I had just stepped down from the podium having directed some remarks to the attendees at the Mexican Banking Convention in Acapulco. This was March of 2002, and I was speaking to the banks about the important work being done by the Quiera Foundation, their foundation to support street children throughout Mexico.
I recall moments later being approached by a tall and distinguished gentleman who introduced himself as the managing director of the North American Development Bank in San Antonio, Texas. The NADbank as it is called, was formed by both the U.S. and Mexican governments in 1994 to finance environmentally sound infrastructure projects along the border region between the two countries. The gentleman introduced himself by the name of Raul Rodríguez, and he asked if we could have a cup of coffee somewhere, and I naturally obliged.
As we sat down with our beverages, Raul Rodríguez briefly explained the work of the NADbank, and added that the bank had incorporated two years earlier the U.S.-Mexico Foundation (USMF) within its confines and that it was designed to promote philanthropy and better relations between the two countries. Yet, he went on to explain, the Board of Directors of the NADbank had recently decided not to launch the USMF after all but rather to spin it off, and he was charged with the responsibility of finding the foundation a new home. Eventually the Mexican Bankers’ Association (AMB) declined the offer. But in 2004, Mexico’s Business Coordinating Council (CCE), the umbrella organization under which all business chambers of Mexico are lodged, agreed enthusiastically to launch and initially take responsibility for the U.S.-Mexico Foundation. What follows is the story of what transpired.
In 2009, it came time to launch the U.S. Mexico Foundation. In order to do so, funding had been obtained from Mexico’s Ministry of Finance which authorized the designation of some monies from an internal fund lodged within the NADbank when it was incorporated years before. An ingenious back-to-back scheme was devised through a 10-year zero interest rate bullet loan, equivalent to approximately US $15 million. The proceeds of the loan were invested in bonds, earning approximately 4% per annum, thus providing enough cash to launch the foundation and attract more funds. Strategy and planning sessions with experts on the U.S.-Mexico relationship were held and a small staff was hired.
The case for the foundation, was that it could be a natural partner for U.S. and Mexican companies who had benefitted from the free trade policies and economic growth on both sides of the border resulting from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This strategy offered many of those companies the possibility of expressing their corporate social responsibility through the USMF, and the foundation in turn would invest those funds in deserving, and well executed educational and economic development initiatives in underserved communities in Mexico.
Early on, the foundation received a major endorsement and commitment from a number of key leaders in both countries, among those being José Antonio Fernández Carbajal, president and CEO of Mexico’s Grupo Femsa. Fernández Carbajal would brilliantly chair the board of directors for five years, alongside the vice chair Herb Allen, president and CEO of Allen and Company. This dynamic duo attracted an extremely impressive slate of business and civic leaders from both countries to join the founding Board of Directors, all of whom would go on to engage actively with the new endeavor. In a short period of time, important grants from the likes of The Packard Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, Femsa, Coca Cola Femsa and The Coca Cola Company and a host of others, combined with management expertise and board leadership, would allow the foundation to develop an active grant portfolio of over US $2 million.
Important programmatic accomplishments in those early years included supporting Mexican NGOs doing outstanding work in educational transformation, economic opportunity such as workforce development and support for organized civil society. But likewise, the foundation developed key bridge building programs which won acclaim in both countries, including high-level convenings called “Shared Destiny Encounters”, educational and professional exchanges, and what was to become the flagship cross border program called the Mexican-American Leadership Initiative (MALI). MALI was born from an idea Hillary Clinton had when she was U.S. Secretary of State under President Barack Obama, and the USMF was invited to develop this idea. The program sought to connect Mexican-Americans with their country of ancestry. Important Mexican-American leaders soon joined the Board of Directors, a multi-city affiliate network was built, and the initiative became a key advocate of the binational relationship. The endeavor received overwhelming support from the Mexican American community in the U.S., producing numerous connections of goodwill and links to underserved communities in Mexico.
As time went on, a focus on education was given priority within the USMF and together with partners in both countries a new initiative named “Women in STEM, Future Leaders”, came about designed for young women in public high schools in Mexico. Within this educational context a program called “Dreamers without Borders” was developed and designed to reconnect Dreamers and U.S. Citizens with Mexican origins living in the U.S. with Mexico.
In recent years, the need to promote greater understanding amongst the people of both nations, particularly to dispel the effect of anti-Mexican rhetoric within the U.S. and the resulting backlash in Mexico, has indeed become apparent. The “U.S.-Mexico 360 – Policymakers Exchange Program”, is an initiative that brings key U.S. leaders to Mexico from different sectors such as business, think tanks, academia, advocacy organizations, and NGOs, all who meet counterparts on a professional study tour in Mexico. The participants seek to understand where Mexico stands on the U.S. agenda and then go on to build healthier and more successful binational relationships from within U.S. institutions. These exchanges have been developed with partners such as the Meridian International Center, American Council of Young Policy Leaders and have been partially supported by the Mexico’s Business Coordinating Council (CCE).
During the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been an outpouring of support for those who have been affected in both countries, but proudly the U.S.-Mexico Foundation is one of the few private foundations offering economic help to Mexican families in the U.S. who have lost a loved one during the health emergency. This is one very good example for how we should move forward together.
The challenges to build a dynamic and solid relationship between our two countries still remain, particularly in light of the Covid-19 health crisis and the ensuing economic downturn. Nevertheless, due to our integrated demographics, not to mention our economies, our 2,000-mile border, and our cross border trade partnership, we have reason to be hopeful for our future, for our shared destiny.
Yet, as we go forward, it is helpful to note that only with 2020 in mind and in hindsight we can have the needed clarity to move forward with sense of purpose and understanding.
* Martha H. Smith is Founder and current Board Member of The US-Mexico Foundation The U.S.-Mexico Foundation is a binational non-profit organization dedicated to fostering bilateral cooperation and improving the understanding between the United States and Mexico by activating key people in the relationship that once were dormant. Twitter: @usmexicofound