Some of our hemisphere's emerging leaders in politics, business, civil society, and the arts.

In this issue:
Andrés Levin, Yerba Buena, Music
Levin’s work blends musical experimentation with advocacy. Photo courtesy of Andrés Levin.

Arts Innovator: Andrés Levin

Martha Cargo

Andrés Levin built his first multitrack recording device at the age of eight in his parents’ home in Caracas. It was an appropriate start for an artist who has gone on to weave musical skill and technological precociousness into a career that has made him one of the most striking experimental artists of his generation.

Now 45, Levin is not only known for pushing the artistic envelope with his band, Yerba Buena, but also for his efforts to use music for social change. With his Cuban-born wife, actress/singer Cucu Diamantes, Levin organized the inaugural TEDxHabana conference in November 2014—just before President Barack Obama announced renewed diplomatic relations with the island. The event was meant as a platform to share ideas about technology and entrepreneurship during a critical moment of transition in Cuba. Levin says TEDxHabana provides a unique forum for Cubans to inspire each other with “ideas worth spreading.”

Levin’s musical talent runs in the family. His father, Luis Levin, a well-known animal behaviorist and scientist, founded an electronic music ensemble called Música Automática. The youngster was not allowed in the studio where his father’s ensemble rehearsed, but the rule led him to think of the studio as a “laboratory,” a place to explore, discover and innovate. He applied the same approach to his musical education, earning a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston before leaving for New York at 19. There, he worked in the studio of R&B/soul legend Nile Rodgers, took courses at The Juilliard School and Brooklyn College in composition and electronic music, and built up his reputation by collaborating with Brazilian and avant-garde noise artists. Levin describes his own development as a “natural evolution” of musical cultures.

After Levin and Diamantes formed Yerba Buena in 2002, the band burst upon the regional music scene with its debut album, President Alien (2003)—a wordplay on Levin’s resident alien status. The music was influenced by a trip Levin took to Nigeria, where he explored the influence of African rhythms on Brazilian and Cuban music while producing a Fela Kuti tribute album called Red Hot + Riot (2002). The idea, Levin said, was to see “where the borders of Afro roots come together [and] where they fall apart.”

But for his next experimental move, Levin stepped in another direction, aiming to use music to widen social awareness as “the next obvious dimension of the entertainment business.” The Red Hot series raised awareness and money to fight hiv/aids, inspiring Levin to start a nonprofit organization in 2007 called Music Has No Enemies, which uses music to support social causes ranging from human rights to education advocacy. One of the nonprofit’s projects was the video “I’m Alive,” which Levin produced in Rio de Janeiro’s Tijuca Forest for the Rainforest Alliance in 2014. He raised money to build a studio in the rainforest, directed the video, and wrote and produced the song with an all-star cast of Brazilian musicians to send a message about protecting Brazil’s ecologically fragile natural heritage.

Levin is already planning the next phase of his artistic evolution. Besides working on a new album with Diamantes, he’s developing four movie scripts and a new round of TEDx discussions in Cuba later this year. Still tinkering in his musical laboratory, Levin continues to deconstruct old genres and infuse them with new influences, producing projects that break down barriers and bridge political and cultural divides.

View the "I'm Alive" video, produced by Andrés Levin for the Rainforest Alliance.



Business Innovator: Jose Kont

Rebecca Bintrim

Every entrepreneur aims to reinvent the world, but José Contreras went one step further by reinventing his identity. The 28-year-old Guatemalan, who has brought a social media marketing technique called “neuromarketing” to companies in Central America, not only established a new firm called iLifebelt to promote it; he gave himself a new name.

Under the name “Jose Kont,” he has used neuromarketing to help clients improve their product packaging, develop effective billboard designs, and make websites easier to navigate. As Kont explains it, neuromarketing goes beyond traditional marketing surveys, which ask for consumers’ verbal or written responses to marketing campaigns, and uses methods such as eye-tracking to analyze physical responses to stimuli—like webpage banners, product packaging, music in movie trailers, and scripted call center dialogue. The end result, he says, is a more targeted and honest report on what consumers want or need.

