Valeria Budinich: Helping social entrepreneurs to access capital and resources to scale their initiatives

Valeria Budinich is a social entrepreneur and organizational strategist with 25 years’ experience specializing in high-impact business/social entrepreneurship. 

Valeria’s pathway as a leading social entrepreneur started with a roulette wheel. When she was ten, she asked her parents for one for Christmas, inspired by her mom’s avid poker playing.  It was the beginning of summer vacation and her parents didn’t have money that year for a family vacation so Valeria was determined to do something different and fun.  She started inviting kids from the neighborhood to bring their piggy banks and bet on her roulette.  Soon she was running a homegrown gambling ring!

Valeria started to win over and over again.  Other kids thought it was because she was the dealer so she let them play that role.  But the reason was really that Valeria had noticed that some of the numbers she bet on were disproportionately winning numbers.  She kept betting on them and winning even more. She knew it was wrong.  Valeria’s “Nona Ester”, who started teaching her card games at the age of six, had ingrained in her how important it was to play fair. Valeria didn’t know what to do.

Valeria’s guilt became unbearable so she went to her mom for advice.  Without reprimand or taking over, her mother helped her figure out how to set things right. Valeria threw a party for all the kids in the neighborhood and gave back all the money she had won and closed down the casino.  Instead of being mad, the kids had had a pretty fun time that summer. 

Looking back, Valeria’s roulette wheel experience was critical to her career path for two key reasons.  First, it gave her the confidence that she could create something of her own and get others behind it. The casino was the first of many endeavors she launched in her youth from her girl-led lawn mowing business to bicycle repair shop.  Second, her experience made her realize that while competition can be fun and motivating, it must be fair.  Valeria has spent the last 25 years leveling the playing field for social entrepreneurs to access the kinds of capital and resources needed to scale their initiatives and improve people’s lives.  She launched the Full Economic Citizenship Initiative to at Ashoka which links leading social entrepreneurs with business leaders to generate “hybrid” value chains that ensure simultaneous financial, social and environmental gains to benefit low-income families and small producers. At the core of this work is the understanding that markets can be powerful forces for good but only if all can participate and the rules of the game are fair.  

In a world of rapid change with technology opening ways for people to participate in new ways, everyone has the opportunity to lead.  To do so, one needs to adapt quickly and seize opportunities at a rapid rate.  Mobilizing others around an idea, even a roulette wheel, is practice for seizing new opportunities down the line.  But this new paradigm for the world requires a new kind of leadership that empowers others and ensures fairness so that benefits from this rapid change do not concentrate in the hands of a few.  

Valeria now has three grandchildren.   If any of them asked for a roulette wheel for Christmas, she would think twice about the wisdom of this particular “game” for a child.  But what she knows all of them to need is the support and guidance to start something of their own and the space to learn and grow from it. 


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