Macarena Hernandez and Ana Maria Ñungo, co-founders of Language Amigo

Photo of Macarena Hernandez and Ana Maria Ñungo

Macarena and Ana Maria met through the MBA program at University of Oxford in September 2016. Being both born in Latin America and having dedicated part of our life to social impact, they realised that they shared a powerful goal; to create opportunities for people in Latin America by embracing their talents and helping them to reach their full potential. In November of 2016, they started Language Amigo through the MBA entrepreneurship project course. Today, they are connecting, through video calls, language ’Learners’ who want to practice conversational Spanish, with native speaking ‘Amigos’ from Latin America. For Amigos, Language Amigo is a flexible way of income and for Learners, Language Amigo is a flexible way to practice.

Through Language they are offering to Spanish language learners the opportunity to put into practice their foreign language knowledge and have real world conversations with real and friendly people, Amigos. They believe that the main objective to learn a language is to be able to connect with people from another country, culture, and background.

They have launched an alpha platform with six amigos from Mexico and Colombia, where they have conducted pilot sessions between Learners and Amigos. Currently, they are looking for institutions such as language centres, schools, universities, and enterprises that already have Spanish students to become their partners and customers and co-create with them the best tool for them, their students, and the Amigos.

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
Language Amigo Logo

Macarena has social entrepreneurship and industrial engineer background. In 2011, after working in the manufacturing industry for one year substituting people’s job with machines and process improvements, she decided to quit and joined the founding team of Prospera, the first social enterprise in Guadalajara, Mexico. At Prospera she discovered the power of entrepreneurship. There, her goal was to improve the income of marginalised Mexican women by empowering female led micro-businesses and connecting them to consumers. She participate in the training of around 8,000 Mexican women and helped them become successful micro-entrepreneurs, whilst increasing women’s incomes eight times and engaging with more than 1,000 consumers/citizens to help them reach their potential. In addition, from 2014 to 2016, Macarena taught entrepreneurship to more than 150 youngsters in the ‘El Bachillerato Pedro Arrupe’, a preparatory school in Guadalajara that provides free education to low income young people who want to finish their studies and pursue higher education.

Ana María has a background in electrical engineering and project management. She was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, lived in the United States for the last 8 years, and is currently part of the MBA program of the University of Oxford. Prior to Language Amigo, she founded AccesoSolar, a non-profit organization where she led a team of seven young professionals that are currently delivering clean water to a community of 700+ people in Colombia. She grew up in a lower middle class family in Bogota, Colombia. Neither of her parents finished high school, and they were forced to start working either in informal or very low paid jobs since the age of 13. Fortunately, Ana Maria and her sisters were able to obtain a place in public universities (which are extremely competitive) to pursue their undergraduate degrees. However, they also needed to work part-time to help their family and cover some of their cost of living. The job opportunities they had were usually not suitable for full time engineering students. Furthermore, many of Ana Maria’s cousins weren’t able access higher education or good job opportunities, started families prematurely and are still living in low income areas. Thus, after experiencing many gaps in the system, Ana María also started to propose solutions to these gaps by co-funding organizations such as AccesoSolar and Language Amigo.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?

Dedicate your mind, time and passion to build a solution to a problem that is affecting millions of people.

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?

When our first Learner Ben Abraham, DPhil in Public Policy Student at Blavatnik School of Government in University of Oxford, asked us for a second Language Amigo call with someone in Colombia because he wanted to practice and get used to the accent before going to Colombia for his field research project. They talked for 45 min, and then they met in Colombia and travel together. For more details of this story, read this blog post written by Ben.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
  • Optimism
  • Resilience
  • Perseverance
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?

It’s is always a learning journey!

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?

Jacqueline Novogratz, Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Acumen, because she has dedicated her career to demonstrate that using market mechanisms and entrepreneurship approaches we could solve the most challenging social problems that the world is facing today.

If you had 5 minutes with the above indiv/company/org, what would you want to ask or discuss?

What do you think that we, as recently graduated MBA students, should do to contribute to solve the challenges that the world is facing today? In which path could we have more impact? How is the best way to put in practice our talent, skills, and passions?

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
Mistakes and failures:
  • Not asking directly for the things that you need
  • Arriving to meeting without having clear goals and expectations
  • Assumptions!
Lessons learned
  • Listen!!! Customers, beneficiaries and partners can see things that sometimes founders don’t see.
  • Not everyone has the same beliefs as you, be ready to learn from them in an open position rather than in a defensive one
  • Be transparent and conscious about your capabilities as a startup. Don’t promise things that you can’t achieve
How have you funded your ideas?
To try our idea we have mainly used existing resources:
  • Through the MBA Entrepreneurship Project class we created a team of 5 MBAs, dedicated to conducted extensive market research, develop financial projections, and short and long term strategies as part of the cals project.
  • We developed our first beta platform (minimum viable product) through a host and we have conducted pilot sessions using existing free or very low cost tools such as Calendly, Google Hangouts, Whatsapp and email.

The funds we have spent thus far, have been from personal savings and form the Oxford hub try it awards support.

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
  • Financially: Oxford Hub try it awards
  • To enhance the idea through the application / competition process:
    • Global Challenge
    • Bethnal Green Ventures
    • Skoll Awards
    • Seed Fund
    • Idea Idol Oxford
    • Entrepreneurship Centre pitch competition
    • IT Innovation Challenge
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?

Oxford has been an amazing place to find people passionate about languages and Latin America as a region. Thus, we have been able to conduct several pilots between Learners and Amigos.

Also, there are many institutions at Oxford such as language centres, schools, and universities that already have Spanish students, thus it has been a good place to start looking for institutional customers. However, it appears that larger cities like London can have more opportunities in terms of a broad customer base.

In addition, there’re are a lot of resources, competitions, and connections available for students and alumni through centres such as the Skoll Centre, the Entrepreneurship Centre at Said Business School, the Oxford Hub, the Oxford Incubator and more recently the Foundry. While these are all great resources, we hope to see more financial awards that help students that are just at the ideation phase, as for some ideas is harder to obtain initial traction without funds and not all students have the means to try their ideas.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them? 
Network and places in Oxford:
  • Skoll Centre
  • Entrepreneurship Centre at Said Business School
  • Oxford Hub
  • Oxford Incubator
  • The Foundry
Books and videos:
Any last words of advice?

“One of my Mexican mentors once told me this advice, that comes from an entrepreneurship course that is: Done is better, than perfect. To me that means that if you have an idea do it, try it fast and see if it works and if it’s valuable enough to dedicate your time and talent” – Macarena

“For me entrepreneurship is a real rollercoaster, you are always going up and down financially, mentally, emotionally, and in every single aspect of life. But if you are surrounded by supportive people it is always easier to hold on and go for the ride.” – Ana Maria