I am Valentina from Colombia. Before coming on a CIEE Work & Travel USA program, I was an average girl, a Business Student working at a bank. But after Summer 2018 I became a High Impact Social Entrepreneur and CEO of Plaza Naranja. I started traveling the world, achieving my dreams and changing lives. When you understand your purpose in life, the universe and luck would be always on your side.
CIEE Civic Leadership Summit
Everything started at the CIEE Civic Leadership Summit. While I do not like placing people in statistics, a 2 % statistic changed my life. Over 2,500 applications were submitted for the CIEE 2018 Civic Leadership Summit and only 45 fellows were selected. Meaning that only the top 2% of candidates were the ones sitting there and the reason why the event was so magical. Years ago, a famous American activist had dream, I also had a dream in High School, I dreamed of a country without inequalities and dedicating my life towards building a better world. Unfortunately, through time, college and jobs I forgot about that dream. The Civic Leadership Summit reminded me that dreams come true and if you work for what you believe, you can achieve whatever you want. It reminded me that I have the privilege of being part of the 2%, the people who have the willingness to change the world. And every privilege comes with responsibility, I should work harder than most people to achieve my dreams because no one would do it for me.
Among all things I learned at the Summit there are two I kept the most and change my life philosophy. One is “Your life will be shaped by the books you read, the people you meet, and the experiences you live”. Everyone at the Summit is the kind of who shape a better world. I have nothing but words of gratitude for the Summit for introducing me to all those amazing people, especially Spencer, Bojan and Alaa. Spencer, our CIEE group leader, helped me to set bigger goals for myself and get to where I am today.
The feelings at Civic Leadership Summit are unspeakable. One of the closest moments I have had of complete joy in life was there. However, benefits like a full paid trip to Washington D.C. or living an American College experience fade into the background when meeting the extraordinary fellows and staff. More than being an event, the Summit is the opportunity to discuss various social problems in countries around the world and to develop projects to address them. My group created a game that empowers youth to become sustainable citizens through small real-life challenges.
The project was called “Green Quest” and stood out for our creativity and teamwork and helped us win the “Most Committed Venture” prize. Working on “Green Quest” with Karolis from Lithuania and Brian from Kenya allowed me to understand that language differences do not matter if you are united around one purpose. Meeting people from around the world allowed me to understand the importance of sharing experiences, context, and developing a global vision. Without the Civic Leadership Summit, Plaza Naranja would not exist. The Summit empowered me and reminded me of that dreams come true and I am capable of achieving them.
When I returned to my country, I was someone else, I accomplished goals I had postponed for a years and started working for something bigger than me, Plaza Naranja. Plaza Naranja, is my life! Ever since I was a teenager, I dreamt of creating a startup that would work to reduce inequality, pollution, and build a sense of belonging for people in Latin America. Plaza Naranja is a social e-commerce startup aimed towards helping Latin American social and environmental entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, official statistics in Colombia demonstrate that 97% of startups fail due to the lack of venture capital, high taxation, absence of financial education, and because of low visibility in a centralized country. Plaza Naranja is the website that breaks the barrier between those high impact entrepreneurs and competitive markets.
We have over 432 amazing ventures all around the country in Colombia. In the long run, we will offer investment opportunities and administrative accompaniment to all-star ventures. Right now, we are only working in Colombia but by 2023 we are programmed to have a presence in Brazil, Mexico, Chile, and Peru. Plaza Naranja originally started as a project fostering national entrepreneurs. But after my abroad experiences, especially in Brazil. I realized that no matter their nationality, social entrepreneurs are the key to long term sustainable development, especially in Latin America.
“The world is your classroom” A CIEE´s phrase and my second lesson of the Civic Leadership Summit. In life, you do not need to cross the world to receive the biggest lessons. I had the privilege of being a student at a New York University, American University in Washington DC, Brazil and the best university in my country, Universidad de Los Andes. But my favorite classes where the ones without desks or certified institutions and where I became the teacher.
There are some ventures that we supported through Plaza Naranja and that became my real-life classrooms. Semillas y Raices is a Foundation located in Cazucá, one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in Bogotá. Semillas y Raíces is truly a light on the darkness in a place where inequality hurts and it is directed by Luz, a woman whose name means “light” in Spanish. She encouraged kids and teenagers to succeed in music instead of drugs by teaching music, writing, and finding sponsors to do musical performances around the city, showing kids a different reality. Luz also created sustainable campaigns where kids collected recyclable garbage and exchanged it for food. This was the first venture I supported through Plaza Naranja. We became a group of young volunteers who give weekly workshops on various topics, from entrepreneurship to sexual education.
Another example is The Bosa York Dream. This is a fashion line by Christian Colorado, a high fashion designer who presents at the New York Fashion week and who came from Bosa, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Bogotá. Christian uses his story to empower teenagers and show an alternative life through design. His enterprise collects funds to sponsor design workshops for youth in Bosa. Cristian’s had dressed celebrities like J-Balvin and top models in New York, but during the workshops, he dresses barbies and pigs together with teenagers and kids who think he is a Rockstar. His workshops helped me understand the importance of teaching design in early education and that even exclusive fashion could become inclusive if people want.
The last stop of my classroom would be in Brasilia with Debora, the director from ABRAPEC, Brazilian Association that Assists Persons diagnosed with Cancer. Although everyone knows about cancer, only the ones who faced it understand what it means. Beyond chemotherapy or medicines, it means the beginning of an individual battle against death and only a few survive. Debora becomes their sword. She created a community for women who are going through cancer to help them support each other. She works to show these women through real-life examples that it is possible to overcome deadly diseases if you can keep your faith and keep fighting. From leading financial workshops to joining Bachata classes and sharing my life story, I felt honored of becoming a tool for Debora, towards spreading the message “Never lose hope”.
Without a doubt Luz, Christian and Debora have been life-changing teachers who taught me more about leadership and social transformation that any other academic course. They helped me understand that my purpose in life is becoming a bridge between these realities and the world of opportunities I´ve had.
If you are reading this blog, ask yourself if you are getting into the right classroom and taking the classes you want towards the world you dream about? I wish most people answered “yes”, but unfortunately only the top 2% would do it. Therefore, I want to invite everyone who answered “no” to think about three things have hurt you the most in life. And instead of asking “why” this happen to me, ask “for what” this happen to me? If you consciously answer that question you would start getting into the right classes and becoming someone like Luz, Christian, Debora or me. As I mentioned at the beginning of the blog, Plaza Naranja was born for three things that hurtled me as a girl and a need to take action. Finally, I want to thank CIEE for promoting these spaces and initiatives. The Civic Leadership Summit and Summer Work & Travel program were life-changing experiences for me. Thank you for reminding me that dreams come true and no matter where one is undertaking a social transformation project, CIEE is there to support them.