Victor Moctezuma is helping economically vulnerable Mexicans reach income generating opportunities by democratizing access to empowering innovation skills in Mexico, using a practical methodology that spurs proven increases in social mobility. Directly impacting more than 60,000 Mexicans in just four years, his work changes mindsets under the logic that anyone, from any background, can break the cycle of poverty, given access to the right know-how and resources.
The New Idea
Victor is promoting social mobility in the highly unequal Mexican social landscape by creating a culture mindset shift where everyone, regardless of race, socioeconomic, or geographic background, is able to create and innovate. His immersive, lean and fast methodology is targeted to first-generation college students and small business owners with a focus on skill-building for employment or improved opportunities for self-employment. Teaching the entire innovation lifecycle, from ideation to prototyping and creation of patents, is an empowering approach allowing participants access to know-how so they become proactive designers of solutions to problems affecting their own lives. Participants adopt changemaking mindsets to transform thinking on everything from their own self-definition to their capacity for leadership and impact, while learning practical innovation skills allowing them to reach Victor’s final objective of social mobility. His methodology has demonstrated results, with participants in his various programs making on average twice as much money as peers, going on to work in the innovation sector in the vast majority of cases even if not continuing with the prototypes they developed during the program.
Victor’s organization iLab is already reaching national audiences, thanks to collaboration efforts with strategic allies to multiply his impact, including a federal government program allowing the social mobility aspect of his work to spread to all 32 states of Mexico that has resulted in over 56,000 small business owners gaining access to innovation skills and professionalization. Victor’s methodology is also transferable to institutions of higher learning, with one university having already successfully integrated his methodology directly into the curriculum for qualified students from any major who apply to the program replacing traditional classes for the last semester of schooling. Finally, his university-level teacher training program is equipping more strategic actors to maximize their ability to replicate the positive impact and social mobility that teaching innovation skills entails.
Mexico has the slowest upward mobility growth in Latin America: 50% of the richest and poorest quartiles remain their whole lives in the socioeconomic group they were born in. On the one hand, economic inequality and intergenerational reproduction of socioeconomic advantages in Mexico depend to a large extent on education. Yet a high disparity in resources and quality between private and public schools, starting as early as the elementary level, creates barriers to using education to advance one’s life. Additionally, families’ own educational backgrounds can hamper a child’s future social mobility: children raised with parents that studied only up to primary school find it more difficult to reach the upper or even middle class, lacking family role models or encouragement.
Compounding the urgency of the economic situation is that even for Mexicans with higher education degrees, unemployment is a problem. Each year, 450 thousand young people finish university studies, yet 40% are unemployed or must work in the informal market, due to a mismatch between studies and the real world. This number rises to 70% when considering public university graduates alone. Disconnected from the labor market, they lose skills acquired in university, and over time move away from opportunities to obtain economic sustenance and stability. In public universities, the problem is magnified since schools lack resources to provide quality education, often having outdated content or teachers failing to motivate students. Unfortunately, nepotism and networks still overwhelmingly affect career possibilities in Mexico, resulting in notable differences between public and private graduates in terms of employability, with much higher job placement possibilities for the latter.
It is estimated that between 2030 and 2040, Mexico will have a greater number of young people of productive age. However, if adequate working conditions are not generated so that young people have decent economic remuneration and access to social security, future decades will face difficulty in reaching financial sustainability. It is thus a priority to provide the growing Mexican youth with skills and abilities allowing them to face the challenges of a new economy, in which lucrative opportunities in illicit markets such as drug trafficking can be tempting alternatives to formal employment for youth. In general, the profile of a Mexican entrepreneur is someone from the upper class with access to educational, financial and network support systems allowing them to circumvent commercial or market obstacles. Focusing more accessible training on skill-building and mindset shifts will enable Mexicans to become agents of change that generate social mobility.
Victor’s organization iLab seeks to disseminate entrepreneurial, innovation-based skills to underrepresented demographics outside of Mexico’s main urban centers with three programs: ThinkCamp, a nationwide basic entrepreneurship course, and a teacher training module. His 16-week, 824 hour ThinkCamp is condensed into a practical, skill-building core program so participants can quickly enter the workforce and start making a living. The ambitious program is directed to graduates of public universities, which make up 86% of university graduates in Mexico. Participants, most of whom are first-generation college graduates on financial aid, begin by defining a problem they would like to solve in their surroundings, followed by the design of a solution and finally a prototype made in collaboration with peers. The students learn to think big and realize that they are capable of creating a functioning product from zero in a very short time period that has the potential to impact more than 10 million people and the feasibility of intellectual property registration.
