…We need to first accept and then analyse our rigged systems to detect inefficiencies and rooted discrimination. Most of our systems today, pick any: our educational systems, social security systems, electrification systems, taxation systems… All were designed by a generation that no longer lives or for a world that no longer exists. Hence, it is necessary that we all start from the roots and ask ourselves the question of “What are the beliefs, norms and mental frameworks that sustain unfair systems that we tolerate today? What can we innovate to replace or revert inefficiencies and injustices that the systems perpetrate on a day to day basis?
As part of our series on ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Pablo Santaeufemia.
From Madrid, Spain, Pablo Santaeufemia is the co-founder and CEO of Bridge for Billions, an online ecosystem of entrepreneurship programs that connect early-stage entrepreneurs to growth opportunities worldwide. His mission is to democratize access to quality entrepreneurship training, mentoring, and business opportunities globally. Pablo’s social enterprise to date has supported more than 1,700 entrepreneurs from 70 countries and he has been recognized as a Forbes 30Under30 and Ashoka Fellow.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I come from a Spanish low-income, university-educated, but heavily unstable family-environment. My father passed away when my brother was 15 and I was 13 years old. My mother became our heroine, she was an atypical housewife with a law degree, no professional experience, and trilingual, but suddenly within 2 weeks after my father’s loss, she had to start working at the laundry service of a senior center in my town during the economic crisis in Spain where jobs were scarce. I was quite shy, innocent, and a very good student. However, spending my early-adolescence in a family with financial difficulties made me extremely responsible, resilient and self-aware. I matured quickly; I became an adult as a teenager, and this only fueled my hunger to learn, evolve and fight for what I believe in.
Thanks to my efforts in school and my mother’s support, at 16 I was selected to attend the United World College, an international high school in New Mexico on a full scholarship. There, with 200 students from 100 countries, I first discovered one of my truths: “talent is everywhere, opportunities are not”. Also there, I travelled the world while learning about my friends’ countries, political, and social situations without leaving the boarding school in New Mexico where overachieving students and continuous cultural celebrations were the norm. Social justice and international development became my life’s passion.
Then, several administrative errors in my school pushed me to take a gap year. However, thanks to this great fiasco, I had time to reflect on my life goals and learn very important life-lessons. I became a volunteer math teacher in poor and rural India where I was exposed to my students’ problems who were suffering malnutrition or domestic violence. 5 months later, I got another scholarship to study around the world aboard “The Scholar Ship,” a unique academic program run on a passenger cruise ship. We sailed from Hong Kong all the way to Amsterdam spending one week in each of the 9 ports we visited, while taking classes at local universities.
All these eye-opening experiences helped me develop the cultural sensitivity that I thought was needed to comprehend people’s struggles in order to one day design “solutions for all” as an engineer. At Brown University, I majored in Mechanical Engineering and studied Mandarin Chinese. There, I received a scholarship for an intensive summer language program and one year later I studied abroad in Beijing, studying mechanical engineering in Chinese at Tsinghua University. At Brown, I also enrolled in Engineers Without Borders to pursue my passion of “engineering for development”. During my undergraduate internships, I worked in engineering firms in Thailand and China. After graduation, I worked for a year at a British engineering firm in Shenzhen, China as a Mechanical Design Engineer. One year later, I got another scholarship to pursue two Master’s degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Technology Innovation Management at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
These two years were critical for my personal and professional development — it was during this time that I put all the pieces of my life puzzle together. I was convinced that a market-based approach, with local entrepreneurship and job creation at the core, was integral to alleviating poverty globally. At that time, I did my master’s internship at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization in Vienna where, once again, I confirmed that the entrepreneurship ecosystems of today are not meritocratic, efficient or inclusive, and systematically exclude low-income, women, rural and minority entrepreneurs. With this as my background, and having turned 24 years old, I started Bridge for Billions at Carnegie Mellon as my master’s capstone project. Over the course of 2 years I combined my main passions: international development, engineering systems, and entrepreneurship education with my own personal experience and I gathered a team of Carnegie Mellon students to work with me.
