An Interview With Eth(n)ik’s Petterson Molina Vale
Eth(n)ik is a young, entrepreneurial venture, with a social mission, that of protecting amazon forests in brazil and sustaining the people who live in them. In Amazonia, forest communities generate most of their income from the extraction of latex from Hevea brasiliensis trees. The latex is used to produce waterproof fabrics (“vegetal leather”), which can be made into bags, clothing, and accessories. Using ancestral knowledge and family labor, these artisans can achieve only limited production and minimal income. That has led many to migrate to the cities, leaving the forests vulnerable to clear cutting.
Eth(n)ik hopes to change that by bringing updated technologies, market know-how, and design awareness to the process, helping these artisans to generate more income, and strengthening their communities. Petterson Molina Vale, a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics founded Eth(n)ik in 2010 and was a finalist in the McKinsey Students in Society 2011 contest, he spoke with McKinsey’s Ryan Adams about his organization.
Adams: Petterson, it’s evident that Eth(n)ik started with an entrepreneurial idea and a passion for social change. That seems to be a trend among young people today—to take on big societal problems, and to do so in a more entrepreneurial way, rather than simply donating time or money to a traditional charity. Why do you think this cultural mind-shift is happening?
Vale: People today are having more and more contact with the realities of the world: the poverty that exists, the disparities between the developing and developed world, and the growing inequality we face globally. We’ve become connected in ways previously unimaginable.
Adams: And that’s what is so interesting about the work that you’re doing; it comes across as very much a commitment to do well and do good. Is it because, as you mentioned, we are so much more connected? Are we truly global now, and that’s why we’re reaching out and connecting in different ways?
Vale: Today, there is so much knowledge about what works and what does not work. What we are learning is that the “big plan” style of development, where the solution is putting together a lot of money, well, that kind of thing doesn’t work.
People who study development and who work in the development business are realizing more and more that you actually have to build development from the ground up, working with and including the individuals who you are trying to help. This is a very hard process that has harsh realities. You have to really understand the specific problems.
I think people are shifting towards that more micro-level idea, which of course, requires a lot of innovation. It requires concrete action, and it takes time. Social innovators now have a couple of decades of experience. We’ve learned that as much as we use our brain to make profit for our businesses, we also have to use our brain to produce true development, sustainable development.
Adams: When you talk about true development, you’re saying that it needs to be thoughtful, innovative, sustainable, and a lot of the time, small in size. Let’s apply that to Eth(n)ik; how is Eth(n)ik thoughtful, innovative, and sustainable?
Vale: The big thing with Eth(n)ik is that we focus on both the community’s well-being and the environment. The communities that we work with believe in the forest; it is their home, their livelihood, and most importantly, they are the protectors of the forest. It’s important for us to respect that while also acknowledging that we can’t be purely environmental—we can’t say, “Let’s not deforest.”The communities we work with have a low standard of living, but they want to remain in the forest. If we can help raise income for these people, they can do that. This is hugely important because many of them are migrating out of the forest as they can’t make enough money. Our goal is that they can sustainably remain in the forest. We want them to stay there with a good quality of life, which they do not have today. The question becomes, how do we raise their incomes? This is where Eth(n)ik comes in. We want to expose the communities and the products they’re creating to markets where there is a lot of money. So the specific problem that we’re tackling is connecting to these markets. The goal is to keep as much of the value there, with the forest communities. And that’s where, I believe, the innovation comes in.
Adams: Social innovation—what does that mean to you? What are its possibilities and constraints?
Vale: I believe the biggest challenge with this is, how do you become dreamy, but also pragmatic? Everybody has an opinion on how to do good. But most of the time, those ideas are not practical. They are just not pragmatic at all. You have to look at the problems of your community, and you have to be able to find solutions that are feasible. You have to be realistic, and in today’s world, that means finding a solution that creates good but is sustainable and can support itself—you have to be able to make money.
Adams: What sort of advice do you have for the next wave of entrepreneurs, as someone who has started this process, had this fantastic idea, and is fully committed and engaged to it now?
Vale: My first bit of advice would be to look for the opportunities, because they’re there for you to start making your idea become true. You’re not going to have these opportunities every day; if you’re not looking for them, you’re not going to find them. My second piece of advice, which adheres to our core philosophy at Eth(n)ik, is that you should somehow be connected to the place where your project is having an impact. You need to be there, spend time there, talk to people there, and create your networks there. Because that’s the only way you’re really going to develop the capacity to do something that actually works and is impactful. That’s my advice.