This week we chatted with Nuria Valero. Nuria is an engineer by training but her vocation is social entrepreneurship. She's currently working on a very interesting project by the name of FUNTRIP4ALL, an online tourism and leisure activity marketplace with a special emphasis on offering services and activities for disabled people.
Hi Nuria, can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about you?
Hi! Well I'm an engineer, I have experience in technical consulting nationally and internationally and I'm currently studying an MBA. But my background is more diverse than just that. I like to define myself as a transdisciplinary engineer in continuous learning and self-improvement.
I have 6 years of experience as an energy efficiency and climate change consultant. I put a lot of effort into becoming that (post-grad courses, a master's, certifications...) but I began to discover other interests (anthropology, neuroscience, art, design...). This combined with a little bit of an identitary and values crisis that led me to decide to change directions.
I decided to do a teaching master's degree and even though I wasn't sure if I was going to become a teacher it helped me discover new paths by taking courses on social and educational innovation, discovering authors like Sir Ken Robinson or Viktor Frankl, or discovering TED talks.
But the most interesting part came when I decided to fully break with the conventional path and I began getting involved in more creative environments. In design, the maker movement, the startup and entrepreneurship ecosystem, and finally with what I now consider my tribe: the Sharing Economy and OuiShare. I want to highlight the important role played in this by MOB (which was my gateway into this new world) and Swapsee (at one of their events titled “Concept Jam” I met Ana Manzanedo and she introduced me to OuiShare).
Tell us about Fun Trip 4 All: where/how did you get the idea and what motivated you to do it?
Funtrip4all is a web platform with leisure, tourism and cultural activities. It's a peer2peer marketplace that connects tourists with locals that share their interests, whether professional or amateur, and it is accessible for disabled people. The three core principles that structure the project are citizen empowerment, social inclusion, and the development of the local economy.
About the idea, I have to point out that we're currently three partners working on the project: Jennifer Baños, Enrique Varela and myself. Enrique joined because of his personal and professional interest (over 35 years in IT and disabilities, founder and president of various institutions like FTS, Fundación Tecnología Social – Social Technology Foundation). As to Jennifer, we discovered that despite never having met before and both of us hailing from totally different backgrounds we both had the same idea. I approached it from a sharing economy perspective and I was closely involved in a story that led to FUNTRIP4ALL, while Jennifer's starting point was contact with the disabled community and people at risk of social exclusion. She saw p2p platforms as an opportunity to leverage the programs she was working on directly and achieve a much greater impact. They introduced us, we connected very easily, and we decided to merge our two projects and collaborate.
I'll tell you about the story I was involved in: Carlos M. wanted to learn how to ride a bicycle and do some road cycling. He had gotten in touch with ONCE but due to how complicated communication was they thought it was too dangerous and weren't able to help him. Carles V. is a cycling enthusiast and they fortunate enough to meet at a talk organized by the “Deaf Persons Association of Vic”. It was quite an experience for both of them, with a number of falls, but well worth it.
Carles V. is not a tourism professional but he has skills that he can share and that can be very useful: he speaks English, Sign Language (LSC), and he knows how to do tandem cycling with blind and deafblind people. At the other end there are many national and foreign tourists that would love to go on a cycling route, whether alone, with friends or with family. Our objective is to facilitate that, to connect wants and needs, and hopefully by doing so help the local economy a bit.
But we want to go beyond just facilitating, we want disabled people to take initiative and be the 'producers' – those offering services. Who can offer a blind person a better tour of a city, a tour guide or a local blind person?
While 'conventional' entrepreneurs usually visualize hypergrowth and a profitable exit for them and their investors as the final objective in a markedly social project such as yours I imagine priorities must be different. So tell us, what is your objective with FT4A?
The objectives are different because in the first case they are mainly economic, whereas in the second they are economic but also social. The project's values are very important because they will act as the guiding compass that tells us what paths to follow and what decisions to make. In this case the end doesn't justify the means if these involve betraying the core values that compose the identity of the project.
However it's important to break with the dichotomy of “business/money” and “ngo/social”. FUNTRIP4ALL is not an NGO or an association; it's a business and as such it has to be viable and sustainable. The more economically successful it is, the more actions we'll be able to carry out and the greater the impact we'll have.
FUNTRIP4ALL's mission is to improve the quality of life and personal development of disabled persons through leisure, tourism and sports. We promote normalization and equal opportunity both when organizing and participating in these activities. We want to achieve this by fostering the figure of the micro-entrepreneur, especially people that have a disability or special needs that they can turn into their differentiating trait.
The number of social entrepreneurship projects we see nowadays is constantly growing; why do you think that is?
I think this is a subject where we need to differentiate between projects that are just hopping on the bandwagon because 'social entrepreneurship' is cool right now and the term is a powerful marketing term, and those that truly have a soul. If you think about it, most startups claim to be attempting to make the world a better place in some part of their discourse. And that doesn't only happen in the US, I'm seeing it more in Spain now too.
We have the mistaken notion that 'social' is altruism, ngo's, volunteering, groups in precarious situations... but the truth is that 'social' is anything that has a tangible impact on people's natures. And I say 'nature' in a biological, organic and anthropological sense. There are a ton of things we can do that have a REAL impact on PEOPLE, on their development, and on the economy. And there are many ways to achieve them.
