An Exclusive Interview with Ricardo B. Salinas of Grupo Salinas
September 23, 2013
To kick-off this year's Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in New York, we asked some of the world's leading experts on deforestation, public health, religion, development and the post-2015 MDGs to help set the stage for this week's discussions on mobilizing for impact. Contributors include the Amazon Conservation Team, the Segal Family Foundation, Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, TB and Malaria, the World Food Programme, UNICEF, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and more.
Senior Advisor, Post-2015 Development Agenda, UNICEF
Burundi Country Representative, Segal Family Foundation
Rahim Kanani: How do you think about corporate social responsibility and creating shared value in the context of your own business endeavors?
Ricardo B. Salinas: To my thinking, business and social responsibility go hand in hand. From its inception, Fundación Azteca has operated under the mission of promoting social and cultural awareness within the Grupo Salinas family of companies, and throughout Mexico and Latin America.
The Foundation, and later other special programs and entities we have created, seek to address the most pressing challenges of our time – the environment, education, health, nutrition, citizen empowerment and even the defense of basic freedoms and debate spaces – to the benefit of society.
In just 16 years, we touched and improved the lives of millions, providing the less fortunate among us with the necessary resources to help themselves.
These critical philanthropic and social efforts are conceived and inspired by the same values that drive Grupo Salinas’ business endeavors. And each Grupo Salinas company and its employees contribute to this shared mission.
For example, as I mentioned earlier, we created special programs and entities separate from the foundation to underscore our commitment to arts, culture, freedom, and democratic leadership – Fomento Cultural Grupo Salinas, Caminos de la Libertad, and Kybernus, respectively — and our sponsorship of the TED-like ideas festival Ciudad de las Ideas, allow us to engage some of the brightest leaders and to transform ideas into action.
Rahim Kanani: In 1997, what inspired you to create Fundación Azteca, and what have been some of the milestones or highlights over the years in terms of progress and impact?
Ricardo B. Salinas: Back in 1997 I found myself searching for a way to encourage awareness and social and environmental responsibility within Grupo Salinas. My philosophy falls in line with the Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
I asked my colleagues how we could make Grupo Salinas’ values work beyond the scopes of our everyday work, our team, and our business, with the goal of engendering greater commitment across the company and Mexican society through the creation of a shared social value and empowerment of the individual. Fundación Azteca was and remains the best answer to this challenge, with operations in Mexico, the U.S., El Salvador, Peru, and Guatemala.
Fundación Azteca has inspired a number of successful programs of which I am especially proud, with a direct impact on thousands of lives:
Plantel Azteca (Azteca Campus)
Plantel Azteca is a middle and high school offering young, low-income Mexican students with a history of academic excellence the opportunity to obtain the best education available. Every student receives a scholarship as well as educational benefits for their families. This past year, our students received a long list of awards: first place in the ICEL University Mathematics Marathon; an honorary mention in the Concurso Nacional de Ensayo Reflexiones essay contest held by the Universidad Iberoamericana; first place in the Choral Poetry Contest held by the Mexican Education Ministry; second place in the National Political Debate Contest held by the Universidad Iberoamericana, and first place in the University Science, Technology and Innovation Fair Contest held by the UNAM. Plantel Azteca alumni go on to graduate from top universities in Mexico and beyond. I am confident we are educating the leaders of tomorrow who will reshape our world, and the best part is that they come from the Base-of-the-Pyramid (BOP)
Esperanza Azteca (Azteca Hope)
Through a unique public-private partnership between Fundación Azteca, state governments, the federal government’s Public Education Ministry (Secretaría de Education Pública), and the national Council for Culture and the Arts (Consejo Nacional para la Cultural y las Artes), the Orquesta Sinfónica Esperanza Azteca, or Azteca Hope Symphonic Orchestra, is a network of 55 youth orchestras in Mexico and El Salvador. With nearly 13,000 students, Esperanza Azteca seeks to instill life-changing lessons and values including team work and self-esteem through the teaching and performance of classical music. In February 2012, “La Constancia Mexicana,” Esperanza Azteca’s national headquarters, opened its doors in Puebla, Mexico, with features including state-of-the-art classrooms and a comprehensive audio and video library. Most recently, a select group of the orchestras’ finest student-musicians traveled to New York City to perform a concert at St. Peter’s Church and provide the entertainment for the closing ceremony of the Clinton Global Initiative, with a special introduction from President Clinton.
