Social entrepreneurship in Mexico, as elsewhere, has become a source of innovative solutions to most pressing problems our society.
These solutions have been created by social entrepreneurs, and have led to new ways of citizen participation, new business models with social impact, and social change.
Emprendimiento Social México (ESMEX for its Spanish acronym) is a good example of how youth and social entrepreneurship in Mexico connect to the creation of these solutions and their social impact. ESMEX is a social enterprise based in the city of Guadalajara, founded by Jorge Meléndez (general director) and Cecilia Cárdenas (academic director), aimed to encourage and help young people to become agents of change in their communities, universities, and organizations, leading to the transformation of a complex social and economic reality. To know more about ESMEX, Jorge and Cecilia share valuable insights about their work, their motivations and their challenges.
This is the second of a series of interviews about the various critical aspects of the ecosystem of social innovation and social entrepreneurship in Mexico from the viewpoint of practitioners.
What is Emprendimiento Social México (ESMEX) about?
Jorge: Emprendimiento Social México (ESMEX) is a social enterprise with the purpose of fostering the talent of people that seek to solve social problems through business models.
Cecilia: We are a legally established enterprise coordinated by a group of young people from different disciplines, in charge of the training of agents of change, who are capable of developing business models and social enterprises focused on vulnerable communities with problems of high priority.
Why did you (or your partners) start this social innovation?
Jorge: I first discovered what entrepreneurship was when I worked with an international organization named Enactus, at the beginning of my bachelor studies. There I started activities related to entrepreneurship with social impact. I worked with a group of people with disabilities leading a bakery, in collaboration with a foundation focused on special education. By that time, we applied to a call launched by Ashoka Spain, we were selected, and we had the opportunity to travel to Madrid. Only then I came to know that our project was what they identified as a social entrepreneurship initiative.
Once I returned to Mexico, I tried to convince and motivate some colleagues and friends, including Cecilia, to start with the organization of projects and conferences that might help university students to have an understanding of social entrepreneurship, and to encourage them to become agents of change in their field of study. Since 2013 we started with the organization of conferences and our programs have kept evolving since then.
How did you come up with the idea? Was a creative or collaborative process involved?
Jorge: yes, since the beginning for the coordination of conferences, contests, and our fieldwork with urban indigenous communities, we collaborated with peers, organizations and actors involved in the ecosystem of social entrepreneurship, for instance, Incuba Social, an incubator for social and citizen projects led by the government of Zapopan (in Jalisco, Mexico), where we participated with our own projects.
After that, we started to shape our idea of what we wanted to pursue as an organization, and throughout the conferences, attendees showed a great interest in this topic, and they asked for further inputs beyond our talks. We then realized that our state (Jalisco) lacked of any platform providing support to people willing to develop social entrepreneurship projects from scratch, with a resulting need for a laboratory of social innovation and social entrepreneurship initiatives led by university students. Since then we have been collaborating with other organizations that have become part of a growing ecosystem in the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area, namely Aurora Global, Socialab, Social Valley, and Metroopers, that have helped us to deepen our understanding on how these projects could be created through collaboration, how to get young people on board, and how to encourage them to work with the community and from a community-centered perspective, how to develop their talent with the support of this ecosystem, and how to create concrete solutions to real problems.
What were you afraid of at the beginning and how (if at all) did you overcome your fear?
Cecilia: validation was our first challenge. We were afraid of not having any young people interested in the topic, or willing to take part in a training program. We were afraid of the rejection of university professors since our training program was not exactly a scientific-based program or a program led by academics. We were afraid of not having anyone on board taking actions towards the solution of social problems, being part of our community, our movement. However, since the pilot program, the laboratory generated the opposite reaction. We were inviting people from different disciplines, and it was gratifying to see how citizen participation takes place, and how young people are willing to learn, to invest in such training programs, and to solve social problems. Those were our fears, but we succeeded in overcoming such fears, and we continued learning to be more prepared for the evolution of our enterprise.
What were the beginnings of the social innovation? (i.e. how did you build your initiative, business, NGO from zero?)