We're in the middle of a period of economic crisis but there's also in a period of crisis of values and priorities and of social transformation. Generally speaking, I think up until recently only those that were relatively privileged felt they could start new companies. But now suddenly more people are giving it a shot. People from different backgrounds, with different interests, and with lifestyles, visions and objectives that are completely different too.
Another thing worth pointing out is that an ecosystem to support social entrepreneurship projects is starting to develop. An example would be Barcelona Activa's social entrepreneurship program that just began this year and in which we have been involved for the last 5 months. Near the end of the month we'll have our final presentations in front of a jury and the best project will win an award with a monetary compensation.
You participated in the YUZZ program for new entrepreneurs. Can you tell us a bit about it and how it has helped you?
I participated in the program last year in Tarragona. I won the award for best project with FUNTRIP4ALL and got to go to Silicon Valley for a week with the other winners from all over Spain. Simultaneously, Jennifer was participating in YUZZ Sant Feliu de Llobregat, where she came second.
We met a month before the program finished and at the final presentation in Tarragona we attended as a team together with Enrique and one more person, Angel Ariño, who helped us during the beginning.
YUZZ is a training, mentorship, and counseling program for young entrepreneurs with technological projects. They accept projects in very early stages. In fact, I applied when the only thing I had was the story about Carles M. and Carles V. and a single call to action. YUZZ is funded by Santander Bank and it works in association with local institutions in each city chapter, in our case Tarragona Impulsa and Sant Feliu Innova, both of which depend on the city council in their respective cities.
It's a program that helps you develop your business idea and business plan, there's a training scheme, and it offers special workshops to develop useful skills for entrepreneurs. They also assign you a personal tutor from SECOT, retired professionals that have held senior positions during their careers and that can support and guide you with their experience, their knowledge and their pragmatism towards creative and innovative ideas. This is very useful because you can have a great idea and a great attitude and commitment but not know exactly how to get started and work through all the possible implementations and possibilities that stem from it. Plus, creative people tend to be a little disperse and it's good to have someone helping you that is pragmatic and keeps you grounded.
As to how it helped me... well it helped me a lot. If I hadn't participated in YUZZ i likely wouldn't have a legally registered company and I wouldn't be developing and implementing my business plan for real.
When I began I had no intention of starting my own company. I saw myself joining another project of working on innovation within a larger company. When I first heard about YUZZ I didn't have a specific idea in mind, or rather I had too many ideas. When I was selected I had to decide on a single idea and actually start dedicating time and effort to it. And I think the results were fantastic: I started with a single call to action and a story and I finished with a team, a business plan, and the first place prize. But the most important thing is that they continue to support us from Tarragona Impulsa and Sant Feliu Innova, and that's not frequent in entrepreneurial programs. In Tarragona we have an external mentor with significant experience in counseling, management, and busines development for new companies, and in Sant Feliu we have access to a workspace in their coworking area and even a private room when it's available. And we know they've got us in mind and if anything interesting for us comes up.
Now that you've been working on your project for some time you've surely got advice and recommendations for people that want to start their own businesses for the first time...
I can think of quite a few, the most important ones are the following:
Talk to others and do a lot of listening. There are a lot of people out there that can and will be willing to help you so find them and ask them. But the most important thing is being willing to have your assumptions challenged and even shattered, and to incorporate what you learn and make the most of it. It's also better to engage with people from close up, more so than reading their works or listening to them at a conference.
Don't get caught up in what all those “10 Thing you need to do so start your business...” articles say. Some of them can be useful and provide inspiration or ideas you can use but every business is different and will have its own requirements and unique needs. There are no magical formulas. We need to learn how to integrate all the noise that comes from outside with our personal compass that tells us what to do.
Surround yourself with positive people that have powerful can do attitude. Putting yourself in the right environment and working with the right people can help a ton during all stages of your project.
Team, team, team, team, team. A single individual can't make a big project work on their own... and if there's anyone that has I'd like to meet them! So many things go into building a successful business, so many differnt skillsets and abilities are needed, that it's impossible for one person to do it. Plus, the sheer volume of work requires more heads, hands and feet to actually get things done. And the same thing applies to collaborators, not just the team. The requirements of an innovative project are so high and diverse that all your collaborators and advisors need to be great fits, it's not enough to have regular employees or freelancers doing the work, you need people that identify and align 100% with your project.
Get off the computer and test and engage directly with the people that will become your users. An innovative idea is based on a hypothesis, you don't need to build the whole thing to validate it. What you need to do is break it down into smaller hypothesis that you can validate individually using experiments. These experiments will give you the information you need to proceed with development and will save you quite a few disappointments, as well as money and time.
And the last one: remember technology is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. It's easy to focus too much on the technological solution and lose sight of your true goals.
And to finish our interview, any thoughts you'd like to share as a goodbye?
Well I think I've shared quite bit throughout this conversation, but one more thing comes to mind:
Leisure, free time, and traveling are some of the moments in which our souls truly grow and our hearts smile and enjoy life. They are moments in which we feel fulfilled as individuals and we communicate, share, and build bonds with others. There are thousands of people that have experienced great changes for the better in their lives by traveling, and there are thousands more whose time off from work is what motivates them and keeps them going in their day to day.
However, there are a lot of people with special needs that face problems when they attempt to do these things, and most of the time being able to enjoy themselves would only require a little ingeniousness and creativity to overcome their obstacles.
Maybe the most important thought I can share is that you would be very surprised by the number of powerful and super accomplished people that have disabilities. Getting to know these people is the best part of this project.
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