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A Candid Conversation with Ingrid Gonzalez, President and Chairwoman of Positive Planet

When did you first become aware of Positive Planet?

Two years ago, I met Jacques Attali and he shared his passion for the French organization he had created, Positive Planet. It is devoted to “making the world more positive,” economically, socially, environmentally, and democratically. He has long been committed to making a difference, and he shared his vision of launching Positive Planet in the U.S. We had a fascinating conversation, followed by another… and then he asked me if I would be interested in leading the launch in the U.S., which I thought about for a bit. Ultimately, his idea resonated with me because I have always been driven by a desire to give back. I was the first U.S. volunteer. I am proud to say that now there are over 60 of us.

Why do you think you had that drive to give back?

I was born and raised in Southern France by an immigrant family from Spain and Italy. My family was quite poor, yet I was fortunate since in Europe access to education is less expensive than it is in the U.S. If you study hard as I did, you can get a high-quality education. I was very blessed all along my journey. I had wonderful mentors who encouraged me to think big, be bold, and value my education.

When I was a student, I worked a lot of jobs to stay in school. I studied business because I felt like an entrepreneur at heart. I graduated with a Master’s degree in entrepreneurship, though I have never launched a business myself. I got lucky at the beginning of my career as I was hired by IBM, where I fell in love with the world of technology. From the start, I told myself that one day, when I found my voice, I would try to change lives as my own life had been changed by the people who mentored me.

Several people gave me a chance, and that is what inspired me to come forward now and say – I want to give back. And that is what drew me to Positive Planet’s mission. Its focus is on extending a helping hand to people with the ambition to better their lives who do not have access to the education, connections, or funding for the support they need. We want to teach entrepreneurs “how to fish”, as the expression goes. We focus on giving them tools to help themselves and their communities. There is obviously a big need in America – so many people have big dreams, they have the desire and the drive, they just need a little help to make their dreams come true.

What support does Positive Planet need in the U.S. to ensure its core idea of “helping people help themselves” is effective?

In Europe, Positive Planet is supported by local governments. It is a credible and reputable non-profit organization with a long track record of success in transforming lives and their related communities. They have impacted millions of lives.

In America, we are early in our organization’s journey. We are seeking critical partnerships to enable us to scale and create a real impact. We launched a marquee program with the goal of helping entrepreneurs create sustainable businesses. We take them through a three-year journey, which starts with our 10-week Accelerator Hub program, focusing on helping entrepreneurs in underserved communities build their business plans and launch their businesses. After the Accelerator Hub, they embark on a journey of continuous learning, sharing, and networking, with the support of our communities of corporate partners, coaches, volunteers, and other entrepreneurs. Through the whole journey, we provide entrepreneurs with access to the knowledge, capital, and connections they need to thrive and make an impact.

We are looking for corporate partners that know what it takes to launch and grow businesses in the U.S. and have a corporate social responsibility imperative to create an impact for socially and economically underserved communities. We have already run three cohorts of entrepreneurs through our initial program in partnership with Genpact and CapGemini, with fantastic feedback from the entrepreneurs. The amazing professionals at our partners, be they coaches or subject matter experts, have been able to make a real difference in collaboration with the Positive Planet volunteers. We are looking to expand our partnerships with other corporations that share our values and priorities.

Do you feel that in some way society and businesses are only now catching up with where Positive Planet has been concentrating its efforts for so many years? There is a renewed emphasis all around us on proactively trying to address some of the inequities that are the result of years of entrenched economic and social challenges. There is a recognition that the playing field is not even, that meritocracy alone cannot solve such deep inequalities.

Absolutely, at Positive Planet we meet budding entrepreneurs where they are. If they have an idea, they can reach out to us, and we will give them access to a pool of coaches, entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, industry subject matter experts, and topical mentors. We will help these aspiring business owners refine their business plans and develop three-year outlook and operating plans. Then during those three years, we will check in regularly with them to learn what outcomes they have achieved. We will provide them with support in coordination with our four communities: corporate partners, coaches, subject matter experts, Positive Planet volunteers, and the other entrepreneurs going through our program. The program will also be agile so we can improve it to better help future entrepreneurs. For example, our current Accelerator Hub graduates shared their desire for support with financing and networking, and we are adding to our curriculum and securing partnerships in these areas.

Our target entrepreneurs are those truly in the start-up phase: businesses that have between zero and one year of activity and business owners with income of less than $30,000 per year. We are also open to people who have ideas and just do not know how or where to start. Our coaches will work with them on how to pitch their ideas to investors, how to distill their ideas into a business model, and help them identify actions to materialize their ideas into sustainable companies.

What is the greatest challenge you face in terms of scaling the programs, especially as an organization that stands on the shoulders of international giants but is still mostly unknown in this country?

Right now, our organization is made up entirely of volunteers. I am so grateful to the volunteers who are supporting us, giving their hearts, time, and skills to make a difference and support our growth. Our biggest challenge is to build a model that can scale up rapidly because we believe the need in front of us is immense. For that, we have to secure and retain the best talent. We also have to find corporations and other organizations that are ready to invest in the continued development of Positive Planet. All this so that we can grow our programs and impact many more lives. Our goal is that at least 85% of every penny we receive going forward, from the generous gifts from our Board of Directors to every individual and corporate contribution, goes to support our entrepreneurs. Ideally, we would also like to have the funding in place to hire a core dedicated operational team solely focused on our growth and program delivery. Our mission aligns with the values of so many companies: we have the same goals and interests regarding sustainable development and promoting and encouraging gender equality and equal opportunity and inclusion for all. We just need to get the word out there more

What has been most rewarding for you in your own journey?

Without a doubt, it is seeing the participants in our Accelerator Hub program graduate. Then hearing from them how their personal lives have changed, how we gave them hope and the tools to change their lives and have an impact in their communities. It is very emotional witnessing actual impacts in such personal and tangible ways. We need more support from organizations to be able to expand this opportunity for transformation to many more lives.

Running an all-volunteer organization is a daunting task: you need to keep everyone engaged and inspired, constantly. How do you stay energized and inspired?

I have been extraordinarily lucky in the two years that Positive Planet US has been in existence. All the volunteers keep me inspired, at every level of the organization, from an incredibly dedicated leadership team to the dozens of people around the country and around the world who choose to give their very best to such an important cause, without being obligated to do so. They are so loyal to their beliefs and values. We are building something together – we graduated over 38 entrepreneurs in one year, in some ways that is just a start, but that is also a large number of lives that have been transformed. To hear how they are actively creating a more positive world, how they are changing the future, one step at a time, is deeply rewarding and it keeps me energized – it is extraordinary to see their journeys. I cannot wait to see what our graduates and future entrepreneurs create, and how they in turn pay it forward in their communities!

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