Ben Powell

Ben Powell

Founder and CEO, Agora Partnerships

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Ben Powell is the Founder and CEO of Agora Partnerships. During the week of September 3, he will be sharing his experience with our community of innovators. Join the conversation!

Ben became convinced of the power of small business to transform poor communities in Mexico, where he co-founded CityGolf Puebla, a miniature golf course and family recreation center.  After working as a Presidential Management Fellow at the Office of Management and Budget, he left to attend business school and launch Agora Partnerships. Since graduating in 2005, Ben has been named a Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation Entrepreneur, a BMW Foundation Young Leader, and an Ashoka Fellow. He was a Social Venture Network Innovation Award honoree in 2009 and named one of 2010′s top 40 under 40 development leaders in Washington, DC. He earned an MBA from Columbia University, where he was awarded the inaugural alumni social innovation award, and an MSFS with distinction from Georgetown University. Ben has a BA with high honors from Haverford College, where he co-founded Tres Nacos Quesadillas Delivery and the Lighted Fools improv troupe.  A native of Cambridge, Mass., Ben lives in Washington, DC with his wife and three children.

  1. 808 days ago

    ThienVinh Nguyen

    Hi Ben! Thanks for all your of comments and insights. Here’s are my questions: have you encountered any resistance from the particular communities that you’re trying to transform, in part because you’re seen as an outsider? How do you overcome such challenges?



    • Ben Powell

      Thanks for the question. The answer, I’m happy to say, is no. We try to work only with entrepreneurs who are able to take risks and are open to new experiences – our community is very diverse and it’s a source of strength, ranging from entrepreneurs who got their first loan from a micro-finance bank to those who got it from Goldman Sachs bankers. What brings us together is optimism and a willingness to try to help each other be successful. But if I had to give you an answer on how to overcome this particular challenge, I would say just this: listen.

      762 days ago


  2. 811 days ago

    Tsega Tadesse

    What is your sense on where our system is in terms of incorporating “Social Impact” as a necessary bottom line for sustainability? How are you finding people in different industries responding to it and is it leading the way to real impact on people’s lives rather than being co-oped for donor/biz/political agendas? What’s the secret sauce for really making sure everyone wins?



    • Ben Powell

      Thanks Tsega, my experience is that the people who best understand social impact, and have the least time to communicate it, are the entrepreneurs themselves. Many entrepreneurs would have a killer GIIRS score… if they knew what GIIRS was. So the way I see it, the best way to ensure that companies are actually designed to create impact is to ensure that the entrepreneurs and management teams behind them are driven by a passion for change. It can’t be imposed – it must come from the entrepreneur – the entrepreneur must make a conscious decision to manage for impact. What we can do is give them tools, give them a language, and give them our support. Only when creating real impact on people’s lives is taken as a sign of strength, not weakness, when this idea permeates the culture of entrepreneurs, only then will we see the system change we all want. This is why I believe we need to work a lot harder on educating and supporting entrepreneurs who want to create a new kind of company – the impact investors are already there, they are organized. Now we need to organize the entrepreneurs – it’s their collective leadership that will change the world.

      808 days ago


  3. 813 days ago

    Jessica Feingold

    Through your mentorship model, I know the learning opportunities go both ways. What do mentors — especially MBAs — most often learn from entrepreneurs working on the ground in Latin America? How are they infusing these lessons back into their own academic institutions?



    • Ben Powell

      Thanks for this question, Jessica. It’s absolutely true that mentors and consultants often learn as much – sometimes even more – than the entrepreneurs they work with. From the feedback we get MBAs tend to take two major lessons back with them. First, an appreciation of just how difficult running a business can be in the developing world due to simple lack of information – especially around the customer and labor market – two markets that have very good information in higher performing economies. The other is that, when a mentorship or consulting engagement works well – MBAs makes connect on a personal level with the entrepreneur – they see the intensity, the drive, and the conviction – and it effects them deeply. It brings out a whole new side of business that is very different from what is usually taught in business school – let’s call it a more primeval side. This side of business does not wear pinstripes, instead it’s engaged in trench warfare, advancing a little everyday. That is refreshing, and I think sometimes terrifying for MBAs to witness. It’s a perspective on the world – and the world of business – you just can’t get in a class.

      813 days ago


    • Jessica Feingold

      Ah, I love that you referred to it as the “primeval side.” Do you think that once an MBA has crossed over to the primeval side, that these lessons remain with the individual, or do they spread? What can academic leaders learn from these experiences of their students, and how can they disseminate these lessons to the next generation of business leaders?

