Rodrigo Baggio is the Latin America regional honoree for the 2020 YPO Global Impact Award. The award focuses on YPO members making impact outside the organization that is both sustainable and scalable, affecting people, prosperity, peace or our planet.  

For social entrepreneur and YPO member Rodrigo Baggio, it literally all started with a dream.

At age 23, Baggio, the President and Founder of the Center for Digital Inclusion (CDI) or Recode, realized he wanted to do more with his life. If he continued working as a computer specialist for companies such as Accenture and IBM Brazil, he would become wealthy within 10 years, but would he be happy and fulfilled? One night he dreamed of how he could help poor, young people by fighting the digital divide and teaching them to use technology to change their lives and communities. In the morning, he knew he found his purpose.

“It was one of the most amazing experiences in terms of the capacity to create empathy, negotiate conflict,” says Baggio. “I learned more about life from the street kids than in school.”

Taking on the digital divide

As a student at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, he combined his love for computers with social and civic engagement through work at the Ecumenical Center for Documentation and Information. It was in 1993 that he began to turn his dream into reality by founding Youth Link, the first bulletin board system (BBS) in Latin America about digital citizenship, connecting young people with social and civic initiatives that could impact their communities and their realities.

“My goal was to create a digital bridge promoting the integration of young people from different classes in our society,” says Baggio, who was disappointed to discover that the majority of the users of Youth Link were privileged young people. “The problem was that poor young people didn’t have access to computers.”

To give those in low-income neighborhoods access to technology and computer skills, Baggio launched Informática para Todos in 1995, Brazil’s first campaign to get computers donated, and opened the Information Technology and Citizens Rights School (ITCRS) in Dona Marta, one of the most dangerous slums in Rio at that time. After training 10 locals to become educators and role models within their community, the digital empowerment center opened to a line of 300 hopeful young students. Also on hand to celebrate the launch were community leaders, 11 newspapers, seven television stations, three radio stations and two magazines. The media exposure generated more volunteers than Baggio could put to work.

“My first thought was I don’t need 70 volunteers to help in one technology school,” says Baggio. “And my second thought was let’s create 10 more technology schools.”

Baggio established a franchise model with CDI, the first Latin American nonprofit organization to combat the digital divide, seeking to empower people to fight poverty, stimulate entrepreneurship, and create change-makers through information and communication technology. In its first year, CDI created 10 community-run schools. Today, there are 1, 158 centers for digital empowerment throughout Brazil and in eight other countries, including Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Portugal, the United States and Venezuela. Over the last 24 years, Recode has impacted 1.7 million students worldwide, and in 2019 alone, 52, 657 students.

One such student is Wanderson Skrock, who was arrested twice as a teen for dealing drugs while growing up in a Rio slum. A Recode computer class he took while incarcerated motivated him to learn technology, finish high school and graduate from college while in prison. After his release, he began working at Recode and over the past 10 years has helped approximately 100,000 students in 20 Brazilian states learn computer and business skills.

Rodrigo At Work

Entering uncharted territory

Baggio was tackling the digital divide and embarking on social entrepreneurship well before the ideas became common. And as an innovator in a new field, he had to generate awareness and support every step of the way — from creating an interest in computers among low-income community members to proving technology could impact their lives and encouraging businesses to donate computers.

“When I started this, no one saw the relevance of it. There was a vacuum in innovation in the social field not only in Latin America but in the world,” says Baggio. “In the beginning, I was more like a dreamer selling my dream. And then I started to improve the concept.”

As Recode grew, Baggio tried without success to find an example of expansion with scalability and quality in the social or nonprofit sector to copy. His next move was to modify the idea of franchising to create a new concept of social franchising that allowed him to scale up with quality. Baggio’s model is adaptable to suit the needs of diverse audiences including schools, juvenile centers, maximum security prisons, hospitals, organizations for the mentally and physically disabled, and indigenous villages in the heart of the Amazon rainforest.

“To me, impact is the reason for life. Everyone needs to be a change-maker to improve the plight of our schools, our work, our neighborhoods, our countries.”

— Rodrigo Baggio, President & Founder Recode

Baggio continues to look for new ways to disrupt and bring more innovation to the social sector. Working to upscale the digital skills of community members to improve their future employment opportunities, CDI now trains coders and developers full-stack (web developers who work with both the front and back ends of a website or application) and helps place them in one of the 500,000 open technical positions in Brazil. Since 2016, Baggio also has been leading a pioneer purpose-driven reality show on digital inclusion, which is broadcast to more than 5 million people by TV Globo.

“The ability to understand obstacles and opportunities to revamp and create innovation is part of the social entrepreneur character,” says Baggio.

Recode Youth

At the beginning of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Recode is focusing on bringing ethics and values to implementing technology in order to fight the digital divide. Through “ideathons,” “hackathons” and courses teaching artificial intelligence, “internet of things” and biotechnology, Recode is inspiring young people to create prototypes for the application of technology to do good in their communities. Its work using 360-degree virtual reality video to produce small movies in public schools, talking about social challenges and social impact issues in their communities, led to the first 360-degree VR festival for impact in Brazil as well as two consecutive invitations by the U.N. General Assembly to present on how this technology can create empathy and engagement. In September 2018, Baggio spoke during the U.N. Solutions Summit as one of 10 innovative solutions addressing the Sustainable Development Goals.

“To me, impact is the reason for life,” says Baggio, who was named by Time as one of the leaders of Latin America that will make a difference in the third millennium. “Everyone needs to be a changemaker to improve the plight of our schools, our work, our neighborhoods, our countries.”

Creating a social impact network

While inspirational and commendable, the work of a social entrepreneur creates unique challenges. Many of the personal and professional challenges Baggio faced alone as a pioneer in the 1990s still affect social entrepreneurs around the world today. Through his involvement with Ashoka, Skoll Foundation, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and Avina, Baggio learned the biggest issues are isolation, loneliness and a lack of peers.

“The feeling of isolation and loneliness in the social entrepreneur is different than in a business entrepreneur because success for us is scalability,” says Baggio. “And to grow, we need more staff, we need to raise funds more, and things become more stressful in the process.”

Rodrigo Baggio fights the digital divide in Latin America

To cultivate collaboration and help other social entrepreneurs find the networking they need to grow, flourish and innovate, in 2014 Baggio co-founded Tendrel, a global professional organization for social entrepreneurs based in San Francisco, California, USA, along with Jeroo Billimoria, Taddy Blecher, and YPO member and fellow 2020 YPO Global Impact Award honoree Willy Foote. The organization fosters deep connections and exchange through chapters, networks and confidential forums. Tendrel, a Tibetan word meaning interconnectivity or interdependence, now has more than 400 members in 30 countries.

“It is really inspiring to see the power of the peer exchange and the methodology not only creating peer support groups but inspiring this evolution in the field, going for more collaboration,” says Baggio.

In Brazil, Baggio has organized collaborative retreats for 20 top social entrepreneurs in the country and 20 from the ecosystem — startups, social impact, foundations — to work together on solutions for increasing their collaborative impact on the digital divide in Brazil.

“I would love to see Tendrel as the accelerator of the process to inspire more people, entrepreneurs, organizations to have more impact in our society and show the power of collaboration for system change,” says Baggio.