Feb. 2, 2023

Allgrow: A Global Startup Organization for Social Impact

Listen to Maralina's inspiring journey from wanting to be a painter as a child to becoming an NGO volunteer in countries like Egypt, Mexico, Turkey, and Suriname. Hear her discuss her work in creating ecosystems for people to exchange knowledge and creating safe spaces for local kids and women empowerment programs in Haiti. Plus, learn about the unique winemaking tools found in Romania and how Madalina uses games to create a relaxed environment.


Do you wish to connect with our special guest?

Visit Allgrow’s website: https://www.allgrowromania.org/


Tune in to every conversation about exciting European Startups and Innovators on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Amazon! Leave a rating and review so we can keep making amazing interviews!


Listening on a desktop & can’t see the links? Just search for Innovators Can Laugh in your favorite podcast player.


Connect with Eric:

Visit his website: https://innovatorscanlaugh.com


For the Innovators Can Laugh newsletter in your inbox every week, subscribe at https://innovatorscanlaugh.substack.com


Past Guests:


Past guests on Innovators Can Laugh include Irina Obushtarova, Yannik Veys, Ovi Negrean, Arnaud Belinga, Csaba Zajdó, Dagobert Renouf, Andrei Zinkevich, Viktorija Cijunskyte, Lukas Kaminskis, Pija Indriunaite, Monika Paule, PhD, Vytautas Zabulis, Leon van der Laan, Ieva Vaitkevičiūtė.


Additional episodes you might enjoy:

#77 Aleksandrina Ikonomova - Beauty Startup is translating science with Aleksandrina Ikonomova

#73 Eva Vucheva - How Bulgarian Startup founder Eva Vucheva is empowering producers to reduce their environmental footprint

#55 Yannik Veys - From creating the Ube

Tune in to every conversation about exciting European Startups and Innovators on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Amazon! Leave a rating and review so we can keep making amazing interviews!

Listening on a desktop & can’t see the links? Just search for Innovators Can Laugh in your favorite podcast player.

Connect with Eric:
Visit his website: https://innovatorscanlaugh.com

For the Innovators Can Laugh newsletter in your inbox every week, subscribe at https://innovatorscanlaugh.substack.com

Past Guests:
Past guests on Innovators Can Laugh include Yannik Veys, Ovi Negrean, Arnaud Belinga, Csaba Zajdó, Dagobert Renouf, Andrei Zinkevich, Viktorija Cijunskyte, Lukas Kaminskis, Pija Indriunaite, Monika Paule, PhD, Vytautas Zabulis, Leon van der Laan, Ieva Vaitkevičiūtė.
Additional episodes you might enjoy:
#55 Yannik Veys - From creating the Uber for service professionals to growing Hypefury
#53 Tzvete Doncheva - Overcoming barriers to get into a VC with Tzvete Doncheva
#50 V...


My guest today is a social entrepreneur. She's worked and volunteered for NGOs in Egypt, Mexico, Turkey, and Suriname. She is also the co-founder and president of Allgrow, a global startup organization dedicated to generating a social impact and fostering systematic change. Their goal is to close the socioeconomic gap between developing and developed economies.


Maralina, welcome to Innovators Can Laugh.


Thank you, Eric. Really great to be here.


Yeah, I know. I'm so excited to chat with you because I love social entrepreneurs. I'm a social entrepreneur myself, especially love working with kids.


And so I want to start by asking, when you were younger, did you know that you were going to work with kids as an adult?


I mean, how did this come about?


Definitely not. I think actually she would have asked me when I was a kid if I wanted to become a teacher, it was on my like, of course not. It was like on no way I'm not going to be ever a teacher because of my experience. So but here I am, you know, doing a little bit of a teacher's job, you know.


Who did you think you were going to be?


Well, it kept changing, actually. I like painting, so I was thinking I'm going to become a painter. And then at some point I heard about management and it sounded like such a cool job, you know, managers were doing really amazing things. So I was like, okay, I'm going to be a manager. Had no idea what that meant, but yeah. Okay.


Well, what was the point in your life that changed the trajectory of your road to being a manager?


Because at some point in your life, you didn't go down that road and you started helping people in a very, in a very big way.


So when was that moment?




So yeah, you're right. I was preparing, I studied management actually in Bucharest. Then I studied international business in Denmark, and then I ended up in Washington DC. And I learned about this organization called Ashoka. And the first time when I met them, they were talking kind of gibberish.


I didn't understand anything what they were saying, you know, all these turns, all this like, okay, what are you guys talking about?


I have no idea.


But so it, I felt inspired, even though I didn't know what it was about. And at that point they were starting a project in Haiti. And to be honest, I didn't even know where Haiti was, you know, I was, I had an idea, but I couldn't point it on the map. Most people don't know where it is to be honest. Yeah.


Well, it's in the, in the Caribbean, you know, some, some slack in between the Americas would say.


And yeah, I ended up there and you know, very young. I didn't know much what I was doing and I wasn't actually programmed by Ashoka Youth Venture. And I was creating a space for youth to find problems in their community and start addressing them. And honestly, I didn't know what I was doing, but I was impressed by the results of my work.


So it was kind of like, you know, you're doing something, but then the results were so impressive. So I saw the kids taking leadership, doing change in their community, being so inspired and coming to me for answers and that motivated me to start looking and learning. So I think that was like the point when I realized that, you know, this is something I can do and I can be good at. Okay.


Was there a lot of convincing for you to go to Haiti?


I mean, what really convinced you, your friends or just curiosity?


Well, curiosity, I have to be honest. It was the project. I started working on it when I was in DC and then I read about it. I was looking at pictures and I was so curious. I was thinking, let's go down there and let's see how it is.


And yeah, it's not a glamorous place to travel, but I was very curious and that's something that kept driving me throughout my life. Okay.


Well, the kids must have had a big impact on you.


How old were these kids and what were some of the things that you were doing with them in terms of like activities?


Yeah. So they were, I would say about 12, 13, 14. So to give you a little bit of background, like in Haiti, like there's not a lot of things to do. People tend to spend a lot of time together and we had like a gathering or an activity. There was always a lot of people showing up and they were so passionate and so excited to do something about their country.


And you know, pretty much I was creating a space for them to come together and think about what they can actually do.


And you know, not often you're asked, okay, what can you do?


What can you change?


What would you like to do?


And then giving them some tools and creating the space to do something. Okay.


How long were you there?


I was there for about three years. Three years. Yeah. I was living in two countries to be honest, at that point I was at the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti in a place called the one I meet in Haiti and then the hub one in the Dominican Republic. And I was crossing the border every day from one place to another. Okay.


But generally projects like this, usually maybe six months, you know, maybe a year.


Did you know you were going to be there three years when you signed off on going here?


Not really. We had funding and we had to do something quickly. And the project was not about youth only. It was pretty much setting up a local organization in Haiti and with the idea of like building a team and then, you know, us like the foreigners facing out, but like doing a little bit of the knowledge transfer, building some frameworks, building a team and then, you know, leaving.


So yeah, kind of, kind of short. And then it was really hard to leave at the end, but really needed at some point.


What years were this, Madalina?


This was 2012 to 2016. Okay.


What was some of the knowledge sharing that you guys, that you guys were, were, were providing to this team that you were building?


So it was a lot about creating access to basic services and technologies. So people didn't have clean drinking water or electricity. So we had like a women empowerment program, like a little bit of like a ladies, we called it micro consignment. So we were giving like an inventory of products, solar lights, water filters, leading buses to women to kind of like go to their home communities and sell those products.


But you know, they didn't have to pay upfront for the products. We were kind of providing that inventory.


And then, you know, whenever they made a sale, they had a commission and also, you know, they could, they could start up like pretty much a business from day one because that was a big problem in Haiti.


You know, you didn't have access to these technologies, but the problem was not about, you know, the not having a need for it. The need was always there, but people didn't have the capital to make the initial investment. So you know, we created the system to do that. We also did some financial literacy education. We work with like the big manufacturer at the border.


So we're able to leverage that ecosystem as well to create access to products. Okay.


What was the main language that you guys were communicating in with the people on the ground?


We did everything. So you know, I was speaking like Spanish, you know, because I could, you know, I learned Spanish when I was young. And the crawl, I learned crawl quite fast.


It's a, it's a French crawl.


So it's a, yeah, a French crawl and English. And then either it's kind of like a mix of everything.


It's like, it's like a bubble tea. Yeah. It's funny, but it kind of sounds like access, but near the border with Louisiana, because in Louisiana they speak Creole, but in Texas there's a lot of Spanish speakers as well. Yeah. Okay. So you're in Haiti for three years. Did you realize, Hey, this is something that I want to continue to do.


And I'm going to look for another, another project or maybe, or maybe start something else somewhere else.


I mean, what were your, what was your thought process as you were leaving Haiti?


Yeah. I have to say that that was not my first thought when I left. It was not like, okay, I'm, you know, I learned a lot here. I'm going to go do start something else.


No, it was, it was a longer process, but I think it was like awakening process for me. I realized that I could lead something. I can put the team together that gives me a lot of confidence to do some more, but you know, I felt like I still have some learnings to do. I still have some pieces to put in place.


You know, I'm kind of like her and I like to analyze schools a little bit before I jumped into them and you know, test, but start small and learning, iterate.


And yeah, that's kind of my approach. Okay. So now the organization that you have here in Romania, my understanding is that it's actually extends outside the border.


Can you tell us more about this organization, what it is and how did you get it started?




So about, you know, like a year after Haiti or so I started doing consulting pretty much, you know, using some of the learnings they had in like in other countries, in other contexts. And then I realized that, you know, I really liked traveling and expanding my network. So I started thinking about doing a consultancy, leveraging some of the lessons learned from Haiti and from, from the other.


But then somehow things kind of change and I got triggered to do something in Romania. I was at that point, I was traveling a lot more in this side of the world because I started working in Turkey. So I ended up coming to Romania a little bit more. So the idea of starting something in Romania, it start taking a little bit more of a shape.


We registered an initialization in NRC in the United States.


And then, you know, we started piloting some of the initiatives in Romania.


Okay, but an LLC is, is, is my understanding, an LLC is not exactly a nonprofit because I have a nonprofit and it's like a 501c3. So this was going to be a for-profit business. Okay. Yeah. Yeah.


We were looking at doing consulting services, like starting to applying for digital needs, trying to, to be more like on the, on the business side, like us being employees, it just meant at some point with my colleague, is that from Costa Rica and with Kayla, we were kind of looking of like doing consulting for the, for the world.


But it was kind of a naive approach of us at that point in time, because we, you know, we, we, we were working at the time and we were doing a lot of things and proposals took a lot of time and we didn't have a lot of solid backgrounds to, to build upon.


So, you know, it was kind of hard to get those, those beats, doing those beats.


Was it easy to get an LLC?


Like did you, did you have to have American citizenship for that or no?


No, it just, I mean, compared to the Romanian system, wow, it was like so, so easy, you know, like, you know, you do everything for the internet, you pay if she, you're in it every year.


It was, yeah, it was, it was very simple, you know, it's there. Yeah. Yeah. The bureaucracy or the administration for setting up a business and a few other things are a little bit easier in this state. So I would say so myself speaking from experience.


Yeah, no, it's way easier. Okay.


So what are the main services that your organization does currently?


So we started, you know, okay. So like our experience was a lot about operations, starting doing, doing like a lot of activities on the, on the ground. So we kind of stood that experience and started piloting in Romania and we started with a safe space with, with education.


So we started working with, with teachers and we created a curriculum for children to really look around their community and address issues they care about. We based it on design thinking and that design thinking became like really a staple for our work and for the way we organize it and the services we provide.


So right now we have, you know, we have Change Architects, which is like the longest program we've been doing and it's working with the children, with teachers. And this is not everything we do in Romania, it's as a nonprofit actually registered here in 2017. And we started working with children, with teachers.


And then we later on brought into the ecosystem also businesses because we realized that there is a lot of knowledge in the business sector that could be transferred into the educational sector. So we started bringing in role models and mentors, theorists.


So yeah, we don't really do the work per se, but we create this linkages, this connections between people. We like to say we build ecosystems where people get together and exchange knowledge and then we support with tools and instruments to, to do those things successfully. Okay.


Can you give us an example?


So you have, let's say you have a business that you're working with that they want to partner with you and you're trying to teach financial aid to maybe some students.


So how would, how would that program look from the eyes of a student?


From the eyes of a student?


Well, yeah, well, that's the, the students are always at the center with what we do. So we try to make it really fun for them because we realized that that's something that actually, you know, we miss that, you know, as students, you know, playing with it a bit more, starting with the game, but not, you know, not the game like, okay, running around.


Like we tried to make the game like into something that you could reject after and then use those lessons you are learning to be built into the curriculum and what you would be learning afterwards.


You know, we come in with a little bit of knowledge, you know, some new information, some new things that, you know, if you would like to learn about and then putting the kids either in teams or either in groups to start thinking and doing something. So we really do apply this idea because, you know, learning happens like additional levels.


So, you know, you could do like passive learning, you know, learning something, then working in groups, but then the most of the learning happens when you actually apply it and you do something with it. So that's kind of like how we do it. And then also reflecting because that's, that's very important to think about what you did and take something with you afterwards and apply it afterwards as well.


So what is a success story that you can share with us about how you were able to get two different organizations collaborating?


Maybe it was a school and, you know, a business or another nonprofit working together. And after they began working together, like after a couple of years, they started to notice a change in whether it was the students and their literacy when it comes to finances or maybe something else. I'm just wondering if you have a success story. Yeah.


So actually we don't look, you know, just to clarify, we don't look at like finance specifically, you know, we look at like the sustainable development goals, like being like the broader framework, like of issues that students address. And I can tell you about the school, like in Lake Lee, it's a school, like it's not too far from Biakotir, it's about an hour or less drive from there.


And these kids, you know, they realize that when they have like education at school, they have to come with their, you know, a bag with like with the sneakers and like their costumes for, you know, for dressing up for the sports class.


And they, you know, they really care about the planet. They saw this video about wells eating plastics and all that. Okay. So they're like, okay, let's do this next out the bags that we can replace our plastic bags. So they look around, they saw like old t-shirts and you know, clothes they don't wear. They convince some grandmas to help them sew the bags together.


And then now they have to make new bags and they don't have to bring plastic bags to the school. And this was like the first initiative when the kids realized that they can do a change, you know, afterwards. So we work this with this long-term approach, you know, change can be very abstract and really hard to understand.


So when you start with something, you know, you can start small, you know, we make a big space, a space where we welcome mistakes. They did that. And then at the second level, cause we were taking multiple iterations, they start working with the university professor and they built this like greenhouse made out of plastic bottles.


And they start growing their like vegetables and you know, it became like a whole attraction because they put it in the school yard and it's like everybody was passing by like, what is that?


How are you guys doing it?


And then people, you know, adults, especially when they see the kids taking initiative and doing something, they want to help. Okay.


How can we help?


And then like everybody became, you know, took a hammer, took some nails, put things together, the frame, you know, help them put the bottles and, you know, and they built this greenhouse. And it's like the transformative aspect is that we, you know, we start small with them. They keep growing and you know, developing their skills.


We bring in new people and resources, you know, and after we work with them, you know, the teachers there became really involved. We participated with them. We are also part of like Erasmus projects where different partners come together to share knowledge.


So now they're working with us on Erasmus project and the kids there did like, it's called environmental minutes where they recorded themselves short videos about how you can protect the environment, you know, how, what to do with batteries, where to recycle them, different types of plastic. So it's the transformation you see at the school.


