Alex Zorniger

Update #1

The time on the plane is slowly ticking by, but at least it gives me an opportunity to mentally prepare myself for the journey ahead. Through all of the different ideas running through my head, one thread remains constant. We have poured billions of dollars into international aid with very little to show for it. Many of our conventional strategies have been ineffective as long-term answers to some of the world’s most pressing problems. However, recently there has been a wave of creativity and innovative solutions to hit the developmental sector and I believe many of these represent solutions truly that have the potential to make a difference. Social entrepreneurship is providing new opportunities and mechanisms to affect problems deeply seated in cultural sensitivities. As outsiders, there is no way to understand the culture as well as the native populations does. I once read about an organization that worked on latrines in Ghana. They built these beautiful toilets, with fantastic intentions only to find upon their return the following year that no one was using them. After one simple question, they realized that they had dug these latrines on top of an ancient burial ground for the village. It’s these types of problems that well-intentioned foreigners have trouble foreseeing and the impetus and value I see in my internship with Social Entrepreneurship Corps (SEC). Their goal is to facilitate local entrepreneurial opportunities for products with a social, environmental or health benefit. In Guatemala, where I will be spending my internship, and in most developing countries, the markets for products like these are underdeveloped. Products like eye glasses, cook stoves, solar heaters, all have a vital purpose in these areas, but without an established market it can be extremely difficult for local entrepreneurs to remain in business. SEC provides the necessary support to shelter these burgeoning markets, including mechanisms to reduce the risk of the local entrepreneur and support the production and distribution of the product. The Guatemalans understand better than any of us what they need to improve their lives and SEC is simply facilitating the process for them to provide it for themselves.

If a strategy has the ability to pull one person out of poverty in a sustainable manner, the only thing stopping it from being worthy of implementation is scalability. You could read everyday about a different approach to solve a development problem that has been astoundingly successful. However, year after year we find the same problems repeating themselves. We aren’t making any progress on malnutrition, people all over the world don’t have access to clean water, economic opportunity in many parts of the world are seriously lacking, etc. Where is the disconnect? I truly believe the answer resides in scalability. While the importance changing the life of one individual should never be underestimated, if we ever want to make a marked change on these problems, our solutions must be able to expand beyond one person, one family, or one community. Our programs must have the ability to evolve, grow and reproduce just like a living organism. With SEC in Guatemala I’m looking for insight into what characteristics can make that happen.

Update #2

I’m going to be honest. Going down to Guatemala, I really had no idea what exactly I was doing. Social Entrepreneur Corps (The organization I interned) was pretty poor at pre-trip communication to say the least. After my month long journey in Guatemala, I can proudly say this portion of their program is by far their weakest link. Sitting on the plane right now I feel as though I was able to learn and grow as a person and a social entrepreneur as much or more than in many of my semester long courses. So, what did I do?

Social Entrepreneur Corps is a support network for local entrepreneurial endeavors all over the world. In Guatemala, SEC’s flagship program, they provide support to Soluciones Communitarias. Soluciones Communitarias is a local organization that employs local entrepreneurs to deliver products with a social benefit to Guatemalans all over the country. They do this through what they call the “microconsignment model.” Sound familiar? Probably not.  That’s because they developed the model. It’s founded upon the simple belief that the people of the developing world have the power to purchase. And this makes all the difference.

The microconsignment model is not an innovative concept. It was developed many years ago under the title of “consignment” in the United States  The premise is that a central organization creates the business model and acquires the products in order to “consign” them to sales people. If salespeople sell the item they get a cut of the profits. If not, they can return the products back to the central organization at no charge. The model opens the door wide open for entrepreneurs by taking the risk out of starting your own venture. If things don’t work, the entrepreneur can return the products, rather than taking a financial loss on the entire unsold inventory. The microconsignment is this same model, only applied to developing world populations.

And this model can be applied to so many of the problems that face us. Around a billion people don’t have access to clean water. Our mainstream solution to this problem has been to give these people water-purifying systems free of charge. The thinking behind this is that many of these people can barely afford food or clothing, how would they be able to pay for a water purifying system?  Because of this perspective, the bottom billion have been neglected. This mindset is where we are making our mistake. Look at Coca-Cola. Many of the people in developing countries make less than a dollar a day, but you’ll find them drinking a coke. These people are consumers. And what happens when you treat them like consumers, rather than helpless people? Well, that’s where things get interesting.

