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Impact Hub Medellin: Battling His Way Through Coronavirus by Federico Sierra

I decided to talk to some of my contacts who I knew were heavily impacted by the Coronavirus. Why? Because it makes me feel like I am doing a difference. Shedding some light on people experiencing problems that might not be obvious to me or anybody else in the North.

One of the people I decided to interview is truly a brother, Federico Sierra. A man I felt a deep connection with when I was in New York in September 2019 during the UN General Assembly for +Social Good and UN foundation.

First off, tell me a story about you and me. How did we meet? What connected us? What connection do we have now?

It’s a funny story about how I pushed you to eat with me at Chick Fil’A and it ended up being trash. Afterward, I invited you for beer to make up for that. It wasn’t as bad in here but it was hilarious to see your disappointment with the food.

We met because we were both selected as +SocialGood Connectors; local champions of the SDGs for the UN Foundation. I think among the other 12 people, I connected with you the fastest for 2 reasons:

1. Your go-getter attitude which is something the international development community lacks a bit as we get stuck in politics and procedures, leaving impact behind.

2. Your techy approach to things.

Since the beginning, we started bouncing ideas on how to generate more impact. And also, on how to connect the impact ecosystem in Europe and Latam.

Then tell me a bit about what you do in your everyday life?

I am a social entrepreneur so most of my time is focused on my startups. Impact Hub Medellín is an incubator for impact initiatives. It is also a CoWorking space for innovators moving the world forward from an impact and sustainability perspective. We have 4 main focuses:

1. Community:

i. Networking and Connections: We work together with our startups to support them in scaling their impact and solution to more people and other markets.

ii. Space: We host +200 entrepreneurs from +40 impact startups

iii. Events: We host spaces to generate connections and learning. Last year we hosted over 180 events mainly focused on SDGs and entrepreneurship.

2. Incubation:

We created an incubation program for startups with an Impact on the SDGs. Last year we incubated 36 startups. It was amazing to see many different initiatives and work together with them to scale their impact around the world. Here are some examples: 

i. Fokus Green: They produce clothing from plastic bottles. We supported their scaling to the US.

ii. Fruturo: They work with small farmers from the most violent regions in Colombia. They also support them in generating world-class products to export around the world. We supported them in scaling to Europe.

3. Social Innovation:

We lead a program named “Gambetiando”. It is a social innovation program that works with youth in the most affected areas in Medellín, Colombia. It is intended to build socio-emotional skills in them and then generate social initiatives lead by these young leaders.

4. Energía Vectorial:

We focus on decarbonizing mobility by accelerating the adoption of electric mobility in Colombia. We have 3 business lines:

i. Conversion of oil-powered combustion cars to electric vehicles: The cheapest EV in Colombia (Renault Twizy) costs 10.000 USD which makes it a very expensive option for people here. We brought a solution that evolves the current car that people have to an EV for a starting price of 7.000, making it a more affordable solution.

ii. Infrastructure: We set up electric charging stations.

iii. Education: We work with different organizations, training their people on how to manage and repair EVs.

My daily life goes around working in these initiatives. Asides working, I am a big fan of video games; Play Station 4 and Nintendo Switch are my favorite platforms. The rest of my free time is spent by having casual beers with friends.

What made you pursue this?

I had the opportunity to work in international development mainly around youth leadership and social innovation for about 10 years. 55 countries I have traveled to and I saw many different projects, initiatives, and ideas led by young people and entrepreneurs. I decided to come back to Colombia and work to generate an impact in my country.

When I came back, something shocked me right after I stepped out of the plane. It was air quality, and it was awful.

I started researching this issue. I learned that most of the pollution in my city, and many Latam cities, comes from urban mobility. It came up on my research as well that up to 90% of those mobilities could be electric.

I also have a niece, she was almost 2 at the time. She was getting sick very often and we needed to take her out of the city because the main reason was pollution. This was a calling, this what is happening to my niece. Many more children across the country are suffering the from the same problem. Therefore, I thought: “I have to do something about this”. And that is how Energia Vectorial was born.

