In 2007, I had my first experience being in a community that was disconnected. I was in Escambray, Jinotega, Nicaragua, a vereda of 500 people where the majority fell under all international measures of the international poverty line. While Escambray had received electricity by 2002 - so most homes had light and some even had television - what struck me most was the lack of telecommunications infrastructure.
Cellphones just didn't work. There was one phone, which they connected to a wire which they placed on a bamboo pole high enough to pick up some signal. A very entrepreneurial woman by the name of doña Melba sold minutes on this phone. There were frequently lines of people waiting by the phone to coordinate agricultural shipments and talk to relatives in the city. The connection rarely lasted long enough to have a full conversation of a few minutes. Initial ideas began to gel - and get workshopped with my community peers - about the potential impact of having full access to streams of information.
In 2011, I had the chance to revisit observations that had taken place in Nicaragua while working for Grameen Caldas - an affiliate of Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of Grameen Bank, Muhammad Yunus - in Manizales, Colombia. Grameen Caldas is a startup-stage social business investment fund, and most importantly a social business incubator. For nearly 7 months, I lived in the Grameen house in Manizales with the rest of the Grameen team to construct this organization from the ground up. We spent a lot of time talking about social business. A lot. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, bars, clubs: you name it, we talked about social business during it.
In this sort of community, spontaneous brainstorming sessions occurred about the problems that we were seeing around us. One of the ideas that distinctly came up during one of these earlier conversations was the possibility of connecting unemployed people with jobs by sending them text messages to let them know where they could find work. This idea resonated with me strongly, but for the moment I logged it in the back of my mind to let it germinate.
I'm not sure what exactly brought me from that ideation session to the moment when I realized, months later on a bus on the chaotic roads of Bogotá, that I wanted to bring this mobile jobs system to Colombia. It could have been the accumulated observations of living in a country that constantly presents you with both its riches and its deep inequality and market failures. Then there was the visits we made to the slums of Manizales, an experience I will never be able to adequately describe in writing. Or encountering even more remote agricultural families with cell phone acces. All things pointed to one thing: the market was presenting an opportunity to fix some of its downfalls.
From that point on, I haven't stopped moving forward. While my initial idea was to start an independent venture, after learning about Assured Labor and speaking with CEO David Reich, I saw that their market traction enabled us to move forward faster and more effectively, and allow us to unleash the potential of the millions of people looking for work in Colombia. Since January, 2012, we have been working together to implement EmpleoListo in Colombia.