Jose Rodriguez oversees anti-poverty programs for more than 50,000 families across El Salvador, Costa Rica, Peru, Nicaragua and Mexico. He’s spent more than 500 days traveling to program sights and witnessing what incredible transformations can take place take place when we decide to listen to mothers who are raising their families on less than $4 a day. Right now he’s focused on accelerating entrepreneurship among women from those communities by using a human-centered approach to innovation: moving away from leaders of institutions delivering grants for projects thousands of miles away in favor of a community-based approach that prioritizes the proposed solutions of those who are closest to the need.
Where did the idea for Unbound come from?
Unbound was founded in Kansas City 39 years ago by a group of five lay Catholics. The two principal founders, Bob Hentzen and Jerry Tolle, had worked as missionaries in Latin America. They wanted to do something about the grinding poverty they had witnessed, but they also wanted people in the U.S. to benefit from getting to know families in the developing world. Each year we send more than $100 million in personalized support to families across Latin America, Asia and Africa.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I serve as a regional director that works with local staff in five countries across Latin America. Together, we serve 50,000 families in that region. My role is to make sure that the teams have everything they need to do the work that that we need to for them to do with families. The single habit that makes my time more productive is listening to the team members and families from across the region. They have the insights that can unlock the next big innovation for our processes or program.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Right now, I’m focused on bringing the ideas of families in our program to life through entrepreneurship grants. And it all starts with listening and having a human-centered approach that focuses on the person rather than the product. At Unbound we start with the people and listen to what their needs are first. We use the following guidelines when determining what idea to fund:
They have their own ideas, not ours.
They have a quality product.
The have a profitable business
And they must have skin in the game. This is something that they rely on for their family’s income and to be able to get ahead.
What’s one trend that excites you?
Using a human-centered approach to innovation. We’re moving away from leaders of institutions delivering grants for projects thousands of miles away in favor of a community-based approach that prioritizes the proposed solutions of those who are closest to the need. [The results are so much stronger and just plan cooler than what we could concoct in a faraway office – there is a wealth of human ingenuity out there, we just have to invest in it!]
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Listening, especially to the families we serve. They’re my constant inspiration. Keeping the families that we serve top of mind. Many of them get by with incomes of a few dollars a day, yet they manage to keep their children clothed, fed, and going to school assisted by a stipend from Unbound.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Listen more. Listen to your users and let them lead you in developing the solutions. When we at Unbound did this, we ended up with families bringing in more money for themselves as their own bosses; on their own schedules; than they ever were receiving from the program in the first place.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Believe in the potential of the poor. I’ve seen families categorized as “poor” in terms of income around the world are now leaping ahead by starting small businesses because someone believed in them. Each business is based on the personal skills and talents of each family as well as the needs and challenges of each community. They love what they do, they know how to do it, but they just need a little capital to get to the next stage. Unbound has followed the lead of these pioneering families by creating a business accelerator program in which donors back the growth of microenterprises started by Unbound families.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Reaching out to my user base. Be it a product, service or program, I feel like my top job is to be an expert in my users –whether they be internal or external- so that I can be more effective in creating a space for them to create the solutions to their own challenges.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Each year we raise more than $100 million dollars and put it in the hands of families living in extreme poverty. We do this through the individual support of sponsors: one person at a time. Our sponsors are regular people, not big donors or huge government programs. They’re individuals who contribute $40 a month to support one family in need. Today we have 260,000 sponsors helping 300,000 families around the world.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Back in 2009 when I first started with Unbound, food insecurity among families our programs was at an all-time high. We decided to start a program to address it and encouraged our teams around the world to come up with sustainable development alternatives for the families to have food security. We ended up implementing classic social enterprises and one year later, each business failed.
That experience taught me that the program approach of our teams coming up with solutions and telling the families what to do, even with good intentions, was not effective. I learned that you must go to source. You must listen.
We missed an opportunity because we led with the solution that we came up with, rather than listening to her and adapting our solutions to our families’ actual needs.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
Each month I spend around $80 supporting two families in our sponsorship program.
As a sponsor of Henry in Honduras and Dona in India I’ve been privileged to get to watch them grow over the years. They have shown me how they face challenges with grace and determination and I’m honored to be able to cheer them from a distance to continue their journey out of poverty.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Microsoft Teams. For 11 years I’ve been used to travel internationally 60-90 days out of the year to meet with our teams and families. The pandemic has prevented me from traveling. and meeting with our staff and families in-person as usual. Microsoft teams has been instrumental in helping us stay connected to the work and the families we serve thousands of miles away at a time when they need us more than ever before. I’ve been setting up one-on-one meetings with colleagues around the region I work with to stay in close touch even from a distance.
- Success starts with listening and having a human-centered approach that focuses on the person rather than the product.
- When thinking of a new product or business, remember to listen. Listen to your users and let them lead you in developing the solutions.
- You will miss opportunities leading with solutions you came up with, rather than listening and adapting your solutions to your consumer’s actual needs.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.