The Start of a Bold Movement: eMerge Americas 2014

May 13, 2014 by Alex Counts

I have watched many people set out to start something completely new as a way to increase social impact. I have even started a few such ventures – such as Grameen Foundation – myself. It takes a lot to launch a successful start-up, including courage and, dare I say, cojones. There is significant risk involved, and with the upside of transformation comes the often looming downside of humiliating failure. 

Eighteen months ago, my colleague Kate McElligott and I sat down with Manuel “Manny” Medina , a hugely successful “rags to riches” technology entrepreneur who is most well-known for launching and growing Terremark, a leading information technology security firm which he sold to Verizon just a few years ago. During our meeting, Manny shared his bold vision of Miami becoming the “Silicon Valley” of Latin America.  If realized, his vision would deliver jobs and generate wealth in his adopted hometown and in emerging markets throughout the Americas. The centerpiece of his strategy was to inaugurate a new conference, eMerge Americas, and a related TechWeek in Miami.

Last week, eMerge Americas and #eMergeTechWeek burst onto the scene, catapulting Manny’s vision to a whole new level while inspiring the ten-person Grameen Foundation delegation who attended and spoke on one of the many panels. It renewed our belief in the power of technology to transform nations, organizations and the livelihoods of our poorest citizens.

The conference formally opened on May 5 with Manny outlining his vision for the event and for a broader movement that will launch Miami as a trans-American hub of technology innovation. After a rousing start, Manny introduced the mayor of Miami-Dade County, Carlos A. Giménez, who was behind the effort from the very beginning. Other speakers included Susan Siegal (the head of Healthymagination at GE), Sean Gourley (co-founder and CTO of Quid), Wences Cesares (CEO of XAPO) and Arturo Galvan (CEO of Naranya) talking about their experience as “serial entrepreneurs” in Latin America.  

The content was excellent throughout; indeed, I learned a lot that was relevant to Grameen Foundation’s work and have detailed how the conference discussions relate to our work in the international development context more broadly. 

I chuckled when Arturo Galvan, CEO of Naranya, said he thought Latin American tech entrepreneurs were “wasting their time” trying to raise venture capital in Silicon Valley, and encouraged them instead to seek local investors. It reminded me of Grameen Foundation’s approach to encourage microfinance institutions to seek local sources of debt capital to fuel their growth, rather than depend on capricious international lenders who often did not understand their needs and capabilities. Our focus on local lending (backed by our Growth Guarantees) supported more than $200 million in lending to growing institutions in emerging markets from 2000 to 2014.

Sean Gourley’s presentation was striking in that he argued for the power of technology to augment rather than replace human intelligence and intuition (using the term “augmented intelligence” rather than “artificial intelligence”).  He said that computers have been improving in their ability to predict the weather for decades, but even today, despite vast computational power, human beings exercising their judgment and intuition could regularly improve upon computer models predicting weather patterns by 15 to 20 percent.  

This finding echoes Grameen Foundation’s insight that solutions relying exclusively on technology to meet the financial, health, or agricultural needs of the poor often fail unless they actively engage a human network – of loan officers, paraprofessional agriculture extension officers, or frontline health workers, for example. 

We also leveraged the eMerge convening to host a meeting of our Latin America Advisory Council.  Rosanna Ramos-Velita, Committee Chair, presided over a very substantive meeting attended by Board members David Russell, Carlos Fonseca, Bob Eichfeld, and Sergio Barrero of Citi. Advisers Brewster Waddell and David Myhre joined by phone (the latter from Tanzania!). Being surrounded by technology leaders at the conference served to inspire our conversation and deliberations on how to move our work forward in the region and further deepen unlikely partnerships – a recurring theme at various panels.

Most exciting of all, Grameen Foundation organized a panel focused on designing and delivering financial products for the rural poor in Latin America. Experts from MasterCard Worldwide, Citi Foundation and Grameen Foundation’s Board of Directors discussed the opportunities, challenges, and vision for leveraging technology to increase access to financial services in the region. 

At the close of the first day, Paul Maritz, CEO of Pivotal (and immediate past Chair of Grameen Foundation’s Board of Directors) delivered a stunningly clear and compelling presentation on the past, present and future of information technology and how it will shape society for decades to come.  

Afterward, there was a “Festival of Bands” for conference attendees. I am an avid music lover, and the fusion bands – which all had a uniquely Miami flair – were incredible.  Alberto Solano (our CEO for the Americas) and I particularly liked the band Black Violin, which mixes classical, hip-hop and pop (among other genres).  Manny and his lovely wife Lisette came by for the performance, and their daughter Melissa joined as well.  I understand Melissa chose the entertainment – if so, she did a great job!

The production of the conference by Manny’s team was flawless and seemingly effortless (though of course, as someone who has helped organize complex events, I know better!).  Congratulations to Diane Sanchez, Xavier Gonzalez, and Marianna Lopez for helping Manny turn his vision into reality. The strongly enthusiastic response from the Miami, Latin America and technology communities tells me that we will be reconvening next spring to build on the strong foundation laid last week.