assisted living services to the elderly poor.

Ashoka in Miami has supported her by connecting her with advisors, investors and consultants, among others. Conchy has been particularly important to our office and our goals for South Florida. She has worked closely with the Ashoka Youth Venture groups of South Florida, sharing her challenges and encouraging them with their own ventures.

Q. Why aren’t there more fellows in South Florida?

A. Although there is only one Ashoka fellow in South Florida, there is a large number of social entrepreneurs and Changemakers who are making an amazing impact throughout the region. Through our “30 Days of Change” campaign that ran in July, we were able to identify 721 active Changemakers. Changemakers are potential, future Ashoka fellows at the beginning stages of their entrepreneurial development who are not at a point where it would make sense for them to be fellows. From this campaign, we learned that there are many individuals in the region who are doing remarkable things and with time we are confident that South Florida will have more fellows.

We are actively searching for more South Florida fellows, and we encourage others to submit nominations.

Q. Tell me a little about some of fellows in Latin America that Ashoka South Florida works with.

A. The Ashoka South Florida office has been a gateway for Ashoka fellows scaling their solutions to the U.S., or from the U.S. to Latin America. A great example is Ashoka fellow Gina Badenoch and her company Capaxia. Gina is transforming the manner in which big corporations recruit and promote human talent by helping them realize how to see past stereotypes in order to value individual potential and identify hidden talent. Ashoka South Florida has supported her in many ways including by connecting her with impact investors in Miami who will be investing in her venture in 2015. Additionally, one of the members of the Ashoka Support Network in Miami who believes in the potential of Capaxia has been mentoring and helping Gina open doors with other investors and U.S.-based corporations.

Another example is Ashoka fellow Julia Borbolla from Mexico. Julia has developed a groundbreaking approach to child psychology that transcends traditional methods of therapy. With her multimedia program, Antennas for Children, she is reaching out to thousands of traumatized children who lack adequate access to care. Through Ashoka South Florida, Julia has been invited twice to present at the abc* Continuity Forum, she was also invited to speak at eMerge Americas 2014, and she is receiving pro bono legal consulting from a Miami-based attorney.

Lastly, with his company Lumni, Ashoka fellow Felipe Vergara designs and manages social-investment funds that invest in the education of diversified pools of students. His model brings together students and investors in a win-win partnership which allows individuals and institutions to invest in their community’s most valuable asset: the future of its youth. Felipe developed Lumni from Miami and grew it in Colombia, Mexico, Chile and, more recently, Peru. Ashoka South Florida has facilitated part of this growth and expansion connecting Felipe and the local YPO [Young Presidents’ Organization] and ASN [Ashoka Support Network] member networks. This resulted in five members of YPO and ASN joining Lumni’s international and/or country level boards and investments in Lumni’s funds or system of approximately $4 million.

Q. I understand you are trying to bring the work of some of the Ashoka fellows here. How has that been going?

A. Yes. The localizer program called Changemaker Series will start in 2015 and intends to bring to South Florida some of the world’s most innovative social solutions to relevant local problems by scaling Ashoka fellows’ work in our region.

The idea is to connect and inspire local Changemakers and contribute to the creation of an ecosystem in which social entrepreneurs can build successful social ventures in Miami. Currently, we are finalizing a list of six to eight fellows for the Changemaker Series. Focus areas of the fellows include: social impact through coding and technology, education, mental-health care, street violence prevention, and efficient procurement practices for cities, among others.

Q. What is the mission of Ashoka Youth Venture?

A. Youth Venture is part of Ashoka’s vision of an Everyone A Changemaker™ world. The mission of Youth Venture is to cultivate an environment that values and supports young people in their path to becoming Changemakers. We accomplish this goal by investing in young people and giving them the transformative experience of launching and leading their own social ventures. We hope that by creating a critical mass of young people, they will collective influence other youth and inspire them to take initiative to make a positive contribution to their community and society. (click here to learn more).

Q. I understand that program has taken off, particularly this year. Tell me about that. And any plans ahead for next year’s program?

A. This is the second year of Youth Venture in South Florida and the program has experienced tremendous growth since inception. We are expanding the program through partnerships with the Academy of Agents of Change, Breakthrough Miami, Ransom Everglades, Palmer Trinity School and Carol City Senior High. We tailored the program to the particular learning environments and students from these institutions. This has only reinforced our belief that Youth Venture can work for all students. Although we have been focusing primarily on high school aged students we are hoping to engage college students from local universities in the near future. We plan on offering a two-day “boot camp” program designed to showcase the program to university students and educators. This critical evolution should allow us to engage with more potential young Changemakers and provide a forum for interested educators to learn about the program and promote it to their students.

