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Pedro Espinoza: The Mastermind Behind SmileyGo

In the world of Entrepreneurship, it’s hard not to run after money. We hear of the likes of Zuckerberg and Spiegel and we just wonder why we can’t be the next genius to come up with a billion dollar idea? Well, the problem is, not all wealth is money, and you can well be a billionaire because of the lives you touch, not necessarily only because the zeroes you line up in your bank account. One such startups changing people’s lives is SmileyGo, and our contributor Imane Lamine had the chance to interview the CEO exclusively for Gulf Elite.

SmileyGo is a platform that connects the resources of for-profit companies and the missions of non-profits in order to foster billions of smiles in the children of underserved communities. The startup aims to connect companies’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies and the needs and values of non-profits to develop long-term partnerships between the two sectors in the field of technology, education, women’s rights and sustainability.

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Tell me a little bit more about yourself. What are you truly passionate about?

Discipline, proactivity and passion have been present since 1994. Since I was five, I accompanied my parents in their entrepreneurial businesses. First, I would observe how they managed, motivated and trained their employees. Then I would learn by doing it thanks to my parents’ encouragement “Pedro it’s your turn. Go for it!” I started working when I was 13 as a gas station attendant in Lima. That same year, my passion for global communication was born: I started learning Japanese and French in order to communicate with my international peers at school. By the age of 14 my proactivity was fostered thanks to the training I received at Shell and was promoted to the sales department. Simultaneously, my discipline was generated thanks to my love for tennis since I was seven. Hence, at a young age I was able to connect my discipline from sports, proactivity from work and passion for learning into entrepreneurial success: When I was 15, I launched my first music venture via iTunes, Amazon and Google Play. My pop singles were featured in national TV, local radio and schools. By then I had registered patents in Broadcast Music Inc in Los Angeles, California. https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/pedro-david-espinoza/id575046606 When I was 16, I initiated my first nonprofit “Yatay” that uplifted children from underserved regions in the Andes through positive music. www.yatayperu.com Gratefully, the 25 members of Yatay stimulated the educational levels of Pampas Grande, Huaraz, thank to the positive influence of music in the children’s learning. When I was 17, I had the opportunity to represent Peru in the 2012 South American Conference of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires, Argentina, thanks to my leadership in music, academics and sports.

These entrepreneurial successes gave me the opportunity to meet international leaders, professional mentors and chief executive officers whom I learned from. I love hanging out with more experienced individuals than me. When I was 17 I would embrace friendships with 24 year-olds who were done with university and were working at McKinsey in Mexico. Since I was 15 I would go to the Toyota Conventions and use my conversational Japanese skills to talk about China’s macroeconomic growth to the CEO of Toyota. I’m always eager to learn from others and get the best out of them through charisma, sympathy and positivity.

I’m a passionate, positive and proactive entrepreneur who uses his leadership to make a positive impact in his worldwide community.

What is SmileyGo? And what’s its mission?

SmileyGo is a global corporation that merges businesses with the ideal nonprofits in order to leverage their brand equity, customer loyalty and corporate image. We act as the bridge for corporations and nonprofits in order to foster smiles in the underserved individuals of the world. It’s a win-win for both sides of the platform: for-profit and non-profit. We are currently operating in 28 countries among 6 continents in the venture of making smiles through entrepreneurship. What is unique about SmileyGo is that it’s led by university students in each of the 28 countries we are present in. As of October 2014, our company has 192 Pro Bono employees, named SmileyGoers.

At SmileyGo we are leaders, doers and go-getters. We think of solutions and not on the problem. That’s what I tell my SmileyGoers every day: Be proactive. Learn by doing! It’s totally fine to fail. Successes come from failures, so go for it!

What ignited the spark in you to start SmileyGo?

The fact that before I turned 20 I had already been to 21 countries in 3 continents, enabled me to see the differences in educational, corporate and social levels in communities.  When I lived in Nashville I learned that one out of three Americans are overweight and that one out of three Africans are underweight really struck me. At such a young age, I realized the biggest challenges of our world. Then, when I volunteered in teaching in the rural library of my mother’s educational nonprofit, Pan Peru, I noticed the lack of “dreaming” from the teenagers when I asked a small girl “what do you want to be when you grow up?” she answered “a farmer”. That was when I expressed my dream to my family, and both of my sisters encouraged me to take the lead and do something about it. That’s when I used my leadership positions at the Business Honor Society, Music Honor Society and Student Government to launch the Yatay nonprofit during high school. As a result the University of California, Berkeley accepted me with a merit-based scholarship for my innovative leadership and challenged me to make my dream global. I accepted it. Freshman year I focused on networking through sports (tennis, soccer, golf), church (prayer meetings), and classes. It was during the summer after my freshman year when I enrolled to Stanford’s Tech Entrepreneurship class (ENGR145) where my dream got incubated by top-notch entrepreneurs: Tom Kosnik, Rebeca Hwang, Ernestine Fu, Kaia Simmons and John Dodini.

