Recently, we sat down with Eleazar Ortiz, a graduate of New York University, and an MBAs Without Borders (MWB) alumnus. Eleazar shared with us his experience working with a social enterprise, Buen Manejo del Campo in Mexico City, where he now serves as the General Manager. Eleazar shared with us the details of his experience, what he has learned, and how it has influenced his career.
What inspired you to become an MBAs Without Borders (MWB) Advisor?
When I applied to MWB, I was in a transitional period—just out of grad school, and undecided on whether I wanted to continue my professional career in the U.S. or in Mexico. Before pursuing graduate studies, my career had been focused in public service. Immediately following, I was looking to move to the private sector. Volunteering with MBAs Without Borders provided an invaluable opportunity to fulfill my career aspirations of working in business and generating social impact at the same time.
What was the business challenge you were trying to solve?
My MWB assignment was in Mexico with Buen Manejo del Campo, S.A. de C.V., a corporation that produces, distributes, and installs Sistema Biobolsa, an award winning high-quality biodigester system designed for small and medium farmers. Sistema Biobolsa converts organic waste from small and medium-sized farms, particularly cattle waste, into renewable energy (methane-rich biogas) and into an organic fertilizer called biol. Sistema Biobolsa is a continuous flow type anaerobic digestor. Organic waste is fed into the system on a daily basis, flowing through the reactor, producing biogas and organic fertilizer every day.
The company also manages a small loan fund, carbon offset assets, and works closely with a non-profit partner that focuses on education and research. It has a small fabrication plant, 15 employees, and about 50 (and growing) independent sales representatives.
For the first part of my assignment, I played a large role in the business development of the organization. This included the establishment of a distributor network with sales capacity in every Mexican state. I was also responsible for promoting and developing new projects (public-private partnerships) with local, state, and national governments as well as non-profit organizations throughout Mexico.
How did your MWB assignment change your world view or inspire you to look at things differently?
When I arrived in Mexico, I was sent to the state of Puebla to undergo the Sistema Biobolsa technician training. I learned about the use of the biodigester technology adapted to the small-scale farmer. I also learned about our promotional and sales demonstration events. But the farmer follow-up and capacity building methodology that Sistema used had the biggest impact on me. A strong emphasis is given to training small farmers on the appropriate use of the Sistema Biobolsa biodigesters, its maintenance, safe use of the biogas, and correct applications of the biofertilizer. After a Sistema Biobolsa biodigester is installed, the follow-up program includes at least six onsite visits that verify that each farmer is using the system correctly. I was surprised at how many onsite visits took place until the moment when I learned of a government biodigester program that was implemented in Mexico ten years ago; the systems were given to farmers that met specific requirements, installed, and then forgotten. The program clearly failed – negative reports were published on the use of biodigesters that turned into negative perceptions on their effectiveness.
Before engaging in this assignment, I had read a lot about the differences between top-down and bottom-up development models, including the supporting arguments and criticisms of each. I can now say that a core difference at the ground level of development programs is felt at the point of implementation. A top-down project ends at the moment a grant or direct benefit is disbursed; whereas a bottom-down project begins at the point of disbursement!
How has your experience as an MWB Advisor shaped your career and aspirations?
During my assignment, my responsibilities increased each month and after 8 months, at the end of my assignment, I was asked to become the company’s General Manager. As GM, I now have management responsibilities of all company employees and financial and material resources, all in accordance with annual budgets approved by the Board of Directors. I also play a lead director role for the microfinance fund used in Central Mexico to benefit small farmers with economic hardships. I plan to employ all of my efforts to show how an idea that generates social impact can also be profitable and sustainable, while hoping to inspire other innovations to be implemented with this strategic vision. Obviously, this experience has strongly influenced my career path. I know that I want to continue my growth and knowledge within social entrepreneurship, a growing sector in Latin America.
What was the biggest obstacle you faced during your assignment and how did you overcome it?
My biggest challenge was motivational. A few months into my assignment, having spent many hours speaking with marginalized farmers, I realized how committed they were to taking advantage of renewable resources to improve their income and overall quality of life. I was also convinced of the high quality of the product and the impact that it could generate in rural Mexico. Knowing all of this, and on the verge of implementing a program that would receive government support to introduce a large number of systems in marginalized areas of rural Mexico, I was extremely disappointed when I discovered that corrupt officials would not approve any support unless we gave in to their requests. We did not give in to the officials and the program was cancelled. To be honest, there came a point when I thought it would be impossible to generate a program without succumbing to these practices.
It took a few days of introspection to overcome this confusion and disappointment. To overcome my frustration, I had to depersonalize the situation and view it more as an ill of all societies. Just like poverty and inequality, corruption is quite prevalent in developing countries. It is not that easy to view in this way when you are experiencing this sort of corruption first-hand; corruption is an undeniable problem that we are battling. Changing my attitude helped me turn my frustration into motivation. I would no longer face corruption as an obstacle but rather attempt to diminish it which allowed us to be much more successful.
What has been the most rewarding moment during your time in Mexico City?
My most rewarding moment was when I was visiting installations in the Mayan community of Mani, Yucatan. It was incredible to learn from the Mayan families that they have added a new word to their language to express the flame that burns without the biogas generated from Sistema Biobolsa biodigesters: New Fire. At this point, I realized the impact being generated in terms of better health conditions for women, more disposable income for families, and higher quality of life in general. It was an extremely rewarding moment that made me realize that I wanted to continue in this line of work.
What do you wish you had known at the beginning of your MWB experience? What advice would you give an incoming MWB Advisor?
Social enterprise is a real solution for social issues. Social enterprise does require, however, the application of the best talent and skills for it to be successful on all fronts. You can’t assume that being an MWB advisor will just be telling the people in need what they are doing wrong and how they can improve. You must go in with an open mind so that you can take advantage of all there is to learn from everyone around you.
How did working for a non-profit in a developing country change your perspective on the business world?
I have come to realize that working for a start-up social enterprise firm in a developing country is as exciting as it gets within the business community. A successful firm in this sector first has to innovate with a product, but then must work to create market demand, build core competencies around the use of the technology and innovate in business practices generating public-private partnerships. This is an exciting sector that will only grow as new markets are being tapped into every day, and I am thrilled to be a part of it.
Eleazar Ortiz served as an MWB Advisor in Mexico City, Mexico for Buen Manejo del Campo from February 2012 to February 2013. He is a graduate of the Wagner School at New York University, and is currently the General Manager of Sistema Bibliosa, his MWB host organization, in Mexico City.