Medellín, Colombia has long been considered a success story when it comes to attracting foreign direct investment. A large part of that track record can be attributed to the efforts of the Agencia de Cooperación e Inversión de Medellín (ACI Medellín), or Medellin’s Agency for Cooperation & Investment. The agency has punched above its weight when it comes to attracting international companies and convincing them to make Medellín their home in Latin America or at least Colombia.
Earlier in the year, new Mayor Daniel Quintero appointed Eleonora Betancur to lead the agency, and it has been an unusual start to her term, with travel restrictions and a global pandemic making 2020 an especially challenging year to attract new investment.
Betancur generously agreed to share her time with Finance Colombia executive editor Loren Moss to understand her goals and objectives for ACI Medellin, and how she plans on achieving them.
Finance Colombia: I am here with the new Executive Director of ACI Medellin, Eleonora Betancur, and you’ve been here for some months. We published a short article when you started with the agency. Can you tell us a little bit about you, and your story and what you did before arriving at ACI Medellín?
Eleonora Betancur: Well, I am a sociologist, that’s my base career, I studied at Salamanca University in Spain, and I lived many years in Spain. I also got a master’s degree in International Relations and Development Cooperation from the Barcelona University, and I also got a specialization in Territorial Public Management at the Javeriana University, so that is my academic background, and my career has always been oriented to cooperation issues with local governments in Latin America. I’ve been the advisor for local governments in Latin America regarding public policies, and I have also worked with the European Commission on project issues for Latin America, I worked on a program called URBAL III, which was part of the European Commission on projects for the entire Andean area and I was the regional director of this program that lasted four years in the country, and for Latin America.
“Also, one of my goals and something that I find very interesting in this area, of cooperation, is to be able to work more with the third sector, with social organizations. In other words, we are linked with many local actors, with cities. We work so that public policies are reinforced in the cities and that is why we look for allies. But I believe that we must strengthen the work with civil society, support them, train them, help them so that they too can achieve international cooperation.”–Eleonora Betancur
I have worked in my most recent period of life living in Barcelona. In the time I was living there I worked with the Barcelona Council, which is like the state level government in local terms. I also worked as the advisor and at the consultancy for local governments, and I also, have experience in the academic sector. I’ve been a professor for different courses in international affairs, city diplomacy. I also was the principal of International Relations in Bogota. I had two positions there, first as the vice principal of international projection, and then as the principal of International Relations in Bogota, and since then I’ve developed a line of work in the public sector that is like one of my passions let’s say.
Finance Colombia: Excellent. So, you lived many years in Spain, but you are from Colombia?
Eleonora Betancur: Yes, I’m Colombian. Well, actually I’m Colombian-Spanish, because I have Spanish citizenship, because my husband is Spanish, my child as well, and I lived many years there as well, but I’m basically Colombian, though I feel like a global citizen. I mean, if I have to define myself, I define myself as a global citizen. My parents, and my grandparents are from Antioquia, but of course I lived an amount of time abroad, so I’m returning to my roots, which is nice, and a challenge as well, because I believe there’s a lot to build here in Colombia and in this beautiful region of Antioquia and this city.
Finance Colombia: So here in ACI, I think you’ve been here for three or four months in Medellin, right?
Eleonora Betancur: A little bit more. Sort of, six months.
Finance Colombia: Okay, and tell me in what direction, obviously along with the City Hall, what’s your vision, what are your goals? If we talk about three years in the future and the imprint you will have left here, what are we going to see in ACI during your time as the executive director here in ACI?
Eleonora Betancur: Well, first, the ACI has these two important components that are the attraction of international cooperation for the city, so from there and with the same focus, I would like to take the agency one, and let’s say the city, to continue being an attractive city for international cooperation; of course, a partner and a strategic ally for the projects that the city needs. So, for me, a goal is to continue to position it in all international spheres and above all to promote the sustainable development agenda. Also the SDGs, Sustainable Development Goals, where the city has a commitment and where we can, I believe, lead in international spaces on the agenda, much of what is globally at stake. So, there are some very important issues and I think that from that place of cooperation and international relations with other cities in the world, I would like us to continue showing us a city that can also offer cooperation, that is, demand cooperation but also offer cooperation. and make a strategic positioning of our public policies. In these spaces, with these cities.
