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From issue: Impact Investing: Profit Meets Purpose (Fall 2011)

Innovators/Innovations

Some of our hemisphere’s emerging leaders in politics, business, civil society, and the arts.

 

 

In this issue:

Politics Innovator: David Reyes, El Salvador

Matthew Aho

In the notoriously polarized and often corrupt world of Salvadoran politics, federal deputy David Reyes stands out for his commitment to bipartisan governance. Elected in March 2009 to the National Assembly, Reyes, 30, of the conservative Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) party, has cosponsored a series of bills targeting youth unemployment, greater government transparency and services for Salvadorans with disabilities.

The common thread among these initiatives is that they each received broad-based support across party lines—no small feat in one of the hemisphere’s most divided political systems. “By focusing on universally important issues, we have learned to come together to get things done,” says Reyes. Confined to a wheelchair since birth, Reyes has also pioneered 47 legal statutes that provide guarantees of education, health, building access, and employment for the 60,000 Salvadorans who have physical or mental disabilities. “Growing up in a caring household, where I was never treated differently than my siblings, helped me learn how to persevere despite my physical obstacles,” he says.

Increasing transparency is another major goal for Reyes. In 2010, he co-sponsored the Ley de Transparencia (Transparency Law), which mandates the creation of a new transparency bureau charged with investigating corruption throughout the federal bureaucracy. The bill, which passed in March 2011, has become a hallmark of the current legislative session.

Reyes’ next project is the Ley de Primer Empleo (First Job Law). The bill, introduced in May 2011, seeks to address the root causes of El Salvador’s chronically high youth unemployment rate by creating new vocational training programs and reducing red tape for businesses that wish to employ young workers as interns and apprentices. According to Reyes, helping youth find jobs is an urgent national imperative. “Young men and women who drop out of school or who cannot find jobs after completing a degree are more susceptible to the temptations of gangs and other illicit activities,” he explains, adding that preventing gang violence “through education and workplace training are important for creating a more secure country.”

When Reyes isn’t working on legislation or negotiating with colleagues, he sits at the helm of Sin Limites (Without Limits), El Salvador’s most active NGO dedicated to protecting and promoting the rights of the disabled. Founded in August 2010, Sin Limites helps coordinate an annual Special Olympics competition and educates companies on how to integrate disabled employees. To date, Sin Limites has helped more than 80 people find jobs in more than 30 companies in San Salvador.

Although Reyes won’t say yet whether he will run in the next congressional elections in 2012, he believes ARENA’s prospects are good. But perhaps more importantly, Reyes’ bipartisan approach offers a model for other legislators in El Salvador and the region. As he puts it, “A sense of common purpose and mutual respect can spill over into other areas.”


Arts Innovator: Telmary Díaz, Cuba (video available)

Nina Agrawal


Above: Listen to Telmary sing “Spiritual sin egoísmo."

Is it possible to be a female hip-hop artist in Cuba without appearing to challenge the regime? Telmary Díaz proves it is. The  34-year-old rapera habanera and leader of contemporary Cuban music is much less interested in being a political figure than a cultural one. “Politicians come and go—whether in four or eight years, or 50 or 100,” she says. “But 500 years of culture is what is important. That’s what I represent, and that’s what I do.”

Her audience seems to agree. Telmary, who uses only her first name professionally, received a Cubadisco (the Cuban equivalent of a Grammy music award) for best hip-hop record in 2007. She has toured the globe from Colombia to Japan, stopping most recently in New York to perform at the city’s ¡Si Cuba! culture and arts festival in June 2011.

Telmary is not just a rapper. She has been described as a spoken-word musician and jazz poet. The label she most identifies with is “communicator.” In fact, music was never in her career sights. The child of a sociologist father and journalist mother, Telmary studied literature, theater and screenwriting, initially planning to follow in her mother’s footsteps.

But that changed one day in the late 1990s, when a DJ friend handed her a microphone and told her to try free-styling. “I didn’t know I had that voice inside me,” she recalls. “But that’s when I felt that this was my way of communicating.”

Telmary formed her first band, Free Hole Negro, in 1999, known for mixing jazz and rap music with audiovisual dance and theater performances. Later, in 2002, Telmary joined Cuba’s first musical collective, Interactivo, which led her to collaborate with people like Roberto Carcassés, a jazz pianist and the group’s leader; William Vivanco, a reggae and pop musician; and Yusa, a singer and songwriter likened to Tracy Chapman with African and Caribbean roots.

Her first solo album, A Diario, was released in 2007. Melding elements of funk, soul and smooth jazz with the expected hip-hop and timba, the album became a global hit, climbing to number 15 on the European World Music charts. It also established Telmary’s unique style, for which she is loved as well as criticized—toggling between the rapid-fire flow typical of male rappers and the slow, sensual sound of a jazz-lounge crooner.

Telmary’s lyrics are mostly in Spanish, though she sprinkles in some English words and phrases. Her content ranges from the feminist (¿Qué quieres: que espere, que cocine? she asks on “Que equivoca’o”), to the spiritual (Bajando ego, poniendo espejo[…]yo busco gloria, busco sentido she affirms on “Spiritual sin egoísmo”), and occasionally the political (Mi sueño es tenerlos a todos juntos guarachando she says on “Fiesta”). These themes are likely to reappear on her second album, tentatively titled Libre and due out in Cuba in March 2012.

Although Telmary stays away from politics, she calls herself “a warrior for my country.” But her weapon of choice is music. And her message? “Peace. Respect. A lot of happiness—it’s really positive, what I try to say.”


