Nestled between mountains on all sides, in a place known as Valley of the Dammed, lies Mexico City.
We are now halfway into our nine month journey from Alaska to Argentina, and entering Latin America has marked an entirely new phase.
Everything feels different. Around us, the streets are filled with a language we are still learning to speak. Simple things – getting around, buying food – require a degree of mental engagement they usually do not. Counting out unfamiliar coins at the supermarket till, navigating a bustling city of 20 million people, even crossing the road in a country where cars drive on the opposite site of the road – still require a focus which feels unfamiliar. Home feels very far away.
However, after three weeks here, we are adjusting to our new surroundings. With that has come a renewed capacity to appreciate this extraordinary country we find ourselves in.
One doesn’t simply visit Mexico City. One experiences it. Your skin feels different, because the high altitude keeps the days cooler and drier than on the coast. Stalls selling tacos and tortillas – all mosaicked in marinated meats, meticulously chopped onions, and fiery salsas – fill our mouths and nostrils with scents and tastes heavy with unfamiliar flavours. Our eyes struggle to drink in the colours and splendid architecture of the city. By day, our ears rumble with the noise of traffic, mariachi music and blaring horns. At night, the barking of local dogs and voices of evening revellers take their place.
It’s a potent cocktail, and already Mexico has stolen part of our hearts.
The pounding energy which is the lifeblood of this city has given life to a thriving entrepreneurial community. In a country and city which face enormous social and environmental challenges, entrepreneurs have taken it upon themselves to deliver market-based solutions to these problems.
Impact Hub, based in the city’s hip La Roma district, provides a dynamic and nurturing environment for such businesses. Its passionate MD, Araceli Campos, spoke animatedly with us about the sense of collaboration in Mexico City’s social enterprise community. The co-working space embodies this – expansive, open and filled with natural light, it is a physical manifestation of the Hub’s commitment to the power of transparency and shared ideas.
Harvard Business School alumnus, Pato Bichara, is one of the entrepreneurs growing a business in this space. Committed to investing in his country’s future, Bichara chose to return to Mexico to build his business (an ambitious education company called Collective Academy) after completing his MBA in the US – he’s passionate about encouraging others to do the same. Collective Academy seeks to tackle the inabilities of the current higher education system to adequately prepare young people for the modern job market by delivering programmes which provide relevant, high quality and affordable education to students.
From higher education programmes, which develop the skills of Mexico’s entrepreneurs, to organisations which deliver mentorship and advice on how to grow their businesses, there is a growing support network available in the city. Agora Partnerships, which operates in locations across Latin America, runs initiatives such as an accelerator to provide in-depth support and networking to high-potential, early-stage companies tackling social and environmental issues.
Mexico City not only provides impressive levels of support for its entrepreneurs, but it also presents them with an enormous sense of possibility.
The potential of the Mexican market is enormous, and Mexico City’s entrepreneurs are building businesses based on a deep understanding of what consumers need. It is incredibly exciting to see. Far from the tendency of external companies, which may seek to dictate to the local market, the city’s entrepreneurs are taking their cues from consumers and turning this model on its head. It not only empowers consumers, but also makes excellent business sense as products are tailored exactly to consumers’ needs.
At Wayra Mexico City (part of Telefonica’s accelerator network), we met the co-founders of two start-ups who embody this approach. SomosFut has developed a platform to help digitise Mexico’s hugely popular non-professional football league. Capptu is helping major corporates to localise their advertising content by enabling them to buy images directly from Mexican amateur photographers.
In many respects, Mexico is blazing a trail – not just for emerging markets, but for the rest of the world. For example, where venture capital has traditionally been cautious in its approach to backing entrepreneurs in the developing world, a Mexican firm is leading the way in this regard. Venture Capital fund Ignia supports high growth enterprises that serve the base of the socio-economic pyramid in Mexico.
We have developed a real interest in the investment aspect of this world as, without the right financial backing, social entrepreneurs will be unable to successfully realise their potential. Our meeting with Ignia Principal Christine Kenna was pivotal in helping us to gain a deeper understanding of what is broadly called “impact investing”. Christine’s passion for Ignia’s work, and her belief in the impact it is making, struck us both. Ignia is blazing a trail where hopefully many others will follow.
Mexico’s entrepreneurial eco-system is as varied as its landscape. It presents enormous opportunities, but also huge challenges - bureaucracy and corruption were mentioned in particular when we spoke to entrepreneurs. On the one hand, this complicates the business landscape and acts as a significant barrier to entry for foreign businesses. Conversely, it also encourages partnerships with local entrepreneurs who are more adept at navigating the country’s often complex bureaucratic environment. Time will tell how significantly these obstacles will inhibit the progress both of Mexico’s entrepreneurs and the country’s economy.
We too have been tested by this land of vertiginous mountain ranges. It has reminded us that no long journey is ever smooth. That sometimes the road won’t rise up to meet us. That sometimes progress is measured in steps, not leaps. But often it is the road less travelled which offers the greatest reward.
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