In August 2021, I helped convene an all-day retreat at a donor’s home. During the day, my colleagues and I helped facilitate discussions designed to engage our constituents in a meaningful dialogue on what Miller Center has done and is prepared to do to advance our mission to end global poverty and protect the planet.
During one of the breakout sessions, the co-founder of one of our most successful and impactful social enterprise partners and a member of our Social Enterprise Advisory Council asked me what seemed at the time an innocuous question. He asked if I had ever visited any of the social entrepreneurs we work with. I said no. He asked if I had ever been to any of the communities they support. I said no. He asked me why not. I said that it hadn’t been a priority. I reminded him that I was born in a small industrial town in the northeast corner of Ohio, where many of my neighbors lived in abject poverty. So, I recognize all too well what poverty looks like and what happens when structural systems of oppression are focused on a vulnerable group. I shared that part of what drives me to work the hours I do to support causes that eliminate poverty and protect the planet is my deep resonance with the people and communities impacted by them both. For me, these aren’t abstract ideas; there are faces and names of real people that influence my drive to do this work.
Nevertheless, as we continued our conversation, it became clear that even though I could recognize poverty, my ability to relate viscerally to the vulnerable communities impacted by our work will only be served by engaging with and immersing myself in their struggle. I needed new faces and names to make this work real.
So, as we wrapped up our conversation, I committed. I would join one of Miller Center’s immersion trips to the communities with whom our social enterprise partners work. And I would do so, not because I haven’t seen or don’t recognize poverty, but because I believe that my professional mission to connect people with a passion for helping and uplifting the poor, the disaffected, the marginalized, and the planet will be served positively by the cumulative efforts of those who are committed to making it a more equitable place.
Taking this invitation to heart, my colleagues and I began planning a Miller Center immersion trip to Mexico City in June 2022 — slated for departure the last week of January 2023 — to visit Miller Center’s key customers, our social enterprise partners, and the communities they serve.
Day One: Impressions of Mexico City
Mexico City is a six-hour flight from San Francisco and, at first glance, may appear as though it is a world away. But appearances can be deceiving. Mexico City is a city of contrasts. From the painted vistas of Polanco, the historical and cultural significance of the pyramids in Teotihuacan, to the slums of Neza, the city is home to more billionaires than anywhere else in Latin America. It supports a genuinely burgeoning middle class — fueled in no small part by a dynamic entrepreneurial landscape made manifest by years of investment in small business infrastructure, policy, and pedagogy. Mexico’s many fine academic institutions drive the latter.
Moreover, what is evident when walking the streets of Mexico City is a pervasive spirit of entrepreneurialism. Unlike the way poverty plays out in many US cities — compounded by the dual diagnoses of mental health and drug abuse disorders — people living in poverty in Mexico City appear to spend their days sweeping the streets of the city, hocking crafts and snacks, or performing melancholic ditties for charmed couples at quaint, street side cafes. In short, Mexico City has hustle.
Day Two: Artisanal Flavors
The region of Puebla is home to the community of Naupan, where local artisans have honed their exceptional embroidery skills and other forms of needlework over many generations. Miller Center alum Someone Somewhere honors the exquisite mastery of these artisans in collaboration with Mexican designers to create high-quality clothing, bags, and accessories. The people of Naupan are proud, kind, and direct. Someone Somewhere has established a unique rapport with them that is providing dividends in real terms by paying the artisans at twice the regional average and helping to bring a new level of fortune and pride to the women of this small community.
So much of what makes these trips meaningful is the people who attend. The willingness to be vulnerable, the genuine desire to learn new things about people, and the patience to adapt to circumstances that inevitably result in delays all provide ample indicators of whether participation in immersions specifically (and travel broadly) are a fit. For my part, I found deep resonance with all of the guests of the immersion — as each of these situations provided time and context to explore how people of all stripes resolve and transcend life’s hiccups.
