Raising Changemakers: The story of Ashoka Fellow Gonzalo Muñoz and his family of changemakers
A young person’s ability to express empathy, lead, form a team, and practice changemaking is critical for thriving in a world of change. Ashoka turned to Ashoka Fellows Gonzalo Muñoz and Ximena Abogabir to understand what it takes to raise a family of changemakers. 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.
Raised by a leading social entrepreneur, Gonzalo was introduced to changemaking at an early age. He and his siblings grew up watching their mother, Ximena, founder of Casa de la Paz in Chile, seed a new generation of changemakers across business, public, and citizen sectors working to improve environmental sustainability across the country. However, Ximena started her professional career as a successful journalist and publicist but found herself craving a job where she could confidently create a world that she wanted her children to grow up in. She pivoted her career to embed environmental education as a pervasive tool for instigating a new culture of civic engagement and citizen participation in Chile post-dictatorship.
Growing up, Gonzalo fondly remembers his summer vacations with his, routinely staying all together in a small, rural Chilean village. His mother, even on vacation, would bring her life’s work with her, inviting her children to observe and participate in her projects. Ximena recalls hauling art supplies for her children to design posters, inviting kids to participate in local activities she would host for the community. Deeply invested in the community, Gonzalo and his brother were inspired to take on their own initiative. One summer, when Gonzalo was 16, he and his brother organized a fundraiser in partnership with a local church to build a school for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. This set Gonzalo on a lifetime of changemaking.
When Gonzalo was 18, just entering college, Chile was hit by a public health crisis. Across the country was a mass cholera outbreak because of untreated water used in regional farming practices. Gonzalo, concerned and curious, began to read about the problem and learned about the use of hydroponics as a solution, which is a type of horticulture that depends on water, not soil. However, he didn’t know much about the practice.
Gonzalo visited his university library to check out books about hydroponics and learn more about the practice. To his dismay, a professor had already checked out all the books and was unwilling to share them with Gonzalo. He was astonished by the professor’s selfish hoarding of necessary knowledge but was determined to learn. Although purchasing books was expensive in Chile due to authoritarian rule, Gonzalo discovered that these scientific textbooks were cheaper and readily available in Argentina. Frustrated, but committed, Gonzalo luckily traveled to Argentina during a school-sponsored rugby trip and purchased books about hydroponic growing systems.
This knowledge inspired Gonzalo to launch an initiative to spread the use of hydroponics by teaching others working in local NGOs and government agencies. Unsurprisingly, Gonzalo became committed to environmental conservation and sustainability while studying in university. However, he decided to formally study business education and started his professional career in the for-profit sector.
Years later, Gonzalo found himself in a successful career as a business executive, but like his mother, felt a sense of urgency and personal responsibility to redefine his role in society. Instead, he aspired to bridge to the private and public sectors by incorporating environmental protection and sustainability as a core value of the private sector.
“When my younger daughter got ill with cancer,” Gonzalo candidly shares, “everything changed. It brought a clear perception that life is short and very fragile.” After another close friend passed away, Gonzalo felt compelled to leverage his entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to social change into action.
Gonzalo established TriCiclos in Chile, the first B-corporation in Latin America, that resignifies society's relationship with waste through systematically altering consumption and disposal patterns. For example, Gonzalo formalized the work of ragpickers, or individuals who collect materials and salvageable waste for resale, as this line of work positively impacts urban spaces by increasing recycling and reusing products. By influencing the supply chain of consumer goods from creation to consumption, Gonzalo designed a circular model for waste that engages government, education institutions, the private sector, and individuals for cultivating a culture of sustainability now in 13 countries in Latin America. In 2020, Gonzalo stepped into a new role, as a UN High-Level Climate Action Champion, joining a highly ambitious and global network that is paving the way to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.
If you are deeply convinced that your child is a changemaker, she will become one. They react to the way we look at them. They may have tough moments along the way but trust them and give them space but be there for them. From me, I think I empowered my kids by believing in their ideas and being willing to help them.
Today, all three of Ximena’s children, are prominent social innovators working in the field of sustainability. In addition to Gonzalo’s rewiring the recycling industry, his brother, Juan Carlos, is a professor who is also an expert in improving public transportation in Chile and beyond. Gonzalo's sister, Ximena, started off as an architect and studied lighting and now is a leading innovator in solar lighting initiatives. Following his mother, Gonzalo was selected to be an Ashoka Fellow for his system-changing work in 2011.
Gonzalo shares, “it is impossible to deny that most of the inspiration my two siblings and I received came from our parents.” He attributes his parents’ entrepreneurial spirit to his lifelong commitment to his individual social responsibility, regardless of what job or industry he found himself later in life. “Looking back,” Gonzalo reflects, “it was obvious that we were meant to do things like we are doing today.”
Gonzalo is raising the next generation of young changemakers in Chile by starting from home using lessons from his own childhood. His daughter, who recovered, sparked Gonzalo’s wife, Tere, to work for a Chilean organization that supports families with a child experiencing cancer through an integrated approach that combines improved medical attention with complimentary support services for poor patients and their families.
This organization, Fundación Nuestros Hijos, was founded by another Ashoka Fellow, Marcela Zubieta. After eight years, Tere launched her own organization to combat food insecurity and increase access to nutrition in highly vulnerable communities. Since they were little, Gonzalo and Tere’s daughters participate in the foundation's activities, volunteering and advocating for the future of young people together.
His children have also watched their father build TriCiclos from the ground up, intimately witnessing the beginning of the B-Corp Movement in Latin America. Raising his own family of changemakers, Gonzalo shares “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?’”.
Ximena, now a grandmother, continues her own changemaking journey by changing the self-imagined and media-driven views of older adults. Through her intergenerational work, she found that both children and senior citizens are often stereotyped as victims and vulnerable, populations that need to be protected instead of respected. Today, she is combating ageism through her new organization, Travesía100. Her journey comes full circle as she dedicates her life to enabling others to discover their power and purpose for creating a better world.
Nurturing generations of changemakers in her own family, Ximena shares, “If you are deeply convinced that your child is a changemaker, she will become one. They react to the way we look at them. They may have tough moments along the way but trust them and give them space but be there for them. From me, I think I empowered my kids by believing in their ideas and being willing to help them.”