First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Marcela Lessa: With over 5 million infected people and 157 thousand deaths, the impact of the new coronavirus pandemic has been devastating in my home country Brazil, in terms of our society, economy, culture, and politics. It saddens me deeply to see the government neglect and how our country enters a deep recession period. My family and I have been incredibly fortunate and privileged to have been able to stay home and continue working following the social distancing recommendations. But I understand that this is not the case for many Brazilian families who have to leave their homes every day, putting their lives at risk.
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined Yunus & Youth.
Marcela Lessa: I am the daughter of Jonas and Cristina – a couple who had to overcome a lot to provide a good life for my younger sister and me. Their focus on creating and maintaining a secure and stable environment for our family has inspired me to be a hard-working and determined person as well. I was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and moved to São Paulo at a very young age.
I have lived in many different cities throughout the years, from Houston, Texas, to Teresina, Piauí. Moving a lot made me realize how flexible and adaptable I can be. Changes have been a big part of my life. I studied advertising and marketing in college and had the chance to work at several different workplaces, from ad agencies to retail and industries. Having been a beginner so many times means I never have to start from scratch since I bring all my past experiences with me. All these diverse experiences have broadened the way I understand the world.
Ever since I started working for big corporations, I never really felt connected to their values. I believe profit cannot be our end goal in life. Companies that succeed must have a real purpose that is better than only making more money. I have worked at companies that had great values written on the walls, but the real attitude and behavior of its employees were the exact opposite.
Since high school, I have volunteered for different organizations, getting to know the many ways I could connect to others, learning their stories, and helping improve their livelihoods in any way I could. In 2017, after having worked for over 10 years in the for-profit sector, I decided to make a big change in my life. I quit my job as a Project Manager at a multinational company and joined the Amani Institute post-graduate program in Social Innovation Management. This is when I first started to understand that I could use my knowledge and skills for good. In early 2018 I joined the Yunus & Youth team. Now I have the privilege to be a part of the ever-growing social entrepreneurship global ecosystem while leveraging my professional experience to support youth tackling the world’s most pressing problems.
How does Yunus & Youth innovate?
Marcela Lessa: Yunus & Youth believes that supporting the growth and development of social entrepreneurs will lead to the creation of quality jobs for the young population. We do so by connecting young people from all corners of the world and giving them access to knowledge, tools, networks, and funding opportunities necessary to run financially sustainable social enterprises. We also support young people with business knowledge and entrepreneurial skills needed to keep up with the labor market changes and better navigate the economic crisis.
Yunus & Youth’s main competitive advantage is our innovative business model. Organizations that provide business support to social entrepreneurs usually are reliant to some extent on philanthropic support. At the same time, Yunus & Youth explore revenue-generating income streams without having to charge entrepreneur fees.
While other social business support organizations operate only in the country where they are based, partnering with organizations and businesses grounded in their country of operation to provide local support to social entrepreneurs, Yunus & Youth runs a 100% online-based operation, allowing the participation of social entrepreneurs from any nationality based in the most remote regions, thus facilitating international business collaboration.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Marcela Lessa: The COVID-19 pandemic has affected immensely the youth supported by our organization, forcing many of them to pivot their business strategies and having to reinvent themselves to make sure they continue to assist their local communities. Yunus & Youth has created even more support opportunities, especially for the most vulnerable and most affected by the new coronavirus:
- We have launched a digital hackathon in record time to find solutions to the problems created by the virus in Latin America. The solutions dealt with the issues of health, economic impact, social inclusion, data science, and other categories. Designed and implemented with 5 other organizations from the social entrepreneurship ecosystem, Cada Día Cuenta Hackathon was able to bring 7,000 persons from 18 different countries together to fight a global pandemic.
- We joined other international youth-supporting organizations, including Ashoka, Bosch Alumni Network, Bridge for Billions, ChangeNOW, ChangemakerXchange, Ginkgo Foundation, Global Changemakers, Global Shapers, and Obama Foundation to launch the COVID-19 Virtual Summit & Coalition of Youth Changemakers. Read more about Y&Y Fellows’ participation here.
We launched a series of webinars to discuss young social entrepreneurs’ role in building the new normal. Watch the videos here.
In partnership with UNDP Argentina, the UNDP Accelerator Labs, and Google, we have also launched a special edition of our Fellowship Program to support exclusively young social entrepreneurs creating solutions to tackle the new coronavirus effects pandemic in Latin America.
These are some of the initiatives we have launched, more than that, our team continues to support our Alumni Community with regular online activities dedicated to helping them further develop their social businesses during these unprecedented difficult times.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Yunus & Youth in the future?
Marcela Lessa: Leading a youth organization in such uncertain times is not easy. It can be incredibly overwhelming to cope with the pressures of wanting to make sure everyone is well supported and doing well. Personally, I believe in the importance of taking a break to rest, spending time with my family, doing yoga, and being creative, drawing, and painting. This is how I deal with stress and anxiety. Because we know how young social entrepreneurs also go through similar difficulties, together with our community of Y&Y Fellows, we have developed a toolkit with relevant tips and resources to help with taking care of ourselves and our mental health. Download it here.
Your final thoughts?
Marcela Lessa: Since 2014, Yunus & Youth has supported young people through different entrepreneurial education programs impacting 65 countries in all regions of the world. Y&Y Fellows are early-stage young social business leaders creating grassroots change in communities across the world. They are women and men mainly between 18 and 30 years old, operating in various contexts, including rural and urban communities, primarily in developing countries. If you would like to apply for our Global Fellowship Program or volunteer to mentor one of these young social entrepreneurs, please reach out to [email protected].