Francisco Javier Duque Villegas

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 2002
This description of Francisco Javier Duque Villegas's work was prepared when Francisco Javier Duque Villegas was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.


Francisco Javier Duque fosters viability for microenterprises in Colombia by creating associations that gain greater market presence and facilitate access to a host of services from technical specialists around the country.

The New Idea

In Colombia, where large companies dominate the marketplace and new businesses struggle to establish themselves, Francisco Javier is linking microenterprises into associations to facilitate growth, development, and success. By aggregating many microenterprises and bridging that cohesive whole to the larger business sector, Francisco Javier increases their collective competitiveness and generates income for Colombia's poorest citizens. His economic scheme of productive popular businesses working in solidarity addresses the needs of entrepreneurs as a group, jointly tackling barriers to success shared by most new micro-sized businesses. Moreover, he links the microenterprise associations to a pool of resource providers from which all the participants can benefit but could not otherwise afford on their own. This talent bank, a new concept in the region, builds a database of professionals willing to donate their time for the benefit of the entire microbusiness sector–professionals who might be reluctant to offer their expertise piecemeal to individuals whose ability to use them is likely to be hit-or-miss. To facilitate growth opportunities and tap new ideas for new and old businesses alike, Francisco Javier has launched a business-to-business mentorship project in which established companies work with new or micro-sized enterprises.

The Problem

As a result of Colombia's ongoing armed conflict, poverty and unemployment are high and rising. Mass internal displacement of the population has caused a national unemployment rate near 20 percent and prevents the growth of most financial endeavors launched by the poor. Although microenterprise has been a popular and relatively successful income generating mechanism in South America, the failing economy and severe social problems caused by the military conflict have put a damper in Colombia on the cycle of innovation within the formerly burgeoning sector. Even though various foundations offer microloans or grants for new businesses, as few as 2 percent of recipients survive beyond the period of direct financial support because their small size and inability to afford capacity-building technical assistance or business-development services prevents sustainability.

The Strategy

Recognizing the widespread failure of microenterprise development among Colombia's poorest citizens can be reversed by linking microenterprises–first with each other, and then with professional resources–Francisco Javier brings together fledgling businesses and offers the group a variety of resources that would be unavailable to them individually.
To overcome the limitations of microenterprises' small scale, Francisco Javier encourages new businesses to join associations, using a resource center as a central meeting point to promote membership. Once in an association, businesses can collectively seek the services of Francisco Javier's unprecedented "talent bank," which includes an extensive network of volunteers, program managers, professionals, and university students. As the associated businesses pay a small fee to access these services, a cost that is still substantially less than what businesses would have to pay were they to obtain services individually, the associations can sustain themselves and continue developing new projects. Eventually, Francisco Javier envisions members contributing to the pool of resource providers; as microenterprises become profitable with the help of the association and their entrepreneurs develop expertise, they can become advisors and offer consultation to new project participants as members of the talent bank.
To offer technical assistance beyond what is available through his network, Francisco Javier also links microenterprises to outside resources through partnerships with public, private, and citizen sector entities. For example, he has already formed strategic partnerships with the SENA, the Colombian government's training institute, as well as with the Carvajal Foundation, Dansocial, and the Cali Chamber of Commerce, all of which offer pro bono services and partnership opportunities to individual microentrepreneurs. These four institutions will provide training in key areas like entrepreneurial spirit, management, legal structures, interpersonal skills, and various other fields specific to each member's needs. Francisco Javier is also establishing links between the microbusinesses and the larger companies from the traditional business sector, creating a mutually beneficial relationship: while microentrepreneurs gain mentorship, access to resources, and business expertise, the large companies identify new market segments, improve efficiency, and gain new ideas. For example, Francisco Javier and his colleagues have fostered a partnership between a large clothing manufacturer and a sewing group microenterprise through which the microenterprise makes clothing out of the large company's leftover fabric, and sells the finished product back to the company at a reduced price. Both partners turn a profit.
Over the long term, Francisco Javier plans to form special Economic Development Districts where the associations operate, advocating for exemption from certain taxes, special relationships with public offices, and other favorable policies. To formalize and systematize training for these microentrepreneurs, Francisco Javier is drafting a curriculum in collaboration with the Foundation of the Autonomous University to serve as a foundation for the university that he aims to create to educate students in the administration of productive popular businesses in solidarity.

The Person

Francisco Javier has been an entrepreneur his whole life. Throughout his youth, his goal was to be a millionaire, not because he wanted the money, but because wealth would allow him to support others in need. His father was a salesman, who first taught him the elements of business and new enterprises. At age 7, Francisco Javier started his first business, selling comic books; although he began with only two comics, within a few months he acquired 40 through buying and selling. As a teenager, Francisco Javier volunteered in a prison, first building a library and then helping inmates plan businesses to support themselves after release. He went on to study law in college, asserting that he had already mastered business administration but could use a legal background in future endeavors.
In law school Francisco Javier began to hear about labor problems and strikes, and decided to focus his studies on labor rights. After graduating, he worked in several positions in both labor law and in human resources. In 1990, after reading about cooperative systems around the world, he traveled to Israel to live and study on a kibbutz for four months. While he returned to law in 1992, starting his own firm with three colleagues and creating a social action group of lawyers, his experiences abroad left him thinking about creating something that would have more direct impact on low-income communities. Building from his combined experiences and lifelong interest in helping the poor, he founded Fundaci├│n Colombia en Marcha in 2001, launching initiatives to battle unemployment and support business development in poor communities.