Q&A with Ashoka Fellow Juan David Aristizábal Ospina: Insights into Colombia's Culture of Social Entrepreneurship

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Source: Ashoka

Ashoka has recently elected Juan David Aristizábal Ospina of Colombia as a new Fellow. Aristizábal is the founder and president of Buena Nota, a organization that informs, engages and connects Colombians around social problems and their solutions.

Aristizábal has just released a book, "Llenando Espacios: Un libro sobre Emprendedores Sociales" (Filling Spaces: A Book about Social Entrepreneurs). The book offers an overview of Colombia's social issues and how social entrepreneurs—sixteen profiled social entrepreneurs in particular—are working to create positive change. "Llenando Espacios" gives visibility to the men and women who are transforming their country. It aims to inspire and summon others to innovate for social good, so the gaps for building a better Colombia are filled.

The following Q&A with Aristizabál about social entrepreneurship in Colombia and his book, "Llenando Espacios," was conducted by Knowledge intern Leah Breen. A Spanish version of the interview can be found here.

Can you describe the social entrepreneurship environment in Colombia?

The social entrepreneurship environment in Colombia is in a creation stage. Even though we [Buena Nota] find cases of social entrepreneurs who started working 30 years ago, social entrepreneurship is relatively new in Colombia. Social entrepreneurs are just beginning to gain support from public and private sectors and Colombian society.

In your opinion, which issues in Colombia are most pressing for social entrepreneurs to address?

Currently, the most pressing issues in Colombia are the quality of education, protection of the environment, access to microcredit, and issues related to the consequences of the internal conflict in Colombia. Buena Nota, our organization, is currently supporting social entrepreneurs who are working in these areas.  

What are the major challenges that social entrepreneurs face in Colombia? What are the things that may keep Colombian social entrepreneurs from succeeding to reach their goals?

The major challenges that social entrepreneurs face in Colombia are scaling their impact, replicating their models, promoting their projects, and creating business models.  

At Buena Nota, we have found that the main barriers social entrepreneurs face are scarce funding sources, lack of management knowledge, few direct communication channels with policy makers, and a lack of opportunities to gain attention from Colombian society.

What were the common qualities among the social entrepreneurs you interviewed?

I've found that overall, they are persistent, they create solutions together with the community, and they know how to build a motivated team.  

How can social entrepreneurs best garner support in Colombia?

Social entrepreneurs in Colombia need to gain more attention from all sectors. The attention generates a multiplying effect that motivates citizens to get involved in the projects that social entrepreneurs lead. The attention also helps to build networks, open doors for alliances, increase resources, and develop tools that allow the social entrepreneurs to be more efficient.  

How can private and public sectors in Colombia support and encourage social entrepreneurs and foster an ecosystem of changemakers?  

The best way to build and strengthen the social entrepreneurship ecosystem in Colombia is to partner with each sector, so political branches, businesses, universities, non-profits, etc. contribute the best resource that they have to offer. 

Universities should deepen investigations into how to broaden the impact of social entrepreneurs and how to increase the accountability of each project; companies should share the knowledge on how to create value and structure social business models; and society should recognize that each individual has a resource (time, money, networks, or knowledge) to support a social entrepreneur's work.

How have you seen the citizen sector of Colombia evolve in recent years? Why is now the “tipping point” in Colombian history for social entrepreneurs to take action?

The citizen sector in Colombia has always been very active in the development and improvement of various aspects of the country. Today, the citizen sector is starting to gain more attention and support from the Colombian society. Buena Nota has been working to attain large scale societal support for the past six years since the organization's founding.  

On the other hand, I do not think that this is the tipping point in Colombian history. We have been supporting the construction of an ecosystem that supports, promotes and publicizes the work of social entrepreneurs in Colombia. Today, we need more visibility, more alliances and more support from society as a whole. We are working to reach the tipping point as soon as we can. 

Fifteen years from now, how do you think social entrepreneurs will have impacted Colombia?

Social entrepreneurs will be essential agents in the making of public policies, benefiting many people and leveraging the changing power of their projects, and, therefore, incentivizing the participation of society in the change. With this goal in mind, Buena Nota has supported 25 social entrepreneurs thus far. 

What lessons have you learned from the social entrepreneurs you profiled that you will use to improve your own work? 

First, we need to make alliances in order to escalate and replicate social entrepreneurs' impact. Second, we need to use the power of communication to promote causes. Third, we need to constantly innovate to find new sources of funding.  

What do you want readers to take away from the stories of the social entrepreneurs that you present in Llenando Espacios?

Hopefully, all readers will learn that they can fill a void, and all will want to go where others have never gone. In each of the book's profiles, readers will find the lessons of individuals that went where neither the state nor the market had gone. I hope that each reader finds inspiration to fill a gap by being a social entrepreneur or by supporting one.