April 11, 2024
Estimated Read Time: 10 min.

Changemaker Spotlight Series – John Lopez, Intercambio

Welcome to Strat Labs’ Changemaker Spotlight Series! This blog series is dedicated to showcasing the inspiring journeys of remarkable individuals who have transformed their passions into purposeful endeavors, leaving a significant impact on the world around them every single day. Join us as we delve into the heart of innovation and commitment, celebrating the extraordinary stories of those who are not just dreaming of a better future but actively shaping it in their journey as a changemaker.


John Lopez, PhD, is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Intercambio, a nonprofit organization based in Boulder, Colorado, and president of Lopez Research and Consulting based in the Denver, Colorado metro area. John brings 20 years of thought leadership and executive experience in higher education, and public, private, and publicly traded organizations. His roles have included staff to a Nebraska state senator, teaching research and statistics courses at a private college, and Vice President of Government Affairs for a higher education parent company.

Dr. Lopez earned his MEd from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and his PhD in higher education specializing in management and policy from the University of Arizona. He also received the Institute for Education Management certificate from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and now serves as chair of the Board of Trustees for Herzing University.

John is proud of his service in the U.S. Navy, holds dual U.S. and Belizean citizenship, and is an Amazon bestselling author of An Immigrant in the C-Suite: From the Journey, Lessons for the Business Community. His interests include dining, golf, traveling, and philanthropic work in his native country of Belize.


What inspired you to embark on your journey in the social impact space?

As a kid, in a four-year period of time, I moved from Belize to New York City to Killeen, Texas, to Omaha, Nebraska. My life’s journey has always been about social impact. Meaning, that my life has been unusual, and I had to become comfortable in multiple environments and find a way to integrate. 

Throughout my professional career, I have traveled a lot. For about 20 years, I was on the road at least two or three times a month, so I never had the opportunity to give back or join any community groups because I was constantly gone. I always wanted to find a way to do my part for the community, and when the opportunity to join Intercambio as the CEO came up, I had to pursue it.


The Intercambio team at COABE 2023 National Conference

Can you describe how you and/or your organization are making a significant social impact?

Our mission is to bring English learners and community volunteers together in language classes and other gatherings to build their confidence and skills while creating friendships and connections. We do that because we’re trying to create a world where language, race, and culture are not barriers to friendships, relationships, and connections.

If you are traveling and you decide to go to France, the first thing you want to do is learn the language and the very basic phrases. The purpose of that is to allow you to get around and integrate. It’s not driven by the need for long-term belonging or inclusion at the community table, but rather for functionality. At Intercambio, we cover the range of both of those needs and try to provide English skills so that immigrants and refugees, those who are from foreign lands, can feel comfortable in their new community. 

All of our teachers are volunteers, and our students are so courageous and committed. During the last term of classes in Boulder County, we had approximately 250 students from 35 countries speaking 25 different languages. To me, that’s amazing. I’ve been so inspired by our board, staff, teachers, and students that I recently completed our teacher training, and I look forward to starting my assignment as a teaching assistant beginning next week.

The work that we do is fundamental to building a society that’s more connected and inclusive.


Can you tell us about a project or initiative you’re particularly proud of and its impact on the community or issue it addresses?

I’m simply most proud of  the opportunity to increase awareness about Intercambio, what we do, our value proposition, and how we can be helpful to immigrants who are just trying to figure out how to navigate life in a new community. The work that we do is what motivates me, and that’s why I took the job. I’m always proud to pursue and magnify our impact across the country.


In your opinion, what are some emerging trends or innovations in your industry that have the potential to drive significant change?

Intercambio is trying to scale, grow, and magnify our impact, which requires looking at best practices from the business world to try to figure out how to become more efficient, given that we don’t have as many resources.

In terms of emerging trends and innovations, we are constantly talking about efficiency, continuous improvement, and how artificial intelligence (AI) impacts the world. It’s inevitable—even for the nonprofit industry—so we have to start thinking about AI and how it can support our causes.


How do you define “Changemaker”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Being a changemaker revolves around leaving an unavoidable or undeniable positive impression. There are some people you just don’t want to like, but you can’t help but like them. I think that’s a person who changes us in some way. It forces us to challenge who we are and how we think, even in ways that aren’t comfortable.

I also think a Changemaker is someone who has the ability to believe in others, even when they don’t believe in themselves. That inspires hope in a way that’s rare.


John Lopez Golfing

What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own journey as a changemaker within the social impact space?

Enjoy the journey because it’s difficult work, and you don’t always get the acknowledgment you deserve.

I would also say to manage your expectations because sometimes we can ask too much of ourselves, and it’s unrealistic. Then, it becomes difficult to really find the fulfillment of the journey from the beginning. 


Looking ahead, what are your aspirations and goals for the future of your work, and how do you plan to continue your journey as a changemaker?

My goal is to significantly increase awareness of Intercambio and the value proposition of partnering with us, enrolling in courses with us, and volunteering for us. My goal is to let the world know, because I believe in what we do. I want to let more people across the country know what we do, how we can be helpful, and the value of the work.

We’ve grown organically, but not much outside of Boulder County. I want to accomplish national growth, which is a precursor to having the social impact that we all want to see.


Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

First, there’s a young lady from Syria who had been through war, displaced from her family, and she was telling us that she’s rehearsing her wedding vows in English. That’s just cool stuff!

Additionally, upon the end of our term recently, I sat next to a young woman and her daughter at the graduation ceremony. She is a business owner who makes piñatas, and she told me that her ten-year-old daughter no longer has to be by her side all the time because she’s more proficient in English. We love to hear stories like that.


How do you approach collaboration and partnerships in the social impact sector, and what role do they play in achieving your goals?

I approach partnerships carefully because my background is both in for-profit and nonprofit industries, and they operate very differently. I tend to be transparent and honest even if it makes someone uncomfortable, but you have to be careful with that. If too many people become uncomfortable with the direction or speed you’re moving, it can cause a lot of unrest. My approach uses candor, honesty, and grace because not everyone operates in the same way or at the same speed.

The role that partnerships play is making it easy for others to embrace your vision. It makes it easier for other leaders to trust you and know that you’re telling the truth.


Why should people pay attention to the issues you work on?

We’ve all been on both sides. We’ve been the person who is connected in our community, but we’ve also all been in a situation where we felt like we were the outsider. One feels way better than the other, which I think everyone can relate to. If we do our jobs well, in terms of tearing down barriers of race and culture, then everyone feels more comfortable and more connected regardless of where they are.


To learn more about the impactful and important work that Intercambio is doing, visit their website at www.intercambio.org

If you are interested in connecting with John to learn more about her changemaker journey, you can contact him at john@intercambio.org or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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