Corruption is a widely accepted fact of life today in Mexico, which keeps it from unleashing its economic growth potential. But Mexico is not just about public figures' behind-the-curtains shenanigans and shady deals. It's also about visionary entrepreneurs and a start-up scene that slowly but surely emerges as a rival to Silicon Valley.
Since I prefer to see the glass half full, here are a few Mexican entrepreneurs who strive to make this world a better place.
Bringing the 'e' to 'e-learning'
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, roughly 19% of 15- to 19-year-old Mexicans are neither in education or employment, rising to 30% for 25- to 29-year-olds. On top of that, nearly 70% of the population has no access to computers or the Internet.
Moís Cherem Arana, along with his partners, Jorge Camil and Raúl Maldonado, are determined to fill the educational and information-technology gaps in the country, by bringing technology-based learning to underprivileged communities.
In 2007, they founded Enova, an independent organization focused on e-learning and digital inclusion. Enova designs, builds, and operates educational centers called RIA or Red de Innovación y Aprendizaje, which are strategically located in the most densely populated, low-income areas in Mexico. These innovative centers provide children, youth, and adults with access to digital learning coupled with the support of on-site facilitators.
In 2009, Enova ramped up 50 million pesos in funds from government, private charity, and corporate sources, including Google (NASDAQ: GOOG ) , Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT ) , and Dell (NASDAQ: DELL ) . It used the money to expand the RIA network -- today, there are more than 70 centers across 34 municipalities, as well as 25 digital libraries equipped with audio books, computers, and tablets. The Spanish edition of the MIT Technology Review has awarded Camil a prize for best innovator under 35.In April, Cherem Arana was named a Social Entrepreneur of the Year at the World Economic Forum on Latin America in Peru. The RIA project was singled out as "one of the social undertakings of greatest impact in the world."
Enova's ultimate goal is "to create a network of hotspots that trigger social change." It's already doing exactly that.
Saving energy and money
"I saw an opportunity to help Mexicans save energy in a cheap and sustainable way," says Enrique Gomez-Junco, founder of Optima Energia, one of the not so many energy-savings companies in the country.
Based in Santa Catarina, Optima Energia helps domestic businesses shave around 40% off their energy and water costs by designing and implementing efficient and complete technical solutions. The frosting on the cake is that Optima does not require an upfront payment for its services. It uses financing from development banks to fund its projects, including the International Finance Corp., a member of the World Bank Group. Customers pay Optima from a portion of their energy savings over a 10-year period.
Last year, the CFI.co judging panel unanimously declared Optima the winner of its annual "Best Sustainable Energy" award.Also, Bloomberg has mentioned that Gomez-Junco plans to take the company public as demand for energy efficiency is steadily increasing.
Since its founding, Optima reports that it has saved its clients 14 million cubic meters of potable water, 217 million kilowatts of electricity, and 38 million liters of liquified gas, which translate into almost $18 million.
Solving real-world problems
José Rodríguez, Marisol Contreras, and Antonio Bojorges put their engineering and architecture expertise to good use and endeavor to solve real-world problems such as climate change. They founded Modebo, a company that designs energy-monitoring devices communicated with complex algorithms to predict temperature behavior and energy consumption.
Last year, Modebo was one of the five finalists in the IBM Smart Camp in Mexico, a huge networking event that gathers technology startups, promising entrepreneurs, industry experts, and investors from around the world. It also won the 2012 Startup World pitch competition held in Mexico City for the best start-up technology.
Helping small shopkeepers
Marcos Eshkenazi is a small business expert and a restless visionary, always looking for ways to change people's lives. So far, he has founded and launched more than 15 businesses such as Digital City, Avizpate.com, and Chikabum.com.
Marcos is currently calling the shots at Frogtek, a for-profit social venture that gives small shopkeepers in Latin America a much-needed shot in the arm. Frogtek helps micro entrepreneurs, who usually don't have the appropriate tools to run their stores to their full potential. The firm's key product is Tiendatek, a point-of-sale software application that enables users to manage and control their inventories while generating real-time personalized analysis. Frogtek operates mainly in Columbia and Mexico and has been included in Kiva.org's list of non-traditional partners allowing small businessmen to get financing from all over the world.
The two entrepreneurs help companies reduce cost per client contact and connect with consumers 24/7 by automating communications through several digital channels such as SMS, computers, and social networks.
A few months ago, BlueMessaging released AdChat, a feature that enables consumers to engage in natural dialogue with brand and product support, while also boosting sales by generating discounts and promotions based on specific queries."By being always on and relevant, consumers remain engaged through the customer decision journey," Vera says. The company has received numerous awards from international institutions, including the U.S. Mobile Marketing Association.
Mexico is planting the seeds for a world-class culture of technology entrepreneurship. Cash raised from venture capital funds by start-ups in the country more than doubled in 2012 ($1 billion) compared to 2011 ($470 million).The National Institute of the Entrepreneur (INADEM) gives young entrepreneurs access to funding programs, among other initiatives. And the International Finance Corp., in association with Mexico's Instituto PYME, support the "SME Toolkit," a program that offers business management information and training to small and medium-sized enterprises.
Even so, Mexico still faces uphill battles before it can put itself on the map as a reliable and safe place to do business. But these entrepreneurs, and others like them, provide a sense that there is plenty of hope for Mexico and its start-up business community.
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