GSIH Alum (’20) Alma Ramírez Shares How She Pivoted During the Pandemic

Anna Dausman
April 7, 2021
Alumni Stories

In January 2020, CSIS hosted its last residential program before the pandemic, the Global Social Impact House at Cotton Tree Lodge in Belize. That week, the Fellows shared their visions for social impact and charted a path for the year ahead. Weeks later, everything changed.  Recently, several of the Fellows shared how their work and lives shifted over the course of the pandemic, and how they adapted. We’ll be publishing a series of conversations highlighting their stories.

Alma Ramírez operates Unboxed, a social impact consulting firm based in Monterrey, Mexico. At Unboxed, Alma uses social innovation consulting to activate changemakers in the private sector, convincing brands and firms that they can in fact bridge values of people, planet, and profit in the pursuit of a triple bottom line. To achieve this, Unboxed uses a combination of four strategies: Designing and implementing impact strategies; Enhancing and supporting a social innovation ecosystem locally in the north of Mexico (and expanding nationally); Offering courses to develop the skills needed in order to be a change agent (both for organizational development, and social transformation); And focusing on organizational transformation and development.

At the point that Alma joined the Global Social Impact House in January, 2020, sales for Unboxed were dry. Their team had been hard at work reaching out to potential clients, pitching consulting projects and long term contracts. Leaving the Impact House, though, Alma had a refreshed sense of purpose: Upon coming home, Alma gathered her team at Unboxed to revisit and reinvigorate their theory of change.

With a new sense of clarity around their purpose, Unboxed outlined their four lines of business and established an aggressive income target: to double their business in order to reach a financial balance point.

Then the pandemic hit. Alma credits the company’s renewed sense of purpose as what helped Unboxed make it through the first, most uncertain stages of the pandemic. “I’m grateful we had reflection time [as a team] after Belize, to clarify our theory of change, because when COVID came, we first went to a place of freezing, of denial. We thought it would pass, but when we realized it wasn’t going to be a short-term thing, we had a couple of days of panic, thinking, ‘Maybe this is it.’ We didn’t know how we were going to see big projects in the middle of a crisis.”

The team decided to do an ideation session on how they might continue to be relevant and to achieve their purpose. The central, unchangeable tenet was the long term purpose of Unboxed — what they had worked so hard on as a team, to achieve a shared understanding of the organization’s desired impact. They asked themselves, “If everything is going to change except for our purpose, what will we do in this new context?”

Unboxed started reaching out to check in with their former clients and colleagues: What did their new future look like? What were they concerned about? Unboxed reflected on how they could meet these needs with quick, effective solutions at a very low price — to still be able to offer value to their community.

Unboxed decided to offer a session on how to pivot a business during the pandemic, and immediately received positive feedback from a participant, claiming that “teams need this session to come together and think about how to face this challenge. If you offered just this session, if you teach teams how to do this, you have a job here.” Alma and her teammates spent a couple of weeks building out this idea, reaching out to more of their clients, and soon began to see their work increase.

At the same time as developing a new slate of social impact consulting services, the team decided to lean into the emerging trend of Zoom panels and workshops, and to say ‘yes’ to every invitation in order to maximize their opportunities to learn and connect. The team knew that in order to be relevant and impactful in such a time of uncertainty, they would likely end up offering to do a lot of free work, but that they believed in the value of their client relationships. The promise of actual paid work wasn’t a guarantee, but it was beginning to look more possible.

Rather than pitching large projects to big companies, Unboxed offered smaller, cheaper projects, and gave discounts to everyone — whatever was needed to maintain the minimum cash flow in order to survive. It was working: from April until the beginning of August, Alma and her team found themselves suddenly stretched thin from the influx of demand. They could now pivot out of survival mode, and take on a more strategic approach.

The company reviewed their price structure in order to better balance capacity and demand. They had proved their relevance and had a new, clearer sense of who was willing to pay for consulting services. Now, they began to shift to a more permanent structure: They began transferring their in-person offerings onto virtual platforms. They asked themselves, “How can we train virtually in an innovative and engaging way? How can we create meaningful experiences, despite gathering online?” (Alma credits one of her business partners in particular for significantly increasing the production value of Unboxed’s online programs by adding engaging gifs, games, and visuals to the slides.)

Then — thanks to B Corps — Unboxed got an even larger audience. Already filed as a B Corps themselves, Unboxed heard from leaders in the Latin American B Corps community that there was interest in learning how to facilitate better workshops online. Someone recommended Unboxed, and they were asked to create a workshop on how to design workshops and facilitate virtually. It would be offered for free, but it would reach the entire B Corps community in Latin America. Ultimately, 350 people signed up.

The virtual facilitation workshop was a success, and Unboxed started offering a similar outline for open enrollment. The first group garnered 50 participants, a true proof of demand for the same workshop which, before the pandemic, had received 0 registrants. Unboxed saw this for what it was: a business opportunity on how to effectively train other people.

This became a very important source of income for Unboxed: Participants came from the public and private sectors, from nonprofits, NGOs, and corporate foundations. The workshops engaged a new and interested audience in what Unboxed, and allowed the company to scale up their efforts rather than spreading themselves thin across their client base.

Coming into the second year of the pandemic, Alma reflected on the lessons that Unboxed leans on now. High among them is “the importance of having a clear and inspiring purpose.” As Alma says, “There are a lot of things that we can’t control,” and while it’s important to be open to changing, revamping, or giving up certain plans that are no longer possible, the one immutable aspect of social impact work should be your purpose. “Use your purpose as a guiding light — to do whatever it takes to achieve that. Your services, business partners, clients, can all be different. That clarity will keep you going, and will give you the energy to be resilient.”

She also noted the importance of having a strong, “very human” team. “It was important to us to know that we’re a team not just because of our shared work, but because we love each other, care about each other, are willing to cry together when we don’t see any open doors, and to cheer each other up when someone is feeling down. Even though we’re apart, we can still feel together.” This raised the value of meaningful and human relationships as the basis of the business, whether interacting with clients or team members.

Alma sees their conversations with clients around social impact as more relevant than ever before — conversations that are now creating new opportunities to dig deeper into the questions surrounding how companies and businesses care for families, encourage social wellbeing, boost public health, and steward the environment. “[Before the pandemic] we were really still in a mindset where money is the most important element. … But being stuck at home, with the kids, with your parents, without your normal life, gave us the opportunity to rethink, ‘What are we doing wrong?’ A lot of people have become more sensitive that this is the result of a broken system, that we should be doing things differently. Now, when we talk about different ways to do business – and other models of how the economy can serve humanity – it makes a lot more sense.”

Now, moving into year two of the pandemic, Unboxed is thriving. Soon, they’ll pilot a virtual training for upper level management of large corporations to re-envision the triple bottom line (a pursuit of ‘profit’ that also benefits ‘people’ and ‘planet’), using their signature emphasis on relationship building and interaction to ground the training in personal connection. “I’m excited,” Alma shared. “This is the moment for the social impact movement to come to Mexico. Five years ago, nobody understood. The challenge now is how to grow our operations to reach the maximum potential of clients and partners.” 

In terms of advice she would offer to other changemakers, Alma offers, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help — even if ‘help’ is asking for support or kind words, or a reminder of why you shouldn’t quit. You’re doing a great job, and we need you. And be open to offering help, as well; Right now, connection is everything.”

You can follow Alma’s work here, and stay up to date with what’s new at Unboxed:

Alma participated in the Global Social Impact House, a residential program which offers additional mentorship for social entrepreneurs who complete our free online class, Social Impact Strategy: Tools for Social Entrepreneurs and Innovators, hosted on Coursera.