As a university student in Colombia, Natalia Díaz studied chemical engineering. However, after co-founding the eco-friendly cleaning and disinfection firm Prolicar, she sought new learning opportunities. Díaz, 27, was accepted into the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI) Fellows Program. She is one of four fellows mentored by educators at Extension during the spring of 2021.
“The YLAI Professional Fellows Program provides an opportunity for University of Minnesota Extension educators to engage in citizen diplomacy by connecting with young leaders from across the Western Hemisphere for mutual learning of skills and sharing life experiences,” says John Vreyens, director of Extension Global Initiatives.
Fellows are matched with a host organization in the United States before receiving mentorship (online this year) over the course of four weeks. The YLAI Fellows program is anchored in a spirit of respect and mutual discovery. The young entrepreneurs and Extension Educators built upon their cultural competencies while learning about other countries.
Díaz was mentored by Nicole Pokorney, 4-H youth development educator in Rochester. Díaz, too, supervises youth as part of her career, although in Colombia the concept of youth encompasses the age range of 18 to 30-year-olds.
“It is interesting when we talk about youth that we’re talking about different ages,” says Pokorney. “Díaz is a youth herself, in her culture.”
Connecting over food, agriculture and people
In addition, Extension hosted Newchda D. Oreus, CEO of SOCOSI poultry cooperative in Haiti; Simon Canelón, co-founder of the Venezuelan agribusiness company Masacua Foods; and Raquel Guabiraba Ribeiro, founder of The Way English Course in Brazil.
YLAI Fellows gained insight into business management while developing soft skills. Wayne Martin, Extension educator in alternative livestock systems, worked with Oreus to consider and evaluate the poultry co-op’s competitive advantages and preparedness for expansion. Natalie Hoidal, Extension educator in food system agriculture, mentored Canelón through a series of farm finance workshops on tools he is adapting for the local context.
Fellows also had the opportunity to hone interpersonal skills valuable across sectors. Díaz participated in a self-paced course on supervision. Pokorney and colleagues working in community development shared resources that she will use to develop a primer on emotional intelligence intended for the employees she oversees. Through this joint work, Extension educators shared their collective experience to support the fellows in charting next steps for their businesses.
Networking is an additional program benefit. Mentors tapped into Extension’s breadth of expertise by connecting their fellows with educators across disciplines. Fellows also had opportunities to meet with agricultural leaders. For instance, Hoidal organized informational interviews between Canelón and local industry professionals such as millers, equipment dealers and manufacturers, seed keepers, and peanut breeders.
Learning makes a difference beyond business
The Fellows are far from the only beneficiaries of the YLAI Fellows program.
Prolicar not only ensures that its cleaning products and methods are environmentally sustainable but aims to reduce poverty and to open employment opportunities for women in Colombia. The Way, Guabiraba Ribeiro’s private English language learning business, seeks to expand learning access to vulnerable communities in Brazil. (Guabiraba Ribeiro is mentored by Cassandra Silveira, Extension Educator in Health & Nutrition.) Canelón’s firm Masacua Foods addresses structural malnutrition in Venezuela, while Oreus’s co-op SOCOSI has the goal of eradicating poverty and supporting communities in Haiti.
“Being a chemical engineer, I did not have the opportunity to acquire knowledge about business,” says Natalia Díaz. “I hope to get the most out of the YLAI Program to be a better leader, have a better company and create a better society through it.”
As Martin observes, “The young people, we always say, are the hope of the future.”
About Extension Global Initiatives: Minnesota is part of an increasingly connected global network, which benefits from exchanges in education, research and development. Extension engages with scientists, teachers and learners around the world, and with diverse communities at home. Learn more about Extension Global Initiatives.
About YLAI: Sponsored by the United States Department of State and co-implemented by the nonprofit International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), the YLAI Fellowship Program supports cultural exchange and skill-building for young professionals from North and South America in entrepreneurship, finance, and leadership development.