America's Best Leaders: Linda Rottenberg, Entrepreneur

Her non-profit builds seeks to build profitable small businesses on a global scale.

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Linda Rottenberg

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NEW YORK—When the president of Chile offered to invest $800,000 in Linda Rottenberg's organization, she politely, if regretfully, declined. It wasn't that she didn't need the money. Endeavor, her nonprofit group, has a mission to foster the growth of entrepreneurs in developing countries and provide intensive strategic and management support, which takes resources. And back in 2000, Endeavor was still establishing itself, having worked with just one other country, Argentina, since launching in 1997.

Rottenberg, Endeavor's CEO, didn't want to lose Chile. But for their work to succeed, she believes that top local private sector companies must actively participate in the projects, and in Chile that hadn't happened. So Rottenberg declined the money and pulled out. "The hardest thing to do, but really the only thing to do, is to turn down money when it's not in your direct interest," she says.

Connections. Rottenberg, 40, didn't set out to mentor empire builders. After graduating from Yale Law School, she worked in Buenos Aires with Ashoka, a group that supports entrepreneurs working for social change. Rottenberg learned that while alleviating poverty was critical in developing countries, so was creating jobs and wealth. But would-be corporate titans often lack the know-how, connections, and capital to make a real contribution to their country's economy.

Teaming up with venture capitalist Peter Kellner, Rottenberg founded Endeavor to help business owners grow their companies. Candidates for assistance must pass muster with a panel of prominent private sector businesspeople from their own country as well as a committee of industrialists from around the world. The aim is to find business owners with the most innovative ideas and high-growth potential who can become role models for budding local entrepreneurs in industries ranging from wireless technology to hair products.

The intensive support works. Since it began in 1997, Endeavor has screened nearly 18,000 companies in 11 countries, including Brazil, South Africa, and Jordan. More than 330 entrepreneurs have been selected for assistance, creating nearly 90,000 jobs that generally pay at least 10 times the minimum wage. Endeavor entrepreneurs generated $2.5 billion in revenue in 2007.

Rottenberg's and Kellner's vision has won plenty of fans. "She believes so deeply in this organization and the model and its power to change that her enthusiasm is really infectious," says Edgar Bronfman Jr., chairman and CEO of Warner Music Group and Endeavor's chairman of the board.

As for Chile, six months after Rottenberg pulled up stakes, she got a call saying the business leaders were ready to get involved. To date, 58 Chilean entrepreneurs from 42 companies have been offered assistance. Meanwhile, Rottenberg is thoroughly enjoying her role as catalyst for change. "I woke up originally with this great vision, and now I come to work every day and try to make other people's visions work."

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