Ben Powell is equipping promising impact entrepreneurs – who run for-profit businesses that serve their community by successfully addressing social problems – with business knowledge and access to investment capital. He is igniting job creation in Nicaragua and demonstrating to the world that the previously unchartered field of socially impactful investment in small businesses that are located in developing countries is a feasible, and even profitable, means of economic development.
The New Idea
Ben is unlocking the potential of small business entrepreneurs in developing countries by providing management know-how and financing. In countries like Nicaragua, small business entrepreneurs have unparalleled potential to create new jobs and wealth in the formal economy. However, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the developing world have historically been constrained by entrepreneurs´ limited business skills and the lack of access to capital. Ben has developed a comprehensive model to provide small-scale, impact entrepreneurs in developing countries the business expertise and long-term investment capital they need to transform economies.
Agora Partnerships, the non-profit arm of Ben’s organization targets entrepreneurs with high potential to grow and create new jobs and provides them with educational opportunities and consulting services. Working with business schools in the United States and Nicaragua, Agora Partnerships recruits MBA students to help entrepreneurs develop strategies for issues including pricing, scaling-up and accessing new markets.
Through the Agora Venture Fund, Ben facilitates long-term investment into the small businesses. Because of their small size, lack of sophistication, and location in developing countries where financial markets operate sluggishly, small business entrepreneurs have virtually no access to long-term growth capital. Agora Venture Fund works with businesses caught in the “missing middle”– they are too big to receive microcredit and too small to be of interest to traditional venture capitalists or even business incubators.
Ben is using Agora to demonstrate to donors, future business leaders, and investors that investing in impact entrepreneurs in the developing world is an effective means to fight poverty and unemployment. Like Muhammad Yunus used Grameen Bank to demonstrate the feasibility of banking to the poor, Ben is using Agora to show that entrepreneurs in the developing world are a profitable target for socially impactful investment.
In wealthy nations, small businesses are a major component of economic growth; they create jobs and wealth. However in the developing world, this key sector remains underdeveloped. For example, while 90% of U.S. companies are SMEs only 20% of businesses in Nicaragua are in this sector.
The weakness of the SME sector in Nicaragua stems from a lack of business education for small venture entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs often lack basic skills in cash flow management, pricing, and growth strategies. Ben cites one example of a foot care clinic in Nicaragua that advertised $10 appointments. However, when charging a client, the owner used an old exchange rate to calculate the current local price and inadvertently charged only $7.50. Without training or role models it is difficult for a Nicaraguan SME entrepreneur to realize his or her potential to open new branches, offer new services, or access new client markets.
Developing-world entrepreneurs who posses the vision and knowledge to expand their business fail to do so because they are stuck in a financial “missing middle”. A typical Nicaraguan SME employs ten to one hundred people. To grow would require $25,000 - $250,000 in capital. Microfinance institutions offer much smaller loans and cater to individuals whose venture sustains their family, not other employees. Conversely, SMEs are too small to qualify for private equity or venture capital finance; the logistical hurdles and transactions costs to find, vet, and finance a small business in a developing country are prohibitively high. Even small business incubators like Endeavor and Acumen wouldn’t offer funding to a Nicaraguan SME entrepreneurs, as there average deal is valued at $1-2 million.
The banking sector is also inadequate for SME entrepreneurs because a commercial loan requires making monthly payments immediately rather than over a longer investment horizon. All of these institutions have failed to serve the “missing middle” because thus far, there exists a paucity of knowledge about how to detect promising entrepreneurs, create an exit strategy, and minimize transaction costs while investing in SME entrepreneurs in the developing world.
Finally, the concept of a profitable investment fund that also has a strong social impact by spurring job creation in the developing world is still unfamiliar to donors, foundations and individuals who might be interested in participating. Thus, impact investing is still a nascent field and the correct investors would lack the education and evidence to believe that this sector can be profitable and a feasible place to invest.
Ben has developed an integral approach to build the SME sector in developing countries through business education and long-term investment financing.
To provide entrepreneurs with business advise and expertise, Agora’s not-for-profit branch offers a variety of educational events to promote entrepreneurship including regional entrepreneurialism showcase events, meetings that allow entrepreneurs to share their setbacks and successes, and “speed consulting” sessions where an entrepreneur can present a problem and discuss it with a member of Agora’s staff without charge. For in-depth strategy consulting, Agora Partnerships matched MBA students with small Nicaraguan business owners. Business students from institutions including the University of Michigan, Columbia, University of Virginia, Duke, MIT and Nicaragua’s most prominent business school, INCAE receive support from their schools to provide consulting to small business owners. Agora Partnerships facilitates these consulting services and assures that the volunteer consultants work on concrete, discrete projects like pricing structures, branch openings, or finding lower-cost suppliers. With low overhead cost and a nominal fee charged to the client, Agora has thus far provided these consulting services to over 85 Nicaraguan entrepreneurs with the help of over 250 volunteers. After receiving consulting services, companies have increased their staff by 17%, creating new jobs in the formal economy.
