Born and raised in Colombia, Daniel Uribe is keenly aware of the pervasive social and economic inequality that limits opportunities for students who come from lower- and middle-income families, in both his own country and elsewhere in Latin America.
He’s on a mission to do something about it.
As an education entrepreneur and investor, Uribe aims to combine the best practices from the education, technology, and social innovation sectors to provide better academic and professional development opportunities to Latin America’s youth. As cofounder of a nonprofit mentoring program tailored to the needs of his region, he’s out to help talented college students and recent graduates from underrepresented socioeconomic backgrounds gain the knowledge, skills, and confidence they need to bridge the network gap and find jobs commensurate with their abilities. Moreover, Uribe wants to help break down traditional barriers that have hindered upward mobility.
“I want to help generate empathy and understanding between the historically disconnected education and business sectors in the region,” he says.
To further that plan, Uribe came to Stanford, where he will be the first Colombian to graduate with a joint degree from the university’s business and education schools.
How do problems with diversity and disparity in opportunities in Colombia compare to problems in the U.S.?
In Colombia, wide disparities exist across both racial and income levels. One study found that it takes an average of 11 generations for a Colombian child from a low-income family to reach the country’s average income, making it the worst in the world in that regard. If you come from a low- or middle-income family, which is the case for the vast majority of the country, even attending top-ranked universities won’t assure you the best professional opportunities after graduation. Many of these jobs require a certain level of social capital to learn about the opportunities in the first place or to prepare for job interviews. Such social capital is hard to attain if nobody in your family’s network has had that experience. Another big part of the problem is confidence. They say, “I look at this company and I don’t know if I have what it takes to get a job there.” Also, career services at universities in Latin America are not as developed as they are here in the U.S. It’s extremely unfair.
And even if a candidate applies and prepares in the best way possible, there’s a lot of classism and bias among employers. For example, so many talented low-income students end up earning lower wages than their more affluent peers, even if they graduate at the top of their class. And these gaps only grow larger by gender.
What motivated you to become a social entrepreneur in education?
I come from Barranquilla, the fourth-largest city in Colombia, and as a young person I had the opportunity to play golf competitively. Golf is still a very elitist sport back home, and paradoxically enough, while I was playing along CEOs and business owners, I also had the chance to develop very close relationships with the caddies. Most of them were Afro-Colombians and came from very low-income backgrounds. I grew up playing golf with them, and learned a lot about their reality and day-to-day struggles. A lot of them were extremely good players, many even better than I was, but they didn’t have the opportunity to play competitively due to their lack of financial resources. They were my friends, and I learned a lot from them. I developed a lot of empathy toward their struggles, and that was my first insight into the unfairness of talent and opportunity.
Yes. And thanks to golf, I became interested in studying in the U.S. I ended up receiving an academic scholarship to attend Bentley University in Boston, where I played on the varsity team while studying economics and finance. At the time, I was thinking that I wanted to try getting a job on Wall Street. But Bentley is what some of these investment banks call a “non-target school” — as these banks typically recruit from places such as Stanford and Harvard. I couldn’t even get an interview with them. For the first time in my life, as a non-American Hispanic, I felt a taste of what minorities in the U.S. must feel while trying to get a job in the corporate world.
The reason I eventually got an opportunity at an investment bank was because I connected with a nonprofit diversity recruiter called SEO [Seizing Every Opportunity]. They trained me, mentored me, and helped me secure an internship at Citigroup. That opportunity was huge. And for the first time, I felt like I was part of a strong community — there were over 100 of us, minorities from all over, working as summer interns, all supporting each other as we tried to get full-time offers. That feeling was not only incredibly empowering, but it also made me realize that minorities don’t have equal chances even here in the U.S., and that back in Colombia and the rest of Latin America, it’s just as bad or even worse. That’s when I decided that at some point, I wanted to go back to Colombia and create a replica of SEO.
What were your career steps on the way to becoming a social entrepreneur?
