Lucia Gallardo is a Honduran businesswoman who develops socio-technological solutions to solve complex global problems by strengthening public-private innovation. She is the Founder and CEO of Emerge. Emerge’s portfolio includes digital identification projects, international chains of operation, preservation of information accuracy, promotion of financial inclusion and access to health systems, and more. Emerge has been nominated for the 2018 Global SDG Awards and the 2019 Newsweek Blockchain Impact Awards.
In her spare time, Lucia sits on various boards for organizations worldwide. These include: Rainforest Partnership to promote the conservation of tropical forests; the Caribbean Blockchain Alliance, in an effort to promote regional adoption of exponential and distributed technologies; and, WE Global, a full-stack innovation and capital studio for female entrepreneurs.
Before starting Emerge, Lucia co-founded Donate a Book, Change a Mind, a Honduran non-profit organization and recipient of the 2016 President Obama, Young Leaders of the Americas Scholarship. Lucia has experience in both the public and private sectors, from immigration and trade relations in diplomatic missions to AI-enabled mobile technology and investments and seed capital. She studied at the world-renowned McGill University, specializing in International Development, and focused on creating economic opportunities in post-conflict areas, resource scarcity or poverty, as well as International Trade and Business. Before this concentration, she also studied Communications Strategy.
Lucia is a member of Venture for Canada 2017, a member of RBC Future Launch 2018, a member of Money 20/20 Rise Up 2018 and is certified in the local implementation of the UN SDGs. Most recently, she was honored as one of MIT Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35. The Royal Bank of Canada included her on their list of Women of Influence in 2019 and has nominated her for the Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2020. She was awarded the Best Female Executive Director of North American Blockchain by Acquisition International in 2019. This year, she is also nominated as one of the 21 Founders of the Future by Future of Good.
Latina Republic: The first question I have for you is, why is EMERGE needed in the world?
Well, that is a great question. I think I’ve answered that very differently throughout time. I think that the primary thing that’s always underpinned our mission is this notion of Technological Justice and we are really committed to it. Technological advancements are firstly commercialized for people that are already connected and for convenience-based markets that get to experience the evolution of technology.
What about the people that are mostly excluded from these market segments? I think this is something that has always been really unpalatable to me. Technology should benefit everyone and advancement should have a sense of justice and inclusion within it. This is really why the company started and from where it has evolved. We have been filling certain gaps within both the public and private sectors.
Emerge balances the notion of Frontier Technology with International Development. We set out to understand what it takes to implement it in global contexts where there are barriers to widespread adoption. I think being in that middle allows us to provide a lot of support on the technology front to the public sector, and also fill implementation and contextual gaps for the private sector.
But for me that gap, foundationally, is really just about Justice, how we view technology and how accessible it should be to successfully become a public good.
Latina Republic: What is EMERGE’s mission, when was EMERGE born and why the name?
It was officially founded and incorporated in 2018. I always joke, though, that it was founded in 1998 when I was eight. The commitment to social justice has always been something I have been deeply passionate about, and maybe I didn’t know then that I would become an entrepreneur, or that this is what it would look like, using really cool tech.
Since a young age, I have been committed to making sure that whatever I did was really going to be about this notion of justice and access, and so I’m going to say that in 1998 this little eight-year-old started along this path. She’s always been really stubborn so she stuck with it.
The mission is to power public-private innovation. We look at the world and its problems through an industry lens, but that lens is also conducive to creating public good. That’s really what we’re trying to do. It’s a commitment we’re deeply focused on. We’ve done projects for the private sector and we’ve done projects for the public sector.
Regarding our name, I was very intent on focusing on the notion of emerging markets. There’s so much potential there. So I think the name is a mix of emerging technology and creating justice for emerging markets. It was also inspired by this notion of the sun coming up.
Latina Republic: How big is the Emerge team?
We are a small but mighty team. I started as a solopreneur. I travel a lot to attend conferences and participate in projects and meetings, so we never really had an HQ. Emerge was always intended to adjust to my lifestyle. Our team members are all over the world. On any given day we can have somewhere between nine and eleven team members working on one project.
It really depends on the project. We have people we bring on for certain functions. So for example, if we are going to work heavily with blockchain, we have a very beloved partner that we constantly rely on called, Penta, and they may code a blockchain component for a project, for example.
