The Agora Accelerator - unleashing the potential of early stage entrepreneurs to improve the world

The Agora Accelerator - unleashing the potential of early stage entrepreneurs to improve the world

Nicaragua
Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
Budget: 
$250,000 - $500,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

We believe it's time to re-imagine the purpose of business and capitalism and unleash the power of private enterprise to solve our common social and environmental challenges. Our vision is that talented entrepreneurs operating in difficult environments but committed to using their business as a force for good should be given the opportunity -the tools, networks, and capital- to innovate and compete in the market against larger, more established businesses. The goal of the Accelerator is to create a strong community of the very best early stage "impact" entrepreneurs in Central America and provide them with the social, human and financial capital they need to become successful role models for a more sustainable capitalism. http://www.youtube.com/user/psuarezlacayo#p/u/0/4yp4_sTAlbQ
About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

The Agora Accelerator is currently an initiative targeting impact entrepreneurs in Central America, with plans to expand into Mexico by 2012. Central America is one of the poorest regions in the world, plagued by poverty and inequality, and increasing violence. According to the World Bank, the average income per capita (PPP) in Central America is just under $3,000; and in Nicaragua, where our Central American office is located, the income per capital is just above $1,000. Central America's Gini coefficient - which denotes the level of inequality - is 0.51, materially higher than the economic inequality experienced in Africa. While there is wealth in the region, it is controlled by the business and political elite. Political and civil institutions are weak, there is a very small middle class, and increasingly people are questioning the benefits of democratic capitalism. Government efforts to address poverty and inequality have had limited success. Aid organizations have historically invested billions to help these countries escape poverty with mixed results. Today many organizations - tired of political charades - are relocating their personnel and investment to other regions. The best option for the region is to tap into the incredible potential of it people, especially the dynamic entrepreneurs who dream of a better future. Central America’s people have enormous potential, if only they could be given the chance to demonstrate it. Agora's staff, the majority of whom are Central Americans, do not want to sit by idly as the region struggles with unprecedented challenges. We are convinced that targeting impact entrepreneurs is one of the most direct and cost effective ways of creating long-term system change.. By helping them succeed, we are not only putting more people to work in viable and sustainable businesses, we are hope to inspire an entire generation of Central Americans. They are the changemakers who will solve their communities' most difficult problems. Agora entrepreneurs believe in business as a force for good and the importance of spreading an entrepreneurial culture in the region and scaling impact. Some examples of entrepreneurs that are currently in our program: Quetsol provides affordable renewable energy solutions (primarily solar-based) to the poorest, most remote regions of Guatemala where 520,000 million families live without access to electricity. Kiej de los Bosques designs, develops, and sells products internationally that are made by rural Guatemalan women. These products combine ancestral techniques and tell stories about the groups’ culture and beliefs. Kiej develops a commercial value chain for these women’s products. CO2 Bambu designs, manufactures, and assembles pre-fabricated ecological structures for shelters, homes, and community buildings, such as schools. There is a deficit of more than 150,000 homes in the BoP housing market in Nicaragua alone. These structures are ideal in post-disaster countries such as Haiti. Oscaritos took a loan of $100 from a microfinance bank and turned it into a business that employs over 45 people, mostly single mothers.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

Through the Agora Accelerator, we are building on our previous experience operating the Agora Venture Fund and working with thousands of small-business entrepreneurs in Nicaragua. We believe the Accelerator affords a high-impact/low-cost model to support early-stage impact entrepreneurs grow and scale their businesses. The Accelerator is innovative on several levels: First, it's the only program specifically targeting early-stage, high growth entrepreneurs in Central America, a group that faces multiple barriers to accessing opportunity. With no effective angel community in the region and with capital needs of often less than $500,000 they are too small for many of the emerging impact investing funds. Second, it's designed to address the core issue of deal flow for investors, by lowering the transaction cost for investors and injecting a level of transparency rarely seen in the investment world. Third, the Accelerator will continue to invest heavily in using technology and social media to lower search costs and increase the exposure and flow of knowledge and capital into Accelerator companies. Soon, for example, we will test whether there is demand from our current community to loan directly to Accelerator companies, democratizing access to impact investment opportunities. Finally, we do not believe that job creation alone is a proxy for sustainable development. We believe the social capital we are creating will help to create a longer term cultural shift around the definition of business leadership and role of business in society.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