Which important skills would you say that a great leader should have?

Leaders should have persistent faith in themselves. If they don’t believe in their innate selves then they have nothing. No one in this world will motivate more than you. Experts, mentors and relatives will advice you, but you have to decide by yourself what are you going to take. Experts can tell you a thousand reasons why your dream will not work, but geniuses-entrepreneurs do not listen to experts. As my Stanford mentor Tom Kosnik says, “you need to dare to think the unthinkable to achieve unbelievable goals”.

Furthermore, leaders have to be motivators. Leaders are leaders because people follow them. You need to be able to motivate people to their best. How? Through charismatic speaking, sympathetic listening and relationship-building skills you will win people. When people ask me “Pedro how did you manage to get 182 people to follow you?” I answer, “Follow me? I’m not here to get followers, I’m here to empower young leaders to their best through motivational speaking, tangible mentorship and the SmileyGo DNA: passion, drive and energy”.  Leaders form leaders. That’s a must. Leaders have to have a passion for teaching, an art for delegating and a niche for inspirational speaking.

How do you manage your time between study and work?

Discipline is key for success. One needs to learn to say no, and focus.  For instance, I was raised not eating deserts, not watching TV and waking up at 7:00AM every day. Pursuing this further, when I started SmileyGo at Stanford during the summer quarter I had to make several sacrifices such as neglecting an executive office position at a Honda dealership in South America, discarding a vacations trip to Monterrey to visit my best friend of Mexico and postponing a German business internship in Nuremberg.

Equally important, I believe in collaboration rather than competition. That’s what SmileyGo is! Everyone wins: the company, nonprofit and students. At SmileyGo, we have an academics department that focuses on enhancing the theoretical knowledge of the executive officers at SmileyGo. These SmileyGoers have a passion for academics, which is great! They can collaborate in our business by assisting the CEO, COO, and CMO in their academic learning.

Did you plan to see your entrepreneurial idea evolve to a global corporation?

Growing up my mother would always encourage me “think big and you’ll be big”. Hence, I always had the scale model in my mind. As a result to my networking, public speaking and multilingual skills (Spanish, Chinese, Italian, German), I was able to make friends all around the world. Hence, step-by-step the dream of making something global was becoming more viable. The funny thing was, that I questioned me “Pedro when are you actually going to use your connections in the United Arab Emirates? Colombia? Australia?” And little did I know that the ideal time was coming. SmileyGo was the perfect opportunity to use my international relationships to attain a global impact and a sustainable performance in the creation of smiles via entrepreneurship.

What are the main challenges that you did encounter while acting as a bridge between NGOs and corporations?

We started with 4 SmileyGoers on July and have grown to 192 in 28 countries. Hence, this generated growth problems. Communication was an issue. Hence, we created an email thread but it failed. Then, we took advantage of the relationships we had with high-tech business employees and boom! Problem solved. Dropbox, Facebook and LinkedIn helped us consolidate our information, communication and integration as a global business that bridges corporations with NGOs. Employees from Facebook and Dropbox have enhanced SmileyGo’s communication by giving us their exclusive business tools. Thankfully, we were able to solve the communication challenge by taking advantage of our connections at social network firms to strengthen the communication between the executives, directors and managers of the 28 SmileyGo branches.

How much resources the enterprise has, and how do you expect it to grow in the future?