We have never taken in external investment. Honestly, I tried, but it has been hard to get buy in as an early founder of a very ambitious company. I thought to myself, I’m putting in all this time and effort into finding an investor. I’m going to put all this time and effort into finding a client. And so at that point it really became for me about how you bootstrap a company into doing various kinds of projects and how we deliver at scale. How do we as a tiny startup implement at scale?
So the answer to us was looking at people that investors would say were our competitors but we viewed them as partners, and so we found a really good dynamic with time. We’ve been able to replicate a little bit of that spirit we share with Penta, who remains our closest partner, and replicate some of that in other relationships and other technologies.
We work very closely with manufacturers and with people in artificial intelligence and cyber security. So we do have a very decentralized team that makes us a globally present company. This structure has allowed us to continue our work during COVID-19.
When the pandemic struck in March people would say, “we want to hire you but how is the pandemic impacting your team?” We’ve been operating remotely from the start. We were born this way. The pandemic has not affected how we work.
We operate through a lot of great partnerships, and we are successful thanks to this notion of not being tethered to the way things are traditionally done. For us, it’s about being really flexible, and how we develop partnerships and what form they take.
Latina Republic: When you’re solving a problem for somebody, a community, a company or whatever the problem might be, what is the most important consideration, efficiency, cost or social impact?
I think for me, these are actually intertwined. If you are able to build something that is efficient, you can lower its cost. If you are able to factor in operational sustainability and impact, you are able to increase its efficiency, and thus lower its cost. I think the nature of what we’ve been able to do is to harmonize these three things and demonstrate how they feed off each other.
I don’t like choosing because research actually shows that they thrive together when harmonized and that’s essentially the underpinning value of why you would want to hire Emerge. If you need someone to take a look at a problem with these three things balanced, that’s what we do. This is what makes us unique and definitely different.
Latina Republic: So thinking about Central America now, in your opinion, what are the most urgent problems that Central America and, Honduras in particular, have yet to solve? Do you envision Emerge at the center of problem-solving those issues?
Latin America is interesting as a region because it’s been so held back by corruption. Currently, we are looking at two storms that are significantly impactful, category 5, storms, on top of a pandemic, and there are a lot of other problems in the region. Latin America is one of the richest nations in the world.
There’s petroleum across the region. There are tons of natural resources. There is forestry. There is agriculture. There is tourism. There are all of these different ways in which the region could compete at a global scale, much higher than it currently does, but it has historically been held back by this notion of poor governance and poor institutionality, lack of transparency.
It has been made abundantly clear through the pandemic and natural disasters that we have a problem with the way that we manage public resources. Emerge seeks to contribute to making certain segments of public life better in public services, education, natural disaster planning and emergency response planning.
Emerge can assist a lot with those kinds of issues. We do offer systems that relate to data management, to automating processes while adding visibility and transparency. I think we can have a few pivotal roles from a system-product, technological base, and on the philosophical front.
What we have to offer the world is this notion that the public and private sector are intended to not just work together in the spirit of a traditional public-private innovation, but to really figure out ways in which we could power that, times 40, times a hundred, and create public good through the use of emerging and exponential technologies.
We need more participative forms of public-private innovation that are more inclusive of civil society organizations, and individual participants through more sovereign systems. I think there are many ways in which we can improve the ways that the public and private sector work together. Emerge sits in a very interesting position to be able to help do that, and I think it is sorely needed.
Latina Republic: What would be your entry point in Central America?
I find it really healthy to start in the private sector and push for better impact strategies and more transparency. The private sector by either its own volition or by pressure from its consumer bases is starting to realize the importance of factoring sustainability and ethical practices. Business can do so much good and we stay intent on illustrating that. So I think the entry point in the region would be through the private sector and then bringing in the public sector to hop on the fast-paced advancements train.
Latina Republic: You are a Honduran-born, Latin American, awarded innovative leader. What types of challenges have you had to overcome as a Latina international leader?
We come from a largely patriarchal culture, realistically speaking. I think it starts when as a child you are looking around you and you see women lead lives in certain ways and you ask yourself, is this what I want for my life? And if you can find 5, 10, 15, 20 examples of lives you want to live, that’s amazing.
But if you can’t, then you struggle to imagine what is possible. And so you almost have like a predetermination of where you’re going to end up, because you look around and that’s what you see. So I think the first challenge that not only I, but all Latin American women are struggling with is to visualize themselves in these positions of power.