If you ask me like what would I like the most? Lead the ACI and lead the city to become a relevant actor on the global agenda. Also, one of my goals and something that I find very interesting in this area, of cooperation, is to be able to work more with the third sector, with social organizations. In other words, we are linked with many local actors, with cities. We work so that public policies are reinforced in the cities and that is why we look for allies. But I believe that we must strengthen the work with civil society, support them, train them, help them so that they too can achieve international cooperation. So, it would be that accompaniment, I think it would be a legacy to open ourselves to that sector as well, which is the third sector of social organizations.
Finance Colombia: It’s interesting, because if I understand correctly, there is a different approach.
Eleonora Betancur: We are in cooperation.
Finance Colombia: Before, the ACI has always been focused, for example like ProColombia, on attracting investment, attracting companies. But if I understand correctly, there is a change, it’s like the organization will be more like a diplomatic body.
Eleonora Betancur: Let’s see…No, what I mean is that since you asked me about the dream, I started with cooperation and diplomacy. And that is my approach, so from there, that is the dream, and then there is everything that we are, that we are a promotion agency, an IPA (Investment Promotion Agency) and from there we also have goals and we also have dreams. So for this approach I already told you the big picture. That is the dream that we would like to achieve, and then it comes the whole issue of foreign direct investment, which of course at this current juncture is going to regain an important force, so there we also have very specific goals.
In the development plan we have to achieve $850 million dollars for the city in this four-year period, which is very important. In cooperation we have a goal of $30 million dollars, and what is the dream? Obviously the dream in investment matters also and obviously in cooperation, of course, is to attract foreign companies to the city, to our territory as well, especially so that they can generate added value and mobilize and move the economy, and by that of course we have specified the sectors that we want to promote, but we are also sensitive to a new development plan that wants to promote the software valley in the city, and that means opening up the economic vocation of the city, then.
Although we have a tradition of working in specific sectors to attract foreign direct investment to the city, in matters of trade, agriculture, business, we have already established seven specific issues that the agency has always traditionally and proactively sought out companies to come and settle. This I think is going to be a big focus apart from those others and it’s to be able to look for these strategic allies, large companies and anchors who want to come to the city to settle, because we believe that is the way to also contribute to that line of the Medellín Software Valley Development Plan. I think that there the agency will have to strengthen that axis.
Of course, we continue to have the tools that we have had for territorial promotion, to go out and tell the world about benefits of the territory and show them the benefits we have. The legal support and the support that the ACI gives to make these companies fall in love and make their installation easier in the territory and accompany them throughout that process, so there is obviously the goal, in addition to obtaining the $850 million dollars; is really to be the best territorial promotion agency in the country. In other words, it seems to me that this is a scenario where I would like to leave a mark if you ask me.
That is, each development agency and each territorial promotion agency has its advantages, because they sell the territory and tell you why you have to invest. In addition to obtaining the $850 million dollars, we really want to be the best territorial promotion agency in the country. In other words, it seems to me that this is a scenario where I would like to leave a mark if you ask me, that is, each development agency and each territorial promotion agency has its advantages, because they sell the territory and tell you because you have to invest, what are the incentives, what connectivity do they have, what human talent do they have.
I believe that we also have all the conditions given to compete healthily with other territories and let’s say to be an innovation hub in Latin America.
To honor that award that the city was given for being the most innovative city, so I think that all that axis of science, technology and innovation, fourth revolution, because it’s like a marked accent that is not new, of course it also comes a process, let’s say, historical in the city, but that this development plan also takes as its own and adds new elements to it, so I think there is a lot of openness, and today there is a very large market.
Just yesterday we were at an event in which Procolombia told us “that is where we should go” because we are always positioned in traditional sectors of the economy, but we have to take a step further, and I believe that these 4.0 technologies and all this Software Valley is a bet to open ourselves to the world and in some way create economic development as well. It can also be even sustainable in some way, because it also represents a new market, an interesting market, so that is going to be like a concrete bet and the ACI has to align itself with that purpose, as well as that of the city and the administration.
Finance Colombia: Well, one thing, and you talked about being at an event: it’s very strange to be in Plaza Mayor when there are no events and when almost everything has closed, but how it has been different? We are in a very strange year, 2020, COVID-19, the isolation of Medellín, also Antioquia, all of Colombia. Normally, ACI was always having events and you know, we have an events in Plaza Mayor, Feria de las 2 Ruedas, the motorcycle event that come every year or so many events, sometimes there are two or three very big things happening at the same time and then It has been more complicated. Now businesses are opening, but you couldn’t fly between Medellín and Bogotá, much less from Europe and the United States or Canada. How have you managed to continue to attract investment or interest or communicate it with the rest of the world so that the agreements, the pacts, the investment, continue in progress and are not completely stopped by the situation?