SmileyGo’s most powerful asset is the SmileyGo Network–the platform that entails our university, company and nonprofit databases. Our global connections in six continents enable us to go to Cape Town, speak in front of 100 university students in terms of business innovation and to get over 10 companies interested in sponsoring NGOs via our tech platform”. In addition, our network enabled us to expand to Morocco, India, China, Mexico, France and Spain in less than 30 days. Yet, we were not satisfied. Thanks to the Toyota Way training I received, I embraced the Kaizen mindset of “continuous improvement”.  Thus, we will stimulate sustainable growth through our genuine relationships we have with investors, professors and students. A solid relationship with an investor will open the doors to more investors that will not only invest in SmileyGo but also offer Pro Bono advice in regards to financial management. It’s the snowball effect. Once one is in, then the rest come in. Things are moving quickly at SmileyGo, for example one of my greatest golf friends, Gabriel de Muguerza, became the SmileyGo CEO for Bilbao, Spain. A week later, Gabriel introduced me to Omar El Moujahid—who later became the CEO of SmileyGo Morocco. Three weeks after, Omar introduced me to Sadiq Valliani, who became the CEO of SmileyGo Canada. Similarly, Axel Lacrosniere, CEO of SmileyGo France, introduced me to Marc Melzer, the CEO of SmileyGo Germany. In a similar manner, the Stanford roommate of the CEO of SmileyGo Mexico, Erica Hernandez, later became the CEO of SmileyGo China. Last but not least, one of my best tennis friends from Spain; Pedro Vazquez became the SmileyGo CEO of Madrid who introduced me to Aiswarya Akumalla who’s the CEO of SmileyGo India.

Are there particular types of corporations that are you targeting? And which process do you follow in order to choose the beneficiary NGOs?

SmileyGo is a hub of organizations: corporations, startups, foundations, nonprofits and NGOs. We do not limit ourselves since opportunities are always abundant. Fundamentally, we are targeting socially oriented corporations and educational NGOs. For instance, companies in the high-tech, hospitality and education industries are most appealed to our services. In a similar way, nonprofits that are into educational development are more than eager to form part of our online platform.

SmileyGo strategically match-makes the corporation with the NGO via its location, magnitude and mission. For example, our first operation during week 2 of SmileyGo was connecting the Wealthing Institute—wealth management firm in Silicon Valley—with an educational NGO in rural South America: Pan Peru. Certainly, the Wealthing Insttute wanted to leverage their brand awareness as a wealth firm in South America, especially in Peru. Hence, SmileyGo bridged them with Pan Peru that builds modern libraries in rural communities in the Andes.  It was a bilateral gain: everyone wins at SmileyGo.

Which community development areas are you focusing on? And why?

SmileyGo is focusing in educational areas since we believe education is the number 1 tool to make a positive difference in your community. For instance, we are working with Bakuva, Pan Peru, and Association Talents pour l’Activation Culturelle et Artistique that are all concentrating in educational development with teenagers, women and kids from underserved communities. The NGOs in our SmileyGo database teach the kids how to administrate a library rather than only giving them a library. Similarly, these NGOs teach the teenagers how to take care of a greenhouse rather than only building a greenhouse for their underprivileged school. At SmileyGo we are strategic.

SmileyGo is now present in many countries. Is the decision-making decentralized to fit such organizational structure?

Yes! Leaders form leaders. SmileyGo’s success has been thanks to our leadership training programs through solid relationships with the directors of Spain, Morocco, China, India, Mexico and France: Gabriel de Muguerza, Pedro Vázquez, Axel Lacrosniere, Ling Ding, Erica Hernandez, Omar El Moujahid, and Aiswarya Akumalla. These are our super stars. It’s been thanks to them that we went global.

Decision-making is decentralized to the extent where I even motivate them “Execute! You are more than encouraged to do, to act to bring results. Certainly, results mean successes and failures. What you have to have clear is that: failure is part of the learning process. Have faith, you can do it, you will do it, if you picture yourself that you did it, you are halfway there”

Assuredly, SmileyGo USA is always there to advise them via Skype, email and WhatsApp in special cases such as “Headquarters! Here the Indonesian Faculty Professors need an official letter from the holding [headquarters] for us to establish them as official sponsors”.  We are integrating our network even more in such a way that the CTO of France talks with the CTO of Canada to see how she deals with technological challenges in terms of the tech platform. The same applies with our CFO from USA communicating with the CFO of India to see how we can make our business more appealing to impact investors in Bangalore, India. Relationships matter.

How far are you willing to go to see your corporation become a global success?

SmileyGo is 110 days young. It’s been three months and there’s a long way to the top. This is literally the beginning: the preview of what SmileyGo’s success will be in 1 year. Our headquarters have been consolidated with Stanford, Santa Clara and Berkeley students here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Our first global success will be recognized through our Global Indiegogo Campaign of Alpaca Scarves starting November 15, 2014. Here, all the SmileyGo branches will work collaboratively to promote our Crowdfunding campaign. Until October, SmileyGo had been operating local-to-local, which is great! But it’s time to try something new: take advantage of our network in 28 countries to generate worldwide funds via Indiegogo. Help us to help the world. Help us create global leaders for the welfare of our society.

Go SmileyGo!

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