Greta Ríos defines herself as an introvert. Since childhood she didn’t like being in the spotlight. But an experience at school changed her mind and her life. Today, Ashoka Fellow from Mexico, Greta is leading thousands of young people towards a more active political and civic participation. As is the case for most great leaders, finding her own power in her teens made all the difference.
Greta grew up as a shy teen, who did not enjoy public speaking. But during high school she was invited to participate in Model United Nations (Model UN). It was the first experience where she had to use her skills to solve the world’s biggest problems and practice getting over her fear of public speaking for a cause bigger than herself. Her first Model UN was a success and she received congratulations from peers she had never met during school. She was hooked. By 17, she led the student group that coordinated Model UN at her school.
In parallel, her parents had played an active role in developing her empathy from an early age, and to take action and help others when needed. In 1985, when Greta was just 2 years old, Mexico City suffered the greatest earthquake in the country’s history. Although she does not remember it, she relates how the earthquake profoundly impacted the way she perceived the world: she knew from an early age about how fragile human life is, and from the recovery efforts she learned the power of people working together to make positive change.
But it was moving into university at 18 that Greta discovered a great opportunity. Her university did not have any student groups working to solve societal problems, and based on her experience at high school she knew this was critical. Greta knew from experience that the flexible nature of Model UN provided a channel for young people to take charge so she created a peer group to organize Model UN for students in her university and others in the country. As it was something completely new for her university, Greta had the opportunity to shape every rule and goal of the group according to her criteria and preferences from the very beginning. For example, no teachers or school authorities had any voice in the team’s decisions, which were 100 percent made by students.
What had started as a bold idea to challenge her own introvertedness soon became a huge revolution for the school: 300 students took part in the first simulation which was a success and was followed by over 50 Model UN conferences she organized together with her team in the following years. As the first Model UN and the chance to lead had changed her, the same happened for thousands of peers who had the unique opportunity to exercise collaborative leadership and self-identify as changemakers as they tackled the world’s most pressing issues.
Model UN “became the most important thing I was doing”, Greta says. Everything else, including classes and exams, was subordinate to her passion to help other young people become aware of the world’s problems and practice their own creativity to solve them.
Today, as a social entrepreneur, Greta continues to pursue her vision of helping all youth become leaders in Mexico’s society and especially in public policy through Ollin, the organization she founded 5 years ago. Mexico’s youth population is around 31 million, and Ollin is making sure they can have a voice and decide the country’s future before this “demographic bonus” ends in a few years. Her organization’s framework for action follows what she learned within Model UN, as it is based in research, positioning and mobilizing for policy reform. Every day of the year, Greta is surrounded by great young changemakers, whose stories are shared in Ollin’s social networks and newsletters. As she learned in her youth, she knows that in today’s changing world it is more essential than ever for young people to lead and be recognised as changemakers.