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Changing the world: one social entrepreneur at a time. A few notes on the 2018 Echoing Green All Fellows Conference

Catalina Rojas

October 18, 2018

It so happens that Echoing Green choose Medellin to be the host city in which they convened all of their 2018 fellows. PCDNetwork was lucky enough to be able a participant during the open day. Below are a few key observations after hanging for one whole day with this extraordinary group of people.

I was totally expecting the fancy hotel, but I was also expecting that while the meeting happened in a particular city (in this case Medellin, Colombia); the conversations, and the essence of the discussion will be somewhere else. I am happy to report that I was very very wrong (not about the fancy hotel though). From the opening statement, to the keynote, to moderators and special discussions, Medellin was embedded in most discussions.

Colombian's Carolina Suarez and Virgilio Barco discussing peacebuilding and cross-sector leadership with Echoingreen president Cheryl L. Dorsey.

Medellin was not a convenient location in which to bring all fellows and talk about their projects elsewhere. Medellin was an active participant, with its (problematic) history; its amazing revival and its current and very difficult challenges. I am deeply impressed with Echoing Green for including Medellin as an active participant in the discussions and topics. Actions speak louder than words.  


For those of you who don’t know what Echoing Green is let me give you the elevator pitch. Echoing Green is in the business of creating solutions to the world’s pressing problems by investing in social innovators leaders and their ideas. And they are NOT the new kids on the block, they have been in business for the past 30 years.

So now you know what Echoingreen, let's get back to the 2018 all fellows conference. Unlike the rest of the days where the fellows had closed sessions, they had one day to interact with other social innovators and leaders in Medellin.  Here is a breakout of the stuffed I loved, what I learned (and certainly need to keep learning) and questions for the future.

Stuff I loved

Santiago Uribe, Medellin Chief Resilience Officer moderating a discussion on Sustainable Development and Climate Change.

Apart from grounding most discussions in the realities of Medellin, having meaningful moderators and social innovators from the city and Colombia as well, the day was a nice balance of plenary and small discussions. The common thread was less on top-down lectures and more on conversations across the various different tables. A very horizontal and lively discussion and I felt like I could have interviewed each and everyone of them for Facebook lives or the podcast I host. Everyone had an amazing background and idea they are working on.

Stuff I learned

I am personally not trained in MBA stuff, finance and microeconomics. There was substantial discussions and topics that touched  on finance; from differentiating between personal and commercial debt, to understanding the difference between debt and equity, to financial software, to access to capitals, etc. While there is no time to go in depth I certainly identified I need to increase my financial capacity and this is why fellowships like Echoing Green and others are so important.   If you have a brilliant idea but you feel you lack those “real world”, concrete skills to take you from idea to product; fellowships like Echoing Green are a perfect way to close these gaps. Fellowships, MOOCs, in today’s world there is very little room for excuses. If you want to do something, if you need to learn something, just start learning. Just because I have almost three decades working in the social change field, in various roles including as a researcher, a teacher, in management positions, doesn’t mean I don’t need to keep learning. This leads me to the questions that came up from participating in the event.

Questions for the future

The event is embedded in the ecosystem of social innovation where the main actors are entrepreneurs and their companies. Part of me felt a bit like an intruder.  Kind of like a spaceship from a nearby galaxy that made an emergency landing in a similar planet. I speak fluent non-governmental organization, I also speak Development, Humanitarian, Conflict Resolution and I have many decades of thinking about and working with communities. I chose to attend the small group discussions yesterday that were focused on investing in communities. As someone who comes from “other planet” so to speak I was surprised of how the participants refer mostly of a universe where social enterprises and entrepreneurs live. More than a critique, every field does it. If you attend a Development conference, they use their lingo and so on and so forth. But I wished that we could have had  more of an exchange in which social innovator leaders, NGO leaders, community leaders would exchange and learn from one another. Here. I’m not a fan of binary juxtapositions in which I say one thing is better than another. If anything, I’m a bit more biased in favor of this relatively new world of social innovators which I believe could help bring oxygen to the very exhausted model of financial sustainability in the NGO space. But at the same time, NGOs and CBOs that have been in the social space for SO long have very effective and sophisticated methods for working with communities and more recently for measuring and monitoring their impact and striving to ensure their work doesn't do harm.  

I recently read an article that argued that social innovation does not often produce social change. I must confess the article haunts me more than any Halloween monster, but here is what I know. The more we truly embrace and learn from how we do work, the better. I personally have a lot to learn about the entrepreneurial mindset. I have now this idea of a dialogue between social innovators and NGO leaders where they learn from each other’s toolboxes and I have Echoing Green to thank because for me it was time well spent where I left the conference more inspired than when I entered.


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