Allison Silva
Ashoka Fellow since 2017   |   Bolivia

Allison Silva

Fundación Emprender Futuro
Allison improves the social mobility of vulnerable people, particularly women, by democratizing access to business information and services and fostering an entrepreneurship ecosystem and network…
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This description of Allison Silva's work was prepared when Allison Silva was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2017.


Allison improves the social mobility of vulnerable people, particularly women, by democratizing access to business information and services and fostering an entrepreneurship ecosystem and network targeted at small entrepreneurs, particularly those operating in the informal economy.

The New Idea

By creating opportunities for small entrepreneurs to minimize failure, grow their businesses, integrate technology, connect with other businesspeople, and develop their personal leadership, Allison is making possible the economic and social independence and mobility of small business people, especially women. Almost all of the information and services available to entrepreneurs in Bolivia is targeted at the educated and elite, but the vast majority of entrepreneurs are small business people operating in the informal economy or at the bottom of the formal economy, selling whatever they can make or trade in order to survive. Allison is changing this by fostering an entrepreneurship ecosystem that serves this population, helping small entrepreneurs move from survival to thriving businesses.

Allison has created the only systematized information source on entrepreneurship and business creation in Bolivia. She designs and develops innovative tools to meet the needs of small entrepreneurs and facilitates face-to-face encounters and trainings that, within a few weeks, start producing a substantial change in people’s lives, giving them the opportunity to generate income for their families. She achieves social inclusion by making information freely and easily accessible to informal entrepreneurs to facilitate the formal registration of their enterprises and to enable them to access financing, training, and markets. Furthermore, she helps small entrepreneurs for the first time integrate technology into their businesses, a critical aspect to positioning them to grow.

Recognizing that one of the biggest barriers for vulnerable people is a mindset that prevents them from thinking beyond their current reality, Allison also focuses on empowering the entrepreneur personally, supporting the development of their leadership skills and their professional network. She also exposes them to opportunities beyond the borders of Bolivia to globalize their mindset and, in some cases, even their businesses. She strengthens the entrepreneurial ecosystem by accompanying all her programs with encounter and networking spaces, so that communities are strengthened and alliances are created.

The Problem

The population of Bolivia is 10.7 million people, of which 6.2 million are indigenous, representing 57% of the total population. Economic growth in the last decade has significantly reduced the poverty rate, but it remains at 39%, and the extreme poverty rate at 17%.

The World Economic Forum ranks Bolivia in 121st place, of 138 countries, in economic competitiveness. At the same time, Bolivia ranks third place in entrepreneurial activity in Latin America and the Caribbean, preceded only by Ecuador and Peru. In Bolivia, 4 out of 10 people are starting or carrying out an entrepreneurial activity. However, 8 out of 10 activities are in the informal economy, limiting opportunities for growth, higher revenues and job creation. The lack of access to information and educational opportunities for the most vulnerable, especially women, is therefore affecting the Bolivian economy. The limitation of contacts, and the alliances that entrepreneurs and especially women lack make their businesses tend to fail. Additionally, people do not start formal businesses often because they do not know where or how to begin and because of the time and resources required. Small entrepreneurs without resources do not have the information they need to grow and formalize their businesses. Furthermore, in Bolivia it takes 50 days to open a company, from the time one starts the process until the business operates legally. Once the business is created, the odyssey of keeping it running continues, and the vast majority of businesses do not even reach the second year of operation. Formal businesses that do survive tend to remain small. The Bolivian Business Register indicates that in April 2016 there were 276,926 legal companies registered, of which 222,083 are a one-person company (mostly self-employed).

In the Latin American and Caribbean region, women represent 41.6% of the economically active population and the average rate of entrepreneurial activity for women is 15%, of which the vast majority undertake entrepreneurship out of necessity. In Bolivia, 37 out of 100 women are undertaking an entrepreneurial activity, but their businesses are not of quality for various reasons, such as the difficulty in accessing training and education opportunities. In 2014, the World Bank estimates that 73,454 female children in Bolivia were out of school. There is still an important gender gap in entrepreneurship, mainly in terms of quantity and growth, as women lag behind due to a complex environment that promotes a culture where expectations tend to be short-term and focuses exclusively on women having to start and keep a home. In addition to this problem they have their own attitudes and motivations, which on certain occasions prevent them from seeing their own potential because the lack of self-esteem and the mindset of thinking small and submission of women and relegation to low skilled work. The size of the enterprises led by women are small and focused on sectors such as handicraft activities, while men are engaged in service provision. Only 4% of women in Bolivia work in services provision compared to 13% of men that work in this sector (data from the National Institute of Statistics). According to several studies this is because the level of education reached by women is not as high as for men because of expectations on women to marry and keep up the home.