The key benefit of treating the bottom billion like consumers is that it puts everyone on the same level. How many stories are their of aid projects that were well conceived, but undermined by a lack of cultural understanding. We give them beautiful solutions, free of charge, and then we realize a year later that they’re not having any impact. That’s because people will take ANYTHING if it’s free. They may never use it, but if it’s free, why not? But, when you treat people like consumers, they’ll tell you if your product sucks. They’re not going to buy something that doesn’t work for them. It creates an accountability mechanism to the business or organization that forces them to create a solution that will actually fix the problem or the organization won’t survive. This idea is one of the key reasons for the ineffectiveness of our current aid. The accountability mechanisms for development organizations are to their donors not to the people they’re actually serving. If we can structure organizations to begin being accountable to their targets I think we would see a great increase in the effectiveness of our aid. Social Entrepreneur Corps may not be the biggest development organization, but before you can affect the masses you must have a model that can consistently change one person’s life. Social Entrepreneur Corps is able to effectively change individuals’ lives. The next step? Scaling.

Claudia Schwartz

Update #1 Energy and Entrepreneurship in Somaliland

In Somaliland, the autonomous region in the northwest of Somalia, energy prices are some of the highest in the world, at $1 to $1.25 per kilowatt hour. Almost 99% of energy usage in Somaliland is fueled by petroleum, all of which must be imported, usually from the nearby Persian Gulf, and is used to fuel expensive diesel generators. Households spend on average over 35% of their incomes on energy, and energy costs are the number one reason cited for businesses failing. “Businesses failing” might not sound like such a rare occurrence to the general public, for whom Somaliland/Somalia may call to mind a conflict-ridden wasteland which is failing in general and where the business environment is the least of its problems. Yet the reality in Somaliland is quite different from this image; Somaliland actually has a stable state and a thriving business sector, in large part fueled by members of the returned diaspora. Providing access to affordable, sustainable sources of energy will be a major boost to the future economic development of Somaliland. I came to Somaliland to work with a company that is trying to do just that – Qorax Energy, a joint Somali-American start-up, which is working to develop solar power projects to bring alternative sources of energy to Somaliland households and businesses.

Providing affordable energy in Somaliland is inherently a social enterprise; it promises economic returns but is also providing an essential service that will benefit businesses, households and the wider community. The strength of the business sector in Somaliland is astonishing, but all businesses struggle with energy costs. For example, one man I met is in the process of starting an ice-making company in Berbera, Somaliland’s port in the north on the Gulf of Aden.


Ice is a high-demand commodity, especially given the port’s nascent fishing industry, but one which requires large inputs of energy. The owner estimates that if he runs the machine for three hours he can make one ton of ice, which will sell for $200.[1] However, running the machine costs approximately $1/kilowatt hour, so just running the machine for a normal workday will cost him $80 per day, which will significantly eat into his profits.


The ice factory owner next to one of his ice making machines.

Qorax is working to assist businesspeople such as this by providing access to clean, distributed renewable energy generation projects. Qorax, which means “sun” in Somali, is focused on solar power, for which Somaliland is ideal, based on its location near the equator and annual irradiation patterns. One issue that solar energy developers in other developing countries have faced is the problem of what happens if something in the installation breaks down – if the solar developer has already left, and there is no local capacity to repair the malfunction, the installation will become useless. Qorax is addressing this problem by also developing a solar technician training workshop in cooperation with a local technical university. Currently in its pilot phase, two Somali engineering students in their final semesters are being training in applied engineering skills specific to solar PV installations. In the next phase Qorax plans to provide international solar technician certifications.

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The student trainees demonstrating their skills; me with the student trainees

I came to Somaliland to support Qorax on the ground for a brief few weeks this summer, though I’ve been supporting them remotely for the past semester and will continue to do so throughout the summer. Currently, I’m working on helping to find potential partners, investors and suppliers for Qorax in both the local and international markets, including talking to companies who might otherwise not have considered Somaliland a viable business opportunity.

