We recently caught up with former student Noel Sampson (1984), an architect from Nicaragua who completed our program as a Mundus Urbano student in 2013. Since graduating, Noel has worked with a Palestinian refugee camp, UNECE in Geneva, and founded Emerge, a consulting company aimed at improving emerging cities and communities. In this interview, we learn how his experience with cities and refugee camps led him to create his own firm to support entrepreneurs in his native Nicaragua.
What have you been doing since graduating from our program?
After my internship through the master program with UN-Habitat Mongolia, in which I supported an Asian Development Bank (ADB)-sponsored program for the re-development of two informal Ger areas of Ulaanbaatar, I graduated from the UIC and TU Darmstadt and took a consulting assignment as Project Activator with Campus in Campus in the Palestinian refugee camp of Dheisheh in the West Bank. Later I worked with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) in Geneva, Switzerland, to help organize the international workshop “Building resilient communities through urban planning and the integration of Natural Sciences”. Two years ago, I founded Emerge with two colleagues, a consulting company with the mission to improve emerging cities and communities.
How has the master program influenced your professional life?
I can say that after the master program, my life changed a lot. Everything became more integrated. Before the program I used to work on local development projects in the poorest urban and rural communities in Nicaragua. I worked with Bridges to Community building schools and affordable housing in the Caribbean region of the country. It was a fun job and very fulfilling and inspiring to me. Through the Masters I gained a new set of skills and experiences, but I kept the same drive towards helping others.
School of Sasle, Nicaragua via Archdaily
You also worked on a school for a remote community in Nicaragua that was published last year in Arch Daily. Can you tell us about it?
The School of Sasle was completed by Bridges to Community, the local community and international volunteers in 2013. The project started from the need for a school in a mountain community located on the buffer zone of the Miraflores Nature Reserve in Jinotega, Nicaragua. The implementing partner contacted me while I was starting my first year of Mundus Urbano in TU Darmstadt, therefore I had to design it while being out of the project site. I’m glad the project was actually completed successfully and counted with a strong participation of the local community.
Another important feature of the school is that it can work as shelter in case of natural disasters. The community of Sasle is prone to hurricanes, flooding and droughts. In 1998 due to the devastating hurricane Mitch, the community was isolated for several weeks. Today the school serves as the only education facility for a rural community of 1600 people, hosts almost 300 children from primary and secondary school, and functions as a community center and eventual emergency shelter and warehouse in case of disasters.
Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem
How was your experience working in a Palestinian refugee camp?
It was one of the best experiences I’ve had. I worked with Campus in Camps, along with talented young refugees in exploring new forms of spatial representation in Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, a camp where three generations of refugees have endured more than 60 years in exile. My job was to work with the participants in converting their discussions and reflections into physical projects in the camp. For me the challenge was to work in a country that I had never been to before and to design a project that actually reflected the participants’ thoughts and ideals and also in line with Campus in Camps’ vision. Despite the challenges, it was enriching that the initiative put people in the center and that the participants were engaged in the design process.
Why did you decide to create your own company?
I wanted to create an independent platform to address development challenges in Nicaragua. Latin America and the Caribbean is already one of the most urbanized regions in the world and in 2050, 90% of people in the region will live in cities. This is particularly worrisome for the case of Nicaragua, where urban population is 58%, below the regional average of 80%. This means that Nicaragua and other countries of Central America will likely continue experiencing high and rapid growth. If we don’t direct development in a sustainable way, this could increase urban poverty, the proliferation of slums, social inequalities and environmental degradation. We created Emerge to contribute to addressing these challenges in line with the New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals.
Noel Sampson (right) at Incuba
What are the ups and downs of your work with Emerge in Nicaragua?
The positive side of creating a company is having a certain degree of independence. During the last two years we have contributed to improve the dialog on sustainable urban development and we have had different assignments in the built environments and development consulting. Last year I was selected as one of the 250 entrepreneurs of Latin America and the Caribbean for the initiative of President Obama Young Leaders of the Americas. It was a positive recognition. The down side is that you usually start from scratch, you don’t get contracts on a regular basis and you have to knock on doors to find potential clients.
One of the main lessons I’ve learned is that to contribute to the sustainable development of emerging and developing countries we need to pair the work of governments and the international development community with citizen-driven initiatives, with emphasis on education, innovation and capacity development. That is one of the reasons we recently launched Incuba this year, a business incubator program oriented to support entrepreneurs in the transformation of their cities through social-impact business ideas.
In what ways does it support entrepreneurs in Nicaragua?
In March this year we incubated the first cohort of Incuba. As a result, 35 entrepreneurs, including 15 women, were empowered and trained. The participants of Incuba took part in a series of workshops and trainings to develop tools, resources and knowledge needed to boost their business ideas. The 10 finalist had the opportunity to pitch in a venue in Managua in front of a jury and the winners earned a seed capital to advance their enterprise.
I think there could be a big change if people focus on making business while positively impacting our environment and people. This is one of the main drivers to launch our incubator, to contribute to shaping a mindset of entrepreneurs that are driven by the desire to help others.
How did you set up the program?
For this initiative, I worked together with two colleagues and good friends. We needed to mobilize a lot of resources, but after reaching people, one by one, we managed to involve many partners and sponsors. We finally counted on the support of the United States Embassy in Managua and the DINAMICA initiative from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE), the European Union and KfW, among others.
What business ideas have taken flight thanks to the incubator?
Two young Nicaraguan architecture students developed a prototype of a construction block made of recycled plastic, instead of sand. Their idea is to reduce plastic waste while recycling PET from plastic bottles. The interesting part is that while they are creating a potentially profitable business, this idea could reduce the amount of plastic in our oceans.
What advice would you give to our students?
I would recommend getting involved with organizations in different geographical and development contexts, even if it is only for short periods of time. That can give you a clearer idea of how you want to focus your career and understand what part of your work makes you really happy. I would also recommend to reach out to potential contacts directly. Many young professionals would be surprised how many people out there are actually very approachable. Some of them could become your next employer, your mentor, your future colleague or a new friend.