Rodrigo Calcagni

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1995
Consejo de las Américas
This description of Rodrigo Calcagni's work was prepared when Rodrigo Calcagni was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1995 .


Rodrigo Calcagni is strengthening Chile's microenterprise sector and expanding the much-needed economic opportunities that it provides, through a network of community development centers and an overarching organization that facilitates learning, information flows and cooperative ventures throughout the network. He is also engaged in a series of activities to give added visibility to the microenterprise sector, elicit financial support from large businesses to help fund its growth and secure new national legislation responsive to the sector's needs.

The New Idea

Rodrigo Calcagni is building "Communities of Development" to stimulate and fortify Chile's microenterprise sector. The nuclei of those novel communities are Community Development Centers–intermediate organizations that provide training and other forms of assistance for the host of financial, legal, technical and managerial challenges that the creation and expansion of microscale productive units involve. Unlike most intermediary organizations, however, the Centers also encourage collaboration and joint initiatives among the enterprises that they assist. And in another marked departure from the usual approach, the Centers are linked together in a national network that facilitates access to needed information and contacts and encourages the sharing of experience and know-how.
Through the organization that serves as the network's hub, Rodrigo is also vigorously promoting the microenterprise sector's development through media campaigns, appeals for financial support from large businesses and other sources, and lobbying efforts to secure new legislation that will stimulate the sector's growth and protect the rights of its workers.

The Problem

Although roughly 50 percent of economically active Chileans are self-employed or work in microenterprises (i.e., businesses with fewer than ten workers), that sector is commonly overlooked in national development strategies. Microentrepreneurs and self-employed workers lack the negotiating skills, financial resources and institutional structures required for effective lobbying efforts, and government initiatives to promote their activities and assure the rights of people working in that sector have been correspondingly few.
Unfortunately, moreover, the few sources of technical assistance that serve the microenterprise sector are generally of limited effectiveness. Most local "intermediary organizations" that provide support services to small productive units lack access to strategic information, financial institutions and the media and do little or nothing to encourage collaborative efforts among the units that they serve. On a national scale, mechanisms to pool individual innovations, multiply their application and publicize success stories are notably lacking.
The dearth of effective initiatives to strengthen the microenterprise sector is, at least in part, the consequence of the absence of a strong philanthropic sector in Chile. With few exceptions, major businesses have not yet found it in their interest to engage in corporate philanthropy of any sort, and the limited funding that is forthcoming from that source for microenterprise development is confined to the country's major cities and addresses only a tiny fraction of national needs. The problem has also been compounded in recent years by sharp cutbacks in funding from overseas sources, both governments and foundations, for the work of nongovernmental organizations in Chile. (Since the return of democratic rule in Chile in 1990, they have seen less reason for such assistance.) Because of those cutbacks, most nongovernmental organizations dedicated to assisting the "popular economy" have been forced to close their doors or make major cutbacks in the services that they provide.
In Rodrigo's view, there is also a deeper, value-laden problem that must be overcome. In recent years, Chile has achieved an enviable record in overall economic growth (reflected in an average annual rate of increase in per capita gross national product of 6.5 percent over the past decade). But it has done so with policies that emphasize unfettered competition, downplay cooperation and demonstrate little concern for the well-being of poorer segments of the country's population, including the particularly disadvantaged women who constitute a large fraction of the microenterprise sector.

