Lessons learned as an entrepreneur: How to lead a fulfilling career in Latin America 

By Juan David Aristizabal September 26, 2023

This article authored by Juan David Aristizábal, CEO and Founder at PROtalento

Although the unemployment rate in Latin America (LatAm) has dropped from 8% in 2019 to 6.7% in 2023, the region continues to have one of the highest percentages in the world. This is down to a range of factors, like dropping wage rates, lower education and experience levels, and a lack of employment opportunities.

In Colombia, more specifically, two out of every three employees are unhappy in their jobs. And education has a part to play, too: Five out of every 10 students who enter higher education in Colombia drop out. This is partly due to being overwhelmed by working while studying, not having the financial means, or solely because they don’t know what career to pursue.

As CEO and Chief Future Officer of a company that empowers thousands of people in LatAm to unlock their full potential through digital skills and training, I’ve seen that young people are unsure how to break out of the rat race and follow their dreams. And after despising the school environment and feeling unsatisfied at work myself, I’m passionate about triggering the evolution of learning spaces to help students navigate the modern professional landscape and nurture their curiosity and creativity. 

So, here are three elements that have helped me in my professional journey, and they could also help young people kickstart their careers in Colombia. 

Clarity on your vision 

Remember when you were asked by aunties, family friends, and grandparents: What do you want to be when you are older? Those throwaway comments force everyone to fit into a box and have futures defined by one career at an early age.

The better question is: What life do you want to design for yourself? If you want to be a remote worker, that narrows down the number of careers available to you. Clarity on what life you want to lead gives you a vision of your identity as a professional. From there, you can build three-, six-, and nine-month plans to develop the necessary skill set and see if you frequent the right environments for growth. And you don’t have to follow what everyone around you is doing. For example, if many of your close circle want to be social media influencers or move to the US with few resources. 

In LatAm, there are several other factors that often hinder young people from pursuing their dream careers. One significant factor is the preconceived notion held by previous generations that the sole path to advancement is by climbing the corporate ladder. It’s common for many young individuals I interact with to inquire about ways to quickly boost their salary, rather than focusing on acquiring the skills and investing the necessary time to add substantial value within their chosen field.

Another factor is a lack of self-confidence or the disbelief that they are worthy of such higher wages, due to a lack of insight into opportunities available. Many are afraid of taking such a big leap and failing or being put in a difficult financial situation. But everyone deserves the chance to think about what they could have, be, and do without limits. 

That’s why learning communities are popping up across LatAm, helping young people understand what is happening in the job market, encouraging them to try out high-growth industries like data science and coding, and connecting their studies with real-world jobs. Also, check out the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers—which motivates young people to influence local, regional, and global agendas—and Mindvalley Meetup, helping people discover tools to make projects a reality.

Gaining multiple skills at any one time 

According to Talent Shortage Survey in Colombia 2023, 64% of employers in the country report difficulty finding the qualified talent they need. But this doesn’t mean that young people in Colombia are avoiding chances to reskill or upskill. They just don’t know where to start. 

That’s why many universities nationwide are partnering with tech startups to give students the best of both worlds during four-year courses: Traditional learning techniques and degree certifications from prestigious institutions alongside other practical skills, an understanding of the digital economy, and peer-to-peer support. For example, Universidad Externado is in the process of developing an innovative training program to empower students with the skills required to digitalize the tourism industry effectively. 

But what benefits can this bring? Social capital, as the students will be learning alongside others in the same boat and have networking opportunities; cultural capital, in terms of digital and soft skills; and financial capital, because these different partnerships mean students can pay at a later date, once working at their dream companies, meaning a return on investment. 

Making connections with mentors that feel out of reach

No matter what stage of your career, you’ve got to choose mentors and teachers; there’s no shame in asking for help. If you are unsure how to begin, explore beyond your comfort zone, for within the unknown lies a fertile ground of limitless possibilities that can help you overcome some anxieties. First things first, why not ring up a role model or someone who seems very out of reach? 

An exercise I often do with students who pass through my learning community is to get them to approach five top professionals—who have achieved what they want to do—with just one specific question. By writing to any idol or mentor over LinkedIn, you are already overcoming a huge barrier, as most people tend to be too gripped by fear to do this. 

My own mentors have come from all walks of life; entrepreneur and activist Luis Javier Castro helped me mold together a business mindset and impact, former Ashoka Director in Colombia Maria Lucia Roa has guided and advised me how to have a systems view of life, and Juan Pablo Córdoba Garcés gave me insights about the financial and tech sectors. 

Gaining clarity, continuously learning, and making meaningful connections have played a significant role in my career and paved the way for growth and success. As you navigate the dynamic business environment in LatAm, it’s not just about achieving milestones or upping salaries but about asking yourself new questions, optimizing time in learning environments, and nurturing relationships along the way. 

This article includes a client of an Espacio portfolio company