23 Apr 2018
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Sowing the Seeds of Leadership

Global school focuses on the practice, and the business, of sustainable agriculture and ethical entrepreneurship
by Deborah Blagg

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Photo by Marco Saborio

The online bio of EARTH University’s new president Arturo Condo (DBA 2000) describes him as “Ecuadorian by birth, Latin American by heart.” Condo, a distinguished scholar and author, and the former president of INCAE, followed both his heart and a lifelong passion for education when he assumed leadership of the Costa Rica–based university in January 2017. To this most recent task, he brings his entrepreneurial mindset, global perspective, and firm belief in the power of young people to change the world.

The innovative university focuses on developing leaders who will seed sustainable, socially responsible development projects in economically challenged communities. Students come from 48 countries, predominately in Latin America and Africa. The admissions team and faculty personally conduct up to 1,000 interviews in prospective students’ home countries every year to yield each class of 100 students.

“Most of these young people grew up in rural poverty and would never have a chance to take an SAT,” Condo notes. “We learn about them from their high schools or community leaders, who know they have extraordinary potential.” More than 80 percent of EARTH University’s students receive scholarships, supported by committed donors and foundation grants.

EARTH is a private, nonprofit school that offers a four-year undergraduate degree in agricultural sciences and natural resources management and a master’s degree in agribusiness innovation. Courses are taught by an international faculty and emphasize values, ethical entrepreneurship, gender equality, and environmental and social commitment.

“Every one of our students has the potential to go back home and lift people out of poverty in some of the most vulnerable communities in the world,” says Condo. “That’s what got me completely hooked.”

Scholarship with Relevance

Condo says he “bumped into” the idea of a pursuing career in academia in the early 1990s, while earning his master’s at INCAE, Latin America’s renowned business school. INCEA uses case-method teaching and is committed to developing students’ leadership skills, which fired Condo’s imagination. He was also excited by the concepts in HBS professor Michael Porter’s watershed 1990 book The Competitive Advantage of Nations.

“My decision to study at Harvard was inspired by the idea of teaching and doing research that might increase the productivity of a town, a city, a country—with a clear connection to making life better for the people who live there,” Condo says. “I’ve always thought that one should try to do work that benefits society.”

Michael Porter was ultimately the advisor for Condo’s DBA thesis, which included an analysis of the strategic and competitive development of firms in 10 Latin American countries. After earning his degree and returning to INCAE, Condo taught competition and strategy while becoming involved in, and eventually leading, the school’s Latin American Center for Competitiveness and Sustainable Development. He became the school’s eighth president in 2007 but admits he was reluctant to step away from teaching and research. Then, he says, “I realized, you can’t just demand leadership from others. You have to take it on yourself.”

Helping INCAE Evolve

As INCAE’s president from 2007 to 2015, Condo focused on helping an already good school become even better. Priorities included an increased focus on codifying and sharing faculty research on Latin American business, revitalizing the school’s MBA and executive education curricula, promoting women’s leadership, and keeping it on track during the global financial crisis.

“Schools need to keep evolving to stay relevant,” Condo observes. “You need to innovate, evaluate, and then apply lessons from that process to whatever you decide to add or change the next year. INCAE has really embraced that concept. If anything, they are now adapting and improving more rapidly than when I was president, which is very gratifying.”

When his term as president ended in the summer of 2015, Condo took a brief sabbatical before returning to INCAE teach the following year. Despite his love of teaching, he says, “I knew I needed something else.”

That “something else” presented itself in the retirement of EARTH University’s distinguished president José Zaglul, who had led the university since its founding in 1989. Condo was familiar with the school and its emphasis on agricultural sciences, but when a board member persuaded him to seriously consider the job, he became aware that “EARTH is at least as much about entrepreneurship as it is about agriculture.”

From Papayas to Partnerships

Along with courses and activities that build students’ technical and scientific knowledge, develop ethical values, and inspire commitment to socially and environmentally responsible goals, the university’s undergraduate curriculum requires students to work in teams to create and operate an agribusiness venture during their first three years in the program.

“Our students learn the science of raising pigs and growing papayas; but they also learn about business plans, seed money, forging partnerships, strategy, and marketing,” Condo notes. “We prepare them to go back to their home countries and become catalysts for positive change and growth.”

Recently launched student start-ups include Agrovita, which combines tilapia farming and the cultivation of hydroponic plants; Sula, which processes dehydrated fruit from deformed produce that farmers would otherwise discard; and a green-energy powered process for the desalinization of drinking water.

EARTH operates on 13,000 acres across two Costa Rican campuses—one in the humid tropics and one in the dry tropics—that serve as laboratories for student and faculty work in areas such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric energy; sustainable production of rice, sugarcane, hay, mangoes, and beef; waste management; and carbon neutrality. An additional commercial growing operation helps fund the school’s mission. In the United States, Whole Foods Market regularly stocks EARTH’s bananas, dried fruits, and cobranded coffee.

Outreach and Impact

In his current role, Condo spends about half of his time on the road, meeting with members of the school’s extended community in the US, Latin America, and Europe. He’s also learning to manage the logistics of running a university based in a remote location.

“It takes over two hours to drive to the city of San José when we need to meet with bankers, government officials, or lawyers,” explains Condo, who averages two days a week on business in Costa Rica’s capital, where his wife, Leonor Gutierrez, works as a social entrepreneur focusing on youth issues, and their three children attend school.

While continuing to steward the tropical resources that are central to EARTH’s curriculum, Condo and his colleagues are intent on expanding the institution’s impact. Interactive learning technology is one way they hope to bring the outside world closer. “We’ve recently tripled our digital bandwidth,” Condo says.

Also on the table is the creation and funding of knowledge-sharing partnerships with organizations and schools in Latin America and Africa, and increased networking with NGOs, foundations, and companies that could help alumni put their ideas into action.

Condo calls students and alumni “our best allies in expanding EARTH’s impact.”

“They’ve overcome huge challenges just to come here,” he says. “Their perseverance and commitment to creating better lives for people in their own corners of the world inspire me every day.”

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