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Social Entreprenuership Finds a Home in Uruguay

Words by Leon Kaye

On what was once a factory shop floor in the Montevideo neighborhood of Palermo, 20-somethings huddle over their laptops at large tables or gather in minimalist conference rooms. Up one level, a 3D printer is surrounded by funky-shaped parts it had just churned out. A few steps away, past more offices, a ping-pong table is available for those who need a break from writing code or smiling and dialing for investors. Modern furniture in bright primary colors adds to a setting one would take for granted in tech centers such as Silicon Valley, Santa Monica or Boston. Judging by the logos I saw, the tenants here are an eclectic bunch: social entrepreneurs, tech companies and non-profits are among the of occupants.

Welcome to Sinergia Cowork, the first shared office space in Uruguay. For those of us long accustomed to co-working spaces—such as us at Triple Pundit, where we have churned out content and held events at San Francisco’s Hub for years—our reaction at first may be ho-hum.

But for Uruguayans dedicated to building businesses that can help create social change, this six-month old space is a huge and exciting step forward because there had never been a place for them to work, meet and learn from each other. The three floors of Sinergia hum with excitement—quite a contrast in this city of 1.5 million that otherwise I would describe as calm, placid and relaxed.

You may not have noticed, but Uruguay has been busy in recent years. The international press often focuses on its eccentric president, Jose Mujica, and the recent laws passed in this nation of 3.3 million people--notably the trio of new laws that legalized abortion, same-sex marriage and marijuana. Many Uruguayans, however, roll their eyes when this is mentioned as they prefer to focus on three things that form much of the nation’s identity: football, mate and beef. Others highlight a sophisticated culture with a long progressive history, tango that rivals neighbor Argentina and the gauchos who have long helped shape the country’s rugged identity.

Speaking of cowboys, the plains and hills that are home to cattle also are feeding more of the world—one display I saw at the nation’s national fair estimated that in 2005, Uruguay produced enough food to feed 9 million people. That number surged to 28 million in 2013; much of that increase is because of soy grown and then shipped to China, now Uruguay’s largest trading partner. The result of the commodity boom has been steady economic growth, a decade after the 2002 banking crisis wrecked the nation’s economy.

While the macroeconomic indicators, including reductions in the poverty rate and the unemployed may look impressive, not everyone in Uruguay has benefited. I was caught off-guard by the sticker shock I witnessed as it had been six years since I had last visited—the cost of food and services have in general doubled. “It’s too expensive for young people to live here,” a government official told me last month as I toured the country’s national legislative building. “Imagine your salary as a teacher is $700 a month and your rent is $500, since Montevideo is getting more unaffordable. How can anyone get by?” She continued to explain that the country’s population has decreased the last few years as many young people seek opportunities in Uruguay’s much larger neighbors, Argentina and Brazil, or across the Atlantic in Spain. An influx of other Latin Americans, especially Venezuelans who see Uruguay as a safe haven from the Chavista-driven chaos in their country, has countered that exodus, but for many Uruguayans, getting ahead in what some say is the most expensive nation in Latin America is a huge challenge. Wages just do not keep up with the rising cost of living.

“So we need a place where social entrepreneurs can have a place to follow their dreams,” said Macarena Botta, Executive Director of Sinergia Cowork during my visit there two weeks ago. “Networking in Uruguay had always been for the very elite. So we provide a platform where we can meet, have workshops, mentor each other, make connection and share ideas. It’s a place for the democratization of entrepreneurship in Uruguay.”

It was an uphill climb for Botta and the six partners who founded Sinergia. While the politics in Uruguay may come across as progressive, this is still in many ways a very traditional society. Real estate is expensive in Montevideo because many Uruguayans see land as a much safer bet than stocks and bonds. Banks would not consider loaning money to open a co-working space, because of an ingrained belief that social entrepreneurs cannot make a profit. Add the country’s notorious bureaucracy, high taxes and other structural problems rife in Uruguay, and it is impressive such a place even opened at all. But Botta and her partners’ determination paid off. “63% of the world’s population is that ‘base of the pyramid’,” explained Botta, “and there are people here with great ideas who can make a difference.”

Sinergia is now almost at full occupancy. Botta explained that advertising was really limited to social media—entrepreneurs and young companies came to them. Many have stayed, in part because of the flexibility Sinergia offers its tenants. “No one helps you when you start a business, so we want this to be a place where new ideas can find success,” said Botta. There are no long-term lease agreements—companies and individuals just pay month to month. Botta also insists prospective tenants spend a day at Sinergia to make sure they are a fit. “We are not a cheap solution for office space, so we want people to experience it here before they commit,” she added, “and we know this is working well, because after five months, we can see the collaboration and creativity building every day.”

Botta and her team have more ambitions for Sinergia. Plans are on the drawing board to launch a business incubator—again, a new idea for Uruguay. The building will become a hub for entrepreneurial events such as Creative Mornings, long popular in North America and Europe but novel in Uruguay.

In the next couple weeks, I will highlight some of the social enterprises that are looking to change the social landscape in Uruguay, including Oportunidar, Ecoalsur and Socialab. They are examples of how some of the country’s brightest minds are enacting social change in Uruguay and throughout Latin America.

After a year in the Middle East and Latin America, Leon Kaye is based in California again. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter. Other thoughts of his are on his site, greengopost.com.

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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