I see entrepreneurship, and particularly the Polymath company builder model, as a beacon of light, a truly meritocratic and honest economic unit operating outside of the crony capitalist system.
There are two reasons that I joined Polymath Ventures. The first is a desire to build meaningful companies from the ground up. After spending 8 years making PowerPoints and sales calls at banks and consulting firms I wanted to actually create things. The second reason, which I will focus on here, is a belief that entrepreneurship can create significant positive social impact in emerging markets.
The economic systems of Colombia, and Latin America, in general, are dominated by crony capitalism. The stark reality is that in the traditional economy connections tend to be more important than ability, work ethic or values. I believe that entrepreneurship, and particularly the Polymath company builder model which focuses on the middle class, is an important agent of change.
Entrepreneurship in its purest form is the anti-crony capitalism – meritocratic, innovative and subject to the laws of evolution. The current economic system in Latin America will never be able to truly solve the violence and poverty that plague countries from Mexico to Paraguay. Only by pushing these economies to become more innovative, more inclusive and more meritocratic; essentially adopting entrepreneurial principles; can we create a system that gives citizens of these countries a fair shot at reaching their potential.
Colombia has achieved astonishing success over the past 10 years, transforming from what many considered a failed state into a beacon of success in the region:
- Breakneck economic growth, which averaged 4.6% from 2006-2015 according to the World Bank, reduced poverty and led to a significant rise in the middle class.
- Between 2001 and 2014 the share of the population living in poverty more than halved, from 60% to 29%, and the middle class more than doubled, increasing as a share of the population from 11.3% to 29.6%.
- A peace deal with the FARC has finally brought the longest-lasting civil war to an end.
Colombians should be very proud of how far they have come, but despite these gains, inequality remains extreme (Colombia has one of the worst GINI coefficients in the world), crime remains high and much of the middle class remains vulnerable to falling back into poverty.
The economy remains dependent on the extraction and export of natural resources, which is not sustainable in the long-run. Colombia needs a new wave of economic growth based on diversification of the economy and innovation in order to continue the momentum built over the last decade, and I believe entrepreneurship has a very important role to play. The entrenched economic players have very little incentive to change or innovate. Why try something new or improve your products and services when your competition is weak, the government protects your interests and the status quo is insanely profitable for you?
Entrepreneurs will drive innovation and economic diversification because they are dreamers who push for a better world, and they will do it the way they always do; through hard work, passion, grit, creativity and fearlessness; and perhaps most importantly, they will be meritocratic and inclusive, because to entrepreneurs, ability, and results, not family names, mean the most.
I have seen first-hand how entrepreneurship is leading Latin America forward.
Aflore is a great example of how entrepreneurship can disrupt an industry and create significant positive social impact. The financial services giants in Colombia could not figure out how to lend money to the lower-middle class.
Aflore, a Polymath Ventures company launched in 2014, has been able to crack the nut by leveraging the trust of existing relationships in lower-middle class communities to offer financial products. Aflore has been wildly successful, with a default rate of < 1.5% and loan growth of 20%+ per month. By daring to serve a population that the banks turned their backs on and by creating an innovative new channel for financial products, Aflore has unlocked critical credit to this underserved population. Taking on the status quo is never easy, especially when the incumbents are willing to fight dirty, which they often are.
Lentesplus, a contact lens e-commerce startup, found itself in such a fight when it tried to innovate in the sector by offering same-day delivery of contact lenses at significantly reduced prices. The optometrists, of course, can’t compete with this value proposition, so they fought tooth and nail to protect their market dominance, and they fought dirty. Thanks to the incredible determination of Lentesplus’ founders, they were able to prevail. The ministry of commerce levied a hefty fine against the optometrists and ordered them to cease their anti-competitive practices. Thanks to the ingenuity and grit of Lentesplus, millions will have access to quality eye care that they couldn’t afford before.
I believe the entrepreneurs will continue to win these fights and that they will lead the next phase of growth and progress in Latin America. They will win thanks to hard work, passion, grit, creativity, and fearlessness that cannot be matched by the incumbents. This is crucial for Latin America’s development and this is why I joined at Polymath Ventures.