Jorge: we completed our bachelor studies in 2015 and we were working as volunteers until that moment. We then decided to transform our business model in order to become a social enterprise that might contribute to create social impact, but with a financially sustainable business model necessary for the performance of our operations. Thus from 2016 onwards we coordinate three programs focused on youth, seeking to inspire, inform, and motivate young people to get involved in social entrepreneurship, through conferences, workshops, and case studies. After these conferences take place, those who are interested can decide whether they want to take part in a laboratory of social innovation and social entrepreneurship.
The laboratory has been evolving over time, but this is mainly aimed at designing solutions to social problems, and more recently, also environmental problems, by using the design thinking methodology, so that we can talk with users and design solutions accordingly; we look for a permanent iteration about the problem itself, the solution, and the business model, and at the end, they (young people) can have a better idea of what social entrepreneurship is, they can come up with a well-founded project, although they might still have various areas of improvement, and make the project possible.
Laboratory of Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship in Guadalajara
To date, we have carried out thirteen editions in Guadalajara (Jalisco), Mexico City, and Pachuca (Hidalgo). We have 401 graduates; 100 graduates per year since 2016, and almost 80 social entrepreneurship projects. Moreover, for those projects that might not have the opportunity to continue, in 2019 we created the Strengthening Program to help them raise funds through crowdfunding campaigns so that they can get access to resources and be part of a pre-incubation program for approximately seven months, in order to improve their business models, to have a better understanding of their niche, the social problem they are intended to tackle, their social impact model, as well as other organizational and administrative issues, that help them to facilitate the process of prototyping and their first sales.
Lastly, we have an initiative for enterprises. Here we realized that already existing enterprises with a solely business model, interested in social impact, and willing to foster intrapreneurship among their collaborators, have benefited and might benefit from our laboratory in the improvement of their social impact areas, and above all, might help them to strengthen their sense of identity and ownership, as we observed last year with two companies: on the one hand with Walmart through an exercise coordinated by Socialab Mexico and Disruptivo, with the participation of university students working on different problematic areas identified by the company. And on the other hand, with a hotel chain and three of its hotels towards their Corporate Social Responsibility program. Until now, we have completed 50% of this program since we had to stop because of the Coronavirus.
How did you attract public attention to the issue you wanted to tackle and make others believe in your purpose and potential?
Cecilia: firstly, we have presented our work to young people based on evidence and results. We have demonstrated with evidence why certain methodology works, what steps must be followed, and why we select specific profiles to work with us. We talk their language and we try to be inspirational through case studies of young people from the same disciplines who have joined us. Secondly, when it comes to universities, we have connected and worked directly with the academic community. We are continuously learning from others, and we have shown how our projects have progressed over time, what their impact has been, and what the positive results have been achieved.
Jorge: on the other hand, through our conferences, we noticed that university professors were also very interested in the topic, and were highly motivated to get involved. Thus we have also offered short trainings to high school teachers and university professors in the University of Guadalajara (UdeG), or UNIVA, a private university, where we have offered an ideation workshop for its students in the field of social innovation and social entrepreneurship. Some other universities have already introduced this topic, but we want to get on board those universities who have not started yet, so that they can become catalysts of social innovation. Thirdly, in regard to enterprises, we have identified two types of companies; on the one hand, enterprises with a Corporate Social Responsibility program that do not consider they create sufficient impact, or they identify themselves as part of the old school of CSR, thus they are motivated to increase their social impact. Here the certification Sistema B plays a major role for these companies. On the other hand, there are companies seeking for a greater sense of ownership among their collaborators, and let their collaborators to have a more active participation in these programs. We are still exploring this initiative and we want to validate it with universities and enterprises.
How did you raise the money for your idea and what is your advice for others considering DIY fundraising?
Cecilia: we started in 2013 and we were convinced that we wanted to help communities settled in the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area. We started as a team of students from humanities and social sciences, and economic and administrative disciplines. First as volunteers, and in the following moments, when we were fundraising to obtain resources for these communities, we were constantly told by many actors of the ecosystem of social innovation and social entrepreneurship that we should create our own sustainable business model, because our initiatives were worthy, exactly the same way we were helping others to create their owns.