The Strategy

Rodrigo's vehicle for strengthening microenterprises and building cooperation in that sector is a nonprofit organization, Work for a Brother. The principal mission of the 45-member team that he leads, as Work's executive director, is to transfer its know-how and contacts to regional groups that are building fledgling Community Development Centers in various regions of the country and to develop a national network that unites and supports the regional "Communities of Development."
The Centers function as intermediary organizations, offering a wide array of services to the microenterprise sector. They help individuals seeking to launch or expand microscale business activities identify sources of credit and prepare funding proposals. They offer training and counsel in business skills, including workshops on how to create a new enterprise. They also provide assistance on legal and technical issues that microenterprises commonly confront and conduct research on markets for the goods and services that they produce.
In addition to the services traditionally supplied by intermediary organizations, the Centers encourage microentrepreneurs to learn from one another and to develop other mutually beneficial collaborative arrangements. Each of the eleven centers now in existence contains a meeting area, where microentrepreneurs gather to share experiences, discuss common problems and frustrations, and brainstorm collective initiatives. The Centers also organize "community encounters," with the aim of enlisting additional community resources in efforts to strengthen and expand the microenterprise sector. And they provide access to an electronic database that Rodrigo has developed to facilitate interregional communication, contact sharing and know-how transfer.
Somewhat incongruously in light of its name ("Work for a Brother"), well over half of the production units that the Work network and its constituent Centers serve are run by women. In addition to coping with the problems that their male counterparts confront, female microentrepreneurs face a further set of challenges, including various forms of discrimination based on sex, child-care responsibilities and (on average) weaker educational backgrounds and job-related skills. For many of these women, self-employment (e.g., as a seamstress, crafts producer or supplier of bakery products) is a first venture into the labor market. Recognizing these special circumstances and needs, the Centers have organized several "women only" gatherings, which provide opportunities for discussions of various "women's issues" in addition to the usual "shop talk."
Looking outward to the broader arenas of public opinion, philanthropy and national policy, Rodrigo and his colleagues are working to develop a more supportive climate for Chile's microenterprise sector. In collaboration with other nonprofit organizations and the national government's Fund for Solidarity and Social Investment, Work for a Brother is engaged in a media campaign to heighten public awareness of the microenterprise sector and its economic and social roles. Building on that endeavor, Rodrigo is encouraging large private enterprises to provide financial support for their microscale "cousins." He is also pressing for a "national development plan" for the sector, which would document the important role that it is currently playing and set forth a long-term vision and strategy for expanding its contributions to the national economy. And through Work, he is engaged in a lobbying effort aimed at the enactment of new legislation to stimulate the microenterprise sector's growth and to protect the rights of its workers.

The Person

Now in his early 40s, Rodrigo was born and raised in Santiago. Participation in Boy Scout activities gave him an early lesson in the importance of community service, and the presidency of a student organization in his secondary school provided him an early opportunity to hone his leadership skills.
Rodrigo pursued studies in business administration at the Catholic University of Valparaíso, where he received a degree in commercial engineering in 1978. He then worked for a few years in the private sector (including a stint as sales manager in a firm that introduced processed turkey into the Chilean market).
Rodrigo soon recognized, however, that his "true calling" was to work as an entrepreneur for social, rather than money-making, causes. Accordingly, in 1983, he accepted a post as the financial, budget and accounting director of an organization that operates homes and hospices for elderly and terminally ill people. In that assignment, he developed the first computerized program for budget control in Chile's nonprofit sector. He subsequently headed a project, "Network of the Sea," that distributed canned fish to malnourished families and gained considerable national attention. In 1987, Rodrigo moved to Work for a Brother, where he served initially as coordinator of its microenterprise program and is now its executive director.
Drawing on his experience at Work, Rodrigo has served as a consultant to the InterAmerican Foundation and to organizations in Paraguay and Brazil that are engaged in similar pursuits. He has participated in a study program organized by the Pratt Institute and the Ford Foundation that exposed him to the work of community development corporations in the United States. He has also accepted an appointment as coordinator of the "popular economy" team of the National Council for Overcoming Poverty, a recently established Presidential commission.
Rodrigo's "extracurricular" activities reflect his deep commitment to community service and social causes. He has taken the lead in building a community center and kindergarten near his home in Peñalolen, a "settler community" founded by a group of conservationists who pooled funds to purchase land at the base of the Andes mountains, where they have established a way of living that does not depend on electricity. He is also a director of two nonprofit groups dedicated to preserving Chile's native forests and a member of the Peace and Justice Commission of the Chilean Episcopal Conference.