Right now I’m writing this from Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, where I’m spending my first “weekend” (the weekend is just Friday in Somaliland) drinking tea, attempting to communicate with the housekeeper Raxma (the “x” is silent of course!), and providing this update. In closing, here’s another highlight of the trip so far – my first trip to the Somaliland beach! This is Berbera, on the Gulf of Aden – who knows, maybe soon to be the best kept secret in beach getaways?


[1] This is not the local equivalent of $200, it is actually 200 American dollars – almost anything can be paid for in USD in Somaliland, giving it a slightly “Wild West” feel, although it does have its own currency, the Somaliland shilling.

 Update #2” Powering Somaliland

As mentioned in my previous blog entry, I am currently in Hargeisa, Somaliland working on a start-up renewable energy company, Qorax Energy. Qorax is working to bring affordable solar energy to Somaliland to drive the country’s growth – allowing businesses to thrive and reducing the burden on households’ in terms of the amount of their incomes that they must spend on energy.

Currently, the energy sector in Somaliland is fragmented, to put it mildly. There is no one large energy utility company, either publicly or privately owned – each town, or neighborhood in a larger city such as Hargeisa, has its own independent power provider (IPP) which operates a diesel powered generator and may supply power to around 500 households.

This can result in some fairly confusing situations, such as this common site in Hargeisa:


Power lines in Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland.

Electrical lines are installed somewhat haphazardly by the various IPPs, each serving its own customer base. There is no centralized authority or agency strictly regulating the sector, though the Somaliland government is currently developing a new energy law and framework. On the other hand, the proliferation of IPPs can sometimes result in a situation such as this:


Power lines in Gabiley, western Somaliland.

We were told that in this town, the reason that there are four electrical lines on each electrical pole is that there are four separate power providers, each serving different sections of the town. In many other countries, certain characteristics of industries such as electricity and water – including economies of scale and barriers to entry – have tended to create situations where it is only economically efficient to have one or two producers, leading to “natural monopolies.” This has not yet occurred in Somaliland, where many small providers exist instead of one large utility. Unfortunately, this increased competition has not resulted in lower prices, mainly because all providers are highly dependent on the price of imported fuel, which gives them little flexibility. Qorax is attempting to address this problem through access to clean, renewable, affordable solar energy.

I am learning a lot about the development of solar power projects – from how they are financed, to conducting market/demand analyses, to feasibility studies. Here I am on a surveyor site visit to one potential project location:

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And for another little bit of excitement – my first time driving in Somaliland! Luckily many of the cars are automatic transmission here, and everyone drives on the right side of the road, though some cars have steering wheels on the left and some have steering wheels on the right (as you can see in the picture).


Kristi Hill

Women’s Microfinance Initiative (WMI) is an organization that works to
empower rural women by providing them with the skills and the capital
necessary to become successful entrepreneurs. WMI is composed of
multiple village level loan hubs and provides services to women all
throughout Uganda, with other hubs in Kenya and Tanzania. Local women,
who oversee program operations and provide trainings to new borrowers,
run each hub.

During my fellowship this summer, I have been working together with
two other interns on a number of projects at the main office in
Buyobo, Uganda. The most sizeable project is a longitudinal study of
independent borrowers. We are hoping that the study will provide
valuable insight into the loan program’s impact on the local
community. Women in the WMI program go through stages of successively
larger loans until eventually graduating to commercial bank loans, and
independent borrowers are those women who have graduated to commercial
banks.  So far, we have interviewed over forty independent borrowers
and it has been fascinating to hear their stories and perspectives on
the program. Women describe many different positive impacts of the
loan program, ranging from a decrease in domestic violence in the
community to an increase in the number of children attending school.
We are hoping to finish interviewing women in the next few weeks so
that we can begin compiling and analyzing the data from our surveys.

We have also been working to create short videos for the WMI website
that will help potential donors better understand loan program
operations, and more generally, daily life in rural Uganda. While
getting footage for this project I have had the opportunity to attend
new borrower trainings and loan repayment days, and I am looking
forward to a borrower graduation in a few weeks. Attending these
events is always exciting, and they have been some of the highlights
of my fellowship.

This past month at WMI has been an incredible experience, and I am
looking forward to the coming month, especially analyzing the survey
data and compiling it into a fact book.