Kont says he changed his name (and dropped the accent) to make his e-mail address more distinguishable. He applied the same ingenuity to his company, which he founded in 2012, after participating in an entrepreneurship competition hosted through the organization Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) and the Incubadora de Empresas Emergentes de Guatemala (Guatemalan Emerging Businesses Incubator—IDEEgt).

Now employing a staff of eight in Guatemala City, iLifebelt dedicates about 30 percent of its time to neuromarketing studies and the rest to producing advertising campaigns, which includes developing social media strategies for businesses and organizations.

Kont initially funded the company himself, working part-time for three years to save money. Despite his efforts, the company lost several clients in its first year. “Without the support of my family and friends, the company would not have continued,” he recalls. “I learned that year, you constantly have to keep renewing.”

Neuromarketing studies don’t come cheap. Clients typically pay between $3,000 and $8,000 per study. However, Kont hopes to make his services more affordable to startups and grassroots entrepreneurs through the development of technology that uses predictive algorithms and statistical models instead of expensive equipment. The company eventually hopes to provide eye-tracking evaluations for only $10 to $20 per study.

Along with improving its techniques, iLifebelt also established the Observatorio de Audiencias Digitales de Centroamérica (Digital Audience Observatory of Central America), which studies the use of Internet and social networks in the region. Instead of charging for Observatorio’s studies, Kont allows users—marketing managers, business owners, universities, students, and NGOs—to download them for free. “This is our contribution to society and to the region,” says Kont.

A serial entrepreneur, Kont also started SourceTour in 2012, which helped tour guides from Mexico and Guatemala promote themselves online and receive payments electronically. Although SourceTour has since dissolved, it became the only Guatemalan startup to enter Wayra, a business startup accelerator founded by Telefónica that funds and mentors new companies. For his work on SourceTour and iLifebelt, Kont was deemed one of Guatemala’s “brilliant minds” by the national paper Prensa Libre.

Currently, iLifeBelt’s clients include Chili’s, Transexpress, Multiproyetos and Fundación Adentro, and the company has conducted studies in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru. The firm hopes to open offices outside Guatemala within the next five years.

In 2015, the company will launch technology that can track the eye movements of as many as 40 people at a time. “This new technology will allow us to reach Latin America and help hundreds of marketing and advertising agencies become more efficient,” says Kont.

Politics Innovator: Aída Fabiola Valencia Ramírez

Mari Hayman

Aída Fabiola Valencia Ramírez learned the hard way what can happen when you fight for public accountability in rural Mexico. On March 10, 2013, the Mexican federal deputy attended a meeting in her hometown of San Agustín Loxicha in Oaxaca to question then-Municipal President Flavio Pérez about what she considered under-funded public works projects. An angry Pérez ordered local police to escort Valencia and her staff out of the municipal palace at gunpoint.

Press accounts of the incident differ, but Mexican legislators of all parties rallied around Valencia afterward—giving her the encouragement to pursue her uphill fight against the corruption, violence and mismanagement she believes are endemic to Oaxaca. “My hometown has always been the government’s till,” says Valencia, 36. “But you’ll still find schools without roofs, or without potable water, electricity, or toilets.”

Valencia isn’t easily intimidated. One of the few Indigenous women in federal politics, she was elected a federal deputy for the Movimiento Ciudadano (Citizens’ Movement—MC) in 2012. Valencia, who is Zapotec, was raised by politically conscious, leftist parents who insisted on the value of an education for all six of their children.

With a degree in tourism administration, Valencia came to politics almost by accident—first as a translator at political meetings, then as a campaign organizer and manager of sustainable development projects for Oaxaca’s governor.

But Valencia doesn’t just want to pass legislation; she’s passionate about ensuring that marginalized communities, including women and Indigenous Mexicans, have the same opportunities she had. Noting that some women who can vote in federal and state elections are barred from electing municipal authorities due to usos y costumbres—local customs and practices—that govern many Indigenous communities, she says, “It’s a battle we see every day [...]a woman who stands up and says she wants to participate [in politics] is told she can’t, because she isn’t part of the [political hierarchy] to run for public office.”

