The best countries to be a social entrepreneur 2019

After a violent past, Colombia's Medellin emerges as a hotspot for businesses doing good

by Anastasia Moloney

MEDELLIN, Colombia, Oct 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Growing up in a gang-ridden hillside slum in Colombia's second city of Medellin, Bryan Estiven Carmona knew becoming a street drug dealer was far more likely than getting a decent job.

"The idea of earning a quick, easy buck by working for the gangs is a common problem where I live. The temptation is always there," said 21-year-old Carmona.

Yet against the odds, Carmona landed a job last year as a software tester with Arbusta, an Argentine tech company that does social good and has a regional office in Medellin, a city of 2.5 million people once known as the world's murder capital.

He is one of about 30 young men and women hired by Arbusta, which aims to give jobs to unemployed people from poor backgrounds, with no work experience or university education.

Arbusta and 80 other companies, including local and foreign social enterprises, have set up shop at Ruta N, a government-funded innovation centre in Medellin founded in 2008.

Since then Ruta N has emerged as a leading hub for social entrepreneurship in Medellin and across Latin America, making the city one of world's hot spots for social entrepreneurs according to a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll on Tuesday.

"Here there's significant political will to drive social innovation and entrepreneurship," said Maria Ines Londono, Arbusta country manager. "Ruta N is an oasis in the midst of difficult neighbourhoods."

The Thomson Reuters Foundation's second global poll of experts on the best countries for social entrepreneurs, supported by Deutsche Bank, found Medellin among the top four city hot spots for business leaders seeking to do good.

The three others were Berlin, London, and Santiago.

In the inaugural poll in 2016, experts named Berlin, London, Hong Kong, and Santiago as the global city hot spots.       


It is a big turnaround for Medellin, the epicenter of Colombia's drug wars of the 1980s.

"We've had to become resilient and work together to move the city forward, which creates a conducive environment for entrepreneurship," said Alejandro Franco, head of Ruta N, sitting in a co-working place in the leafy covered building.

Scattered across a warren of slum areas are numerous examples of Medellin's social innovation, driven by consecutive mayors over the past two decades and funded by city hall.

New schools, public libraries, open-air gyms and landscaped parks have been built in once once-neglected, no-go slum areas.

Medellin's much copied cable car transport system ferries residents up and down hillsides, connecting slum dwellers with the rest of the city in a quick and affordable way.

Social entrepreneur Matt Alexander, who co-founded Suyo, which uses technology to help poor families formalize their land and property titles, said the city's tradition of innovation and entrepreneurship were key reasons why his U.S. company decided to choose Medellin as its international headquarters.

"We wanted to be in an environment where public officials and others were accustomed to pushing the envelope in terms of thinking of new solutions for old problems," he said.

Ruta N has supported dozens of social and tech businesses over the past decade by offering free mentoring opportunities and workshops on finance and technology, and help with access to funding and low-interest loans.

"Ruta N is a hub that allows you to connect. It helps being under one roof," said Andres Castellon, finance director at likeU, a Colombian outsourcing and call centre business that  employs women and single mothers from poor neighbourhoods.

While Medellin fared well in the poll as a hot spot, Colombia's overall ranking in the list of best countries for social entrepreneurs dropped 25 places from three years ago to 39 out of 43 countries.

In Colombia, social enterprise is a relatively new concept, emerging about five years ago, and many businesses have set up in an informal way without government support, experts said.

Colombia does not define social enterprises by law as businesses with specific legal and tax treatment.

Paula Zapata, who heads the Medellin mayor's office for economic development, said the city's violent past had led to a tradition of the public sector, mayor, business leaders and universities coming together to solve social problems.

This has forged an environment where social entrepreneurs can build partnerships with local government and academia.

"In the midst of adversity is when creativity emerges, it is when social innovation is born," Zapata said. 

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith
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