‘Coming out of this crisis will require massive collaborative effort’ – Q&A with Irene Arias Hofman

A quick Q&A with Irene Arias Hofman, CEO, IDB Lab. 

What is your most surprising prediction about cities and sustainability?

Picture of Irene Arias
Irene Arias Hofman

First, at this time of extreme inter-connectedness, I’m optimistic about the potential for emerging ecosystems and platforms, such as D-Local, an all-in-one payment platform for global merchants and emerging markets, which is the latest Latin American (LATAM) unicorn and it’s from Uruguay.

Second, given the digital emergency we live in, I also see a massive amount of capital being redirected towards connectivity. Some international finance institutions such as DFC are now dedicating over 50% of their programs to connectivity and related infra plays to ensure that we have a chance at sustainable growth that’s digitally inclusive.

Third, much more willingness to collaborate, like the initiative “Restarting Together” in which IDB Lab is involved aiming at teaming up to look for the best startups to support our community, help the economy and reinvent the world together. The winners of this first challenge were: 6 Degrees “making tech possible for everyone”, a wireless motion-based control, Aerial Technologies from Montreal, and Neura from Palo Alto.

Tell me more about IDB Lab and your vision for the future

The region [LATAM] is suffering from a “triple parada súbita” (triple sudden halt). Coming out of this crisis will require a massive collaborative effort and large doses of innovation and the creation and adoption of brand-new models. This places IDB Lab at an inflection point where we can play a gigantic role in addressing the needs in terms of knowledge, connections and financing of startups, and connecting them with corporates and governments at scale. This is the only way that governments in the region, which will all face budgetary contractions, will be able to reduce costs and improve the service level to build a more inclusive region.

Every one of our actions counts. This happens when you don’t focus on comparing yourself but when you focus on generating the best impact you can possibly make. What drives us is the big dream of connecting the large amount of innovative ideas we see in the region and we help make them happen so that we can improve the lives of poor and vulnerable populations. 

We are betting on deep tech (blockchain, AI, IoT) and also key stacks, building blocks that (1) can unlock the potential of applications and (2) require honest broker/someone agnostic to tech providers. Examples are concepts such as self-sovereign identity, cross currency payments on blockchain, and the like. We are doing it through platforms like LACChain and fAIr LAC. We have seen corporates experimenting with different approaches to approximate with innovative solutions that could impact their digitalization process, turning the companies more agile in delivering their current products and solutions, but also innovating in the product level.

Ironically, we still face a major challenge, which is the lack of valuable information: Governments extract limited intelligence in the data they have, this is why they need to partner with other actors like entrepreneurs. During the sanitary crisis in Brazil, we saw successful partnerships between startups and governments to improve the use and the quality of data with innovative solutions. Examples of these are the Pernambuco-based company Inloco for geospatial tracking (sold part to Magalub – ecommerce focused more on geolocalization); or MAGNAMED a B2G.

What 2-3 books / podcasts would you recommend?

  1. The Innovators Dilemma written by Prof. Clayton Christensen (and its sequel The Prosperity Paradox) is a classic piece of art but still brings essential lessons about the need for corporates creating different structures for incremental and disruptive innovations.  
  2. Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferris.
  3. The Art of Possibility by R. Stone Zander. It has great messages such as “In this vision, an individual’s unique expression plays an integral and constructive part in setting a direction for the group – in fact, for all of humankind. The long line is the possibility of seeing deeply into what is best for all of us, seeing the next step”. 

I also love poetry and ancient texts, one of my favs is: “This water’s meant for careful wading, but imagining my ears are gills, I still dive there at night” by Jim Harrison. From Dances for Flute and Thunder (poems from the Ancient Greek, translated by Brooks Haxton).

Where’s the best place for new ideas?

A place where there is trust, and this requires a high level of competence, consistency, benevolence, and integrity in the team. As Margaret Heffernan said in Willful blindness, the best place for new ideas is one where people can speak up “without fear or without feeling it’s futile”. The best teams are not those with the highest aggregate IQ, but those that combine empathetic members and allow for everyone to participate (not one voice to dominate). To be innovative you need to create something that hasn’t been done before, how to make something better, and for that you need an environment that invites trust and allows teammates to challenge the established wisdom.

Who inspires you?

My father, who is deeply grounded and was able to go where few people of his generation in Spain managed to go through his own efforts (he worked at the European Space Agency). 

What is your call to for startups looking to have an impact?

Be clear on your “why” and whose lives you are trying to improve. This sense of purpose will get you through the downs that inevitably come with the ups of building a new venture. Then, focus on building the best diverse team you can have, and be open to collaborate to bring outside ideas in a process of constant improvement, because for ideation you need large networks and for execution, you need tight teams.

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