      812 days ago


    • Ben Powell

      I think that once an MBA has experienced the more visceral, exciting, but also terrifying aspect of no-margin-for-error business, it gives them a much greater appreciation and tangible sense of how value is created, day by day, in the world. I think a lot of those lessons could be brought into the classroom – there are still not enough good case studies on small businesses or even on failure. Failure is a great teacher, and once you see it or even experience it, is loses it’s power. It would be great if academic leaders could help MBA students to not fear failure and to help them to take the time to truly figure out what drives them. In our accelerator program we put a lot of emphasis on self-mastery – understanding how to see life as it really is, and to take what I would call a more zen approach to business. We found out that entrepreneurs get more out of a good coach than a good accounting class – and I think the same is probably true for most MBAs, unless, of couse, you plan to be an accountant.

      811 days ago


  4. 814 days ago

    Shruti Dusaj

    This looks like a very exciting venture! I was just wondering, when selecting entrepreneurs to support, what factors do you take into account in determining their leadership potential and ability to create both social and commercial growth?



    • Ben Powell

      Great question. We look first and foremost at the entrepreneur and ask the question – is this person a high potential impact entrepreneur? This means, does this person have a clear vision for creating impact and do they have the entrepreneurial qualities needed to grow a business. Leadership potential is key – it’s one reason why we don’t work with companies only at the idea stage – we want to see that you have been able to turn your vision into action – that is the essence of leadership – turning ideas into reality. Then we look at the business case – is your business like kind of business that could attract capital and support? We use a basic VC lens for this part. Finally, we look at the social impact of the business. So to summarize, we look at the person, the business opportunity, and the social impact, in that order of importance. Here’s the explanation of how it works on our website: http://agorapartnerships.org/accelerator-2/eligibility-expectations

      813 days ago


  5. 814 days ago

    Marzena Zukowska

    Hi Ben, great to be sharing this conversation with you! In the last two decades, we have seen a technological surge unprecedented in its ability to connect the entire world. With that said, are there some strategic technologies that all entrepreneurs should be utilizing regardless of what corner of the world they are working from? Are there any particular ones that have been central to Agora’s success?



    • Ben Powell

      I think the golden rule is to make sure that the technology serves you and not the other way around. One thing we have found was that is was a lot easier than we thought to go paperless, so try to use technology first and foremost to improve and streamline internal processes. For us, in terms of getting our vision out and connecting with like minded entrepreneurs, twitter has been extraordinarily powerful.

      813 days ago


  6. 815 days ago

    Dani Matielo

    Hello, Ben, and thank you for joining the conversation about how entrepreneurship can help the development of local communities. My question for you is: if we really do want SMEs to help local economies to grow, is there something we should definitely avoid? What are the key points to ensure that small business will thrive in local communities?



    • benpowell

      Well, it depends on who the “we” is – policy makers, investors, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, etc… I would say the one thing everyone should avoid, especially entrepreneurs, but this holds true for the other groups as well, is letting our fear of trying something new dissuade us from trying at all. There are many real issues holding back entrepreneurship in the developing world, but one of the biggest is that too many entrepreneurs just don’t believe yet that they can be very successful – they hold themselves back and don’t push their ideas far enough, or have enough trust that present sacrifice with result in future gain. In order for small businesses to get off the ground and get some traction they need a kind of “accelerator capital” – a potent mix of human, social, and financial capital. Accelerator capital provides leadership and mentorship support, it provide credibility, and strengthens a companies balance sheet. Successful entrepreneurship ecosystems allow entrepreneurs to obtain accelerator capital much faster and more efficiently than unsuccessful or non-existent ecosystems. So the challenge for all of us is to learn how this incredibly powerful kind of capital actually works, figure out how to harness it, and then try to understand how to get it to the right entrepreneurs (or, if you are an entrepreneur,how to obtain it yourself) in the most efficient way possible.

      815 days ago


    • Pamela S. Gomez

      Hello to both of you. Please allow me to piggy back on this conversation. I agree with Ben about the fear aspect. As an entrepreneur fear has been my greatest obstical. Followed by the others mentioned. However, I now trying to overcome this fear by putting my idea in The Power of Small Entrepreneurs Strengthening Local Economies. Would love both of your thougths on my entry.

      814 days ago


    • Ben Powell

      Hello, Pamela, could you share the link of your entry with us?

      813 days ago


    • Pamela S. Gomez

      Hi Ben, I just saw your respond. Sorry for not reply before now. Here is the link: Aromatherapy For All

      813 days ago


    • Pamela S. Gomez

      Hello Ben, do you have any comments or suggestions following your review?

      809 days ago


    • Ben Powell

      It’s hard to for me to give concrete feedback but I am a fan of aromatherapy – I am feeling more relaxed just thinking about your entry. Good luck!

      762 days ago