Eleonora Betancur: Yes, indeed, it’s a global challenge, not only for our city, but for all cities in the world. Being able to work under these conditions, of course, but in my view, it also represents an opportunity. In other words, you have to get out of all the bad, the good. And I think that on the one hand it has made us rethink the way we work, so, for example, one of the instruments that we have always used to attract investment is to be able to travel to the destination and tell those strategic allies where we travel why they should invest And what we continue to do, but now we have done it virtually, so yesterday, for example, yesterday we even had 33 companies from the Basque Country to which we told why it’s important, why we are a competitive territory to invest.
And we had 33 interested companies that would surely have come otherwise, but there they were. We did a super beautiful live production, with speakers and the companies on the other side, and so we did the event with the Spaniards, Chileans and the Basques yesterday, and I came from a meeting with the Norwegian embassy and also expressed the same interest in knowing our concrete projects, so we have found that virtuality helps. I will not say that it’s the same, but we have not stopped and we continue to make bilateral agendas, meeting with companies, especially with embassies that have their commercial area and that therefore come with their companies and also want to share an agenda with the city.
We also see a door of very great opportunity that is opening, which is nearshoring, and all this tension between the United States and China, that makes us begin to think that this is an interesting market too, of relocation of these companies in our territory, which in addition to being installed will surely be exporters as well, we are going to import exporters. And that is also going to be very important, so that’s why I say that these are complex times, but also if we are managing to reposition ourselves as an agency and finding that although we don’t have the events as we traditionally conceive them, some have been practically taking place and we have also reinvented ourselves along the way, so we have good expectations. It’s hard work and it’s not going to be easy this year or the next one.
These are really difficult years to be in government, in any government in the world, because the economy is now going to be the most central issue. But in that we are still very close, working with the chambers of commerce, with companies and we believe that since it’s a global situation, there is a margin of waiting, but in that waiting we continue to meet, we continue to advance agendas, which at the moment when everything opens a little, it will surely revert and we will see many of the projects in which we are showing and coordinating . So well, we are in that change, and it’s a challenge for the agency, to live up to such a complex moment for the city, and all the agencies will be the same, which is not easy, but I think they have opened there new opportunities that we are exploring.
Finance Colombia: Thank you, you have been very generous with your time. Is there something I forgot to ask you, is there something you wanted to mention?
Eleonora Betancur: Something additional, well, that we are very open to building ties and bridges with local actors, that means with the Chamber of Commerce, with ProAntioquia, with local actors who are also part of an important strategy to be able to be an attractive city in general terms, and what we also feel is that theACI also has a very important role, which is how to be that entity that is capable of having ties with the world and therefore, I feel that it’s playing a very beautiful role in the sense of being able to connect now when we most need to be connected in this such a complex moment, so I think that even beyond investment, cooperation, activating that now has been important and I think that this has been reflected in terms of the agency in this framework of the pandemic, we were able to have solidarity and we received cooperation and even humanitarian cooperation that we had never received for the pandemic, and that has shown us that the agency has had a very long road and that it has gathered that relationship with other cities in terms of supporting public policies and cooperation.
I would also like to point out that, as it’s a strategy of accompaniment to companies, we are opening the portfolio, so we want to be much closer, even after the installation of foreign companies, so we not only want to make them fall in love, but we also want to accompany them, then ask them how they are doing, create more ties, relationship support, even recently as I mentioned it, and we signed with WeWork an alliance to allow these companies that come and are looking for a place to settle to have a physical space where they can spend a month or a few days at a time, start for free, to later decide where they are going to install themselves or if they eventually want to be in WeWork since they have entire floors, then alliances of this type that allow us to offer many more, and more questions close to the investment, not only go, convince them, but accompany them, well throughout this process.
It’s a very interesting model, a very interesting ecosystem, so we believe that companies, many times, they come, they don’t have physical space. WeWork offered us with an alliance that we made with them that one week they would be using their dependencies and then if they wanted to install themselves, they also give them free, so it’s these small alliances with us installed that we also want to promote.
Finance Colombia: Excellent, thank you!
Above photo: Eleonora Betancur (l) & Loren Moss. Photo credit: Liliana Padierna