Jed Silver

I’ve been back in Uganda for about 12 days now, although I can’t tell if it feels like I’ve been here for a year or only just gotten off the plane. Last Friday, Donnas and I arrived in Lira and on Saturday, our Board of Directors convened for our second meeting. We were all encouraged by the progress we’ve made so far, raising nearly $15,000 for the BASIS project and our organizational needs this year, but we were sobered by the challenges we still face turning RREADI from an idea for a project into an efficient, accountable, and professional organization. I think the toughest period for any organization, business, or group of people is the start-up phase and if we can survive this baptism by fire and learn by doing, I think we are on track to become the organization that we first dreamed of being.

The next day, Donnas and I traveled to Barongin where we held a community meeting where we gave the members who attended some updates on the work we’d be doing with the savings groups and produce marketing as part of the BASIS project. My Leb Lango was a little bit too rusty to pick exactly what people said, but people were extremely excited for the next few months and more importantly, they asked us questions and discussed amongst each other about the benefits and risks of different marketing strategies. One man, known in the villages as Mzee Amor Amor, even donated about half an acre of land for us to construct the produce bulking center that we proposed as part of the project. It was extremely reassuring to see the community eager to contribute in thought and in kind.

Emmanuel, our project volunteer, and I have been living together in the office and have spent the week training various savings groups across the village and also trying to ensure that promoting commercial marketing as part of our project will benefit and not harm food security. Although most households in the village are usually able to grow enough food to last throughout the year, the weather has been bad this season and some households are facing food shortages during this lean season. So far, we still believe that the gains from selling to better markets will give families enough of a buffer to overcome any shortage, but we need to complete our due diligence on this matter before proceeding.

In the next few weeks, we also hope to conduct a quantitative baseline survey so we can track not only the effects of our trainings on savings groups, but see how members increase their investment in agriculture and other enterprises, access more health care, and support their children’s education. I think RREADI is one of very few organizations to implement a Village Savings & Loans project directly linked to collective produce marketing and if this project succeeds, it can prove a useful innovation far beyond Barongin.

Morgan Babbs

Where I come from, I get charged for plastic bags when I shop. Now I’m in a city that’s fair to say has been completely frozen for 31 years.

No one goes to Managua and no one likes Managua. Managua is always the first chapter in travel guides on Nicaragua. After listing the 3 or so “places” to “visit” and explaining how to not get robbed and kidnapped by cabs, it tells you to get out. There are no travel blogs about Managua. Managuans who can afford it leave the city every weekend.

I asked my Canadian coworker if she liked Managua—she hesitated, as if she didn’t want to give me the truth, but gave the country its deserved credit by answering: “I like Nicaragua…”

A traveler who flocks to the beaches and surf in Nicaragua remarked “hah, Managua, that’s the ugliest city in the world!”

When one of my coworkers was talking to me about his background and living in Managua he said that he liked the city because there was tons of stuff to do. Immediately I excitedly asked him to tell me about all of the stuff, which is when he realized he was misunderstood: “Oh, no, not fun things, I mean like things to do to improve Nicaragua, lots of development work… that sort of thing”.

Managua has been stuck and helpless since the earthquake in 1972 that destroyed the entire city—since then, it has never rebuilt. At all. In fact, it’s sad that I’m even writing this sentence: all (4? 12? 10?) articles and travel guides about Managua open with that same earthquake fact, almost showing that all there is to know about the capital city of the largest and safest Latin American country is that it’s characterized by destruction.

I would think that Managua would be flocked with urban planning visionaries—it’s the perfect basket case. However, there have been no major improvements or changes in the past 30 years, except the addition of Galerias Santo Domingo, the pride and joy of Managua—a mall. In an analysis by McKinsey&Company showing global cities of the future and projected growth rates of cities, Managua doesn’t even make the chart. Nicaragua has illegally had the same president (Daniel Ortega) serve two terms. He’ll likely serve a third by just “saying so” and no one will care. There are no street names or numbers in Managua—you find destinations by mentioning to the taxi driver another restaurant that’s close to the restaurant you’re actually trying to go to or by mentioning another building that’s close to the building or house you’re actually trying to get to… and then saying how many meters or blocks north, south, east, or west the destination is. But this doesn’t even work. You then spend 3 minutes driving around the block looking for the place in the dark. The tallest building in Managua is six stories high. Starbucks, in all its corners of the cities of the developing world, hasn’t even come to Managua. Half the buses in the city say “Russia Nicaragua” (no punctuation between!) which makes ZERO sense when you try to think really hard about what this means and what the connection between Russia and Nicaragua is… until someone informs you that Russia gave Nicaragua those buses. Half of the bridges in the country say “Japan Nicaragua,” which I’ll take a guess means that Japan gave Nicaragua the bridges…

