I have an issue with the term “collecting”’

The Costa Rican entrepreneur puts social impact at the heart of his art-buying.

Luis Javier Castro, founder of Alejandria Corp.

Luis Javier Castro photographed in Parque de la Libertad, Costa Rica, in 2019 © Alonso Tenorio.

By Georgina Adam

When we were setting up our call, the Latin American entrepreneur and art collector Luis Javier Castro told me: “It’s not my style to display luxury and fashion.” Indeed, during our conversation a few days later, it became clear that his art collecting is not about showing off but has a far more intellectual reach. It is deeply connected to his work on social initiatives in his region.

Yet there was a phase in his life when Castro indulged in what he now calls “ego collecting”. He achieved early success in business, before he was 35, and had to have a “name on the walls”. He bought art by well-known Latin American artists — Beatriz Milhazes, Fernando Botéro, Guillermo Kuitca. “I suppose I was a bit Master of the Universe at the time,” he laughs, while modestly pointing out that this was in a small place, Costa Rica.

But, he says, he felt a bit empty — “I wasn’t enjoying it” — and a friend warned he was losing the “essence” he had as a child. He reacted by reading more, meditating and following the Chinese practice of Qigong. “I became more inside myself, I rediscovered myself,” he says. From then on his collecting changed, and became focused on the process of artistic creation: as a result his acquisitions today are highly conceptual with a strong emphasis on video and performance works.

We talk over WhatsApp: he is in his Bogotá home, where he spends part of his time; I am locked down in the UK. Dressed simply in a open-necked blue shirt and grey jacket, his grey hair swept back, he is friendly and jovial, laughing often and gesturing with his hands to make his points.

He was born to a comfortably-off Costa Rican family in 1966, and an early influence was his uncle Carlos Lachner, whom Castro describes as “a true Renaissance man, a songwriter, an artist and a promoter of the arts”. Lachner believed that in the 1980s, Costa Rican artists were only producing what buyers wanted, not what they wanted to make. So he instituted and funded a collection to buy art from young artists, and put Castro on the acquisitions committee, at the age of just 15, alongside experts and a representative of the Ministry of Culture.

Working with a small budget — “Costa Rican art was not expensive at all” — the committee examined dozens of works of art every month. “That was a very interesting experience, it helped me understand where ideas come from and the similarities between the artistic and entrepreneurial processes,” says Castro.

FLORA ars+natura, an artistic space in Bogotá © Courtesy FLORA ars+natura, Bogota/ Gonzalo Angarita.

After a period working for the management consultants Bain & Co, in 1996 Castro co-founded his own private equity firm, Mesoamerica, with the aim of “conscious capitalism, putting purpose at the centre of what we do”. He explains, “We invest in important transformational projects, including renewable energy, telecoms, construction or restaurants — we have 500 of these in Colombia and Chile.” His guiding principle, he says, is “to do well by doing good”, and developing the role of the private sector in society as a way of tackling the issues of the Latin American region.

The company did well, and now the firms it owns have some 20,000 employees. But at its inception, I ask, did anyone understand his concerns? “Sure, no one invited me to parties!” He laughs out loud, adding more seriously, “People didn’t see me as threatening, but rather as dissonant. I was fighting against the concept that companies are just for making profit. They need to, of course, to stay alive, but that should not be their only purpose.”

‘Las Frecuencias que me hacen’ (2017), a performance piece by Maria José Arjona.
© Courtesy of the artist; photo: Lisa Palomino

He has since become involved in many social impact initiatives: he is on the board of United Way Worldwide, the largest privately funded non-profit organisation in the world, he helped found the public-private human development Fundación Parque de la Libertad in Costa Rica, and was the enabler in establishing the Costa Rican hub of the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design which offers training on design in the broadest sense. He is a member of Tate’s Latin American Committee and funds a prize for the best Colombian artist at ARTBO, Bogotá’s annual art fair. He has been named “entrepreneur of the year” twice (in 2013 and 2019) by El Financiero, a Costa Rican financial newspaper.

He tells me that he sees art and entrepreneurship as intimately linked — and he knits his fingers together to demonstrate. “Sometimes when we are deciding how to invest, I take my team to artists’ studios, to demonstrate how the creative processes are so interconnected,” he says.

Cannula’ (2016) by Daniel Canogar © Courtesy of Studio Daniel Canogar.

“I am more a collector of ‘processes’ than of objects,” he tells me, explaining “I really want to understand the whole method, from the idea to its realisation. My collection is very conceptual, very experimental.” An example is “Las Frecuencias que me hacen”, a performance piece by Maria José Arjona, shown at the Cali Bienale in 2017. “I bought the performance, I have the dress she wore when presenting it, but I also have the ‘archive of the future’, the objects she prepared before the piece was even performed . . . I like to be part of this sort of mind- boggling thing!” he exclaims.

Another five works in his collection — which numbers about 500 items — are by the Spanish-American Daniel Canogar. “Cannula” (2016) is made by putting a word in a computer. It then searches in YouTube for videos with that word, from which an algorithm is produced to create a work of art, which as a result changes constantly.

‘Geometría del Centro’ (2020) by Christian Salablanca Díaz © Courtesy the artist, co produced by FLORA ars+natura and
Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary.
Conceptual drawings for ‘Geometría del Centro’ (2020) © Courtesy the artist, co produced by FLORA ars+natura and Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary.