Limpiemos Nuestro México (Let’s Clean Up Our Mexico)
In partnership with other companies, organizations, and civil society, Fundación Azteca is working to mobilize Mexicans to clean up and take care of the Earth. Through community clean-up programs, we not only seek to restore our country’s natural beauty but also to raise awareness of the problem of litter and garbage in urban communities – both in terms of environmental damage and public health risks. This past May, more than 7.5 million people in over 150,000 teams participated in the fifth Limpiemos Nuestro México campaign, cleaning up 38,152 tons of trash, taking back our public spaces.
Rahim Kanani: Taking the 30,000 foot view of Latin America, and in terms of growth and progress, what are some of the programs or policies in one country or another that you point to and say. “This is what we need everywhere, because it’s working”?
Ricardo B. Salinas: Globalization has its challenges, but it also offers great benefits for those who dare to dive into the competitive market and leverage them. Latin America is one of the few regions in the world to see the gap between the rich and poor narrow over the past decade, a trend that has continued despite the global economic slowdown, and we should celebrate this. The growth and consolidation of a middle class is the single most important economic event for the region in a century.
It is my belief that trade is the key to economic growth and progress. We’ve certainly seen its benefits throughout Latin America, as trade growth between the U.S. and Latin America has outpaced that between the U.S. and both Asia and Europe in recent years. Some Latin American countries have adopted policies enabling trade liberalization and the significant reduction of tariffs, and have entered into their own regional agreements. Such policies are having a sizeable positive impact on the entire region’s economic prospects, not to mention offering stabilization in the broader global market.
More specifically, while some countries are trying to develop their own “Silicon Valleys,” startups in Latin America are working directly with U.S. innovation centers. I believe such partnerships can develop and grow even more interconnected business markets across borders and afford greater growth opportunities. I’m eager to see the results.
Rahim Kanani: At the same time, where are some of the most challenging areas to make progress across the region–be it healthcare access, quality education or otherwise–and what’s standing in the way of change?
Ricardo B. Salinas: Latin America must address challenges to sustainable growth, including strengthening the rule of law and improving transparency and accountability.
Beyond such structural reforms, Mexico and Latin America really need a true cultural revolution, a cultural change. This revolution must bring with it a culture of lawfulness and effort and a greater commitment to education and family, so as to promote more entrepreneurship, increased venture capital, and greater wealth across society.
To my thinking, education is the crucial component to this necessary change. The reason is very simple: human capital is the most important form of wealth, and investing in it, enhancing the talents and capabilities of each individual, is the only way to develop our countries from the bottom up. This is one of the primary reasons why our philanthropic initiatives have such a commitment to education and to innovative thinking.
Unfortunately, major changes to educational systems and culture are not something that can be achieved overnight. But experiences in South Korea, Singapore, and closer to home, Chile, demonstrate that they can be achieved in a generation with significant investment and commitment across the nation.
Rahim Kanani: Looking at philanthropy in Latin America, what are some of the key issues and/or trends that you’re noticing?
Ricardo B. Salinas: We at Grupo Salinas do not believe that charity is a long-term solution to social problems. While it is certainly necessary in special circumstances, we are committed to a form of philanthropy and aid that helps to connect those in need with the resources necessary to raise themselves up.
Across our programs – regardless of the societal challenge being confronted – we seek to offer solutions that foster opportunity and empower the people. For instance, I have said on numerous occasions that the five billion people struggling to make financial ends meet require tools of progress and access to markets, not charity.
As I mentioned earlier, Ciudad de las Ideas (City of Ideas), is a TED-style ideas festival held each year in Puebla, Mexico. One of my favorite talks from Ciudad de las Ideas was presented by Dambisa Moyo, a brilliant economist from Zambia whose focus on poverty, development, and economic cooperation has been recognized, although not always accepted, throughout the world.
Moyo believes that development aid in Africa has distorted the functioning of markets, exacerbated poverty, and led to corruption and lack of accountability, ensuring the continuation of undemocratic and repressive governments.
She also argues that “charity is a slap in the face that reminds you that you cannot create wealth by yourself.” She suggests that developed countries instead explore more effective policies that support trade and open markets, because “what Africa needs is not charity but the opportunity to market its products and productive investments.” I firmly believe this applies to developing countries around the globe
This message is not welcome among international aid agencies, whose bureaucracies exist to facilitate the transfer of resources, rather than to promote trade between rich and poor countries.
But as Albert Einstein reminds us, the definition of insanity is “doing the same things and expecting different results.” My goal remains to push the boundaries of philanthropy and aid as they are more commonly understood, to achieve greater results and social impact.