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Elevating local businesses: Q&A with Balloon Latam’s Sebastián Salinas

We are asking alumni what inspired them to dedicate their careers to a social enterprise. Sebastián Salinas is the founder of Balloon Latam and Diploma Programme (DP) graduate of Dunalastair in Chile. His company empowers entrepreneurs in rural areas of Chile, Mexico and Argentina. This work led him to be selected as an Ashoka Fellow in 2015.

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What inspired you to build Balloon Latam?

“We came up with an idea to go to Kenya to create jobs—and it sounded as crazy at the time as it does now.”

Since I was a young, I had always been involved in social causes. This led me to study business, specializing in entrepreneurship. During my university days, I continued to develop a social focus, working with indigenous communities using tools usually linked to traditional businesses, including the Canvas model of the book Business Model Generation. This led me to write about my experience applying these practices in rural communities here in Chile in the blog of one of the book’s co-authors. Through that blog post I was contacted by two British young men and together we came up with the idea to go to Kenya to work with local entrepreneurs to create jobs—and it sounded as crazy at the time as it does now. The experience of working hand in hand with Kenyans really changed my life. It made me believe that development is not a homogenous concept; it needs an understanding of the place to even begin to ask about what it means.

Back in Chile, I wanted to give back and contribute to my community in this same way, while still being able to make a living. Over time, I contacted several institutions to try to get financing for the project, and always faced negative responses. After 14 refusals, I decided to finance a Balloon prototype by my own means. The prototype was a success and this led me to eventually found Emprediem, a social enterprise under which Balloon operated as a project until the end of 2016. Afterward, Balloon Latam was constituted as an independent social enterprise to which I now dedicate 100% of my time as Executive Director.

“We seek to get together and train social leaders from around the world, granting them tools for social innovation and entrepreneurship”

Balloon Latam today is a Certified B Corp (by Systema B) that through action, connection and intelligence building, has a positive impact on the development of rural territories as well as in the training of change agents. We have implemented more than 30 social innovation programs and initiatives throughout Chile, Mexico and Argentina. Our next program of social innovation will take place in the remote Chilean Patagonia and it is already accepting applications. We seek to get together and train social leaders from around the world, grant them tools for social innovation and entrepreneurship through a learning methodology and facilitate change in the field. Participants can put their knowledge into practice contributing to the sustainable development of the territory working together with local leaders and entrepreneurs from southern Chile.

What is the most significant challenge facing aspiring entrepreneurs in Chile?

Chile is characterized as a rural country. More than 83 percent of the surface of our country belongs to highly rural communities. According to the new National Rural Development Policy, the difficulty here is that only 36 percent of the population lives in this 83 percent of the territory. This is a problem because these rural territories are not always represented based on the way that public policy is developed. There is more focus on urban areas where we have massive concentrations of people. 1

Chile’s great challenge today is to value these “invisible innovators”, look beyond the big cities and empower entrepreneurs from more remote areas.”

In these rural areas live an immense number of entrepreneurs with tremendous potential value. They seek to take care of their environment and generate collaborative projects that will help in the development of their communities. I think Chile’s great challenge today is to value these “invisible innovators”, look beyond the big cities and empower entrepreneurs from more remote areas. For those who want to undertake it, I believe that the great challenge is to find what one is passionate about and fight for it, without surrendering. I blindly believed in my project even though I was rejected 14 times. Today I am deeply grateful that I didn’t give up. I now have a team of 40 people pursuing this same dream.

What is the most important business lesson you’ve learned in the past three years?

“This line of work is not only for socially-motivated people, it should be for the best talent in the world to come together to solve the most urgent problems.”

If you have found your purpose and identity, no one and no situation is going to take you away way from that. When I came back from Kenya I said to myself, “I would do this for free, but how can I make a living from something that I would do for free?” and that’s where Balloon was born. Being an entrepreneur is difficult, and being a social entrepreneur is even more difficult because you have less access to funding. We have to change the perception of the social world, of the NGO’s and foundations. We have to pay better salaries and provide better conditions to employees because this line of work is not only for socially-motivated people, it should also be for the best talent in the world so we can solve the most urgent problems.

In what ways has an IB education supported your career?

It was fundamental, I got into my business school because of the IB diploma. If I hadn’t taken it, I wouldn’t have had the chance to study in the University that I wanted. Also, my school, Dunalastair, has continued supporting me in this journey. I have implemented the entrepreneurship program at my school to give some of the tools to students. This offered them far more than economic help, it offered a new way of thinking and supporting education for the next generation. Led by Alvaro Fuentealba, Dunalastair has been a pioneer in this effort.

1Source: Elaboración propia a partir de INE, CENSO 2017
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Sebastián Salinas is the founder of Balloon Latam, supporting entrepreneurs throughout Chile, Mexico and Argentina.

To hear more from Diploma Programme (DP) graduates check out these IB programme stories. If you are an IB grad and want to share your story, write to us at alumni.relations@ibo.org. We appreciate your support in sharing IB stories and invite you to connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter and now Instagram!

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