In today’s rapidly changing world, a young person’s ability to lead, be part of a team, practice changemaking and express empathy are increasingly important skills. Ashoka turned to Ashoka Fellows Gonzalo Muñoz and Ximena Abogabir to understand what it takes to raise children who can contribute to positive change. They are two leading social entrepreneurs from Chile who have individually changed the face of large-scale recycling and environmental education in Chile respectively. However, they share something even more powerful: Gonzalo is Ximena’s son.
As part one of a two-part LeadYoung conversation, Ashoka first spoke with Gonzalo to hear how his mother and others helped him get his early start at changemaking by instilling in him a deep sense of responsibility to make the world a better place while at the same time exposing him to and giving him opportunities to practice changemaking. [For Ashoka’s interview with Ximena, please visit here.]
You established Triciclos
in Chile to give consumers a new pathway to understanding recycling and, through that, responsible consumption. It became the first Benefit Corporation in South America and now works across 4 countries with an estimated 17,000 tons of materials channeled into the recycling industry. What inspired or influenced you to embark on what is a pretty ambitious goal to eliminate all waste by changing people’s behavior? You have mentioned important values instilled in you by your parents, your mom especially. Can you describe in your own words what that means?
Definitely, part of the story starts early. It is impossible to deny that most of the inspiration my three siblings and I received came from our parents. They helped me understand that I was very fortunate to have certain privileges that could not be taken for granted and that meant that I had to give back. This sense of responsibility also helped me be sensitive to the problems we were facing in society. I clearly remember moments, receiving a mandate from my mother: “It doesn’t matter what you do, which type of job you are going to have. But your main role in life is to leave the world better than how you received it.” And then my father’s side was very Catholic and very committed to vulnerable people and those in need. So I can see those two very strong mandates shaping my siblings, cousins and me. Ultimately, the opportunities I had were not just for me but for others. I can see now how I grew with those pressures.
So how did you channel these pressures?
Since I was very young I had the opportunity for leading and organizing some activities with purpose. I was 16-years old when I organized the small village where we were having our summer holiday to raise money for a local school for kids in need. Even before that, I remember telling my father that I was meant to do something important for many people. So it is not only about me believing my own capabilities. It is also about having people around you saying “you can”.
I think the second part beyond being told you are meant to do great things is having someone on your side, in my case my mother, who had created an organization and who would talk to us about relevant things. We would watch her trying to solve problems of the world and would join her many times. In both circumstances, these were external factors that gave me input to finally decide to create my own solution, my own organization to solve problems in the world. But in my case I’ve always looked for partners with whom to undertake the projects. I believe in permanent mutual support, just like the one I received in my early days.
Tell us more about organizing the school fundraising activities in the village. How did that happen?
We were spending our summer holiday there for many years. My mother and my stepfather started supporting a school affiliated with the local church. I don’t remember exactly how it happened but my mother asked us --me and my brother-- whether we wanted to help her and if so, she would let us lead this organization. Looking back, it was obvious that we were meant to do things like we are doing today.
These early experiences supported by your mother seem like important practice. When was the first time you had your own idea?
: When I was just entering college at 18, Chile got hit with cholera, mainly due to the water used to water vegetable crops. I decided to start an initiative to spread the use of hydroponics which I didn’t know much about. There was no Google, no Internet. There were many books in the university about hydroponics but all of them were checked out by one professor who seemed to want to keep that knowledge for herself and I couldn’t get them. Since I was in the university playing rugby and soccer, I had a rugby team trip to Argentina and took the opportunity to buy books about hydroponic growing since the books were cheaper and Chile was still closed under the dictatorship. I taught myself and started teaching others, not in the university but in other institutes in the municipalities and local NGOs.
At the same time, I was commuting to campus by bike and it was very dangerous so I also organized all the riders to ride together in a kind of demonstration to bring attention to the traffic issues.
: There was a pattern of starting things. How did this lead to founding Triciclos?
That came some time later. At university I had this sensibility for nature and ecosystems and social aspects but prepared myself for business. I kept trying to bring social and environmental aspects to the companies where I worked. But although I was a successful executive, I felt I was constantly failing at convincing the boards of the companies I was running about the need to incorporate social and environmental factors into the businesses. I was failing as a social intrapraneur and I couldn’t continue the way the companies were going. When my younger daughter got ill with cancer, everything changed. It brought the clear perception that life is short, and very fragile. When another close friend died, I felt it was life telling me that it’s now the time to start something meaningful that uses all of those resources, networks, knowledge and everything I developed since childhood. That was when I decided to move from the safe world as a successful businessman to start something that would have major impact for how we can responsibly consume. And we were so lucky that my daughter not only recovered but today is very healthy. A miracle, really.
How has your experience affected how you raise your own three daughters?
: Of course I haven’t raised them alone. My wife, Terri, is a fantastic woman totally connected to these social aspects working with a foundation to support children with cancer and their families. Our daughters see that we are devoted to creating positive impact in the world and they are very involved with what we do. Since they were quite grown when I started Triciclos, they can explain the whole start up process, the ups and downs. They can describe all aspects of responsible consumption not only to reduce waste but to consume in a responsible way. They saw the beginning of the Benefit Corporation movement and understand why the traditional economic model is not working. They are tied to the global trends in terms of energy consumption and agro-business. They also have been involved with their mother’s foundation and have participated in activities like fundraisers since they were very young. We volunteer together, building houses, working with street waste pickers. At the same time they have this grandmother who they have deep and profound conversations with. They have aunts and uncles whose work is related to social and environmental impact. They live in a world where these things are relevant.
We don’t ask them “what are you going to study?” or “what are you going to be when you grow up?” but instead “what problem are you going to solve?” So they are always looking for the problem they are going to solve and always looking for what problems matter most to them.