As I experienced the entrepreneurship and Impact ecosystem in Medellin, I went through the struggles and challenges of a disconnected ecosystem. This is where the Impact Hub was born. I called 2 friends with the idea to work for improving the entrepreneurship ecosystem with a focus on Impact. I presented the Impact Hub global network and we started working for every entrepreneur with an impactful and scalable solution to the world’s more pressing challenges.

Is it still what makes you jump out of bed in the morning?

Definitely.

I get to work every day with people that are changing the world. Implementing new ways of generating more impact.

My job is to support them with knowledge, connections, and tools. For me, it’s a new challenge every day. Learn something new every day and also get to support the implementation of impact projects.

It is not always easy, as there are many challenges

  1. Economical situation
  2. Cashflow issues
  3. Lack of support form the government
  4. Some entrepreneurs don’t speak English, so overcoming that barrier
  5. Leadership and people management inside the startups

It is also amazing to see the collaboration among the entrepreneurs in our space and how they take advantage of every space we open for collaboration and learning. This show us our impact in day to day behavioral changes from our community.

What makes you most excited these days?

It is an opportunity to evolve both as a person and in business. Each one of us decides if we are going to take it and make the most out of it. So I would like to divide my approach to this question in two different ways:

First, it is indeed an opportunity to level up as a person. Learning something new and tackling what we have been postponing. And most importantly, connecting with others.

Concerning the Coronavirus, our message at Impact Hub Medellin is not social distancing but physical distancing. We believe that social strengthening is what we need in order to face the situation. Coming together as a community and generating solutions together.

Second, and most important of course, I do not depend on my daily income to bring food to my family. I do not rely on it to have a roof over my head at night. Or to simply have a place to stay at during quarantine. And note that I am saying this from a position of privilege. This is the reality for about 50% of Colombia’s population. What is exciting about this is seeing how our country has come together through different actions to support those in need. We are not a rich country, but we have gone through very difficult time by helping those in need.

The largest supermarket chain put together a basic set of products that cost 4 euros (rice, lentils, coffee, sugar, salt, chocolate, toilet paper, beans, chickpeas, chicken soup…). As of today, people have bought and donated 150,000 of these packages for the most vulnerable. The goal is to reach 500,000 which amounts to 2 Million Euros and we are on our way. Normal people, with normal salaries, contributing to the wellbeing of the whole. This gets me excited

Amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, tell me what it’s like in Medellín, Colombia right now on a daily basis?

When the coronavirus hit the country, the government set a national mandatory quarantine since Tuesday 24th. This has changed everything:

-Streets became empty.

-People started working from home.

-We have IDs that indicate our designated schedule of when we can go outside.

-Coronavirus spread updates are all over the news, ALL the time.

Our healthcare system isn’t highly developed. We need to be extra cautious so the situation doesn’t become worse than it already is.

Sometimes, I go to my local stores or supermarkets in the neighborhood. I appreciate seeing people being considerate and understanding by not hoarding stuff. This only shows that they care about the well-being of others.

How do people feel?

There is a lot of anxiety.

People are afraid of losing their jobs because of the coronavirus outbreak. Their companies are closing due to lack of cash flow and this is generating social unrest, as people need a bit of security to hang on to.

I’ve seen that countries like Denmark and Sweden have put together different policies to protect the economy, on the other hand, a country like Colombia does not have this option.

As I mentioned above, there is a lot of solidarity, but also there is a disconnect between the local and national government, with different messages and measures going around. The ack of clarity generates fear.

What’s the general standpoint towards the virus from the government and society as a whole?

Colombia took swift action once we confirmed the first case of coronavirus. On the 6th day, we closed our schools. On the 9th day, we closed our borders. And on the 13th day, we went into national lockdown.

We understand that our healthcare system is underdeveloped. Thanks to corruption mainly, and politicians stealing money in the past our country is having a hard time dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

I believe there is a national understanding that: 

  1. We have to face this together, let’s do our bit.
  2. Take care of each other
  3. Things will not be the same after this
How does this affect the entrepreneurs that you incubate? 

