Leveraging the collaborative economy for social mobility

Two young adults in urban area of Bogata, Columbia

The Skoll Centre’s Apprenticing with a Problem (AWAP) awards support individuals to engage in experiential learning and deep immersion around the challenges that they seek to tackle. Ana María Ñungo, of the Oxford Saïd MBA class 2016-17 set out to understand some of the issues surrounding access to higher education in Colombia, which has major consequences for social mobility.

Tell us a bit about your background

I was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia. However, for the last 10 years I have lived abroad. I am an electrical engineer, and prior to the MBA I worked in the energy industry (utility and renewables) and also founded a non-profit focused on energy access. During the MBA, I co-founded Language Amigo, a social enterprise that creates opportunities for low income youth in Latin America.  

What is the problem that you were interested in tackling?

I was looking at the current situation of university students in Colombia who have to work while studying, and whether they have adequate job opportunities. I was also interested in seeing how this problem relates to student’s retention in higher education, as the dropout rate in Colombia is almost 50%, which is amongst the highest even for Latin American countries. Lastly, I wanted to learn about the development of the collaborative economy in the country, as it can represent a good opportunity for these students who are struggling financially.

How did you use the AWAP award?

I travelled to Colombia and lived there for a few months, during which time I was able to fully dedicate myself to looking into this issue on the ground, working with universities, students, and other experts in higher education.

My main partner was the Universidad Distrital Francisco José de Caldas, which is one of the largest public higher education institutions in the country. With their help, I conducted a survey that reached +150 students and gave me first-hand information about their thoughts and experiences on the problem. I also interviewed students, as well as professors and other university personnel that were experts in topics such as student drop out and employment opportunities. This includes José Manuel Restrepo, who was the chancellor of the Universidad del Rosario and is now the Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism of Colombia. Additionally, I met and learned from people who are leading projects to support the development of the collaborative economy in in Latin America.

This experience also allowed me to meet some of the college students who are now part of my social enterprise Language Amigo. They are not only generating flexible income, but also learning and thriving as part of an early stage international start-up.

What stands out to you most from your learnings over the period?

So many learnings during this time! Amongst the most important for me are:

  • In a city like Bogotá, where my research was primarily based, most students think that there are job opportunities, however, most of them agree that the opportunities are not appropriate for students.  
  • What most students want or need is flexibility, adequate compensation and opportunities that are aligned with their academic programs. Flexibility not only in terms of schedule but also location. Some students have to commute +3 hours/day in order to attend university and work, and over 70% of the surveyed students said that their compensation was lower than the minimum wage. Also, except for people who are doing internships (which are usually only available for a small percentage of final year students), most jobs are not related to their fields of study.
  • Universities, employers, and even government organizations are either ignoring this issue or trying to address it in a siloed way.
  • While there are many factors that lead students to drop out of university, socio-economic issues are one of the most significant. I heard in interviews that for many low- or middle-income families, this drop-out problem represents a frustrated dream for a whole family and for all the people that supported the student and believed that they were going to have a different future.

What was your most surprising finding?

While the collaborative and digital economy is a good potential opportunity for students who are in much need of flexibility, there is very little knowledge about digital platforms that offer self-employment or freelancing opportunities. Only 21% of students knew about these digital platforms and just 5% had actually worked with them. In addition, one of the biggest challenges for collaborative economy entrepreneurs in Latin America was that people simply didn’t know about them or their platforms.  

I think that students are very immersed in the digital world, however, they are not yet utilizing it to find the flexible jobs that already exist on digital platforms.

How has Apprenticing with a Problem changed the approach you are taking to tackling your problem?

I learned how to reach college students in more efficient and effective ways. Even just to have students answer a survey or be interviewed seemed to be a challenge at first. But strategies like having strong partnerships and learning about the specific social media where students are active were key to catching students’ attention and obtaining a response.

I also realized that it made more sense for my start-up to recruit youngsters who are studying languages as they can find and provide more value to our mission. We are basically applying the lesson of aligning the job opportunities with their fields of study.

What advice would you give to other setting out to tackle complex social or environmental problems?

  • It is definitely useful, and I would say it’s almost a must, to have partners on the ground that are very familiar with the problem and have access to your target population. Do as much field research as possible by yourself as well.
  • Don’t be shy and ask others who have researched similar issues. Prior to going to Colombia, I read many articles and emailed all the authors I found. The response was positive and many of them were happy to give me an interview.
  • Be open-minded, some of the information on the ground may be completely different from what you had thought. In my case, I thought I knew the university student life in Bogotá since I studied there for almost 4 years. However, things have changed quite significantly! I ended up joining over 20 Facebook groups to learn about current student life and reach out to them.