The Strategy

Allison is creating opportunities for small businesspeople, especially women, by democratizing information and support services and cultivating a network and ecosystem for small entrepreneurs. She does this through an online platform, a diverse set of training and convening opportunities, and partnerships with relevant institutions.

Allison has created the first online platform for entrepreneurship in Bolivia, Bolivia Emprende, which she connects with more traditional media outreach to get free information and resources to small entrepreneurs. The platform is a hub of information on events, leadership tips, success stories, the economy, and Bolivian enterprises. It is the first free service that provides news on the entrepreneurship field, guides on formalizing a company, and tips on entrepreneurship and leadership. Prior to her organization, Emprender Futuro, such information was unavailable to the vast majority of Bolivian entrepreneurs. It was scattered across a handful of organizations operating independently, or shared in places that most small businesspeople do not access, such as universities and networking events. In addition to making information accessible to all, her platform also provides a place for organizations and companies in the entrepreneurship sector in Bolivia to connect with each other and to more easily offer or find services. Currently, thirty percent of the content on the site is created by Emprender Futuro, another 20 to 30 percent is content provided by other organizations, and the rest is relevant news from different sources. The site, which has become the go-to place for information on entrepreneurship, has traffic of 60,000 visits per month.

The Boliva Emprende online platform provides a hub, but Allison works with partners in traditional mass media—television, radio and newspaper—to invite people in and spread information out. Through these channels, her organization spreads information, broadcasts interviews with entrepreneurs sharing their experiences, and promotes the activities of the organization. They are positioned to reach the entire Bolivian population through the Con Sello Boliviano channel, a national Bolivian State TV channel, on which they do a weekly segment on entrepreneurship that currently has an audience of over 100,000 viewers. They also use social media and partnerships with other institutions to share information and opportunities on entrepreneurship, as well as word of mouth and the distribution of flyers in communities.
The platform enables various organizations to offer services and trainings to entrepreneurs, but recognizing a need for quality services for small entrepreneurs, Allison has designed a series of trainings and other opportunities directed at this population. Once a month, she hosts presentations by entrepreneurs that are free for anyone to attend. She also offers several different training options to support small entrepreneurs at different stages of their development. Allison works with both men and women but preferences women in all her programs. Similarly, while she engages entrepreneurs of different types, she preferences those who are more vulnerable. Sixty to 70 percent of the entrepreneurs she works with are in the informal economy.

The Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program (PLEI) is an 8-week training program for entrepreneurs who already have small businesses of some kind with the purpose of not only giving entrepreneurial tools, but also developing an entrepreneurial mindset on a personal level, so that failures become opportunities. She selects people for the PLEI training based on several criteria, including the person’s values and life goals and willingness to share information, as well as whether they have or plan to have a team and their intention to grow their business. The training is nine hours a week for eight weeks and focuses on practical skills that can help these established businesses to grow, such as design, marketing, hiring. Allison provides scholarships to women who cannot afford the program. At the end of each eight-week program, Emprender Futuro covers the costs of sending one entrepreneur, chosen as having the most potential, to an international event in another country, such as Mexico or Colombia. PLEI is currently held in La Paz, but Allison will soon be offering it in Santa Cruz as well. She is also designing a second-level PLEI training in technology and finance for those entrepreneurs who can and want to grow even faster.

Janis Paredes is one of the entrepreneurs that have benefited from this program. Janis was informally producing and selling jawitas, small empanadas native from the rural region of Los Yungas. Since going through the PLEI training on scholarship, she is now the owner and manager of Jawitas Mi Chulumani, which produces 5,000 jawitas daily, has 7 stores and a factory, and monthly revenue close to US$86,000. She has made alliances with cheese producers in rural areas of Bolivia. She has also traveled to Mexico and Brazil to evaluate her marketing possibilities and ways to improve her production system, and she is now studying English every Saturday to expand her opportunities even further. Grateful for the growth and expansion of her business, Janis empowers her own female employees and is designing a project that supports single mothers to enter the job market.

Because Allison wanted to reach more people, she has also developed other more accessible trainings. Emprender Futuro offers a mini 2-day version of PLEI that is open to anyone who has a small business or wants to start one. This shorter version allows her organization to offer the training outside the main cities and at a much lower cost. They also offer a free virtual program for entrepreneurs with very small businesses or those who want to start one, called Conecta, Emprende, Lidera (Connect, Undertake, Lead). Conecta, Emprende, Lidera is a free 5-hour-a-week, 4-week virtual program that concludes with an in-person convening. Participants are chosen based on their goals and abilities, particularly their leadership ability because Allison wants to know that those who participate will also share what they learn with others. At the end of the training, two in-person days are dedicated exclusively for networking among all the participants. This training reaches people not just in Bolivia but also neighboring countries such as Peru, Argentina and Paraguay.