It’s going to be rough.

I have spoken to each of our entrepreneurs in the last few days to understand how are they facing this situation.

Most of them had to stop operations and are figuring out how to keep people’s jobs and salaries as long as they can.

Anxiety is the main feeling I got from them because of the uncertainty of when the coronavirus pandemic is going to end.

The idea of talking to each startup and entrepreneur in our community is to:

  1. Connect with our people. Understand how everyone is doing and how are they dealing with this situation: emotionally, financially, and with their teams.
  2. Next steps and way forward

We have set up multiple partnerships to support our people with a psychologist to provide a line to express and receive advice, legal and management advisors to understand how they can use different options from banks and other entities to face the situation.

We have been hosting webinars to keep our community active and keep the human connection alive. Some of the topics we have talked about are:

“How can startups contribute to solutions to the current situation?”

“Cashflow management during uncertainty.”

“How to manage stress.”

“Ways to stay productive while working at home.”

Finally, we are generating financial plans for each member to alleviate their future cash flows to support them when society “re-opens” once the coronavirus is contained. This means waiving membership fees in may and discounted prices for a couple of months.

How does it affect the impact hub in Medellin?

The coronavirus pandemic has been a challenging time and has pushed us to step up our game. Our first decision was to keep our whole team in place. We are where we are because of our people, therefore we go through this together. My whole team is working from home and figuring out how to evolve our business model to create value for our market and new revenue streams. Here some impacts we are facing:

1. Space:

As mentioned above, we will see this income halted and reduced for a while as the entrepreneurs we host start regenerating income again.

  1. Solution: Waive the membership (mentioned above) for a couple of months and set longer-term contracts. The idea is to co-operate and work with each other on how to contribute to each other’s business.
2. Programs (Incubation):

Half of this program operates through sponsors (local and global) and right now every partner and organization is focusing their budget to face the coronavirus situation.

  1. Solution: We are setting up an online incubation program, so geography is no longer a barrier for entrepreneurs. New revenue streams working together with incubated entrepreneurs and getting a % of their sales in the future as they grow (This still future revenue tho)
  2. Keep contacting potential partners in Europe and North America
  3. We have launched an initiative to generate solutions through an online hackathon that is going to take place 3-5 of April, so far we have +250 solutions submitted: https://cadadiacuenta.org/
3. Gambetiando: Activities stop
  1. Solution: Gambetiando Virtual: We have produced a series of short videos we shared with our youth through WhatsApp to keep them engaged with activities and workshops to perform at home
  2. Weekly calls to keep the connection with the families and youth

Every situation we are facing also is an opportunity to evolve and think of different approaches to our business and initiatives

In Energía Vectorial, the situation is more similar to other startups so we have stopped operations in the 3 business lines: Conversion, Infrastructure, and Education. We are very lean in our startups in terms of costs, but the upward curve of sales we were experiencing, is going to be affected as people are not looking into expending money now and the upcoming months.

We are looking into how to upgrade or services and implement a tech solution connected to our conversions.

How can people in the global impact community help?

Connections!

Investors, sponsors, and corporates were interested in cooperating and working with Impact startups in Colombia. We are fundraising and setting up partnerships to make it even more relevant.

We are setting up a fund to support the entrepreneurs, amidst the coronavirus pandemic, in our space and others that will face financial troubles in the upcoming months, so they can still have a space to work from and a community to connect. Our idea would be to divide the monthly fee this way:

35% covered by the entrepreneur.

35% discount from our side.

30% covered by the fund.

Our monthly rates start at 80 Euros and go up until 200 Euros.

How do they get in touch with you?

Email: Federico.restrepo@impacthub.net

WhatsApp: +57 305 391 2346

Lastly, how will you have changed after this experience?

This is deep.

This experience has strengthened my connections with my team. We are going through a challenging time and we are facing it with a solutions-oriented perspective.

Our main objective is to foster the entrepreneurship ecosystem and my whole team is constantly looking for more and better ways to do so.

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