May 4, 2021
Member Spotlight: IREX

From its global newsletter to its major annual events, ANDE members have access to a multitude of platforms for promoting their work and co-creating knowledge with other members. The ANDE Member Spotlight is a series of short, interview-based blog posts highlighting an ANDE member organization and any new projects, recent investments, or ongoing research with interesting learnings that add value to the ANDE community.

IREX is a nonprofit organization committed to global development and education, focusing on people and communities since 1968. IREX bridges geopolitical divides by fostering the exchange of scholars, teachers, students, and ideas.

ANDE spoke with Senior Program Officer Jennifer Fox to learn more about IREX and its Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI).

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you introduce yourself as well as tell us about IREX and the role it plays in the SGB ecosystem?

My name is Jennifer Fox and I am a Senior Program Officer at IREX — I’ve been at IREX for about five years and have focused most of my time on our Latin American programming in leadership development.

Our mission is to invest in people and institutions, meeting them where they are and developing their capacity to address challenges, adapt, and thrive. A few of the pillars of our work engage and empower youth by improving access to quality education and employment opportunities and catalyzing their civic engagement. We also cultivate leaders at all levels of society in order to drive positive change in their organizations, communities, and governments. Some of our programs are very focused on business, entrepreneurship, and economic development. We have a number of professional development exchanges, like the Mandela Washington Fellowship, focused on Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative, focused on the Western Hemisphere, which facilitate collaboration with U.S. businesses and organizations, and the Global Solutions program, which brings together college and university students across the United States, Iraq, and Jordan in a virtual business exposition.

Embedded in our programs is digital literacy and job skill training, and curricula that develops entrepreneurial thinking and problem-solving. The answer to your question, in a nutshell, is that we bring the right people together and create spaces for supportive networks, access to tools, experiences, and training so they can advance their small and growing businesses.

What is YLAI? What are the fellowship’s goals and how has it evolved since 2015?

The Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative is a fellowship program focused on business leaders and social entrepreneurs from Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean. We bring about 280 of these leaders, whose ages range from 25 to 35, to the U.S. for an intensive, six-week program. They engage with a specific entrepreneurial leadership curriculum, developed in partnership with the Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management.

Fellows are placed one-on-one with US businesses that are closely aligned with their industry or work that they do in their home countries. They have access to mentors while they are here who coach them through solutions to their business challenges, and then the program provides support through alumni initiatives, such as small grants, access to training, and networking events.

The goals of the program are to strengthen the economic and social development across the Americas through deepening business relationships and connections with the United States. This year, the program is taking place as a virtual fellowship due to the pandemic and its imposed travel restrictions, and while it looks a little different, we are confident that the program is still achieving those objectives. From business placements and curriculum sessions to cultural activities within the fellows’ smaller city cohorts and large program events, we are hearing about exciting connections and collaborations.

Since 2015, there have been a number of cohorts. This is the first year that IREX is implementing the program and we have happily been introduced to about 780 alumni from previous iterations of the program, and we learned a lot from working with them.

They are not only leaders in their businesses, but they are also often leaders in their communities, governments, and policy spheres. They are super creative and resilient; we’ve seen that especially in this last year. We’ve learned from working with alumni and our current fellow cohort, which is just wrapping up, is that there is always a greater appetite for more networking and spaces to connect. A lot of times, entrepreneurs in the region feel very isolated, depending on geography and established ecosystems, while others are tapped into more extensive networks. And there’s always a pervasive need of access to funding and capital.

What are you most excited about? Can you share any anecdotes from the program?

The program’s Closing forum took place in April, which is our culminating event to the fellowship. We had some exciting speakers, great ways to showcase our fellows’ challenges and successes, and a pitch competition for fellows to present a solution to their top business challenge. I am excited to see all these connections that the program has helped put in place and to see what evolves within the network. Of course, I’m excited for when travel can resume, so we can go back to doing a lot of these activities in person.

We are working with a fellow, David Chavez, from Ecuador. He is the co-founder and director of a restaurant that now has a couple of franchises throughout Quito, and in addition to running his business, he gives entrepreneurial talks to schools and universities. He advises startups, was the recipient of one of our alumni small grants and used this small grant to establish a podcast channel for Ecuadorian people affected by the pandemic. It is a high-energy and approachable education-focused series built to inspire and inform his listeners. He is trying to give a platform to a diverse group of guests to paint the picture of success for Ecuadorians and what they are going through now.

How can ANDE members get involved? How does IREX leverage the ANDE network?

We have worked with ANDE previously to circulate and promote opportunities of interest with their network. A wonderful way for people to get involved is if they are interested in hosting a fellow in a business in the United States, or if they might know someone who wants to mentor a fellow. They could also make time to read applications for future cohorts to help decide the next generation of YLAI.

We are also always looking for ideas on who to nominate for speakers. We just recently had some ANDE network members speak on an panel about access to capital and venture funding at our Closing Forum. And coming up on June 9th, ANDE will host a networking event between YLAI Fellowship Alumni and ANDE member organizations in the Western Hemisphere, and it’s a chance for any members to share about their work and meet fellows across a range of industries.