The lack of role models is a very big barrier that starts out really young because we look around and we see very specific lives and sometimes these options are the byproduct of generations of living in a patriarchal culture and there are some wonderful business women that are Latin American but there’s not enough of them.
And so we need to make sure that that number continuously increases so that other little girls can multiple viable paths. For Latin American women, there are financial challenges, and I’ve had many of those, but our work ethic is strong. The discrimination angle is always there. The condescension is always there.
When people find out that I’m not an American they immediately want to know why I speak English so well, or maybe they want to know you know how I was able to become an entrepreneur, to win an MIT award. There’s the surprise. The other final thing I’m going to say is that we underprice ourselves a lot.
Latina Republic: I am really interested in talking about EMERGE’s projects, and one in particular, the Homeward Platform. Let’s talk about digital identity as a way to help with the immigration crisis and refugee’s displacement. You should go to Congress and present’s EMERGE’s solutions to immigration reform, worldwide!
Thank you! Emerge sees displaced populations as groups with great potential as a workforce that has not been explored. We ask, what is the potential that you have not yet been able to reach? We evaluate cities in the world that need these talents. We know that certain global cities are growing very specific economies.
When it comes to displacement, could we devise a more humanitarian response more focused on the workforce, and the future of work? How can we support displaced populations so they can present themselves as having potential, and as bringing value to a community and an economy, unlike now, where that process lacks dignity?
We work with governments to identify host cities and when the federal government is interested, we work directly with them and with the cities to be able to assess what factors are important for migration in that city. We look at the economic factors, population density, how many people they can accept, what kinds of benefits they have. In most cases, we work directly with the city and they are in charge of relocating them and giving them benefits.
The product we have created for this program is a digital identity system for displaced populations, be they refugees, homeless populations, or undocumented immigrants. We give them a digital identification that allows for the evaluation of factors, often overlooked and not recorded regarding the lives of displaced people. This helps us identify which country to send them to, related to the quotas of each country, and whether they accept displaced persons with the individual capacities that they bring.
We get creative. If there is no position that accepts refugees, then we look at available positions that accept migrants. We evaluate if people can apply under a different visa category based on someone’s work capacity. We look into what they can contribute as value to a city. Sometimes you can apply to another type of program that has no fees or is processed faster than a refugee application.
If you can program, for example, there are various immigration programs in Canada that you could qualify for and those programs take between 2 weeks and 6 months to process. The average time it takes to resettle a refugee is between 2 and 5 years.
We temporarily collect physical and behavioural biometrics, alongside a series of assessments that evaluate important factors for reintegration. Our system protects individual information while recording work experience, socio-cultural preferences, and on the side of the potential host cities we look at details on the economy, population density, age-dependency ratio, etc. We then use AI to determine which city has the greatest capacity for successful cultural and economic reintegration for refugees and their families.
You go through the system and we determine the best suited cities, like New York, or Atlanta, for example. The city, for its part, may advise the prospective family’s needs to make connections, such as access to ESL classes, schools, etc. This process allows cities to create an integration process specific to you. It also supports cities to design better processes for the integration of migrants, immigrants and refugees into the labor sectors. This program consists of 3 components: digital identification; intelligent resettlement decisions; and connection to resources to ensure that reintegration is positive.
I actually dreamt of the first and simplest iteration of the system and then drew it out at like 3:00 a.m. in the morning and the next day took it to a stellar tech team. We wanted to help identify a person’s invisible profile.
People who are displaced are frequently coming from a situation of despair, but we’re also not collecting any information that says otherwise. They come to the new place and there isn’t really enough information on them to support them adequately. We treat them entirely as a burden, while also passing off the entire burden of successful reintegration to them. Emerge wanted to rethink how digital identification could capture the right components of data so that we could do everything else more intelligently. Even though we set out to look at resettlement as the primary issue, what we really found out was we can’t do intelligent resettlement until we have the right understanding of people and immigration systems and cities and what they’re looking for in order to be able to do that.
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Dr. Soledad Quartucci is the founder and CEO of Latina Republic, a 501(C)3 California-based nonprofit organization. Latina Republic is a reporting, research, advocacy and charitable organization advancing human rights in the Americas. We fill the void in coverage of urgent social, political, human rights, economic and gender inequalities affecting the Americas. Through our allies in Latin America, we highlight contributions, heritage, history, leadership and innovation, and report on stories that integrate local strategies to the betterment of the region. Latina Republic makes space for and empowers unheard voices.