Carnival, Chocolate, & Conservation

A lifelong learner connecting the dots of conservation through social innovation and entrepreneurship.

By Jeff Berckes (2013)

September 2020

Carnival – Dance until Everything Hurts

To understand Jimena Betancourt the person, I’ll offer that twenty minutes into our interview, our first-ever conversation, I had four book recommendations scribbled down in my notes, ranging in topics from South African rugby to poverty alleviation. I had also done most of the talking.

"Wait, hold on," I pleaded. "This conversation needs to be about you!"

“I know, I know," she relented. "I do a lot of consulting, so I’m always asking questions.”

Someone her friends would describe as “fun, crazy, thoughtful, educated, and entrepreneurial,” Jimena slides between conversation topics with ease. The hour I allotted for our conversation evaporated with laughs and amusing anecdotes that kept us chatting an additional 45 minutes.

Jimena Betancourt, 2015 Fellow

At some point, we managed to get back on topic where we discussed inspirational figures in her career development. The names of a half dozen writers and political leaders spilled out, filling up a virtual bookshelf with seminal texts and motivational perspectives.

“Do you want more? I could keep going, there are so many more.”

The phrase "lifelong learner" was jotted in my margin notes not once, but three separate times, clearly something I wanted to capture in the moment. A woman with an insatiable appetite for knowledge must be fed a steady diet of books and papers, so it should come as no surprise that Jimena's advice to young professionals entering the field centered on lifelong learning. In an interdisciplinary field like environmental economics, it's difficult to imagine ever mastering all aspects of the profession. Read a book and three more are added to the list. Finish investigating one idea, and five more spring forth. 

"Keep learning all the time," she implored. "Be curious. Feed your mind. Things are changing so fast that you need to be a lifelong learner. It’s incredible the amount of information we have at our fingertips. Science is finding things all the time so you need to keep learning."

Despite a hyper-focus on her work, something she brings great passion to, Jimena balances her life with daily walks. The hour each day has more of a mental health benefit than physical, allowing her to untangle knotty issues of how to pivot in her work to move the project forward or who she needs to call to unlock that next door. Traveling, learning about new ideas and products, and meeting new and different people fills her sails with energy, while a strong connection to her two sisters and parents helps keep her grounded. 

The biggest work-life balance component for Jimena involves the annual cultural celebration of life through dance. For the last twenty years, she has taken part in Carnival, including dancing on floats in the big parade in full traditional dress.

"I'm Columbian so I dance," she says flatly, as if it could be any other way. "That was a commitment to myself that I'll always take those 4-5 days."

The ultimate work hard, play hard philosophy summed up with Columbian flair: "Dance until everything hurts."

Jimena at Carnival


Chocolate – A Born Entrepreneur

There’s that kid in every school who understands the fundamentals of capitalism before they can spell the word. You know the one I’m talking about, the one who buys the giant bag of candy and sells the individual pieces to double their money. Or makes flyers to gain steady business for a lawn mowing operation. That one.

What do they end up doing with their life? What happens when that kid grows up and, through a series of events, starts putting that instinct to positive use in the conservation sector? You get Jimena Betancourt, 2015 Fellow.

“I always liked business. I was always trying to make money as a little girl.”

What started as a profitable lemonade stand under the watchful eye of Grandma progressed to a miniature chocolate empire. Jimena purchased chocolate caramels (dulce de leche) from a local producer, selling sweet treats to her classmates throughout the day. What’s more impressive was the network of friends in other schools to increase satisfied customers and profits.

There was one drawback.

“My mom forced me to keep the chocolates in my room, so my bedroom always smelled of chocolate and I gained a lot of weight.”

(Author's note: I’ve never identified with anything more in my life…)

For Jimena, a career in business seemed certain, but with influential parents and a passion to help people, she found her niche in conservation.

Conservation – The Field Chose Me

The daughter of two Sociologists, Jimena learned valuable lessons from her parents that taught her the importance of injecting meaning in her life’s work. Her first professional post found her in the business of education but she ran into issues managing an all-male staff twice her age. So, she did what she had always done when faced with a problem she didn't know the answer to - she dove in and learned how she could fix it.

She turned to a book by Deborah Kolb, a professor at Simmons College in Boston specializing in how women can be successful in business negotiations. Inspired, Jimena reached out to Professor Kolb, inviting her to Colombia to spread this message. Instead, Jimena found herself in Boston, the focus of a recruitment pitch to study at Simmons, earn her MBA, and take those lessons back to South America with her.

Most often, earning an MBA leads to a career in the business sector and the pursuit of maximizing short-term profits. However, the lessons learned in an MBA program apply to a wide variety of fields, including conservation.

"If more people from the environmental sector would get business and innovation training, the sector would be transformed," she explained. "There’s a lack of diversity. I find that the conservation sector received the wave of social and environmental enterprising much later than other sectors. I had some experiences where when introducing the concept of enterprise development to the conservation sector, resistance was stronger than in other sectors. Conservation has a lot of really smart people but they are often hyper-focused." 

It reminds me of a "connect the dots" picture. The study of natural science produces plenty of people who spend years of their lives investigating incredibly specific topics, a dot on the canvas if you will. It takes a person able to understand the details of that dot and connect it on the canvas to other dots until a picture starts to form. The dots on the page are vital, of course, but drawing the lines between the dots allows us to see the picture. 

Jimena is able to connect those dots through the lens of social innovation and entrepreneurship. Her career history reads like a South American geography bee, starting in Colombia, then Chile, then all over Latin America, selling and incubating social businesses. The focus always on transforming products to help lift people out of poverty. 

So how did she get involved in the environmental field?

"One day, while working for NESsT, an investment fund and social enterprise developer in Chile, I was sent to a protected area in the Amazon, between Peru, Colombia, and Brazil," she explained. "I was totally lost, didn’t know what to do. I thought: 'that’s for the biologists.' It was that consultancy that helped me understand the connection between the environment and everything else. The social innovation space and the environmental space – they’re connected."

Her success in the first project sent her to other protected areas in Chile and Central America. With success came more projects of the same until her portfolio was full of this intersection of social innovation and the environment. Finally came Kinship, helping put all the pieces in place. 

"It was at Kinship that it finally clicked in my head the purpose of a project I worked on years ago. It helped me understand how much there is to do."

Since then, Kinship has become an important fixture in her career, providing opportunities to satiate that appetite for learning new things and meeting new people but also to help share what she has learned in her career. Because there's a shared understanding that creates the foundation of the fellowship, it provides fertile ground for information sharing and collaboration. It's a safe space to cultivate innovative approaches. 

Upon reflection of the series of events that shaped her career, Jimena came to a simple conclusion: "Really, the field chose me."

The field chose wisely.

"If more people from the environmental sector would get business and innovation training, the sector would be transformed."

I asked Jimena for a recipe and she fittingly shared a recipe for arequipe or dulce de leche:

Arequipe (Colombia), Dulce de Leche (Argentina), Cajeta (Mexico)

4 cups of milk 
1 ¼ cups of sugar 
1/2 teaspoon of baking soda

-Stir together milk and sugar in a heavy bottomed saucepan.
-Bring to a boil, add the baking soda, reduce heat and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until caramelized and thickened, about 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours. (skim away the foam that forms during simmering)
-After about an hour, stir more often as milk caramelizes, to avoid burning.
-Remove from the heat (at this point, some recipes add some drops of vanilla extract)
-Transfer to a bowl to cool. Store in the fridge for a week or two. Enjoy! 

Makes 1 1/2 cups.