I got into the education sector by interning during my senior year at a higher-education financing startup, ESCALA Educación, where I later ended up working as head of sales and business development. It was my first foray into social entrepreneurship and it gave me a good sense of what working at an education startup was about. I realized how passionate and eager I was to be working along those who were building better opportunities for my region.
After graduating from Bentley, I returned full time to Citigroup’s investment banking division, working one year in New York City and one year in the Mexico City office. However, knowing that I wanted to be back in my home country sooner than later, I decided to quit and move back to Colombia to join ESCALA full time. At that point I said, “Now that I am back, I feel ready to build the SEO of Colombia.”
In addition to SEO, your mentoring effort in Colombia was inspired by a European model and also utilized ideas from Stanford. Would you explain?
Mentors4U actually started in Italy in 2014. It was founded by two Italians who experienced similar challenges to those we have in Colombia. There, it’s more of a regional issue — students from the south of Italy having less opportunities than their peers from the north. I met them and told them that what they were doing was very similar to what I was trying to do. So they invited me to be part of their network and gave me complete freedom to build the first international chapter of Mentors4U.
I was also very fortunate to have met amazing cofounders and volunteers who were passionate about the same issues. We created a career development mentorship program targeted toward talented college students from low-income families. We used the “Design Your Life” methodology that was developed by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans (cofounders of the Life Design Lab at Stanford). We ran virtual workshops to help the students think about the type of careers they wanted to have: which industries, companies, and roles to investigate based on their personal interests and academic backgrounds. We combined that with job interview prep, such as how to do a resume and cover letter, and how to tell their story.
Then we connected them with mentors — typically privileged Colombians who had the opportunity to have completed their graduate studies outside of Colombia, had returned to the country, and wanted to give back in a meaningful way. They provided their time and advice and shared their networks with their mentees.
In 2016, we launched a pilot program of 40 mentors and 40 mentees. Then in 2017, we formed a partnership with the Ministry of Education, where we selected over 100 students from their largest scholarship program. The next year, we partnered with the Universidad de Los Andes, one of the leading universities in the country, where we designed and ran their first alumni-student mentorship program. Since then, we have partnered with several of the leading public and private institutions in the country, including McKinsey & Co. and Teach for Colombia, and have launched chapters in multiple other countries. Over 600 mentees have graduated from these programs.
One of your career goals is to break down barriers between the educational and business sectors in Latin America. How do you expect your joint degree at Stanford will help?
The beauty of this joint degree is that I have a lot of flexibility in how I design the curriculum. I’m focusing both my GSB and education electives on topics of leadership, education, entrepreneurship and investing, diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), social innovation, and technology. I’ve had the privilege of taking classes with education leaders and entrepreneurs, including Diverse Leadership as an Imperative for Impact, taught by Susan Colby, and Entrepreneurial Approaches to Education Reform, taught by Gloria Chie Lee. Also, having been part of the Arbuckle Leadership Fellows and PODS Inclusion Ambassador programs, where we develop facilitation, coaching, and mentoring competencies, has made me much more aware of my own biases and tendencies, allowing me to develop a more versatile leadership style. It’s also made me more confident and eager to promote conversations around the issues of diversity in the workplace.
After Stanford, you will be joining Appian Education Ventures, an education-focused investment fund and venture builder, as a partner. How will that align with your other aims?
In Latin America, gaps of access to quality education are pervasive, and we want to change that. At Appian, we are building a global platform of high-performing, innovative K-12 schools that will be able to provide more students, teachers, and school leaders the best opportunities to learn and grow. We have also created a venture builder, where we partner with education entrepreneurs to incubate the next generation of education innovations in the region.
I see both Mentors4U and Appian as platforms that will connect talented individuals with the opportunities, networks, and resources they deserve, at scale. Several of Mentors4U’s alumni have already founded their own social ventures or joined education startups, and I can see a near future where we will be funding them, and supporting them throughout their entrepreneurial journeys.
Photos by Elena Zhukova