Francisco Noguera

Guest Post: Reflections on my Summer Internship with Agora Partnerships

LilianaGuest blogger Liliana Valle is an MBA candidate at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She?recently?worked as?a Summer Associate with Agora Partnerships in Managua, Nicaragua.

By Liliana Valle?The time had finally come,? I knew some day I would be back.? This summer I had the opportunity to work for Agora Partnerships in Managua, Nicaragua.? Although I left Peru, where I’m originally from, at the age of 10 and was raised in the USA, I always had a strong connection to my roots.? I knew some day I would be back in Latin America to help its growth and development, but I didn’t know when or how.? Prior to starting at the Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, I had a vision of how my personal and professional experience could be of value to developing countries.?

Now, thanks to my MBA experience and summer internship, this vision is becoming a reality and my passion for ensuring the social, economic, and environmental development of emerging countries through the Small and Growing Business (SGB) sector has grown even stronger.

Agora Partnerships is a non-profit that operates in Nicaragua and is expanding throughout Central America.??

It provides consulting, management tools, market linkages, and access to networks and capital to selected entrepreneurs in order to launch or grow successful, socially responsible businesses.? Their philosophy is to fight poverty through entrepreneurship.?

Agora1As part of their model, Agora manages a for-profit venture fund that makes debt and equity investments in SGBs.? This is the tool used to provide needed growth capital.? My main role this summer was to develop a scaling strategy for the organization to expand into other Central American countries and have a greater impact.? In addition, I was assigned to an SGB supported by Agora to provide consulting services.

In preparing for my summer internship, Dr. Greg Dees, Fuqua professor and known as the “father of Social Entrepreneurship”, introduced me to a framework for scaling social impact.? This was a tool that definitely proved useful but first, it was important to identify intrinsic interest for Agora’s work in the expansion countries.? This could be shown through funds raised from local individuals and communication of need from SGB entrepreneurs.? Conversations for local funding had already begun and, in addition, a meeting with local SGB entrepreneurs took place during the summer in El Salvador.

This was a great vehicle to begin learning about the local needs and challenges, which Agora’s model tries to address.? Second, to be successful with the expansion, it was imperative to identify potential local strategic partners.? Working with local organizations that have already built trust with the community, have wide networks, and understand the country environment would help Agora quickly gain a strong foothold.?

I created a tool for managing the development of Agora’s strategic partners in three Central American countries after researching organizations that support the SGB sector, learning their strengths and weaknesses, and identifying those that would complement Agora’s mission and vice versa.

The tool for scaling social impact and the summer research findings led to a ’light capital’ scaling strategy for Agora.? The expansion will take place in phases, starting with co-locating physical operations with a strategic partner organization to create synergies and exchange best practices. In addition, a pipeline of investment opportunities has begun to flow from the expansion countries and strategic local partners have been identified for working together on the support of local SGBs.?

Although Agora over the summer was offered a co-location in some of the expansion countries, some of its future challenges through this partnership model include ensuring a clear understanding of roles, responsibilities, and expectations between the organizations, managing the greater complexity involved with the operational execution of this model, and not loosing priority focus.?

OscaritosBesides working on the scaling model, I also had the opportunity to reconnect with Oscarito’s, an SGB I worked with during the spring term as part of Fuqua’s Global Consulting Practicum, and to provide consulting to another Nicaraguan SGB, Tacos Lory.? Oscarito’s designs and manufactures children’s clothing.? I was happy to see that some of the recommendations given in the Spring had been implemented, resulting in new interest for their products.? It was incredibly gratifying to see this.?

Tacos Lory is a family owned and operated business that hand makes Mexican food such as tacos and quesadillas.? Their products are frozen but already cooked for convenience.? The Gutierrez family’s passion for their business, hard work, and desire for growth fueled, even more, my interest to help them.? Tacos Lory was first developing products and then hoping to sell them, instead of first identifying a market need and then creating a product to address it.? “We have no competitors” is what management answered when asked about their competition.? Who were the consumers of their products?, “everyone” they responded.? This was yet another proof that SGBs in developing countries lack access to basic?business tools.?

By providing Tacos Lory with marketing and strategy frameworks that can be applied to their specific case, they were interested in putting these tools to use and begun to develop their strategy and business focus for sustainable long term growth.? This experience also illustrated the lengthy process involved in supporting SGBs in the developing countries.? Due to their limited access to technologies and even simple but useful management frameworks, among other tools, these SGBs are not typically ready for an investment without first receiving consulting – and even then many are not ready for market finance.

The benefit to Agora’s model is that the consulting and investment are managed under separate institutions, therefore keeping the consulting transaction costs from impacting the ROI of the venture fund.? The non-for-profit’s mission is to provide assistance to SGBs, giving them the opportunity to potentially receive capital investment and therefore creating jobs and fighting poverty. The fund’s mission is to ensure capital is invested in enterprises with high-growth potential and to prove that SGBs, like self-employed microfinance borrowers, are worthy of investment.????

Working in the field this summer allowed me to experience first hand the challenges a young organization faces as they grow for greater social impact and those the entrepreneurs must overcome, not only to grow themselves but also to achieve the social, economic, and environmental impact they have the potential to create.?

Thanks to the CASE Summer Internship Fund / Give a Day fundraising, where many of my fellow Fuqua classmates donated from their own summer compensation, for allowing me to embark on the path towards achieving my vision.