Social entrepreneur Pedro Medina (MBA '86) believes in his native country and has convinced hundreds of thousands of Colombians they should, too.
In 1999, the nation of Colombia was the site of 80 percent of the world's kidnappings, 55 percent of the country's population was living in poverty and 400,000 Colombians emigrated that year. Colombia was conspicuously absent from most travel guides at the time, though Frommer’s South America made a point of mentioning it — in the chapter titled "Nations You Should Avoid." In many people's eyes, Colombia was a nearly failed nation.
The state of his home country troubled Pedro Medina, who at the time was a professor of business strategy and entrepreneurial development at Los Andes University in Bogotá, Colombia. One afternoon during class, he asked his 39 engineering students how many of them saw themselves in Colombia in five years.
Only 12 of them raised their hands. The rest turned the question back on him: "Why should we stay?"
"The coffee, the emeralds, the two oceans, the flowers," Medina replied. But his answer was not compelling enough. "I couldn’t sell my country to my students," he recalled.
He wrote, researched and created a talk, "Why One Should Believe in Colombia," and then he presented it to hundreds of audiences over a period of eight months, earning rave reviews. Everyone from community members to the police got behind the idea, which invigorated Medina and compelled him to start a foundation dedicated to building trust in his country. He named it Yo Creo en Colombia (I Believe in Colombia).
Yo Creo en Colombia, a grassroots initiative, empowers Colombians to understand their country's achievements, potential and resources, and to leverage those to build a fair, competitive and inclusive nation. From 1999 to 2004, Medina and his team — three full-time employees and 1,900 volunteers — traveled around the world to deliver more than 5,150 programs to Colombians living in Colombia and abroad in 157 cities and 26 countries. As a result of their efforts, more than 680,000 Colombians have benefited from the organization's programs.
“We're a lean, mean, fighting machine,” Medina said of his nonprofit. “We add value by building collective self-esteem and social capital.”
He has received hundreds of testimonials from Colombians who have been positively influenced by the organization. "They tell us that our message changed their lives, that because of our stories, they decided to return to Colombia, or not to leave, or to invest, or to change their attitudes," Medina said. "Our scope is broad … [we have had an effect on everyone] from high school students to presidential candidates to business leaders to beauty queens."
Medina's initiative has transformed both individual Colombians and the nation as a whole. At a time when his country was on the brink of disaster, Medina worked closely with a group of other business leaders in Bogotá to generate hope and trust among Colombians. As a fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University in 2002–03, he researched methodologies to build social capital, confidence and reciprocity among the citizens of his native country. From 2004 to 2005, he was a Batten Fellow at Darden; he investigated the connection between individuals and entrepreneurial opportunities in emerging economies and how entrepreneurship education can facilitate that connection. His foundation continues to conduct asset-based development research of what works in Colombia, in the hopes of creating a model to empower other nations.
Medina did not begin his career as a social entrepreneur. After earning a bachelor's degree in economics, history and international relations from the University of Virginia, he spent two years working for the Southwestern Company of Nashville, Tennessee, before returning to Charlottesville to earn his MBA at Darden. When he graduated in 1986, he was hired to open the Colombia operation of Mobil Chemical. From there, he went on to create an international market for Propilco, the largest petrochemical firm in Colombia.
When he later accepted the role of president of McDonald's in Colombia, the company insisted he earn another degree — a bachelor's in hamburgerology from Hamburger University in Chicago. For seven years, Medina used the knowledge he acquired from the Golden Arches' academy to expand the corporation's international reach. He brought the McDonald's brand to his country and developed 350 local suppliers, six of which are now regional suppliers. Under his leadership, McDonald's Colombia opened 10 restaurants in the first 12 months and 33 restaurants in his seven years, and became the top employer of college students in the country.
Today, Colombia is a completely different nation from what it was in 1999. Foreign investments in the country have increased from $1.8 billion in 2000 to $15.8 billion in 2012. The number of violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants has decreased from 67 to 32 since 1999. "We received 5,000 visitors from the United Sates in 1999, compared to 500,000 in 2012," Medina said. "There are now four international tourism guides that tout Colombia as the place to visit."
According to Medina, Colombia's dramatic improvements can be attributed to three main factors: "better leadership, Plan Colombia [an initiative created to end Colombian armed conflict and develop an anti-cocaine strategy] and a more engaged civil society." Yo Creo en Colombia has significantly helped Colombians develop agency in a civil society by teaching them to believe in their country and its inherent value.
Medina's ferocious tenacity and his unwavering dedication to his homeland have not gone unnoticed. In 2004, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and El Colombiano recognized him as an Exemplary Colombian. He was celebrated by the business magazine Dinero as one of the 20 top businessmen of the year in 2001, and in 2006, he was a finalist for the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurship Award and was chosen by Cambio magazine as one of the top 50 leaders under 50 in Colombia.
Medina, whom many consider a rare visionary who has made a significant impact on his country, avoids the limelight when he can and prefers spending time at La Minga, a Colombian environmental reserve that he owns. "To relax, I go to the waterfalls in La Minga and balance the positive ions of the city with the negative ions," he said of his favorite weekend ritual.
Medina also dreams of exploring South America, and he plans to embark on a six-month sabbatical there in 2020 in honor of his 60th birthday.