Nicaragua has two competing mobile phone carriers: Claro and Movistar. Perhaps the most illogical thing ever is that it costs more to make a call between a Movistar phone and a Claro phone than it costs to make a call from the United States to Nicaragua. Reread that sentence again if necessary. This means that many people have two phones—one for their Movistar friends and one for their Claro friends. Some people even have three phones—the third for Internet. What?

I’ve only been here for a week and have duly noted the illogicalities of the city, but I look forward to finding the tasteful, quirky aspects of Managua. It’s an odd task to try to get to know a city that doesn’t have much to show for. I am also very happy to have added to the Internet’s plethora (kidding) of blog posts on Managua—hopefully this will help someone who was in the same place I was a month ago: desperate for word on a city that has nothing to say.

Sonja Kytomaa – Tufts Timmy

Along with two other students from Tufts, Victoria and Alejandra, I spent a majority of May and the beginning of June in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Nearly every aspect of our trip involved water in one way or another, making for a very wet three weeks. First off, we were there at the beginning of rainy season, which meant rain showers every afternoon, without fail. Another, perhaps more important, way in which water became a defining feature of our trip was as the focus of our project.

The goal of our project was to increase access to clean, safe, water in the rural communities of Guatemala. More specifically, our project consisted of two parts. In the first part we interviewed 11 women from La Victoria (a small town about an hour away from Quetzaltenango), about their knowledge, attitudes and practices surrounding water, sanitation and hygiene. We also aimed to get a sense of what the women wanted in terms of filters and clean water based on what they would use it for and their priorities, rather than simply telling them what to do.

The second part consisted of teaching students in an afterschool program run by Pop Wuj, the Spanish school we took classes with, about the solar disinfection method, also known as SODIS. SODIS is a simple way of killing nearly all of the bacteria in untreated water, helping prevent diarrheal disease and parasites. It essentially consists of leaving a PET water bottle (in other words, a majority of water bottles sold in stores), filled with untreated water out in the sun for 6 hours, or two days if the sky is mostly cloudy. Multiple studies have proven its effectiveness, however we still wanted to confirm that it would work in this particular setting. Alejandra packed with her a set of water testing kits, so we conducted an experiment to see how effective SODIS was as well as what the best way of cleaning the water bottles would be.

The results from both parts were promising, and very interesting. From the interviews, we got the general impression that the women had a solid understanding of good practices concerning sanitation, hygiene and the importance of clean water. However, they continue to face multiple barriers. The barriers included cost as well as the size of filters offered to them. That led us to believe that implementing the SODIS method in La Victoria as a supplemental water source could be an effective next step.

Unfortunately, with the limited time we had in Guatemala, we were unable to follow through with teaching the children in the afterschool program about SODIS personally or begin implementing it in La Victoria. However, we were able to talk to the coordinator of the afterschool program, and drew up a poster explaining the process. Even though it is far from ideal to be unable to be more directly involved with every aspect of the project, I think that this might have been a blessing in disguise. Hearing these lessons from the coordinator, who the students see nearly every day and have known for much longer than us might have worked in our favor, making them more open to learning and adopting this new method. This situation speaks to an aspect of community health that I love. It is not an individual field, but out of necessity requires collaboration and working with others in order to accomplish our goals.

Even though our time in Guatemala showed us that there is still much to do, I returned to Boston with a sense of accomplishment knowing that it was all a step in the right direction and will help shape our future efforts when we return in the (hopefully) near future!

Juan Clar

India is not new to me. I had previously lived in New Delhi, the country’s capital in the North, but this time, I headed down South to Chennai. When I arrived in Chennai to start my internship and personal projects, I felt like I was in a different country.  Tamil language and culture were poles apart from the Hindi language and North Indian culture I was used to. Food was spicier and even more vegetarian, something I had previously thought as impossible. In the midst of all these differences, I felt good because I knew that a summer in Chennai would be as unique as a year in Delhi.

