“I’ve worked with many politicians and I believe the vast majority are good people”
TEXT: CRISTINA BISBAL IMAGES: FERNANDO MAQUIEIRA
He was born in the charming municipality of Telde (Gran Canaria) in the summer of 1971. He led a simple life with his parents and five siblings. But fate had a surprise in store for him: to become one of the world’s most influential Spaniards, working with the Democratic Party in the United States first of all, and then in the Obama administration. To get there he had to work hard and graduated cum laude in Political Science and International Relations from Boston University, before taking a Master’s Degree in Public Policy at Harvard University. But, above all, what stands out is that this is an affable, charismatic man, grateful for his good luck, with a strong Canaries accent and very clear ideas. It is a pleasure to hear him speak.
According to Wikipedia, you are an “international strategist for the public and private sectors.” What does that mean exactly?
Just as you hire a lawyer to advise you on legal matters, or an expert to advise you on communication questions, I work with governments or private firms advising them on how to implement more effective economic and social strategic planning. I specialize in three areas. Firstly, the sustainable economy: perceiving sustainability as an economic competitive advantage, i.e. getting companies to understand that it makes sense to be more ecological. Secondly, Big Data and technology; in other words, how and why technological tools should be incorporated so as to make maximum use of the data you possess on your clients. Finally, advising governments on attracting foreign investment with measures such as tax incentives.
You were even a consultant for President Obama. What was a Canarian doing in the White House? How did you finally end up there?
I went to study in the United States at a very early age, just 15 years old. And what, in principle, was going to be one year learning English turned into a life project, as well as a professional project that allowed me to develop a public sector career in the United States. First off I worked at Boston City Hall; then for the Democratic Party; next, for the White House under the Bill Clinton administration; and, finally, with Obama. The story of a youngster from Telde on the Canary Islands who ended up working in the White House. The key is to have a bit of luck and work really hard.
In your case, there was a defining moment in your adolescence that changed your life. Something to do with the generosity of your parents. Tell us about it.
Indeed so. It’s a lovely story that confirms the saying “Cast your bread upon the waters.” In the early 1980s, a single woman with four children left Cuba with almost nothing and ended up living in the Canaries, in Telde, in my street, in a truly precarious situation. My parents helped her as much as they could, with food and work. My siblings and I made friends with her children. Later on, this lady moved to Boston and her luck changed. I was invited to spend a year with them studying there, as a show of kindness and gratitude. And that was what changed my life. My parents never imagined what helping that woman was going to mean for me and my life.
So it is true that being kind to people sometimes has its reward, returning the goodness you’ve spread about…
Absolutely. I’m convinced of it. I would never have come to the United States, reached the White House, nor worked in the Obama Administration, without all that sacrifice of my parents, my mentors, and my friends. I feel that, at least in Spain nowadays, people forget the sacrifices others made in the past on issues such as women’s or workers’ rights, or even democracy itself. They took to the streets to demand these things, often losing their lives in the process. We wouldn’t have those benefits today, were it not for them.
For example, democracy seems to be in crisis…
This is something that could explain Trump’s rise to power, or the appearance of parties like Vox or Podemos in Spain. It has nothing to do with political ideology, but rather with the apathy of a large segment of the population. And with good reason, I must say. Because traditional politicians haven’t done their job of connecting with the public. But that apathy, that estrangement only opens the door to populist movements. These movements that perhaps started out in Latin America have spread to the rest of
Europe and the world. It should make us stop and think, don’t you agree?
Yes, because it’s a worldwide phenomenon. And Brexit is a clear case of what we’re talking about here. That Le Pen is the second most-voted force in France. That the extreme right in Austria failed to win by less than two points. Italy, Spain… And this isn’t an ideological comment; it’s a critical comment, a reflection on why democracy is in crisis. The key lies in civil society. People have to get back out on the streets, participating in residents’ association, student movements or in a Chamber of Commerce. I’ve worked with many politicians and I believe the vast majority are good people.
“Traditional politicians haven’t done their job of connecting with the public”
You chair a foundation that “teaches people to be leaders”. To what degree is education important?
The universities are very good and we don’t want to compete with them; but they are very good at furthering people’s academic development. When you start your career, the key to being a leader is your professional experience. Our mission is to identify those we believe have the potential to become agents of change within society and put them to work in institutions and centers of excellence. We combine that with leadership skills: how to convince people; to motivate people; to make an effective presentation in public…
In other words, those skills not taught in the current education system, at least here in Spain… In your view, what should that system be like?
Much more flexible, based on encouraging children to be happy. Employees who are happier are more effective. Students who are happier learn more. Because, when you love what you do, when you have a passion for what you do, you are much more capable. I really don’t know exactly what the educational system should be like, but I do know what it shouldn’t be like: it shouldn’t be like the current one. The important thing is not the answer to the question, but rather the process of seeking that answer.
Your foundation chooses the youngsters who could be leaders. How can you tell who could be a leader?
It’s difficult to identify them, but it isn’t difficult to select them. It’s difficult to know where they are, to reach them. But when you find them, it’s relatively easy to select them. Because, in my experience, the leader is the one who wants to be a leader. If I have ten excellent youngsters and one of them wants to be an agent of change in society, that one should be chosen.
That is to say, a leader wants to be an agent of change in society.
Totally. When you ask leaders why they do what they do, the vast majority state it’s not about acquiring greater knowledge or money. It’s for self-fulfillment. They want to be happier. There has to be feedback for what they do to have an impact and that’s what gives them that degree of happiness .
From Fundación MAPFRE Guanarteme in the Canaries to the world
Juan Verde has no doubt that early work experiences are fundamental in anyone’s career: “The first few jobs you have after college are, for the vast majority of people, those that determine what you’re going to dedicate the rest of your life to.” Offering the chance of an extraordinary experience is one of the goals of the agreement signed between the Advanced Leadership Foundation and Fundación MAPFRE Guanarteme. Since 2015 they have both been “identifying young professionals in the Canaries who show potential as agents of change in society.
We design and create employment opportunities for their professional development in the United States which will serve as catalysts for their careers.” For four months, these young people travel to Washington D.C., where they gain professional work practice in some of the best U.S. companies and government agencies there. Admission to the program is conditional upon their returning to the Canary Islands to initiate a project: “Form a company or become social entrepreneurs or politicians. It doesn’t matter what the project is, but we do want them to return to their communities with the aim of changing things. We take them over there with a work visa conditional upon their returning and that avoids a brain drain,” Verde concludes.
Over the nearly five years this Scholarship Program for Internationalization and Professional Internships in the USA has been running, a score of young people have already completed professional internships in that country. Those selected this year will receive a scholarship of 15,000 euros plus travel expenses to cover this work experience period.