The Agora Accelerator finds and supports the best early-stage companies in Central America. We define "best" as having the highest potential to create social, environmental, and economic value. We define early stage as generating less than $1MM in revenues, but having shown some proof of concept. At its core, the Accelerator identifies quality entrepreneurial talent and connects that talent with sources of human, social, and financial capital that want to make a difference in the world. The Agora Accelerator is a coaching-intensive business program for early-stage, impact entrepreneurs in Central America who are tackling some of the region's most pressing social and environmental problems. Each year, Agora selects 10-15 impact entrepreneurs from across the region to receive leadership training from world-class partners and to pitch to local and global impact investors. During the Accelerator, Agora staff and operating partners provide strategic and financial consulting and help get businesses investment ready for impact investors, with a strong emphasis on explaining and measuring the company's social value proposition. Key components of the program include an impact entrepreneur retreat and an impact investor conference. The overriding goal is to help these ventures create tangible social impact in an economically and environmentally sustainable way, and to build a local culture that fosters, celebrates, and embraces entrepreneurs who are creating positive change in the world. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LwzEkZoX2As&feature=relmfu
About You
Organization:
Agora Partnerships
About You
First Name

Ben

Last Name

Powell

About Your Organization
Organization Name

Agora Partnerships

Organization Country

, DC, Washington

Country where this project is creating social impact

, MN

How long has your organization been operating?

1‐5 years

The information you provide here will be used to fill in any parts of your profile that have been left blank, such as interests, organization information, and website. No contact information will be made public. Please uncheck here if you do not want this to happen..

Innovation
What stage is your project in?

Operating for less than a year

Share the story of the founder and what inspired the founder to start this project

Agora's founder, Ben Powell became convinced of the power of small business to fight poverty as an entrepreneur in Mexico, where he founded CityGolf: Puebla, a miniature golf course and family entertainment park. Agora's Co-founder, Ricardo Teran, is Nicaraguan from an entrepreneurial family and was the founder of the Young Entrepreneurs Association of Nicaragua.

From Ben's first blog post: "What a miniature golf course taught me about development"

"Every journey starts with a single step. My journey started with a decision to plunk down about $200 to join the American Miniature Golf Association. The primary perk of membership was a thick binder that contained “all you needed to know” to run a successful miniature golf operation...A year after the binder arrived, we opened up City Golf Puebla while Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” played from our speaker system under the shadow of the Popocatepetl volcano in the central valley of Mexico... I have a lot of stories about City Golf. It was where I cut my teeth as entrepreneur. I made a lot of mistakes, and I also learned a ton — but I learned one lesson above all others: If you want to make a contribution to the world, there are few, if any, better ways than to start a business and turn it into a force for good. If you can’t start one, then invest in one, with your time or money. This insight eventually led, in 2005, to my founding Agora Partnerships at Columbia Business School and then partnering with one of the most relentless and entrepreneurial spirits in Latin America, my co-founder Ricardo Teran."

Social Impact
Please describe how your project has been successful and how that success is measured

Agora measures numerous direct and indirect results to gauge program effectiveness of its programming. In terms of direct outputs, the most important metric is Access to Capital as measured by the number of investment deals generated per class and the total amount of capital invested per class. Our goal is for over 50% of our 9 Accelerator companies to receive investment capital by the end of 2011 and for capital invested to reach or exceed $3 million. We feel we are on track to hit these targets based on the fact that as of mid June over half of Accelerator companies have engaged in a due diligence conversation with a potential investor. The Impact Investor conference in Nicaragua in mid July will connect Agora entrepreneurs with even more potential investors and start additional discussions.

The indirect success outcomes Agora tracks are more varied. Agora tracks the revenue growth and job creation of all Accelerator companies, and has portfolio level goals of creating $100 of revenue growth for each $1 of programming spend and 1 full-time job per each $530 of programming spend. Of course, hitting these goals is contingent on these companies getting access to investment capital and then executing on the plans Agora helps its entrepreneurs develop. Agora tracks additional social metrics that vary by industry and the social mission of each Accelerator company. For example, over the next 3 years CO2 Bamboo aims to build more than 3,500 affordable bamboo houses in rural Nicaragua and Quetsol is working to supply solar-powered electricity to more than 40,000 low-income homes. Each company will ultimately be GIIRS rated using Pulse and the IRIS taxonomy on appropriate social impact metrics for its industry and allow Agora to help contribute to field-building data valuable to researchers.