Participants have created a home test for Chlamydia detection, a filter for industrial wastewater treatment, and a detection and monitoring system for illness in crops. For students wishing to continue their projects, iLab offers an incubation course, connecting them to other actors in the ecosystem. One success story lies in the figure of Salucita Roman, a first-generation public university graduate from rural Veracruz, who on a full scholarship to iLab in 2016 developed an organic material that conducts electricity as a low-cost and eco-friendly alternative to copper. She continues to work on the patented project, and is a role model for others when she goes back to her community, having developed at iLab much more than a product but also invaluable critical thinking, leadership, and public speaking skills. Passing through iLab spurred a true mindset shift for her, as she always thought in order to be able to create her own prototype she would need to have a graduate degree as well as years of experience.
Thus far, more than 450 students have graduated from ThinkCamp, with 150 students passing through the program per year. 117 prototypes have been generated, and more than 250 jobs created thanks to the program. 32 prototypes are now in the process of being patented. Comparing ThinkCamp alumni to peers not accepted to the program over the past 3 years, iLab graduates are compensated on average 2 times more, even surpassing their families’ combined incomes. Alumni incubating their ThinkCamp prototypes have garnered the recognition of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, winning significant monetary awards for innovation to continue their projects, from established entities such as Santander, Walmart, MIT, and local governments. A survey among alumni from 9 generations shows that 60% do not enter the next stage of development with their project via incubation. Importantly, beyond the prototypes, the lives of iLab graduates are firmly impacted and prone to social mobility since after one year 70% carry out different, more highly compensated jobs than what they entered with, and nearly 90% stay in the innovation sector.
Victor has developed a Basic Entrepreneurship Program to bring innovation-driven social mobility to the mainstream. Unlike for ThinkCamp, there is no strict filter or need for ideation: anyone can do the program as long as they have a business idea or work in a small business. This part-time course lasting 60 hours, funded by the government’s “Punto Mexico Conectado” program is especially practical as participants design innovative concepts based on pre-existing commercial activities to create higher value enterprises. Some of the best ThinkCamp alumni become instructors of the program, sharing their learnings in the 15-day program on entrepreneurship and business acumen that is taught in every Mexican state. 60% of participants are women, 30% being single mothers, while the other 40% of participants are retired, small business owners, or former street children. Just two years after starting, 59,329 had gone through the course and 22,038 projects were generated, with success stories ranging from the revamping of a hardware store commercial image, to the creation of business plans for bakeries or vendors previously operating informally. Incomes for alumni show increases up 1.5 to 2 times original revenues.
Victor understands the need to find other ways to increase the reach of his work; for this reason he developed a 48-hour, free, immersive training model for entrepreneurship education, so teachers learn how to include innovation thinking within their regular courses, as a way to reach many more students. The program plans to reach 150 university teachers within the next three years, activating them to become multipliers in preparing students for the job market. Another program that increases impact and that Victor plans on replicating is the collaboration with the Universidad Panamericana in Mexico City, replacing the course load of some students close to graduating with the ThinkCamp curriculum. His impactful work has captured the attention of stakeholders in higher education and government, having been invited to meetings with government and academic leaders to redesign the Mexican higher education model, in addition to participating in a Presidential Working Group on Social Innovation, one of a select few chosen to help the national government implement the Millenium Development Goals of the United Nations.
iLab is systemizing its methodology, educational model, and tools in order to grow globally: organizations in Spain, Colombia, Chile, Cameroon and Bolivia have already approached Victor to replicate his programs. Future expansion of iLab’s impact involves growing the number of collaborations with universities organically at a rate of two per year over the next three years, from which each university would graduate 200 innovators per year. Within 5 years, for the basic entrepreneurship program, Victor aims to reach an additional 60,000 small business owners, by expanding the basic program centers to two per state for a total of 64 centers. In the same time frame, iLab will open two more independent centers for his original ThinkCamp program, impacting a total of 450 graduates per year.
Victor’s passion for empowering unemployed and underemployed Mexicans stems from two formative experiences in his life. First, he had the opportunity to study in a private university. As the first member of his family to graduate from a university, Victor’s formal education allowed him a more ambitious, and more lucrative, professional trajectory than that of his family. Victor realized through this experience that vision, ambition and character are determined not by one’s particular intelligence or background, but rather by the environment and resources one has access to during formative years of job training. Second, Victor’s successful career in Human Resources in the corporate world after college showed him first-hand how university education was in many cases falling short of providing employable skills to graduates. He witnessed directly how the majority of public university graduates were unprepared for the workforce, being unable to think critically or solve problems creatively in job interviews.
iLab is the result of Victor’s thesis for MIT’s Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration program in 2014, when he quit his job in order to set out to compensate both aforementioned personal experiences. His goal has always been to make the capacities to create and transform available to all, as well as to increase Mexicans’ own ability to build jobs and companies. In order to dedicate himself 100% to iLab, he renounced a consultancy practice he had already established, as well as the option of a profitable business career. He has invested his own savings, with the conviction that the tools and training that iLab provides can effectively level access to economic development. Successfully putting his vision in action in his home region of Veracruz, where Victor saw first-hand how socio-economic disadvantages can hamper job prospects, is proof of the model’s ability to generate positive results amid difficult circumstances, outside of the country’s main urban centers.