Q. How and why was the Ashoka Support Network formed?

A. The Ashoka Support Network (ASN) is a global community of entrepreneurial business leaders who contribute their time, resources, networks and influence to Ashoka’s mission. The ASN offers its members the unique opportunity to contribute to social change by supporting Ashoka and its fellows with strategic advice, fresh perspectives, access to new markets and networks and much more.

The network was founded 10 years ago in Paris on the understanding that the business sector could play a key support role in a Changemaker revolution. From there, ASN quickly expanded across Europe. In 2009, the concept was brought to the United States, led by the Ashoka Miami team who saw the potential for building an ASN within the local community. The idea resonated among the business community in Miami. Currently, the network is comprised of 16 active and enthusiastic members.

In the future, we envision having thousands of entrepreneurial business leaders participating in ASN, which will serve to quickly and effectively help advance and scale the solutions of Ashoka fellows. Today, there is no other network in the United States that serves to connect entrepreneurial business talent with leading social entrepreneurs.

Q. Do we have any Ashoka Changemaker campuses in South Florida?

A. The Ashoka U program designates as Changemaker Campuses colleges and universities that embrace social innovation as a core value and build a supportive environment for Changemaking across their institution. These Changemaker Campuses understand that higher education is the next global driver of social change. There are currently 30 Changemaker Campuses worldwide. In South Florida, both Miami Dade College and Florida International University are in the process of becoming Changemaker Campuses. We are very excited to be working with these institutions and praise their commitment to social innovation.

Q. What’s ahead for the South Florida chapter? Any plans or new projects you can talk about?

A. There are many great things on the horizon for Ashoka South Florida. Beyond the Ashoka Fellow Localizer, the Ashoka U, and the expansion of Ashoka’s Youth Venture, there are other important programs we are hoping to bring to South Florida.

One of these important programs is the Changemaker School Network. The network is a national community of leading elementary and secondary schools that serve as models for cultivating Changemaker skills (empathy, teamwork, leadership and problem solving) in students. Schools in the network share best practices with each other and benefit from opportunities to collaborate with other Changemaker school and Ashoka partners.

We also have the all-important task of growing our Ashoka Support Network in the region. We are seeking successful and innovative leaders from a variety of fields who see entrepreneurship as the primary engine for economic and social development.

Q. How would you characterize the social entrepreneurial movement in South Florida, and how do you think it meshes with the tech entrepreneurial community that is developing here?

A. Rising, expanding and pulsing with activity. The social entrepreneurial movement is growing in tandem with the larger entrepreneurial movement which is grounded in technology. The explosion of the tech scene in South Florida has challenged people to create and build, and this has naturally extended to the social arena. Many young entrepreneurs care about the social and environmental impact of their ventures and are including the triple bottom line as part of their business model. We are excited to see this movement develop and the amazing innovative solutions the community will give us.

Maria2Q. Why should investors invest in social entrepreneurs?

A. We are constantly searching for investors that invest capital with the intention of achieving not only a positive financial return on investment but also a social and environmental return. In certain parts of the world impact investing has grown exponentially and is driving social change.

The Ashoka South Florida office is leading the effort to identify socially-minded investors in the region and connect them with Ashoka Fellows. We are committed to making South Florida a leader in achieving sustainable social change by bridging the gap between impact investors and the social entrepreneurs in our network. After all, it’s hard to get a stronger social impact return than from an investment in a social entrepreneur.

Q. Finish this sentence: South Florida really needs …

A. Empathy. In Ashoka, we define empathy as the ability to understand what other people are feeling and in response to act in a way that avoids harm and contributes to positive change. As we’ve learned from our community of 3,000 Ashoka Fellows all around the world, empathy is a key characteristic in strong leaders that enables them to resolve conflicts, collaborate in teams, listen effectively, solve problems and ultimately drive change. The cultural diversity that characterizes South Florida is one of its greatest assets. It can also represent a challenge if different groups remain in silos unable to find opportunity to learn from each other’s unique experiences through a deeper exchange of ideas. South Florida can transcend to a world-class city that can thrive as a result of fostering social inclusiveness. We need every individual to master the skill of empathy and every institution, from school to corporation, to integrate empathy as one of its core principles.

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg.