Project Rewrite: A conversation on social entrepreneurship with Juliana Uribe Villegas

Adora Svitak
Apr 7 · 7 min read

Project Rewrite, a new initiative from the Wikimedia Foundation, is calling attention to gender gaps in the information landscape (the universe of resources we turn to for knowledge), and calling on everyone to help close them. Every organization and person can help to amplify women’s stories. As part of Project Rewrite, we are sharing conversations with inspiring women leaders we want you to know about. In turn, their organizations are profiling women in their fields to help elevate them in the wider information landscape.

Photo courtesy of Movilizatorio.

Juliana Uribe Villegas is Founder and Executive Director of Movilizatorio, a citizen engagement and social innovation lab that promotes initiatives on citizen empowerment, leadership, and collective work. Before founding Movilizatorio, Juliana studied policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and developed extensive experience in government and consulting in developing countries. She served as Senior Strategist at Purpose, Vice President of FTI Consulting, International Relations Director for the City of Bogota and Marketing Director at ProColombia. Noted for her work as a social entrepreneur, Juliana was named one of the 20 Most Inspiring Women in Colombia by the magazine Semana.

Read our interview with Juliana below, and check out Movilizatorio’s article on the women who took to the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires to protest murders carried out by the military dictatorship of Argentina.

Q: Can you tell me about your background: how did you become a social entrepreneur?

Since as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to change the world, address injustice, and improve the conditions of many people. I grew up in Colombia, in a very unequal society, so you see opportunities for improvement and equality everywhere. I worked in government for six years. I realized that a lot of the things we were doing changed depending on who the minister or secretary or president was. I felt that it was hard to have continuity: you could experience political shifts that were extreme from one government to the next. It was hard to be sure you were planting the seeds to see the trees grow. I wanted to see the trees grow — to make sure the energy I was investing would show up somehow.

I decided to go abroad and do my Master’s Degree Program at Harvard Kennedy School. There, many opportunities opened up for me. I learned about social entrepreneurship, social innovation, and digital strategies to change the world. That’s how I decided this was what I was looking for — how to have a strategy that was independent from politics but would still have a lot of impact.

Q: Movilizatorio is creating platforms for citizens to get involved with issues they care about and push for change. How do you engage with participants, and do you ever find that people are cynical or feel hopeless about their ability to change things?

There are cynical ones, but when we work with youth, I see idealists, and I see people who believe that things can change. It’s not just an idea for them; they’re actually doing the work day by day. They have their own initiatives or organizations or campaigns, and they’re really trying to do something. I think the hope and energy is in youth. Sometimes they come from very difficult backgrounds. I see people who have suffered who can still remain positive. That gives me a lot of inspiration to continue working to change things.

“When we work with youth, I see idealists, and I see people who believe that things can change.”

Photo courtesy of Movilizatorio.

Q: What would be your message for young people who are trying to figure out how to have an impact in their lives?

Find what you are really passionate about. Only once you’re working on things that you’re passionate about will you work hard to achieve those goals and be happy as you’re doing them. Sometimes you don’t know what you want to do. Play and experiment, and you’ll find it. The world is a playground: there are so many things you can learn, connect with, and become passionate about. Once you find that passion, continue working; you’ll get more inspiration and more passion from seeing the results.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work and your communities?

When the pandemic started, a strict lockdown began around the country. [In Colombia] we have a lot of people who work informally, who have small businesses on the streets, people who were working on the land. The first thing we thought was: OK, we have an organization that is about mobilizing people, this is our moment. This is the moment we have to mobilize at scale, for solidarity, to make sure that everyone who can help — everyone who still has their job, has food in the fridge — can help people who don’t have anything to eat or who are losing their jobs.

Together with many other organizations and leaders, we started an initiative called Colombia Cares for Colombia. Thousands of people donated, and we ended up being able to support two million people during the early months of the pandemic. That has been one of the most fulfilling experiences for us, being able to build upon the networks we’ve built before and the knowledge we have in terms of storytelling and digital technologies.

Q: You’ve seen many examples of people organizing on the Movilizatorio platform to advocate for change. Can you share one or two stories that especially inspire you?

We have seen young people using civic tech, mapping out the needs of their communities, then match up with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and volunteers or private companies — connecting people who need something with people who can offer help.

Within Movilizatorio is a community of change-makers who work towards specific policy goals. In 2019, towards the end of the year, we had a lot of strikes happening in Colombia. We started to crowd-source ideas on how to solve the crisis, and how we can go from protest to proposals.

The protests help raise awareness when something is wrong, but I think in order to drive the next step of real change, you really need to have a specific ask to policymakers. It’s very important to sustain the movement to work towards specific goals. When you have one goal, with everyone pushing for that, that’s where you have the biggest opportunity to move forward.

We crowd-sourced a lot of proposals from different people and went to the government with specific proposals. One was related to climate change and the environment, having the government sign the Escazú Agreement to fight against climate change in Latin America. One of our biggest successes was that the president of Colombia decided to sign the agreement. The agreement still has to go through Congress, but, for us, getting the president to sign an international agreement because of the work of civil society was a big success.

Q: You were named one of the 20 Most Inspiring Women in Colombia. How did that feel, and who are some women who have inspired you?

I’ve been working very hard since I was in school, so it felt nice that someone was seeing the work. But what I felt best about was being able to inspire younger generations of women to become leaders and entrepreneurs. When there is publicity around my work, where I feel the biggest impact comes is when hopefully a young woman in school or college reads about it and knows she can become a CEO or an activist, and change something that she wants to change.

I got a lot of inspiration from friends of my mother who worked in government. They were the first female leaders that I met. Ángela María Orozco is close to my mother and now the Minister of Transportation. I was always looking up to her, thinking “She has so much power to change things!”

Later in life, I have also gotten a lot of inspiration from my colleagues and friends. There are generations of women who are now advancing and in powerful positions; it’s inspiring to be able to say you are not alone, we can achieve this together. I think it’s important to be surrounded by people who are doing the same type of work, who are pushing to see the same changes. That’s key, because there are so many structural things that we need to change — no one can do it all alone.

Q: What is your vision for a gender equitable world?

The world is missing out on a big percentage of energy of women who are not working, and in leadership positions. My vision of an equal world would be to see at least 50% of women in leadership positions in all sectors, to make sure we’re actually representing how the population is, and the needs of the population, the voices of women. I’m sure the world would be in a better place if there were more women leaders. We are going through so many challenges — COVID-19, climate change — and we can be part of the solution if we sit at the table.

You can learn more about Juliana’s work at Movilizatorio.org.

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We invite you to learn more about Wikipedia’s gender gap and help us close the divide by joining Project Rewrite today.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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