Carlos Miranda Levy on social ventures, ideas, and the power of internet


 

Rohan: Dhanya met Carlos at a talk about Social Entrepreneurship last year. He spoke about a lot of his initiatives and ideas on the matter. One that struck a chord with her was about a bunch of school kids. He mentioned how they all wanted to be computer engineers. Not because they are truly wanted that. Somehow, they had been brought up to think the only way out of their current life and towards a better future was to become a computer engineer.

Dhanya spoke to Carlos for a Real Leaders Interview and enjoyed his take on doing good in business. Hope you find his story interesting too!

About Carlos Miranda Levy

Carlos Miranda Levy knows disasters-and how to help people transcend their devastation with dignity, inclusion, and an equitable distribution of wealth. Following the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, he collaborated with Stanford’s Peace Innovation Lab to create Relief 2.0: a disaster response model that uses independent units of local stakeholders and foreign volunteers with mobile technologies and social networks to fill the gaps bureaucracy and top-down hierarchies leave. With the National University of Singapore Entrepreneurship Centre he developed Relief Enterprise, a disaster recovery strategy based on social entrepreneurship. He now leads Relief B2B, a business collaboration initiative for disaster recovery in Japan.

CNN named Carlos one of Latin America’s twenty most influential people on the Internet. No wonder: his education, literature and local portals engage four million people worldwide. Governments and international organizations such as United Nations consult him on public technology policies and strategies.


Interview Transcript

 

Dhanya: How did your interest in Social Entrepreneurship stem up?

Carlos: That is an interesting story. My generation of social entrepreneurs and technology developers never thought of us in those roles. It was a natural state. That’s why it’s fascinating when we see social entrepreneurship being taught at schools. Only in the last ten years it has made into mainstream academia.

I always tell a story. I was invited to Stanford University to be a fellow for a digital vision programme. Google sponsored us. There were 16 of us and we were a team of people from all around the world. They had a guy who came to talk to us about social entrepreneurship. There was this other guy from Latin America. He looked at me and he said ‘Ah, so that’s who we are!’. That’s how we learnt that we were social entrepreneurs. Until that time were struggling with the fact that we were making money but we wanted to do good. We felt we were less than the NGOs because we were in business. We thought of our friends in the non-profit world as the real heroes. They were the ones devoted to social good. However, we were the ones who were on a path to find out how to do good with efficiency and innovation!

We never set out to be social entrepreneurs. We did not feel comfortable asking for people’s money. We did not feel comfortable with doing inefficient things. Basically, it started with a drive in you. I think it’s a similar story for many people in business. You create your own business, but then you don’t just want to run a business. You also want to do good.

You are not easily content with the things around you. Not just the society. So you say we can turn this into a business. You see a problem, or an issue or a challenge and then say we can do this. Maybe we will succeed, maybe we wont. Lets still go ahead and do it.

That’s how it started for people from my time.

 

Dhanya: How did Educar.org and BibliotecasVirtuales.com start?

Carlos: It’s amazing because they are stories of failures and mistakes. Educar.org and BibliotecasVirtuales.com are two of my largest websites. Each of them has one million active users. Funnily, I never wanted to do either of them. I created CIVILA.com in May 16, 1996. It became too big too complex and too fast. It is a virtual community and the users always wanted more. They were using the resources we gave them and uploading more content. And we were struggling with it. At the same time it was also the biggest lesson we learnt. Although we were a community network, what set us apart was that our content.

One of our co-founders of Educar.org wrote to me in 1997, telling me that she wanted to do something for students. I however, only received the message 9 months later. She was so enthusiastic that I wrote back to her and promised all my support. She wanted to do something for the community. I was not very keen then and she kept persisting.

In a while, we said there you go and set up Educar.org. I still told her that I did not have any time to spare for that. She took up the challenge. She set out to working on it everyday. And in less than a year it became the most popular website. It had good content and it was built on a very natural and sincere way. Till this day it is our site with the most traffic!