By the time we have participated in several calls, we realized that we had to evolve. Once we won the Ashoka call, it was evident that we should take the next step. From the moment we discovered what social entrepreneurship was, and we were keeping on training, we accepted the challenge of transforming ourselves, of becoming an enterprise, and we acknowledged that it was just and fair to obtain a revenue from our work and investment of time in the creation of social impact. We thus started charging very little for our trainings, however everyone’s advice was to increase our prices, otherwise, we will never be able to have a sustainable business model. We then decided to ask our users, the students, by how much would our trainings increase their prices, and still be affordable for them, and how we could make a profit to cover our expenses. For this reason, in 2015 we created a more sustainable business model, our own business model based on one initiative, the laboratories of social innovation and social entrepreneurship, where participants may pay for being trained, as well as the training programs for university teachers; a business model centered on people, users and beneficiaries of our programs. The design thinking methodology has had a transversal orientation. We firstly try to understand what people need, and from that starting point, we try to find an affordable and fair way to offer our products and services.
Jorge: in regard to enterprises and universities, we directly sell our products and services to them; we create value while we solve a problem that involves their collaborators so that they can achieve their goals. In the case of universities, they can provide their professors with training, and in the case of enterprises, we help them to find its purpose.
We have to create an equilibrium between the social impact we create and the revenue we generate. We have to make sure that our business model does not take us away from our priorities and our main goal, which is the creation of value for people. This is probably the biggest challenge of any social enterprise.
How did you scale your social innovation and what tips for scaling could you share?
Jorge: we firstly have to acknowledge that we can do both serve a social purpose and make a profit, but if we want to make our social mission and impact grow, we can scale our projects if we develop products for other users aligned with our central operation, in order to diversify risk, increase our social impact, and generate revenues that may sustain such operations. So far our focus are young people, but eventually, we would also like to work with governments or civil society organizations to scale our model, we just have to make sure that we have a sustainable business model for each initiative we launch.
Cecilia: we thus encourage other social entrepreneurs to explore and to not be afraid of using different business tools to solve social problems, and not feel limited by resource restrictions they might face when they operate under the figure of a civil society organization, for instance. We encourage them to challenge themselves and go beyond any limitation.
How do you change the whole system?
Cecilia: we think our work could be considered of threefold impact: on young people, academics, and enterprises. When it comes to young people, I have always considered that our laboratory is a laboratory for the formation of citizens. The formation of a more conscious citizenship: citizens who believe in change, because we try to close the social inequality gap. This chip has been implanted in the new generations. We are willing to see a positive change and the narrow of this social inequality. We hope these agents of change become citizens capable to transform the reality, and multipliers in their fields. For this reason, I call the impact on young people as citizen formation, a more conscious citizenship and more sensitive to take actions towards social problems with proper tools.
Jorge: since the beginning, we have believed in two things: first of all, the talent of people, and that is the reason why we encourage everyone to see him or herself as an agent of change, whether he or she is an entrepreneur or not, an entrepreneur, a university professor, or a civil servant. Secondly, we believe than an enterprise goes beyond the solely purpose of making profits. We do believe that social impact has to be part of their DNA. We like to think that in the near future there will be no difference between an enterprise, and a social enterprise. On the contrary, all business models will focus on the solution of social problems, regeneration, and sustainability, as part of their DNA, seeking for a better world.
Fieldwork with communities settled in the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area
What is the one advice you can give to an aspiring social innovator, a member of the Social Innovation Academy, with only two things at the moment: a big heart and a willingness to do something?
Jorge: I would like to briefly highlight the following:
- We should acknowledge that we all possess abilities, capabilities, and knowledge, that deserve to be enhanced
- Collaboration and connection with people aligned with our interests towards social impact are key. The more connections the better
- The capacity of empathy towards individuals and communities is also key
- If we are capable of pursuing a goal as individuals, we are also capable of pursuing a common goal, as a society.