Day Three: Solar is SO Hot Right Now
Located in a historic community on the outskirts of Mexico City is the headquarters and warehouse of Illumexico, a dynamic and innovative social enterprise that is bringing off-grid pay-as-you-go solar solutions for rural communities in Mexico, Brazil, and the Navajo Nation in the US. Ilumexico is a bustling example of how to negotiate the real-world challenges (and opportunities) of public/private partnerships in developing solutions for vulnerable communities.
We spent the day with Ilumexico’s CEO exploring the business and technical operations of one of Mexico’s most innovative social enterprises. The tour of their factory, where they assemble, program, and ship their innovative last-mile solar solutions, and the afternoon spent eating ice-cold frozen fruit bars in a demo space located on their campus — fully powered by their solar solution — was a keen reminder that time-tested business principles tempered by a commitment to doing good for the community can and do make a difference.
Day Four: Exploring M&As
In October 2020, Extensio and Acceso merged — a relatively uncommon occurrence in the social enterprise sector — to create a powerful new entity that generated over $15 million (USD) in revenue last year. Extensio/Acceso uses WhatsApp/SMS to provide an innovative technology solution that communicates real-time weather forecasts to rural smallholder farmers in Latin America and the Caribbean. The social enterprise supplies farmers and field engineers with weather and pest alerts, agricultural best practices, and value chain information in local languages.
Our day meeting with Extensio was an endearing reminder of the power of diversity. There was a moment when Extensio founder Diana Popa, who had brought both her husband and their newborn baby boy, began nuzzling and soothing him while presenting the finer aspects of mergers and acquisitions. Diana transitioned between breastfeeding her son and sharing the justifications for merging and evolving her role with complete clarity and alacrity — further proof that nurturing leadership is indeed a viable model for business success.
Day Five: Puebla Redux
On day five, we returned to the region of Puebla to visit the team at Sistema.bio. Their biodigester solution takes manure from dairy cattle and generates high-grade organic fertilizer and a clean burning fuel that can be used, bartered, or sold by rural farmers. As we wrapped up the presentation on their business model, we jumped into the van and drove the short distance to the dairy farm of one of Sistema.bios customers, located on the outskirts of Puebla.
Enrique took our group on a tour of his farm and shared how he is implementing the solution and how much money he is saving by no longer paying for fertilizer and fuel for heating and gas stoves. Enrique has developed a solid economic position using this technology and is working to establish multi-generational wealth as a result.
Using Sistema.bio’s biodigester technology, Enrique is making a difference for his business and his family. His story of turning cow manure into profits for a more sustainable future is a keen reminder that pursuing what’s good for the planet can also be good for your bottom line.
Day Six: Art You Glad to Be Here?
One simply cannot visit Mexico City without paying homage to Mexico City’s first daughter of indigenous and realism artistic expression — the Frida Kahlo museum in the Colonia del Carmen neighborhood of Coyoacan in Mexico City. This walking tour of Kahlo’s residence, which she shared with unlikely playboy and one-time husband, Diego Rivera, is a deeply personal immersion into her art, politics, family, love life, and battles with addiction and mental and physical health.
Moreover, the museum is just a block and a half away from the weekly bazaar for artists and artisans housed in Allende Garden and the neighboring Mercado de Coyoacan. The latter has been in operation since 1921, and we perused its two floors of food stalls, art, apparel, and souvenirs, and sampled Mexican delicacies, including regional favorite, chapulines (toasted grasshoppers) — editor’s note: they taste like beer nuts — to our heart’s, wallet’s, and stomach’s content.
Day Seven: Hasta Luego
You can learn much about a place and its people by checking out their airports. Spending a week in and around Mexico City reinforced my initial impression of Mexico City and its people. The airport is clean, efficient, and, unsurprisingly, full of opportunities to sample local wares and cuisine. It also offers many of the same fine dining and refreshment establishments you would expect at any western airport. And as I left the terminal and boarded the plane for my six-hour flight back to SFO, that initial impression was set — Mexico City is vibrant, entrepreneurial, innovative, and clean. In short, yeah, Mexico City has hustle.