I "discovered" el Centro Latino for Literacy

A favor to a friend becomes a wonderful opportunity for me

By Richard Koffler
Published on LatinoLA: September 26, 2008

I "discovered" el Centro Latino for Literacy

A few weeks ago I received an email from my friend Ken Deemer, founder of the Los Angeles Social Venture Partners, asking if I wanted to be a mentor for their upcoming Social Innovation Fast Pitch & Showcase.

I can't easily say "no" to Ken. And besides, not only do I like coaching new ventures but I like to think I do it rather well. So I accepted.

The purpose of the fast pitch and showcase is to provide major exposure to ten very innovative non-profit organizations dedicated to creating positive social change in Los Angeles. The best presentation gets $10,000; two runners-up also get a monetary gift; the remaining seven don't get money but nonetheless get the same valuable exposure as the top three.

The format is simple: Each organization states its case in three minutes. On the 180th second, the microphone goes dead. Whatever isn't said by the three-minute mark, won't be heard by the audience or judges. The judges score each presentation on three criteria: social impact, innovation, and presentation quality. The top score gets the $10,000, and so forth.

A few dozen organizations applied, of which 19 made it to the semi-final phase. Ten will make it to the final competition on October 29.

The 19 semi-finalists -- all worthy and exciting -- range from a 100-year-old institution looking to "invent" a new model for helping senior citizens enjoy their final years, to ideas that are barely beyond the paper-and-pencil concept stage.

The coaching and mentoring phase started yesterday and ends a few days prior to the final competition. Along the way the 19 semi-finalists will become the ten finalists.

An impressive lineup of coaches -- consisting of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, business executives and professionals -- listened and gave feedback to each organization's three-minute dry-run presentation. All did fine, although most need to polish their messages and delivery, and a handful need lots of improvement.

I came to the session with two goals: to provide on-the-spot feedback to each presenter and to pick an organization to mentor through the final competition. The list of presenters showed only one clearly geared towards Latinos: El Centro Latino for Literacy. I kept my fingers crossed that it would excite me. And, boy, was I not disappointed!

I was hooked from the moment Melanie Stephens, el Centro's executive director, took the podium. What a concept! And what a lady!

Melanie, a gringa who speaks fluent Spanish and is married to a nicarag??ense, exudes contagious passion for el Centro's mission, which is to teach Latino immigrants how to read, write and use computers.

Facts: About 2 million Latin American immigrants never attended school in their home countries and can't read or write. Life in the U.S. requires literacy to survive with dignity and economic success, yet there is virtually no one ready, willing or able to teach literacy to what is probably our country's most marginalized population.

I signed on the spot to mentor her. How couldn't I? Great CEO, Great mission. Latino focus.

This said, the day got even better for me because, coincidence of coincidences, el Centro's Manos Amigas Celebration was yesterday evening and I was free to attend it. The event, emceed by the beautiful colombiana TV-personality Mar?¡a Paula Ochoa, featured keynote and student speakers, and the graduation ceremony for 35 students who received their certificates after lots of hard work and effort and, most importantly, walked out with their heads high with pride. The highlight for me were the just-graduated students who read their short compositions to a room bursting at the seams with hundreds of people. Keep in mind that these adults, some over 50 years-old, just learned how to read and write. Also a highlight: delicious food by Guatemala Restaurant (213-483-4503).

My first coaching session with Melanie is next Tuesday. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, consider donating a few bucks. This program has huge "social legs".

Centro Latino for Literacy
Social Innovation Fast Pitch & Competition
Los Angeles Social Venture Partners

About Richard Koffler:
Richard -- nacido y crecido en Lima, Per?? -- is co-founder and CEO of LatinoLA.
Author's website

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