Ultimately, success will depend on the self-sustainability of the Accelerator as a revenue-generating model for Agora, and, more importantly, whether Central Americans embrace those businesses creating shared value in their communities as a legitimate solution to their region's problems.

How many people have been impacted by your project?

1,001- 10,000

How many people could be impacted by your project in the next three years?

More than 10,000

How will your project evolve over the next three years?

In three years, Agora hopes to work with entrepreneurs from every Central American country, Mexico, and South America. In addition, there will be at least 50 Agora Entrepreneurs - impact entrepreneurs who have been part of the Accelerator. The Accelerator is aiming to attract over $20MM in impact investments into sustainable small businesses in the region.

Sustainability
What barriers might hinder the success of your project and how do you plan to overcome them?

Our target market, early-stage entrepreneurs are inherently risky.

We are specifically targeting an asset class - early stage entrepreneurs with revenue of under $1 million operating in Central America - that is inherently risky and that has a particularly hard time accessing any kind of capital, whether it be social, human, or financial. We are convinced however, that this class of entrepreneurs has perhaps the largest development impact per dollar invested. Our entire model is designed to lower the risk for investors to invest in great companies by eliminating information asymmetries, providing leadership development, building social capital (which we did during our Entrepreneur Retreat), and implementing a rigorous investment readiness training. 

After launching the first early stage impact investment fund in Latin America (Agora Venture Fund Nicaragua) and making 11 investments, we believe we have a good understanding of investor needs and the risks inherent in early stage investing in the region. We've used the lessons learned from our nearly six years of experience working in Central America to work to overcome the barriers that prevent impact capital from flowing to talented entrepreneurs.

In order to help ensure Agora companies are investment ready, we have hired two full-time Fellows - one with banking (UBS) and the other with management consulting (Accenture) experience to help coach and prepare the companies for our upcoming Impact Investor Conference. This preparation includes creating an Investor Packet that documents a thorough due diligence for each company, a preliminary "light" accounting audit by KPMG and a legal audit by Arias y Munoz to identity any potential issues for investors. It also includes training on social media, best practices in governance and business operations, and how to pitch their business effectively to investors.

Another key challenge for us is finding the best talent. We accomplish this through our brand in the region, a network of dozens of sourcing partners who help us find the best companies, and, increasingly, from current and former participants in the program.

Lastly, like most growth stage entrepreneurial non profits, we have a limited amount of capital to invest in our own human capital. Currently, we are leveraging the equivalent of $250,000 in pro-bono resources. This includes the hiring of a full-time Senior Advisor, a Social Media expert of the Central American region, and 6 MBA-level employees. We have been able to attract incredible talent to work for us, but to retain them longer term and to grow we will need additional capital.

Tell us about your partnerships

Agora has partnered with some of the world’s most innovative and respected organizations committed to a more just and sustainable global society.

Partners have strong relationships with local businesses, organizations, and individuals close to the market. We offer our partners an opportunity to deeply integrate and engage through the whole process-from entrepreneur selection to business evaluation and projections. This strengthens our partners’ commitment and the quality of our program.

The Accelerator has three kinds of partners, each providing critical elements to the program:

Sourcing partners help find and identify outstanding talent for the Accelerator. Sourcing partners know exactly what the Accelerator is looking for. The chief responsibility of sourcing partners is to nominate candidates for the Accelerator and disseminate information about the Accelerator and impact entrepreneurship/investing throughout their networks. Examples: Ashoka, AVINA, FUSADES, and Vital Voices.