A large focus of everything Allison does is to foster a collaborative network and supportive ecosystem for these entrepreneurs. Emprender Futuro prioritizes the building of trust, which is why 30% of the trainings they do are devoted to developing skills such as collaboration and teamwork and why even their virtual training brings people together in person at the end. Likewise, after the different programs, the entrepreneurs have regular communication with Emprender Futuro and each other through periodic meetings as well as WhatsApp groups to share initiatives, promote activities, ask for tips, and share information and opportunities on entrepreneurship. Once a year, Allison organizes an event with all the entrepreneurs that have been part of Emprender Futuro.

In 2016, she created the platform ‘Mujeres 360’ to more deliberately address the needs of women, who tend to think smaller about their enterprises than men and who usually end up in lower-skilled work. Through this platform, she has launched a special women-specific version of her two-day training to support women to expand their growth mindset. This year, in partnership with the U.S. Embassy, the Mayor of the City of La Paz, the National Chamber of Commerce, and telecommunications company TIGO, she is also launching a “Girls and Tech” program that will support young women to be able to enter the tech sector. This program will respond to the problem Allison identified that the more highly-skilled sectors, especially tech services, are dominated by men.

Beyond the Emprender Futuro network of entrepreneurs, Allison is also strengthening the ecosystem by working with the 25 most important actors in 6 different sectors in Bolivia: public institutions, financial institutions, NGOs, academic institutions, sector institutions such as chambers of commerce, and private enterprises. Allison has a monthly meeting with these actors to define common activities and align efforts. She partners with the National Chamber of Commerce, Chamber of Exporters, municipal governments, and other institutions that have incentives to help people make the shift from the informal to formal economy; the Ministry of Education, which is leading innovation and technology policy in Bolivia; telecommunications companies TIGO and VIVA for financial support; and universities and business schools to impact women’s education in technical careers. In addition, to further expand opportunities for Bolivian entrepreneurs, she partners with Voce Aprende Agora to offer English classes. She started this after the U.S. Embassy came to her asking for entrepreneurs they could send to the U.S. Allison also works with international organizations that align with her goals and that can increase opportunity and exposure for Bolivian entrepreneurs.

In addition to the 60,000 monthly visits to the online platform, 20,000 entrepreneurs have signed up to receive monthly information from Emprender Futuro. The organization has trained 450 entrepreneurs specifically in the informal sector, of which 65% are women. Of these entrepreneurs, 200 were operating informally before but have now become established businesses, and 215 started new enterprises, which are already generating revenue and creating jobs and in the process of formalizing. Each of these businesses now employs 5 to 20 additional people, thus generating thousands of new jobs. Also as a result of Allison’s work, organizations in the entrepreneurship sector in Bolivia are now coordinating, which is eliminating redundancy and improving opportunities for entrepreneurs.

Allison has already packaged the methodology for two of her programs to enable replication and is planning to expand to Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay, and northern Argentina within the next few years. She also aims to impact Bolivia's public policies on business registration and access to financing sources.

The Person

Allison is a descendant of indigenous grandparents of the Aymara culture. Her parents grew up in rural Bolivia and migrated to La Paz in search of better living conditions. There they became small businesspeople operating a small kitchen appliance store, struggling but sacrificing the little they had to pay for Allison’s studies. Today, her mother is one of her trainees and tells her that if she had had access to this knowledge before, she would have made fewer mistakes in the family business.

Thanks to her parents prioritizing her education, Allison had the opportunity to go to university. At first, she wanted to study civil engineering but was told that as a woman, she could not be a civil engineer, so she went into systems engineering instead. Her first job was in public administration, where she was again discriminated against by colleagues who told her that she couldn’t contribute because she was young and a woman. Allison did not give into this discrimination, very common in Bolivia, and became determined to overcome gender barriers. This led her to win a Global Competitiveness Leadership scholarship to study at Georgetown University. Upon returning to Bolivia, Allison decided she wanted to start her own company to create good jobs for people. In 2010, with her brother as a partner, she founded the company Eressea Solutions to provide technology development services of high quality with global standards. Having started with one service – web development – for one client – someone she met at Georgetown – the company now offers eight different services to 100 different clients and has provided the funds to start Emprender Futuro.

In her own experience of starting a business in Bolivia, Allison both realized the power of networking and discovered how difficult it was to find information that would help her. Because of her connections through her professional life and her time in the U.S., Allison was ultimately able to get connected to information from institutions inside and outside Bolivia working on entrepreneurship and decided to start blogging to share the information with others. As she did this, people started asking a lot of questions of her, and she saw that others were facing the same challenges. If it was as difficult as it had been for her, with a university education, to start a business, she realized it must be even harder for those with fewer opportunities. In 2014, she officially launched Emprender Futuro to democratize access to information and support small entrepreneurs, especially women, with the skills and networks to enable them to launch and grow thriving businesses, including empowering them as leaders who can have a multiplier effect, helping expand the mindsets of others to see beyond their current reality to what is possible.

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