Leveraging Barcelona, a city as a lab for learning

Prototyping social-focused experiences to solve social issues via social tourism.
A Special Europe Feature on Social Innovation – Interview with Elena Rodríguez Blanco, Co-Founder and Experience Designer, Authenticitys

In the morning of the day I was leaving Barcelona to London, I travelled up north from Parall-el Station, where I my Airbnb apartment was, to Fontana, an area where more locals stayed. Splitting up from my traveling pals, I took the metro and clutched on tightly to my personal belongings. Even my Sandelman’s walking guide, a seasoned Barcelona resident, had his stuff stolen just last month. Barcelona, my favourite city of the five I went to, was not without its defects, especially with the rate of unemployment hovering at 23.8% (Mar 2015), and 50.1% (Mar 2015) for youths.

For someone so accomplished and smart like Elena, I’m so thankful that she even wanted to meet me. She has bagged an MBA from SDA Bocconi and did her exchange in The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. She also has a Masters in Development Management from the London School of Economics. She also worked as a project management expert for the European Central Bank (Frankfurt), and General Electric (Milan, Paris, Barcelona). She is currently a professor at the ESADE Business School, and at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona and a researcher for the Institute of Social Innovation of ESADE. On top of her accolades, she is also a facilitator, researcher and consultant for organisations and entrepreneurs. She has now started-up her third social enterprise, Authenticitys, as a way to solve some of Barcelona’s current challenges.

I arrived a little early and waited for Elena in the convenience store just at the station. To my relief, she showed up pretty soon after and all was good as we settled in a cafe. Over a typical Catalan breakfast of tomato-spread toast and coffee, the vivacious Elena shared her journey and experiences with me.

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Halogen360 (H360): You have such varied experiences in business and development. How did you end up doing what you are doing now?

Elena Rodríguez (ER): When I was growing up (in a Costa Rican family) in El Salvador, I often helped out with translation for the Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) personnel who were reaching out to do humanitarian assistance in rural underdeveloped communities. Through these experiences, I observed that intervention without a systemic approach, can actually aggravate a situation. Often, they did not take into account the different factors that were involved and the initiatives that were rolled out did not change or impact the root causes of the problems.

This was a major motivation for me to study the topic of development where I focused in micro-finance and tourism. Through the merit-based scholarships I received, I had the chance to travel, develop my curiosity and connect with many cultures. As the opportunities arose, I took up jobs in New York, Germany and Spain in order to get business and professional experience.

H360: In the work that you do, what guides you? What is your approach?

ER: I first seek out the different factors that affect and impact the triple bottom-lines (profit, people and planet). I then analyse the validity and impact of these factors. After which, I design and then evaluate the strategies in their long-term effectiveness of solving the root of the issues be it the types of incentives we use, our growth rate (growing too fast or slow), or the effect we are creating (a bubble or real impact).

H360: Tell me more about your latest venture, Authenticitys.

ER: Authenticitys is an online platform that connects conscious travellers with local changemakers through experiences with a positive, local impact. Unlike tour operators, Authenticitys allows travellers to visit and experience the city through the stories of social initiatives and enterprises that are committed to making the city better through at least one of our six dimensions of impact: Health, Education, Environment and Resources, Local Economy + Employability, Freedom and Equality + Happiness.

Authenticitys is built around current unmet needs of the conscious tourist and social entrepreneurs. For tourists, Authenticitys addresses the problems of i) a growing need for local and authentic experiences, and ii) the need to travel responsibly by having a positive impact on the local environment or society. Authenticitys also provides social entrepreneurs access to financing as well as publicity, which is currently difficult to find for these businesses. Authenticitys can address both these issues in a win-win format of all participants in our network by channeling tourism euros to the organisations that are adding value to the local community.

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H360: What sparked you to start Authenticitys?

ER: After gaining experience in development via micro-financing, I started to notice that tourism, when channeled well, can be a great tool for development for both the people and the city. Currently in Spain, tourism makes up 15.7% of our GDP and generates 2.7 million jobs. If we place people in the centre of development, I believe we can create great impact and maintain cohesion.

From my first prototype of a social tourism venture, Bloom Microventures, in Vietnam three years ago, I’m proud to say that we are seeing positive community changes. This social enterprise harnesses the power of responsible tourism to alleviate poverty in rural Vietnam. The current managers, Loan and Ly, have been working close to villager who through receiving a several microloans from Bloom has set up an eco-lodge in Hoa Binh. It currently houses not only visitors that go for overnight stays, but also university students that do study tours with the organisation and learn and contribute more to microfinance and social entrepreneurship.

My approach to develop a more sustainable and beneficial model of tourism globally is by using the twin engines of building social-focused tours and creating the first platform that joins together tours around the world that have a positive social impact as we measure it. The Authenticitys platform creates a growing community of mission-aligned partners and travellers forming an ecosystem of people and organisations where impact is measured for each experience, organisation and for each traveller’s profile, with a firm commitment to transparency and impact with the mission to support local sustainable development and to alleviate urban poverty at its root.

H360: What are some upcoming activities we can expect from Authenticitys?

ER: This Summer, I’m prototyping social-focused experiences. Via the Authenticitys online platform and experiences, we aim to raise awareness and activate travellers to participate in the innovative solutions occurring in the cities, redirecting tourism revenues (+ 1 trillion EUR) towards the local economies. Visitors can easily access our authentic city experiences through our platform and be part of the transformative story evolving in cities. Travellers can book their experiences through the platform before arrival, or through one of our partner hotels in the cities.

The 3 prototypes are directed to

    • The evolving neighbourhood of El Raval in Barcelona, where many social entrepreneurs are uncovering solutions for change
    • Sustainable and local food
    • Sustainable and ethical fashion (made in Barcelona)

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H360: As an educator yourself, what do you educate your students on?

ER: I lecture on topics like social entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation, and social impact and work with new revolutionary tools such as Dragon Dreaming and Team Academy. I believe people learn best by doing and not by sitting and listening to a lecture only. I grade my students by the returns of their work, and all projects include a real-life prototype where they must engage with locals in the city where they live. Teamwork is the core of their work.

I’ve also developed the Authenticitys Challenge, to involve students from different universities and degrees to learn entrepreneurship by doing social good in the city. Since 2013, The Authenticitys Challenge has had over 100 actionable ideas with 500+ students from top universities and programs. The Authenticitys Challenge was born from a very clear need: Students were not experiencing the entire cycle of entrepreneurship. Living through the motivation cycle, the chaos, the uncertainty… the challenge allows them to start planting the necessary attitudes and competencies students require for being an entrepreneur. We have written a workbook to accompany the Challenge so that we can reach as many institutions worldwide as possible. Students are also travelling a lot, so we want to engage them into sustainable tourism down the road, thereby impacting the city and economy in a more beneficial way.

H360: What is one piece of advice you would like to give to our fellow educators?

ER: My wish is that more educators can motivate their students to create more and leverage the city as a lab for learning. I see that one of the key roles of education institutions, especially Universities, is to help connect students with their passions and the opportunities out there in the marketplace. I want to see education also more integrated and relevant to the needs of companies, not just an academic exercise.

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What I took away from interviewing Elena was her big and generous spirit, her resolve to tackle systemic issues and not just solving symptoms, and her dedication to bringing  solutions to her city through innovation. She’s a foodie too, and I look forward to eating Chicken Rice with her when she comes to Singapore next.

— Article by Jael Chng
Photos contributed by Jael Chng