Operating partners provide direct training, services, or human capital to participants currently in the Accelerator program. They fill a variety of roles, from helping companies measure their social and environmental impact, to delivering training, providing mentors, and helping the Accelerator operate effectively in the local environment. Operating partners benefit from exposure to new tools and concepts within the impact investment community.
Examples include B Corporation, GIIRS, KPMG, Ashoka, Arias y Munoz (law firm)

Investing partners (including angel investors) help drive local and global investment into Accelerator companies. Investing partners are impact investors interested in obtaining deal flow for companies that have been vetted for their ability to create significant financial, social, and environmental impact and whose management shares their values for using business as a force for good. Examples include ANDE, Investor’s Circle, PMYE Capital and Toniic.

Explain your selections

Agora Partnerships is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit. Approximately 65% of our organization is supported by foundations and NGOs. These organizations include: The Rockefeller Foundation, AVINA Foundation, Draper Richards Foundation and Ashoka. Individuals provide a substantial support to the organization - approximately 15% of our current budget comes from hundreds of individual contributions.

How do you plan to strengthen your project in the next three years?

Agora is constantly striving to improve program quality and has identified two focus areas for the next three years. First, because Agora is completing its inaugural Accelerator class cycle this summer there are many lessons learned to be implemented for the second class. These lessons were identified by regularly seeking feedback from our entrepreneurs, investors, and other stakeholders on how to make Agora services and events more valuable. We are also revising our Accelerator application process, both by talking to the Agora entrepreneur community and by looking at the application processes of developed world accelerators including TechStars, Y Combinator, and Startup Bootcamp.

The other major focus area is the financial sustainability of the program. Currently, Agora charges each entrepreneur $2000 USD to participate in the program and takes a 2.5% fee from any investment deal that results from participation in the Accelerator program. Looking forward, Agora expects to be able to increase the fee it charges entrepreneurs as the program gains visibility and recognition within the region as a high value activity that leads to dramatic growth. Additionally, Agora is exploring ways to enable less professional investors to connect to impact entrepreneurs, and expects that it will be able to capture 10-13% of capital invested by individuals. As the program scales, Agora expects greater financial sustainability through economies of scale.

Challenges
Which barriers to employment does your innovation address?
Please select up to three in order of relevancy to your project.

PRIMARY

Lack of visibility and investment

SECONDARY

Lack of access to information and networks

TERTIARY

Lack of skills/training

Please describe how your innovation specifically tackles the barriers listed above.

The Agora Accelerator looks to create a quality pipeline of investment opportunities in Central America by identifying the entrepreneurs with the most potential to generate impact. Agora unleashes their potential by providing business coaching, mentoring, strategic and financial consulting, leadership development, and social impact awareness. Throughout the Accelerator, the entrepreneurs fine-tune their overall business, making them a more attractive investment opportunity for impact investors.Additionally, Agora Entrepreneurs are connected to impact investors from the US, the EU, and Latin America.

Are you trying to scale your organization or initiative?
If yes, please check up to three potential pathways in order of relevancy to you.

PRIMARY

Grown geographic reach: Multi-country

SECONDARY

Leveraged technology

TERTIARY

Enhanced existing impact through addition of complementary services

Please describe which of your growth activities are current or planned for the immediate future.

On a geographic level, we are looking to expand into Mexico for the next Accelerator class. Furthermore, we will strive to have companies from El Salvador and Panama represented in the next class.

From a technology perspective, we are developing an online investment platform to layer onto the Accelerator. The online investment platform will immediately allow individuals from all over the world to make zero-percent return loans to pre-vetted, triple bottom line companies – essentially democratizing sources of capital to Agora Entrepreneurs looking to grow their business. We believe that this new technology platform will afford us with the volume, exposure, and traction necessary to organically grow into other developing regions.

Do you collaborate with any of the following: (Check all that apply)

Technology providers, NGOs/Nonprofits, For profit companies, Academia/universities.

If yes, how have these collaborations helped your innovation to succeed?

We hope to create a modern day "agora" (public square) by bringing together people who care about international development and helping them channel their desire into concrete action.

Business Schools - we've worked with over 300 students from top business school programs (Columbia, Kellogg, Georgetown, Duke, NYU, etc.) to provide in-depth consulting and support to entrepreneurs in our program.

Investors - We work with partner funds and leading investor groups to give them vetted pipeline to drive deals.

Development organizations - We work with a network of nominating organizations and individuals who help us to find the very best talent in the region.

Companies - we work with local private companies to find mentors and supporters.