Castro has a close friendship with the Colombian artist Oscar Muñoz, who founded Lugar a Dudas (Room for Doubts), an art centre for young emerging artists. When Castro bought Muñoz’s “El Coleccionista” (2014) — a 12-metre video work showing a hologram of the artist arranging his photography collection — he asked for 50 per cent of the price to go to fund the space, and the other 50 per cent to FLORA ars+natura, the artistic space founded by the Colombian curator José Roca, whom he cites as a major influence. He is proud of how his initiatives have helped emerging artists from difficult backgrounds, citing the Costa Rican Christian Salablanca Díaz, whose video “Geometría del centro” (Geometry of the Centre) (2020) is currently on show in the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid.

‘Cofia’ (2016) by Juan Fernando Herrán © Courtesy of the artist.

Beside him as we talk is part of “Cofia” (2016), a large installation made of balls of human hair by the Colombian artist Juan Fernando Herrán: the whole piece measures three by eight metres. “This will go to a museum, I will have it in my home just for a year or so,” says Castro. Another work is destined for the Parque de la Liberdad: Clemencia Echeverri’s 2007 “Treno”, a video of the Cauca river in Colombia.

‘Treno’ (2007) by Clemencia Echeverri © Courtesy of the artist.

“I would like, somehow, to give an example of my way of collecting,” he continues. “I don’t like to put art in storage, I like to loan it and show it. My house is designed like a white canvas that can accept a lot of art, and I take a lot of museum groups around. I even have an issue with the term ‘collecting’ — if it is only about accumulating. Other people may have interaction with art as a business, that’s fine, but I don’t do that.

“I have never resold a single piece in my life,” he concludes.

Towards Capitalism With Purpose

“Our society has done some amazing things, but we also have some huge inequalities and the world is facing some very serious climate challenges,” says entrepreneur and activist Luis Javier Castro. “I’m a big critic of the short-term nature of capital and a supporter of those who looking to take a different approach.”

Castro is putting his money where his mouth is. Through his private family office, he has set up Alejandría Corp, an investment company he runs with the aim of building an educated, connected, and empowered society, with a particular focus on the problems of Latin America. “Alejandría is an important experiment in how capital should behave”, Castro explains.

The venture is the culmination of 25 years of running businesses and investing in growing companies. Castro began his career at the consultant Bain Capital and went on to launch Mesoamérica Investments, a private equity firm that invested in industries ranging from renewable energy to telecommunications.

Alongside that work, he spent many years supporting groups supporting social enterprise and entrepreneurship. Prominent roles have included work with the Young Presidents Organization (YPO), which works with leaders in 125 countries worldwide, and United Way, a network of non-profit groups committed to making an impact in areas such as health and education. He’s also worked with AED, which brings together more than 150 companies committed to a more prosperous, inclusive, and respectful environment, and is a fellow of the Aspen Institute.

“In the past, I tended to think of those activities as separate,” Castro reflects. “More recently, I’ve come to see that the business side of my career and my other activities were actually closely linked.” Castro spends much of the Covid-19 pandemic mulling over these ideas. “I thought about my next life and what I would do for the next 25 years and I kept coming back to this idea of interdependence; the pandemic has really brought home how interdependent we all are.”

Alejandría Corp is the result of that thinking. “This is conscious capital, with purpose at its center,” Castro explains. “If we can solve society’s problems, we can do a lot of good, but we can also make a lot of profit.”

Alejandría founder Luis Javier Castro in the classroom

Castro is keen to stress that he is in it for the long term. Importantly, Alejandría is not a fund requiring Castro to manage money with one eye on the priorities of his investors. Rather, with his own funds committed, he is free to focus on supporting the businesses he backs over an extended period.

Still, while Castro is taking a long-term view, he is also keen to get moving. Having launched Alejandría at the beginning of the year, the company has already made nine investments.

The education pillar of the “education, connected and empowered” mandate has been the most active so far. One early investment was in Knowledgehook. The company, featured on Forbes a year ago, is an educational technology business that supports students and teachers around the world; leveraging a combination of data analytics and educational research, it helps educators teach more effectively and monitor the performance of their students in granular detail.

Qamar Qureshi, a chief business officer of Knowledgehook, believes Alejandría is a perfect fit for his business. “We share the same mindset,” he says. “We started out by discussing our missions and objectives, and we were aligned at every step of the way.”

Alejandría’s involvement in Knowledgehook is helping the business to expand into Latin America, starting with Mexico. Improved educational outcomes are crucial to tackling societal problems such as inequality and exclusion, argues Castro, but too many Latin American students are leaving education without the skills to participate in the economy of the future – particularly in areas such as maths and science.

“Right now, education is a differentiator, when it should be an equalizer,” argues Qureshi. “The gap between rich and those who are left behind is growing and it got wider during Covid when some children received no education at all; we can help to close that gap.”

Castro is interested in how Alejandría’s investee companies can work together, collaborating and sharing expertise in order to create something bigger than the sum of their parts. “We aspire to be an ecosystem creator,” he says.

Some of the other pieces of the jigsaw are already falling into place. For example, Alejandría has also worked with Singularity University, a Silicon Valley-based education group that wants to create a positive impact by teaching more people skills related to exponential technologies such as artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and robotics. Another portfolio venture has seen the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design launch a rolling program of learning in Costa Rica.

Alejandría is also an investor in 4thewords, a small start-up that uses gaming to encourage people to write, Tomi Digital, a digital education specialist, and Aulas Amigas, which is focused on improving the teaching and learning process.

Beyond education, Alejandría has also begun to explore its other areas of focus. In the connection sphere, for example, it has invested in the internet of things specialist WND Group. Under its empowerment label, it has backed Polymath Ventures, which helps small-scale businesses to work together to drive scale and efficiency.

There will be more to come – Castro is just getting started. But it is good progress so far and he is excited to see what can be achieved. “Capital is the initial conversation – what gets us in the door – but it is only the start,” he says. “I want to prove that this new type of investment can really change things.”