Agora carefully selects the entrepreneurs that they work with using five criteria: the business’s potential for job creation, whether the product or service produced helps the poor, whether the company contributes to protecting the environment, the businesses commitment to corporate social responsibility and finally whether the entrepreneur, by having overcome extreme hardships, would serve as a powerful role model within their community. The selection of new entrepreneurs is carried out by the office staff in Agora’s local country branch.
Agora’s for-profit Venture Fund provides long-term growth capital to SMEs. The Venture Fund provides up to $250k of financing to entrepreneurs with an average of ten employees over an eight-year investment period. Investments are a combination of debt and equity, catered to the needs of each entrepreneur. The fund can be repaid through royalties on product sales, interest, or the fund has the option to sell their shares of the small business to the entrepreneur at a pre-specified rate. Thus far, Agora Venture Fund has invested nearly $500k in seven small Nicaraguan businesses. Other small business owners were able to convince family members or friends to invest in their venture after working with Agora´s volunteer consultants to develop credible growth strategies. To Ben, third party funding is a mark of success as Agora is leveraging new investments to finance small business entrepreneurs who would otherwise be left in the missing middle. In fact, Agora has leveraged an additional $1.5 million in investment in 24 small companies. .At the end of each year, the Fund publishes both a financial and social impact report, which details the jobs and wealth created by Agora´s work.
Ben is dedicated to creating an entirely new kind of investment, not just making Agora itself grow. He makes his blueprints available to others who wish to open similar funds. He speaks and writes to educate individual investors, MBA students, foundations and governments on the enormous social impact that can be achieved by unleashing the potential in developing world entrepreneurs. Involving MBA students is not only a strategy to provide low cost consulting services; it is also a way to garner the support of future business leaders. Ben speaks regularly at national social business case competitions, recommends new MBA curriculum material, and shares his experiences with business school students. On the investor side, he has attracted support from USAID, the Rockefeller Foundation, was honored by the Social Venture Network, and was elected as a Draper Richards Foundation Fellow. His recruitment of investors, students and foundations is entirely targeting at raising awareness and participation in a new investment field.
Agora has plans to open its second office in the summer of 2010 in El Salvador and later in Guatemala and Honduras. Ben’s long-term goal is to demonstrate that it is possible and profitable to invest in small businesses that create clear social impact, so that markets will begin to support these entrepreneurs throughout the developing world.
As he grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ben´s parents instilled in him a sense of the importance of making a positive social impact. After high school, Ben opted not to take the traditional route from boarding school to college and spent a year living with a family in Puebla, Mexico. There, Ben volunteered as a teacher in two schools – one public school where the students came from poor families and a wealthy private school. He was struck by the unequal opportunities that the two schools afforded equally capable students and began to think about how he could correct this social injustice and level the playing field.
A few years after graduating from Haverford college, Ben returned to Puebla to launch a business that would create jobs and options for healthy family entertainment. He partnered with his Mexican host “brother” to start a mini golf business and pub, CityGolf:Puebla which is successfully running to this day. From the beginning, Ben insisted that the mini golf operation be socially responsible and arranged for the employees of the mini-golf course to volunteer at a local orphanage, even bringing the only Ashoka fellow at that time in Puebla to the business to turn the course into an aviary and raise awareness of endangered birds in the region.
Years later, after having received a Masters in diplomacy and development at Georgetown, Ben sought to create an impact working at the White House’s Budget Office. He used his vacation time to return to Puebla where he realized he had created more of a tangible social impact there than by working in the upper echelons of the government. City Golf had created ten new formal-sector jobs - the cashier who was a single mom was able to get her first bank account and subsequently a subsidized home loan and the cleaning woman had been able to complete her primary education. Ben decided that he wanted to replicate the social impact of City Golf, on a more massive scale. He left his job at the White House and enrolled in the Columbia Business School with the intention of developing his plans for Agora.
At Columbia, Ben was “focused like a laser” on creating Agora and had an infectious ability to motivate others to join him. In every class his second year, he worked on developing and refining his business plan. Ben learned about creating social change through business interning with Ashoka’s Full Economic Citizen initiative. During his second year of business school, one professor pulled Ben aside because over a quarter of the class was working on the Agora project. Ben soon convinced the professor, a mentor and the Chairman of Technoserve which supports small business in developing countries, to serve on the advisory board of Agora where he still advises Ben today. Also at Columbia, Ben learned of a young successful entrepreneur from Nicaragua named Ricardo Teran who came from an influential Nicaraguan family and had a strong desire to create a positive social impact. In what Ben calls his most extravagant business expense of his life, he flew to Miami to meet Ricardo and his father for lunch and to pitch Agora to them. Before Ben got on his return plane flight, Ricardo and his father signed on to the project, giving Ben the local leadership he needed. Ricardo, Agora’s co-founder now runs the organization’s Central American operations.