Growing up in Chile, where her family owned a minimarket, Rocio Fonseca, SM ’14, was taught to expect a life limited by her family’s social class. In her early professional years, as the first in her family to have gone to college, she often ran into the cultural barriers of her country’s traditional business environment. Potential bosses wanted to know who her parents were, or expected her to have gone to a fancy school. “I didn’t fit the profile,” she says. “I was an outlier.”
Frustrated, she decided the solution was to go abroad. She credits her time at MIT as a Sloan Fellow studying sustainable business with helping her land at the Chilean economic development agency CORFO, where she is leading the charge to change the business culture she struggled against. Coming from a nontraditional background has allowed her to see where the Chilean economy can stretch and grow, she says.
It’s not just about profits—it’s also about positive social and environmental impact.
Although the traditionalists still ask about her educational pedigree (and she’s glad she can now say she went to MIT), she isn’t using her new status as executive director of CORFO’s InnovaChile department to fit into their world. Instead, she seeks to build what she calls a “parallel path” to Chilean success, one that is open to people of all classes. One of her favorite parts of her job is introducing talented tech entrepreneurs and innovators to each other. Her department runs training sessions on a wide range of subjects, including networking etiquette, prototyping skills, and export protocols. Her organization is so well respected that “it’s easy to knock on a door and connect people,” she says.
Fonseca believes innovation can create better jobs for everyone—in part by moving Chile away from its extractive economy, which focuses on mining and agriculture, toward something more suited to an increasingly climate-altered world. To that end, she manages a $40 million annual grant fund—one of the largest of its kind in Latin America—for companies doing innovative, sustainable entrepreneurial work. That money is especially important because Chilean startups have very little access to domestic venture capital. “You have to be very profitable from the beginning,” she says.
Since 2010, InnovaChile has supported more than 5,000 companies, with a recent emphasis on cutting-edge tech for food production and distribution. Grantees include companies manufacturing emulsions to improve the shelf life of the country’s fruits and vegetables, plant-based proteins to diversify its food supply, and phage technology to decrease the need for antibiotics on its cattle farms. “It’s not just about profits—it’s also about positive social and environmental impact,” Fonseca says.
This article also appears in the May/June 2021 issue of MIT News magazine, published by MIT Technology Review.