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Women in Social Innovation: Carolina Escobar Mejía and her approach to solving collective challenges with Somos Más

Author: Social Innovation Europe
Published Date: 10 March 2016

Carolina Escobar Mejía is co-founder and Chief Executive of Somos Más Europe and Board Member of Impact HUB Bogotá. Her passion is transforming ideas into a reality, harnessing collective intelligence to co-create solutions to social challenges and creating initiatives dedicated to social innovation. She specialises in participative leadership, involving diverse stakeholders and encouraging people to catalyse and harness collaborative intelligence, combining face-to-face interactions with technology.

Carolina is from Bogotá, Colombia, has lived in London, and is currently based in Madrid. She has been distinguished with the 100 Latinos Madrid award for leadership, entrepreneurship and life experiences brought to Spanish society, whilst positively representing their countries of origin. She was a speaker at TEDx GranVia and a mentor for social entrepreneurs with the global network Youth Business International.

Social Innovation Europe recently interviewed Carolina for their Women in Social Innovation series - a series of interviews of interesting women working on great social innovation projects across Europe. 

Tell us a bit about your project and what inspired you to do this work.

Life is all about open and interconnected collaboration, not zero-sum game competition. The same is true about organizations, and organizational networks, which when you think about it, can also be considered as living entities. In Somos Más (which in spanish stands for We’re More), when we started in Bogotá, Colombia more than 15 years ago, we had an initial idea of interconnecting the work of social impact driven organizations. It bothered us that among the thousands of organizations that were working in similar topics, challenges, and even in the same neighborhoods, they usually didn’t know each other, were not aware or involved in relevant policy making processes, relevant research, and even less the services and learnings from each other. Many times this happened to them even when having a same funder. There was a feeling that the collective impact in topics like disabilities, ethnic minorities, homelessness, or any other social major issue, didn’t correspond with the number of organizations working on it.

This type of reflections led us to think in ways in which we could help organizations to share more effectively their work, and beyond this to have more open ways of working. How can they collaborate more effectively with other relevant organizations? With their stakeholders? Initially, this led us to work with networks of civil society organizations, and some of the main funders on diverse social impact topics. Several years working with these networks inspired us to reframe our guiding question, and think it in terms of collective intelligence. How can communities of people and organizations collectively solve challenges that affect them? What strategies, methodologies, technologies and ways of thinking can help them do this? This is what we’ve been exploring for the last years, and what also brought us to create Somos Más Europe at the beginning of 2012 after having an solid and established operation in Colombia.

In my case in particular, after working in Somos Más in Colombia for some years, I came to Spain to complete a Master of Administration for Foundations and Nonprofit Organizations. While maintaining connected to our work in Colombia, I had the chance of being consultant in knowledge management and innovation strategies, and working with universities, tech and innovation startups and big international NGOs. So when time was ripe, we began Somos Más in Europe. Here, additional to the experience we had in Colombia, we included some key approaches, frameworks and practices for harnessing collective intelligence, like the art of hosting, also known as participatory leadership, human-centered design, a creative approach to solving the world's most difficult problems globally launched byIDEO, agile process management and scrum framework for completing complex and innovative projects, among others.

Based on this building blocks, we design and implement methodologies and technologies that provide comprehensive collaboration solutions to facilitate open and participatory processes.

Can you tell us about a defining moment where you could see the impact of your project?

We love it when things we’ve helped set in motion turn out influencing way beyond the initial scope of what we do. Let's say with our work with CONCORD, the European NGO Confederation for relief and development, which brings together all European national platforms of NGOs as well as some of the main international NGO networks such as Oxfam, World Vision, Caritas, Habitat for Humanity, among many many others. We’ve worked with them both on participatory leadership processes, methodologies and web technologies that help them on their intention of being a member-led organization and network. On several occasions, when meeting some of their members - they tell us about this participation methodology they learned from CONCORD, which they in turn learned from us, or how they modelled part of their digital membership engagement and tools based on what CONCORD did.

It is exciting enough when we go to CONCORD and see them organizing collaboratively their goals and activities in a Kanban - which is a simple but powerful tool for managing and visualizing in a blackboard key tasks and milestones, and going at them iteratively. It is also exciting to see them organizing some of their internal gatherings using methodologies we’ve worked with them such as the world cafe or open space - but when some other organization is doing it because of how CONCORD did it, that makes us especially proud.

You see, we sometimes like to think of ourselves as a friendly virus, with the capacity of influencing people and organizations to transform their collaboration and participatory leadership practices. We like to believe we can leave DNA traces in people we interact with, which can sometimes slowly, others more quickly, modify their ways of working and make them more open and prone to collaborating with others, and of course, co-creating solutions and real impact; impact that you can see in small and big scale. And when they have the capacity of naturally influencing others in this same direction, it's the best.

While this ideas sound simple and common sense, they’re amazingly tricky to set in motion. Both as persons and as organizations, we’ve frequently been conditioned to work as if the world and the others were enemies, playing in different teams, competing for a decreasing piece of the cake - even within the same organization.

We feel both people and organizations are increasingly realizing their ways of working and collaborating with others is not coherent with what they want to stand and work for. Furthermore, they are increasingly experimenting successfully practices that can both help them grow as together as persons and collectively achieve better impact.

What kind of organisations or people would you like to connect with that could further benefit your work?

We would like to further connect with membership organizations and networks of organizations where the need for improving collaboration and being more open and participative is within their reason of existence. We would also like to connect with projects that are interested in supporting communities to jointly address common challenges. In Colombia, we’ve got lots of experiences in this; to give you an example, in the creation of the national social innovation policy in a way that involved not only the usual suspects or experts, but also communities of innovators, common citizens, universities, and voices from all regions from the country. It would be nice to engage more with experiences of this sort in Europe.

Also, we would like to connect more deeply with the social innovation ecosystem in Europe, having in mind our experience working with Oxfam Novib in E-Motive Going Global project, which started with the vision of amplifying the reach and impact of E-Motive program into a global network, where the best local citizen driven social solutions around selected topics could reach the best intercontinental partners to share, adapt, blend and replicate their work. For this to happen, some adjustments of the strategy of E-Motive, its operational processes and a digital platform to support it had to be in place. This would allow E-Motive’s model to save operational costs and improve capacity of coordination, and at the same time make available and involve a wider audience that could be influenced, learn and interact with the results of the peer groups. During this project we had a lot of learnings and direct impact in the future of E-Motive, so there is a huge opportunity to connect with other organisations and networks involved in social innovation with similar or complementary vision in order to join efforts and work in a collaborative way.


SIX will be working in partnership with Somos Más for our 9th annual Summer School in Colombia on 5-7 October 2016! 

Read more Women in Social Innovation interviews here.