At age nine, Luis Duarte, who grew up in the city of Chihuahua, Mexico, joined some of his soccer friends and classmates to volunteer in a rural community a few hours from his home. When he got there, he found homes built of cardboard, mud, and wood—and people who were both wise and humble. The first night, a woman invited them for dinner in her small home where 12 people lived. She served them a chicken. When the oldest daughter left the room crying, the woman explained, “This was the chicken that lays eggs for us throughout the year, but because you’re here to help all of us, we would like to offer this meal to you.”
As a nine-year-old, Duarte may not have truly understood the degree of their sacrifice, but something in that moment deeply affected him. He continued volunteering with that same organization for 13 years, visiting for two weeks to four months at a time, doing whatever he could to help.
“That really marked me,” Duarte says. “Because (after volunteering in the community) you go back home and you have all these things, and you ask why? Why am I not the child who was born in that home; why am I here?”
As it turned out, that experience set the path Duarte has chosen for his life’s work—how to increase opportunities for all. Now a neighbor living in Stapleton, Duarte is working to address that exact problem in the U.S. and in Chile, because many people continue to lack opportunities to change their status quo. Just in the U.S. alone, over 39.6 million people, including 12.8 million children, are living in poverty—which, in 2017, was defined as $25,094/yr for a family of four. (Source: https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2018/demo/p60-263.html).
Approaching Philanthropy Like an Entrepreneur
Entrepreneurial principles and leveling the playing field may seem mutually exclusive, but Duarte found the common thread when, at age 19, he took a mandatory entrepreneurship class in college. For a class assignment, he wrote a business plan to create jobs in the rural communities where he was working—and the plan won him a scholarship to Tulane that allowed him to implement the program. From that successful start, he went on to work for corporations and government, then built his own businesses following entrepreneurial principles to establish programs that help level the playing field in communities where residents had few opportunities.
Duarte’s current focus is to support and create resilient, thriving communities in both Colorado and Chile. His understanding of how to use business principles in investments and philanthropy led him to his current position as President of the ZOMA Foundation and Chief Philanthropy Officer at ZOMALAB, the family office of Ben and Lucy Ana Walton. In his prior work to support low-income families, he was Investment Director for Gary Community Investments (Sam Gary’s family office).
Finding/Filling Gaps in Communities
Duarte’s role focuses on finding and filling gaps—identifying communities where social impact programs are needed but have not yet been established. Areas of focus include community economic development and specific areas within early childhood development including the prevention of abuse and neglect, supporting maternal mental health, and other parental supports.
To support universal screening for maternal mental health, for example, ZOMA Foundation in early 2018 invested $1.2 million into a digital mental health platform. This evidence-based program headquartered in Denver, myStrength, uses proprietary machine-learning technology to offer interactive programs to individuals, in-the-moment coping tools, inspirational resources, and community support—all online. While myStrength is not a healthcare provider and does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, it has proven to be very effective in improving mental health. Studies show clinically depressed users of the program created to address depression have, on average, a 43% reduction in symptoms within two weeks of using myStrength. Seventy-four percent of returning users experiencing depression show an improvement in depression scores. For a fraction of the cost, these outcomes are 83% as effective as person-to-person therapy for depression.*
However, myStrength did not have a program set up specifically for maternal mental health services, so ZOMA provided myStrength with the resources, content, and experts who would help create it.
Just last month, the platform was acquired by Livongo Health, a company that empowers people with chronic conditions to live better and healthier lives. The digital maternal mental health module is now part of the regional health plan, which has the potential to reach more than 70 million patients. The investment that ZOMA Foundation made was repaid through the acquisition, and ZOMA now has those funds to re-invest elsewhere.
Personal Guiding Principles
Among Duarte’s personal philosophies is, first and foremost, asking elders for advice. He believes they’d tell all of us to have more fun, work hard, and enjoy our lives while we can. These elders can come from many different places; Duarte speaks often to a man on the corner of Colorado Blvd. and 6th Ave., who is now homeless. The idea is that everybody has something to offer, and we all need to have the humility and openness to learn. It’s important to ask how we can be of value rather than presuming we know better than others.
Duarte also credits early exposure to people with different backgrounds and perspectives—especially those not living in the same circumstances—with shaping his world view. He explains, “(We have) a fear of what’s different—ethnicities, cultures, religions, and people who aren’t in our same circumstances. The more we…spend time with others, the more we then know we are the same.” Duarte suggests that it’s about making a step towards the fear of the unknown, creating opportunities for ourselves to be in proximity with people we aren’t familiar with.
Openness and honesty are also among his guiding principles. Duarte says he is open with his children about his mistakes and he tells them why he’s sharing those mistakes with them. He talks with them about what he does for a living and why—planting the seed that a job is not just about creating wealth, but positively impacting those surrounding you.
Harnessing Future Technology
Duarte continues to dream big, with visions of how to use disruptive technologies for good. He says if big corporations can use cutting-edge technology to increase profits, we shouldn’t be shy about using those tools for good as well.
He’s especially excited about the potential that blockchain, virtual reality, augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality offer. Say, for example, you’re looking to help millions of parents be more aware of how they can improve their parenting skills in real time as they raise their children. Research by the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard shows that from conception to age five, the brain develops 90% of its size. Imagine if you could use AR to show you at the moment you are losing your temper with your child, how your actions are negatively affecting the neural connections and development in their brain, and see what that means long-term. Duarte’s hypothesis is this has the potential to effectively reduce negative behaviors in real time.
Sara Blanchard is a happiness consultant, author, and co-host of the new podcast Dear White Women.