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Growing up in a gang-ridden hillside slum in Colombia’s second city of Medellin, Bryan Estiven Carmona knew becoming a street drug dealer was far more likely than getting a decent job.
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“The idea of earning a quick, easy buck by working for the gangs is a common problem where I live. The temptation is always there,” said 21-year-old Carmona.
Yet against the odds, Carmona landed a job last year as a software tester with the Medellin office of Arbusta, an Argentine tech company that does social good.
He is one of about 30 young men and women hired by Arbusta, which aims to give jobs to unemployed people from poor backgrounds, with no work experience or university education.
Arbusta and 80 other companies, including local and foreign social enterprises, have set up shop at Ruta N, a government-funded innovation center in the city of 2.5 million people once known as the world’s murder capital.
Since then Ruta N has emerged as a leading hub for social entrepreneurship in Latin America, making the city one of world’s hot spots for social entrepreneurs according to a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll on Tuesday.
“Here there’s significant political will to drive social innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Maria Ines Londono, Arbusta country manager. “Ruta N is an oasis in the midst of difficult neighborhoods.”
The Thomson Reuters Foundation’s second global poll of experts on the best countries for social entrepreneurs, supported by Deutsche Bank, found Medellin among the top four city hot spots for business leaders seeking to do good.
The three others were Berlin, London, and Santiago.
In the inaugural poll in 2016, experts named Berlin, London, Hong Kong, and Santiago as the global city hot spots.
It is a big turnaround for Medellin, the epicenter of Colombia’s drug wars of the 1980s.
“We’ve had to become resilient and work together to move the city forward, which creates a conducive environment for entrepreneurship,” said Alejandro Franco, head of Ruta N, sitting in a co-working place in the building.
Scattered across a warren of slum areas are numerous examples of Medellin’s social innovation, driven by consecutive mayors over the past two decades and funded by city hall.
New schools, public libraries, open-air gyms and landscaped parks have been built in once once-neglected, no-go slum areas.
Medellin’s much copied cable car transport system ferries residents up and down hillsides, connecting slum dwellers with the rest of the city in a quick and affordable way.
Social entrepreneur Matt Alexander said Medellin’s tradition of innovation and entrepreneurship were key reasons for locating his U.S. company’s international headquarters there.
“We wanted to be in an environment where public officials and others were accustomed to pushing the envelope in terms of thinking of new solutions for old problems,” said the co-founder of Suyo, which uses technology to help poor families formalize their land and property titles.
Ruta N has supported dozens of social and tech businesses over the past decade by offering free mentoring opportunities and workshops on finance and technology, and help with access to funding and low-interest loans.
“Ruta N is a hub that allows you to connect. It helps being under one roof,” said Andres Castellon, finance director at likeU, a Colombian outsourcing and call center business that employs women and single mothers from poor neighborhoods.
While Medellin fared well in the poll as a hot spot, Colombia’s overall ranking in the list of best countries for social entrepreneurs dropped 25 places from three years ago to 39 out of 43 countries.
In Colombia, social enterprise is a relatively new concept, emerging about five years ago. Experts said many businesses had set up in an informal way without government support.
Colombia does not define social enterprises by law as businesses with specific legal and tax treatment.
Paula Zapata, who heads the Medellin mayor’s office for economic development, said the city’s violent past had led to a tradition of the public sector, mayor, business leaders and universities coming together to solve social problems.
This has forged an environment where social entrepreneurs can build partnerships with local government and academia.
“In the midst of adversity is when creativity emerges, it is when social innovation is born,” Zapata said.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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