After graduation, unlike other wealthier classmates, I did not have access to investors or family connections. I could not sustain myself and my mother, who unfortunately had got fired because of a medical condition she developed due to the heavy physical activity she had to do in her job at a senior center during all the years that I was abroad. I came back to Spain 10 years later, and there, with no money, I launched our company. Since 2015, thanks to an excellent team who have sacrificed a lot, together we have supported the incubation journey of more than 1700 entrepreneurs from 70 countries. In 2017, we were recognized by Forbes 30 Under 30 and Ashoka Fellows.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The Business Solution to Poverty by Paul Polak. Bridge for Billions was inspired by the realization that there are brilliant ideas by people that do not have the necessary tools to structure, expand, or launch them. Entrepreneurship ecosystems worldwide are not inclusive and systemically exclude low-income, women, rural and minority entrepreneurs. This leads to a bias in which problems get to be resolved through a market-based approach. Therefore, if we continue excluding these entrepreneurs who have business solutions with the potential to make billions of lives better, we will only develop solutions for the wealthiest customers or ill-suited solutions for the other 90% of the world.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“Nothing important happens in life without any cost”, a quote from Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder of Acumen. To me this quote exemplifies a lot of my values and priorities. I believe we need to be spending time, money and resources on important things and we need to accept that truly impactful things do not occur overnight. They require a lot of work and it is this process of purpose-driven work that has driven my action for the past 10 years.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
For me, leadership is not about fancy titles or management styles, leadership is the process to bring people around a common purpose while having the ability to stay focused and motivating others to collaborate. I am very fortunate to meet daily early-stage founders from our programs who are true leaders. They have the courage to stand up against inefficiencies or social injustices and they are empathetic to truly understand the problems they are trying to resolve and convince others to join them. Also, these entrepreneurs have the gumption and grit necessary to face all adversities, especially when trying to push for innovative solutions in rigid and old-fashion systems.In my opinion, leaders are open, humble, empathetic, truthful, flexible and very self-aware.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I usually focus on my body and my breathing, or if it’s too late and I’m way too nervous, I love dancing. I have learnt many strategies to release and relieve stress through the wellbeing programs offered via the Ashoka Fellowship, where I gained understanding of my needs while acquiring practical tools and techniques.
In Bridge for Billions, as part of our soft-skills development plan, we use these same tools for our entrepreneurs, mentors and even employees to manage stress. We understand that self-awareness and focusing on our holistic wellbeing are essential aspects of our happiness, and our personal and professional development. This is why I am very fortunate that my co-founder, Julie Murat, our COO, implements these tools and meetups within our community, all to learn how to read what our mind and body are really telling us.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
We are facing huge global challenges in terms of income inequality, overdose of information, lack of access to mental health at all levels, and the absence of a true purpose in our education systems. Most of our systems unfortunately are outdated and the United States has struggled with many of these uncovered issues for decades. With this situation in hand, it is easy to generate a volatile environment where extremism and populism gets spread by those who blame others for the problems that these same unfair systems generate in the first place. The World and the United States needs true leaders who are ready to stand up for the vulnerable and fight old-fashioned systems with innovation and purpose. The United States already has the talent it needs to drive this purpose-driven innovation transformation that ensures our systems work for all, not just for the elites.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
There is a huge problem of lack of diversity and inclusion within the entrepreneurship ecosystems. This is a global pandemic and it happens not only in the US, but also across Europe, Latin America or Africa. Most entrepreneurs do not have access to the resources that one sees in universities like MIT or Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, where hundreds of start-ups are “manufactured” every year.
Being able to innovate and launch a business that solves a determined problem should not be a luxury. This is why I love working to give the opportunity to anyone who has a solution to bring it to the market through a truly meritocratic and inclusive process. The big dream is that Bridge for Billions becomes the norm within the entrepreneurship ecosystems globally, not necessarily Bridge for Billions itself, but Bridge for Billions’ like support, mentoring and training, so all our ecosystems are finally more inclusive.