Valencia has used her two years in office to push for women’s rights, education for disadvantaged and disabled populations, and sustainable development—particularly in impoverished, rural communities like her own. One bill that Valencia supported sought to guarantee Indigenous women the right to vote, to run for office and to prohibit community practices from limiting those rights. It was unanimously approved in the Chamber of Deputies in October 2014, and passed in the Senate in November. She also supported a successful initiative to help Oaxacan coffee farmers deal with falling prices, and another to ensure that both men and women possess the rights to hold title to communal lands and enjoy the associated benefits and protections.

But she has had disappointments as well. A proposal to modify the Constitution to require that communities’ usos y costumbres guarantee the equal political participation of women never made it past the constitutional commission for a vote. And Valencia now says that the first bill aimed at enfranchising Indigenous women, which is now law, didn’t go far enough—particularly in states like Oaxaca, where most of the state’s 570 municipalities are governed according to Indigenous usos y costumbres. “We’re requiring [gender] parity in municipalities governed by political parties, but that leaves aside all the communities governed by usos y costumbres,” she says. “If we’re going to seek parity, then let’s seek it without distinction between municipalities.”

Since then, she has joined four multi-partisan commissions, including the Comisión de Equidad y Género (Gender Equity Commission), to continue pushing for equal rights for all Mexicans.

“There’s a crisis here in Mexico, in that we politicians are seen as synonymous with corruption, clientelism, influence-peddling, and not doing anything,” Valencia says. “But we think politics should be used to benefit the people who have the least.”

Civic Innovator: Rosmery Mollo Mamani

Angelica Serna

Rosmery Mollo Mamani’s great-grandmother died in childbirth. It is an all-too-common tragedy in the Bolivian altiplano (plateau), where Indigenous women experience the country’s highest rates of maternal mortality. But Mollo refused to accept that fact as inevitable.

At the age of 19, she left her Indigenous community in the province of Ingavi to pursue a degree in nursing at La Universidad Católica Boliviana (Catholic University of Bolivia) in La Paz. For the past nine years, she has been the coordinator of the Warmi public health project—which, until it lost funding last year from the Corporación Andina de Fomento (Development Bank of Latin America—CAF), was one of Bolivia’s most successful efforts to reduce maternal mortality rates. Warmi, which means “woman” in Quechua and Aymara, has provided sexual and reproductive health counseling to at least 1,600 women and has also engaged many of these women’s husbands and partners in discussions about relationships and gender equality. In 2008, the Pan American Health Organization recognized Warmi’s contribution to women’s health and empowerment in Latin America.

Researchers have linked the high level of maternal deaths in rural areas to a lack of education, limited access to health services and cultural barriers.

Mollo, who is Aymara—Bolivia’s second largest Indigenous group after the Quechua—recalls that some of the strongest resistance to Warmi’s work came from her own community. “Speaking about [sexual and reproductive health] is not proper, it is not done,” she says.

In 2004, Save the Children Bolivia selected then-28-year-old Mollo to be the lead coordinator of the Warmi project in Calamarca, a municipality 20 miles (32 km) south of La Paz. There, she focused on the link between sexual health and participation in the public sphere.

Before the start of the Warmi program, Mollo described Calamarca as “empty,” as if no women lived there at all. The truth is, the women were so consumed with household responsibilities that they rarely left their homes.

Mollo’s conversations and workshops gradually persuaded women to leave their houses, even for a short time, and to engage with others. “They learned they had the right to relax,” she recalls.

Eventually, the women became prime movers in groups that addressed local issues, such as the lack of vegetables in the winter months. They constructed greenhouses and cultivated food for both personal consumption and sale.

One big step toward change came in the monthly group meetings Mollo organized, which discussed previously taboo topics like the reproductive system, sexually transmitted infections, self-esteem and negotiation, and domestic violence. Gradually, the women became more familiar with their bodies and learned when to seek medical attention.

Mollo was disappointed when she learned last year that Warmi’s 10-year contract would not be renewed, but that hasn’t prevented her from continuing her work. She regularly checks in on the women she met to support their initiatives.

“I taught the women to love, respect and value themselves, and care for their bodies,” says Mollo, who hopes her two daughters, ages 19 and 9, will be part of a more self-aware generation of Indigenous women. “If we don’t learn to love ourselves, how will we be able to love and care for others?”

Even the men began to get it. “The men used to hate me and tell me not to talk to their wives, but now I greet them with joy,” she says. “When you speak to them scientifically, they understand.” 

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