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Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Greatest of Lucks; An Opportunity You Should Consider

By Francisco Noguera

It's time to offer my perspective on the transitions and invitations that have been made public on NextBillion this week. I will be brief and touch on two points only: how this website changed my life, and ending with an exposition of my vision for NextBillion and how you can contribute to it.

This website changed my life. Literally. This may sound a bit overboard but let me share the anecdote of how I ended up writing these lines. I came to the United States three years ago on a business trip with my previous employer, a consulting firm in my native Colombia. At the time, I had been working for about 18 months on the establishment of a new microfinance institution in Colombia; one of my recent consulting projects was also related to microfinance, and it gave me the chance to travel and research the nuances of bringing financial services to the poor.

While doing late-night desktop research on microfinance, smart cards and mobile payments, I came across NextBillion.net. I was hooked in a minute. Very soon the site became my homepage and first read in the morning, and the books it recommended landed on my desk. Reading daily posts and comments strengthened and deepened my interest in the role of markets and enterprise in improving the lives of the poor, but most importantly, showed me that I could effectively put my talent and everyday work to the service of a powerful idea.

Here's how I define The Greatest of Lucks: Finding something that you deeply care about, and carving your own path to make your life circle around it. I've had this kind of luck, and NextBillion has been a huge part of that.  The philosophy behind the site intrigued me tremendously, not only because of the ideas and BoP innovations that were discussed every day -which were fascinating in their own right- but most importantly because of the generosity of a group of people that woke up every day to share their thoughts, ideas and findings with nothing but willingness to contribute and engage. I was beginning to understand the profound changes that the Internet brought about, and the role of generosity and authenticity in the times we live in.

This generosity manifested itself again when I used my days in the United states to reach out to have a cup of coffee with those behind NextBillion. Rob Katz first, and then Al Hammond and Virginia Barreiro responded my call and took a few minutes to listen to what I had to say. To make a long story short, I'll just say that I didn't look back after those conversations. I stayed in the States and it has been a true privilege to keep carving my path inside an organization like WRI, and most importantly, among a community like the one that comes around the ideas discussed in NextBillion. Since then, I've had a myriad cups of coffee with people who share my values and vision of the change we can make together. The greatest of lucks, I insist...

What's next for me

Rob's transition to India coincides with a transition of my own: In a few weeks, I'll start a graduate program at Columbia University. Heather Esper wrote about the program that I'll be pursuing, which will allow me to learn more about the development challenges that will define my generation, in the midst of environmental degradation and high population growth. I will also learn more about practical approaches to tackle them, spenfing a good amount of time working in the field with communities that I have not had a chance to interact with in the past.  

My goals in school are many: I want to gain a deeper understanding of the way development work is changing in a world that is less predictable and more and more interconnected; I want to study the role that markets and enterprise can play in enhancing people's dignity; I want to sharpen my own saw and reflect on how my skills can best be put to the service of others. As I work on these goals and reflect on what I learn, I will continue to report on NextBillion.

The World Resources Institute has generously offered me the opportunity to remain involved with the management of NextBillion. That means I will stay on board as Managing Editor, interacting with Staff Writers, guest writers and relevant discussions, making sure that the content of this site remains fresh, engaging and useful for our readers. I will have limited time in school, but I trust I'll be able to pull it off, especially once my colleague at the William Davidson Institute steps in.

To wrap up, let me offer a personal view of what's next for NextBillion and why I the opportunity at WDI is so exciting.      

 What's next for NextBillion

 This is a very exciting time to join NextBillion. The site has cultivated a brand in the social enterprise space, and is known for hosting a thoughtful and focused discussion on the role that markets and enterprise play in addressing poverty challenges. It has a strong presence in the English-speaking world, and has been central to the tremendous growth in interest for social enterprise, as seen in the United States and India most importantly. In the last two years, NextBillion has also expanded geographically and we now have a presence in Latin America through NextBillion en Español and an upcoming NextBillion in Portuguese.

The foundations are there, and interest in the role of markets serving the poor is stronger than ever. In this context, and in a time where media and the ways ideas spread evolve by the minute, opportunities for NextBillion are too many to enumerate. For instance, what other ways can we explore to deliver our message and spread the idea of social enterprise? How can we host more targeted discussions on critical issues (like water, energy, agriculture, mobile money...) while maintaining the dynamism our blog currently has? Can we start a more "formal" publication, in the format of an e-magazine for instance, and do so partnering with existing publications that write about development and enterprise? How can we recruit more writers (and photographers, and people with skills in video production...) in all the countries where market-based innovations are being used? How can we grow our community and audience manyfold in the next couple of years? How is the Internet changing and what does that mean for the format of NextBillion? How can we encourage and leverage more participation from the community? How can we create a Career Center that profiles more and better opportunities?

The list is long, and the opportunities fascinating. The William Davidson Institute and WRI have come to the right agreement: Someone's full dedication is required to steward this process. I will be happy to contribute and eagerly look forward to collaborating with the new Managing Editor as we tackle these "big" questions, while keeping our eye on the ball in the everyday management of this site trying to keep it fresh and relevant every single day.

The opportunity is challenging and very exciting. If you think you're up to it, go for it. I'm sure this site and the connection with this community will change your life, as it changed mine. If you're interested in speaking about it or in sharing any ideas/ questions about this opportunity, please do not hesitate to email me.

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