THE BLOG

In Colombia, Education Is in Fashion

02/19/2015 03:28 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015

Visit any hotel in Colombia, and you will hear a diversity of languages. Chinese, Arabic and English are being spoken almost as much as Spanish. That's because investors from all over the world are looking to expand their businesses in this fast-growing Latin American country.

By this point, most of us have heard about Colombia's economic success. The country's growth has approached five percent in recent years while unemployment is the lowest in over a decade. In addition to massive investment in the energy sector -- Colombia produces over one million barrels of oil per day -- its business climate is particularly robust. The World Economic Forum pointed to Colombia as a global benchmark for entrepreneurship, while the World Bank ranked it the best country in Latin America in which to do business.

Less well known is the leadership Colombia has displayed in the realm of education. For decades, policymakers have pursued a sustained program of education reform, recognizing that positive results require long-term commitment. For politicians, who are usually attached above all to the whims of the political cycle, this is a rare consensus. It is even more impressive when the context -- one of near-constant guerrilla warfare and drug-related violence -- is taken into account.

Leaders like Cecilia Maria Velez, who served as Minister of Education from 2002 to 2010, and current education minister Gina Parody have pushed for aggressive reform policies, backed by a level of presidential support not often seen Latin America. "The global economy is flat," says Parody. "A student from Colombia will be competing with one in Shanghai, and if we don't close the gap between our education systems, we won't be able to keep growing."

For Parody, that effort goes beyond just government to include new players who are bringing new practices and methods to the education space. Her four-years-running Colombia's National Learning Service, or SENA, a public institution dedicated to professional development, deepened this vision. It's also a big reason why she chose Harvard-educated education entrepreneur Luis Enrique Garcia to be her second in command.

Under her administration, Colombia has launched a broad array of initiatives in collaboration with business and civil society, including one to attract hundreds of volunteers from the U.S. and the UK to teach English in low-income schools across the country. Another involves Galileo, the well-known Chilean company that provides software to schools preparing for the global PISA evaluations. The Colombian government is also seeking to make permanent the Ser Pilo Paga ("Being Energetic Pays") program that has helped over 10,000 students with scholarships to attend university. "We all very excited by this willingness to get to work," Herminia Molina, the principal of Celmira Bueno de Orejuela public school, told me.

The private sector has, indeed, dived right in. The Association of Corporate and Family Foundations (AFE in Spanish), for instance, has organized nearly 50 companies working on improving education in Colombia. And it goes further than that, explains AFE's leader, Carolina Suarez. "There are more than one hundred foundations that focus on education in this country," she says. "It is a priority for almost all the business groups -- this culture began decades ago and has developed throughout Colombia. This keeps injecting innovation into the sector."

Hundreds of entrepreneurs and social impact investors are also being moved by this spirit. Appian Ventures' Alejandro Maldonado, Velum's Esteban Mancuso, Ganolian's Daniel Echeverria and Virgilio Barco, who runs the Acumen Fund for Latin America, are just a few examples of funds actively looking to invest in the sector. Meanwhile, online ventures like JulioProfe.net, Formarte, KidsU, EduEmplea and First Class, are all delivering non-traditional education options easily accessible by low income or continuing learners.

More must clearly be done, given that Colombia scored near the bottom of the most recent international PISA tests. Still, the country showed clear progress in its most vulnerable schools in particular, and made improvements in areas such as teacher training that will be critical for the future.

Hopefully the rest of the region can replicate the persistence shown by Colombia's leadership. President Juan Manuel Santos has set an ambitious goal for his country, challenging it to become Latin America's most educated country by 2025. He can't do it alone -- there is a need for even more support from business and social society to make it happen. But so far, Colombia appears to be on the right track.