Cecilia: I would also like to encourage young people to accept the challenge (of becoming social entrepreneurs), and I would like to say that regardless of any field study or discipline, even if they have not completed any formal studies if they wish to transform their reality, they should accept the challenge, and explore the possibility of connecting with other people to tackle a social problem together. We know that there are actors, agents of change, not only in the academia, but we also find them in the neighbor next door that knows how to build community, we find them within the vulnerable communities. I thus encourage young generations to keep their sense of justice alive, to not give up although problems we actually face can be overwhelming, and to be proactive in the solution of such problems, instead of just sit and watch problems come. I firmly believe that if we want to generate a transformation, we should connect with others and use our collective intelligence to find ways to solve problems. We know this is part of the DNA of many people and we can create changes.
Remarks of ESMEX co-founders:
About the journey of becoming social entrepreneurs:
Jorge: we have definitely learned a lot. We have learned by teaching other people, but we have also learned from our students. Moreover, I would like to highlight the role our team has played in our work and the role of the ecosystem of social innovation and social entrepreneurship that has been very supportive. However, now that we are also part of other ecosystems, for instance in Mexico City, one of the biggest lessons for us has been how of great importance the collaboration with others is, in order to build a common vision, and to define a common purpose, and to figure out how we can create social impact, based on what we envision, but also on what other social entrepreneurs and organizations that work together with us think.
Cecilia: our journey has been very gratifying since we have had the opportunity to collaborate not only with different actors involved in the ecosystem, but also with various stakeholders from the quadruple helix, that have resulted in close collaborations, and learnings, and who have helped us to shape our work as individuals and as entrepreneurs. The most amazing part of our work is the contact with other people sharing their experiences and learnings.
About challenges derived from COVID-19:
Cecilia: we recently launched the campaign “El impacto no debe parar” (Impact should not stop), which means that we have to continue working towards social impact, even if, in our case, we have to double our efforts and activities to obtain almost the same results. We are working from home office and we have been mainly working through digital platforms, we have been intensively learning how to use new technologies, and we have explored ways to support our entrepreneurs, for instance with a constant and closer communication, so that we can identify what their current challenges are, and which tools might help them to overcome these challenges. This requires from us a permanent training in the use of new tools vis-à-vis the new complexities.
On the other hand, since our programs cannot stop, and we are currently also working with university teachers, we are identifying what kind of needs they have, and what kind of content we can create for them, so that they can offer these contents to their students using virtual platforms, which implies more innovation and more creativity to keep getting young people on board who seek for solutions to current problems. Various members of ESMEX are taking part in hackathons in response to COVID-19, and we are also collaborating with fundraising campaigns with the same purpose.
Jorge: in regard to our products and services, during the first weeks of quarantine, we revisited our programs, and made some adjustments to make them available online, responding to the need of those interested in taking part in our laboratory, but also to let other people participate with ideas to respond to COVID-19 by finding solutions through the laboratory. We have thus organized a 13-week online laboratory. This effort implies that both those interested in working with pre-existing social problems, and those interested in new problems derived from COVID-19 can actually have the opportunity to participate.
Photo credits: Emprendimiento Social México (ESMEX)
- Jorge Meléndez and Cecilia Cárdenas, co-founders
- Participants of the Laboratory of Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship in Guadalajara in 2019
- ESMEX Team in 2020
- Fieldwork with communities settled in the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area with participants of the Laboratory in 2019
Durdana Prado is an International Cooperation professional, and Social Innovation and Sustainable Entrepreneurship enthusiast with formal studies, work and research experience in local development, international education, public policy, internationalization of healthcare services, and the cooperation between Latin America and Europe.
She has solid experience working as project manager, area coordinator, and consultant in different sectors namely public administration, CSOs, private sector and academia in Mexico, Germany and the United States of America. In recent years, she has paid considerable attention to the study of social innovation ecosystems and sustainable entrepreneurship initiatives in Mexico and Latin America. She currently works on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, at the Ministry of Planning and Citizen Participation.
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