Another teacher who joined our team came up with the idea for BibliotecasVirtuales.com. ‘What do you think about giving people access to books?’ she asked. She is a teacher from a small rural town in Argentina. She said her students didn’t have access to books. I said ‘I don’t see any value in it’. She kept insisting saying there was a need for it. Actually, if you are looking for a particular book in Spanish its not easily available online. That is something I learnt later. There was indeed value there!

Then we did build a website for the books. We would work everyday on it. I set up the website and servers. We even registered the website on her birthday. Me and her went 11 years without meeting face to face.

Both of our ideas have become the most successful ones. There is something different about the website, BibliotecasVirtuales.com. Most websites have the books and make them available for download as pdf. We did not do that. We actually turned them into html. I did not initially believe in this. Who would sit and read the text on a computer. Surprisingly, people are willing to read online!

We did try to set up a download once or twice. It does not give me anything back as an entrepreneur. It uses up bandwidth and slows down the system. When people go through a book page by page, I can have ads and sponsors on these pages. I can also try to make them read something else. It was creating the online experience.

Another advantage we have is that, when someone searches for an excerpt from a book, our pages show up as one of the first searches. This is because our files are in html. However, a book available as a download would not show up. And that’s our competitive advantage.

 

Dhanya: What is the inspiration in your life? What are some defining moments in the story so far?

Carlos: I remember going to this conference in Mexico city. In the first hour, I made two friends. We started with ‘Where are you from?’ and we were together for the rest of the conference. There was something about the fact that we were Latin Americans that allowed us to connect.

My mother got cancer and she had to go to the US for treatment. I was alone for an entire summer. During this time I made a friend from Brazil. There was no messenger those times. I found her on a mailing list. And guess what, three months later I was visiting her in Rio de Janeiro! I stayed with her family. It was a nice time.

These two experiences taught me that people could actually connect. It’s never been about technology for me. It’s about people. Long distance friendships that were glorious taught me so much. We were talking everyday and we decided to meet during the Easter week. There I was in Brazil. I did not speak her language. But it did not matter. Her friend met me at the airport. They took me to this sailing club and we had fun. I was in a Caribbean island with 10 million people and boom; all of a sudden I was in Brazil. I was one of them. I had friends, I went to their parties and I stayed at their house. It really touched me how. No one had to explain globalisation to me. It was real and I knew what it means. In 1996 I created a Latin cities social community website. Meeting people face to face touched me and changed my life. It really altered boundaries and the goal was always to share.

At that time I was part of a failed initiative in the US. For one thousand dollars you would get a server. I had to pay 1000 dollars to go online. It was just the initial cost – a big sum of money in those days. Also, I wanted to share it with everybody. I gave my username and password to people I did not know. In the first days of CIVILA.com the content that was generated was using just one username and password. These were people I never knew. I just trusted them and no one abused the power. There was no security what so ever.

Those were the real milestones for me. The fact that I was able to meet people and connect with them reminded me of humanity. People are people.

 

Dhanya: Can you give some advice for the leaders of the future?

Carlos: Follow your dreams. Allow yourself to dream. Listen to others but always do what you think is right. If you do something wrong, it’s okay. Make it a mistake you will learn form and grow from.

If you don’t have a dream follow your heart. Be authentic. Don’t try to be the next Apple. Don’t try to be the next Creative Labs. You cant. Don’t try to replicate Silicon Valley. Just be authentic.

Listen to others but don’t renounce your beliefs. That’s the most important character. In a global competitive market, there is huge global knowledge; the only competitive advantage we have is the local knowledge. It’s the added value of local perspective. You cant do anything better than the people in Silicon Valley, unless you bring Singapore in perspective to it. Because that’s your edge!


Thank you, Carlos for some enriching words. It was a pleasure having you here at Real Leader Interviews!

Real Leaders Team