Business Innovator: Osvaldo Lucho, Brazil

Matthew Aho

In the last decade, 32 million people joined the ranks of Brazil’s middle class, increasing demand for consumer goods and cyber-connectivity. But while urban centers in Brazil are as plugged in as anywhere else in the world, smaller cities and rural areas struggle with limited infrastructure, shoddy connections and overpriced services. Internet entrepreneur Osvaldo Lucho has stepped in to fill the gap left by the government and telecommunications companies.

In 2004, Lucho founded Gigalink, a company dedicated to providing affordable and dependable broadband Internet service to Brazil’s marginalized populations. The 45-year-old electrical engineer started the company in his native state of Rio de Janeiro. Growing up in Nova Fiburgo, one of the state’s poorest municipalities, he had experienced the “digital divide” first hand.

The key to Lucho’s success was developing a fiber-optic cable that allowed the installation of broadband infrastructure at one-eighth the cost of traditional fiber optics. Low production costs enable Gigalink to charge less for monthly service.

Trained at Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro, Lucho went through two failed prototypes before finding what he calls his “tool of digital inclusion”: a cable that combines a standard copper telephone cable with three other wires for power, fiber optics and support infrastructure.

Gigalink has transformed a market previously dominated by unlicensed, overpriced and unreliable providers. Of the 5,000 Internet service providers (ISPs) in Brazil, only about 800 are licensed by the federal government. But Gigalink is licensed and affordable, with rates starting at 40 reais ($23) for 0.8 Mbps—about half the average charged by other Brazilian broadband providers. So it was not surprising that within weeks of opening for business, “there was a line of customers out the door,” Lucho recounts.

Nevertheless, Gigalink’s services are not universally affordable. So Lucho has made a special effort to make broadband services available for as many clients as possible, providing discounts of 50 percent or more to nonprofits and local newspapers. Public entities like firehouses, police stations and hospitals—many of which don’t receive government-provided broadband service—receive free service through Gigalink.

Installation for businesses represents only 40 percent of Gigalink’s activities. The company also wires households and provides voice-over IP service, Internet security and video monitoring, with plans to expand to satellite television service as well.

After seven years, Gigalink now serves over 15,000 customers in the state of Rio de Janeiro. The company seems to have found its niche in small and medium cities of 5,000 to 300,000 inhabitants, where major ISPs have yet to establish a foothold. But Lucho is already looking nationally: by 2017, Gigalink expects to expand its client base to 1 million across the country.

To turn his small business into a national enterprise, Lucho will have to grow Gigalink’s coverage network, which currently spans a radius of 300 kilometers (186 miles) around Nova Fiburgo. At the same time, he needs to increase his skilled workforce and develop effective evaluation methods. And though he has kept the design of his fiber-optic cable a secret, Lucho now plans to sell the cable to other companies and open franchises across Brazil. “Only then,” he says, “will we really begin to bridge the digital divide.”


Civic Innovator: Maria Teresa Kumar, United States

Matthew Aho

Maria Teresa Kumar discovered early in life that she had an interest in political activism. The 37-year-old executive director of Voto Latino, a nonprofit organization that promotes civic engagement among U.S. Latinos, grew up in Sonoma County, California, but spent summers in her native Colombia. Witnessing her father fall ill and her mother struggle to make ends meet, Kumar was profoundly affected by Latinos’ lack of access to services in California.

That memory stayed with her through her experience as a legislative aide in the U.S. House of Representatives and, later, in her public policy courses at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. At Harvard, Kumar realized that technology could be an effective tool for business and government to bridge gaps in equality. “What young people need more than anything is information,” she says.

The result was Voto Latino, which Kumar co-founded with actress Rosario Dawson in 2004. Headquartered in Washington DC, the organization deploys marketing campaigns that leverage new media and technology to encourage Latinos—the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S.—to participate in the political process.

One instance of Voto Latino’s creative use of media came in the lead-up to the 2008 general election, when it produced a telenovela miniseries featuring Dawson and Wilmer Valderrama (of “That ’70s Show”) that stressed the importance of registering to vote. The project went viral on YouTube, garnering 2 million views that year.

More recently, Voto Latino partnered with the U.S. Census Bureau to increase participation in the 2010 census.  At issue: each citizen not counted by the census amounts to $10,000 in government funds that are not reinvested in infrastructure, education or health care in that citizen’s community. To spread the word, Voto Latino and MTV’s Latino channel Tr3s aired public service announcements, created a hashtag on Twitter and established a nationwide network of bloggers. It also secured major corporate contributions. Apple donated 100,000 iTunes gift cards for Voto Latino to give away at local festivals and radio stations.

Kumar, who is also a contributor on Latino issues for MSNBC, believes that politicians “do a very poor job of targeting the Latino community”—something she attributes to a perception among  both Democrats and Republicans that Latinos are expensive voters to woo. Voto Latino itself is nonpartisan, encouraging political participation among Latinos of all ideological stripes.

In 2010, Kumar helped create “Beyond Borderlines,” the first televised English-language town hall to focus on the emerging role of Latinos in U.S. society and politics. “Latino issues are American issues,” she says, noting in particular the lack of access to education, health care and economic opportunities. The two-hour special hosted by Kumar on MSNBC earned her an Emmy nomination this year in the Outstanding News Discussion and Analysis category.

Looking toward the November 2012 elections, Kumar remains focused on engaging Latinos. Next year, she plans to increase her staff by two-thirds, from 15 to 25. In addition, Voto Latino is rolling out a virtual one-stop shop for voters—an information hub with links to registration forms and polling locations that will be available online and via a smartphone application. The portal is aimed at streamlining the voter registration process—including facilitating re-registration for the estimated 18 million Latino voters whose homes have been foreclosed since the economic crisis hit in 2008.

Kumar sees no reason to rest on her laurels. She intends to remain executive director of Voto Latino “as long as the organization has the ability to see change.”

 



 
 

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