To date, we have developed over 125 entrepreneurship programs with public and private organizations (ranging from United Nations, Coca-Cola, Impact Hub, or Ashoka) that seek to improve society through purpose-driven innovation and have supported over 1,700 entrepreneurs across 73 countries. 45% of our founders are women, 18% of them do not have any university degrees and 43% do not live in the main big cities.
What is even more impressive for me is the indirect impact of each of our entrepreneurs within their own community by solving problems that truly matter. There are hundreds of entrepreneurs and stories that we helped to become a reality. Bizipoz, for instance, is a cooperative that develops active aging programs to promote the empowerment of senior citizens locally and in the greater society. It was founded by Eider Etxebarria and recognized by Forbes 30 Under 30.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
From my perspective it should not only just be within the executive team, but within the entire organization. Think about this: if you have a diverse team, you will come up with more diverse, better and more creative solutions. Also, there will be a wide range of different opinions when talking about specific issues, and you will find wise answers quicker. Now the term “Design Thinking” is quite trendy because it has proven that first divergent thinking and then convergent thinking generates better outcomes. Hence, with a diverse executive team, you not only ensure a wider-ranging divergent process, but also a much more balanced and inclusive convergent approach.
The world we live in is diverse. The clients we work for are diverse. Therefore, the solutions we generate as organizations must also be diverse and inclusive. Designing for the extremes of any bell-curve enables you to design for all, and that’s a principle we apply daily in Bridge for Billions.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
First, we need to first accept and then analyse our rigged systems to detect inefficiencies and rooted discrimination. Most of our systems today, pick any: our educational systems, social security systems, electrification systems, taxation systems… All were designed by a generation that no longer lives or for a world that no longer exists. Hence, it is necessary that we all start from the roots and ask ourselves the question of “What are the beliefs, norms and mental frameworks that sustain unfair systems that we tolerate today? What can we innovate to replace or revert inefficiencies and injustices that the systems perpetrate on a day to day basis?”
Then, we have to rethink the base of our society, which is our education systems. If we want an inclusive, representative and equitable society, education is the very basic way to do so, because the leaders of the future will act according to the values they received and integrated during their education. We need a world of many more bold innovators and for that we need to start educating our younger generations in risk management, empathy, leadership, self-awareness and other soft skills.
Our entrepreneurship and business systems are also a huge topic when talking about the steps we have to take into account. We must think about who builds our companies and who gets hired for what, how and why. Are these processes inclusive and meritocratic from the start? For example, the entrepreneurship ecosystems of today still reward the ones who have the biggest odds of winning or those who are the loudest, but not necessarily the ones who can have the most impact. To generate an inclusive economy, we are still missing the right indicators and we are not focusing on what is truly important for all.
This leads me to another critical need: upgrade our democratic system. We must achieve true and more periodical and direct representation and today this can be achieved with our great technological advances. Examples of i-voting or direct democracy in Switzerland or Estonia show us the way to a more inclusive and true representation of our societies wills.
Finally, our health and basic needs have to be covered. You cannot access any job opportunity if you are struggling with essentials such as food or a household. The fact that millions of people globally still today have to pay “poverty premiums”, the idea that the poor pay more for essential goods and services, shows how our systems are not well designed for today’s reality. Public resources in many cases are not always scarce, they are just simply used in the wrong place.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I am optimistic, but at the same time very afraid, which is why we need to now work even harder. I truly believe that new generations are bringing hope, and there is an important generational power shift about to occur: Millennials will become decision makers within corporations, public organizations and governments within the next 5 to 10 years, and Generation Z (Zoomers) will join as juniors profiles within these organizations. These two generations have something in common which is their aspirations. Using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Millennials and Zoomers seek for self actualization much more than their parent generation. This means that personal, organizational, national and global purpose will be critical in the years to come, for the better or the worse.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Jane and Steve Case, the founders of The Case Foundation. I believe that our missions are very aligned, because they invest in people and ideas that can change the world and we provide access to entrepreneurs to training and mentoring, so the entrepreneurship ecosystems are more inclusive and meritocratic. I am pretty sure that we could have an interesting and productive talk about how our businesses and innovations can be inclusive, representative and equitable.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!