It's at the mindset of the school and how open they are to new initiatives and working towards the society. And then it's really easy to bring in companies, you know, we had in fact, they with Discovery channel at the school. So you know, you just build a platform where you can, you know, it's a fertile ground for innovation and creating new things. Yeah.


I love it when my son who's five, when he comes home and he's asking me questions, things that we never discuss, things that I don't think he's necessarily in the curriculum, but I know that there was like a special visitor or maybe another organization that came by to chat with the kids or talk to the kids about something.


And it opens his imagination, you know, and he starts to have these questions about different things that I just didn't think that he would have, but obviously it's because he was exposed, you know, to organizations that go out there, but like the organizations that you work with, to people that you work with that go and expand their mind and tell them about different things.


So a few questions for you, Madelina, what is something that you think you do really good better than most, than most other people?


I think we create these safe spaces. I think it's like, and I think we, you know, we encourage innovation, we encourage creativity, we encourage people to come together and, you know, we say, okay, we don't have all the answers. Let's find those answers together.


And I think, you know, building a safe space where it's, you know, it's safe to fall, I think, because, you know, working innovation, there's always going to be mistakes. There are going to be new things that are not going to work as you want. And building a safe space and a community that's supporting you and helping you.


I think that's the, you know, it's also like a foundation, you know, everything we do is teachers and they come in with ideas and then, okay, I come with an idea, I can test it. I can get feedback from my friends and that's how we grow and, you know, and that's, you know, it's a process. And I think we do that, you know.


What's something you do to help create that safe space?


You worked in many different countries, different cultures, and to get people to feel comfortable with you.


Do you have any little things that you do, little tricks?


I like to, well, it's, I do it in person, you know, it was before the pandemic, we did a lot of in-person activities. Now we do online and we adapted really well in teachers as well.


I think it's the play, it's, you know, using games, even with adults, makes people feel okay, this is okay, maybe it's not that serious, let's not take myself very serious because when you create the very serious environment, you know, everybody's like in suits and ties and talks very serious, like, okay, that's kind of like very strict, rigid environment.


So creating more of a safe environment with games and, you know, playing, also reflecting, you know, a place where you, you know, criticize, but not, you know, you know, the strict negative way, you know, the constructive way and creating that space.


And also, you know, leading by example and keeping, being accountable to what you do, you know, because it's like, you know, if you say you're going to do something, you know, being accountable for that.


And, you know, I tried to keep myself to those standards as well. All right. Wonderful. Wonderful. Okay. Another question for you.


What's something that you wish you had known before you started, Augro?


Oh, yeah, that's a good, that's a good question. I think I wanted to learn to be, to be more patient. I think it's, you know, it's like, you want to see things happening fast. You want to see things, you know, it's like, and put those at pressure on yourself.


Like, yeah, maybe I should have figured out some things, but, you know, change takes time and I have to remind myself that, you know, things don't happen as we want them.


And, you know, sometimes they go really fast, but you have to be, to be patient then and keep pushing. Okay. All right. Last question. Fun question.


What is an unusual object in your house?




Well, it's a good question because I have a bunch of random stuff. I live in a, well, so I'm in, I'm from Brantia, which is a wine region in Romania and you wouldn't find many like tools to produce wine, but we have a lot of those, those, I don't know the English names, but task and all those words for you for winemaking.


So yeah, we could say that's, that's quite strange for, for people who are not so winemaking. I love it. I love it. I love Romanian wine. Drink it all the time. Okay.


Madalina, Boris, thank you so much for being on Innovators Collab for everybody listening. I will include links to our, our grow into Madalina and the show notes and if you enjoy the show, tell others about it. That's how we grow. And until next week, Revedere.


Thank you, Eric. Thanks for listening to the show. If you enjoyed it, I'd really appreciate it if you could give us a review and star rating.


Also, don't forget to sign up for the ICO newsletter at innovatorscollab.com where you can get the bio and details of each guest. Thanks for watching