I realized I made the right summer plans on the day I began my internship at the U.S. Consulate in Chennai. From day one, I was trained about all of the Consulate’s functions and briefed about my area of expertise, which is the Indian economy. As an intern in the commercial section of the Consulate, I help American companies do business in India, and we try to get Indian companies to invest in the U.S. A significant portion of the business people I have met are social entrepreneurs or players in the green technology sector. All of them have been valuable resources for understanding the market for social and green entrepreneurship in South India.

However, most of my professional interactions are confidential, which means that any research I intend to publish has to come from outside sources. Therefore, in the upcoming months, I am arranging some field work, individual research and other off the record meetings to increase my understanding of social entrepreneurship in South India.

Leah Meadows

Working to Give Female Farmers in Indonesia Access to Agricultural Information and Financial Services


Last week, I interviewed female rice farmers in Karawang, a rural district in West Java, Indonesia, to determine their access to agricultural information, financial services, and cell phone technology.

Despite their vital role in agricultural production, women in Indonesia are systematically excluded from agricultural information. During rice production, women plant seeds, weed tall grasses, manage pests, use manual tools, and sort the rice post-harvest.

Formal channels of agriculture communication bypass women, however, because only men who own land are invited to village meetings about agriculture, and often times agricultural extension officers neglect female farmer groups in order to focus their efforts on male farmer groups.

During my interviews, I met Nayah, an enterprising female farmer who supplements her income by washing motorcycles. She wants to form a cooperative of female farmers to sell ground ginger in the markets, but needs the capital, skills, tools, and distribution networks to do so.

Nayah, like all the women in her community, does not have a bank account, so it is difficult for her to get the start-up capital for her business.

This is why I am helping rural female farmers become entrepreneurs through my summer internship with MercyCorps’ Agri-Fin mobile project. I am working to provide rural women in Indonesia with access to technical and market information along with financial services through mobile technology.

Providing access to rural advisory and financial services through mobile phones – a highly promising medium to reach millions of women in remote areas – has a high potential to improve smallholders’ productivity and stabilize their incomes.

Elayne Stecher — BUILD Nicaragua

Since late May I have been working with my partner organization, La Asociación de Voluntarios para el Desarrollo Comunitario (AVODEC), on a number of projects. AVODEC was founded by native Jinotegan Victorino Centeno to help his community after Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and has since expanded, although all of their projects are located within the municipality of Jinotega.

I am involved in three main projects. The first is infant nutrition in a region called “Los Lomos”. This project involves the distribution of MannaPack Rice (from Feed My Starving Children, a U.S. organization) to mothers with young children. The packets of rice and soy-protein are packed with vitamins to help brain development and are specifically for children aged 6 months – 6 years. AVODEC transports the food from a local church, where it is stored, to the target community and helps to organize the mothers into a rotation (each day, a different mother will cook the rice for all the children under six). Once a week, a social worker named Johana and I go to visit Los Lomos and ensure that the children are being fed, all the mothers are participating in the rotation, and to replenish the food supplies.

I am helping Johana to implement the same system in a larger community called “Los Chaguites”. Over 50 children under six and their mothers will participate in the nutrition program there.

My second project is assisting with the medical brigades that an organization called Esperanza organizes and AVODEC facilitates. I had the opportunity to work with the first brigade last week (June 9 -15) and helped translate during 31 operations and the corresponding consults with patients and their parents (I was one of three translators).

My last project is translating various documents from Spanish into English or English to Spanish. These documents are usually related to project development (proposals, funding, timelines, etc) and I’ve already learned quite a bit about AVODEC’s upcoming potable water project and plan to reforest parts of Jinotega with Cacao trees.

Tom (another BUILD: Nicaragua member) and I also are invited to participate in capacity-building workshops where we present information or documents that we discussed in our Quidnunc this past spring and try to bring in resources that will improve AVODEC’s DM&E.

Here are some photos!

From Los Lomos:


The children under six have “school” in a pavilion that AVODEC built last year, complete with access to latrines that AVODEC also provided.


The teacher helps organize the packets with some help.


One little girl passes the packets to her mother.


Here I am, passing out the last of the MannaPacks.

From Los Chaguites:


Some of the children gather outside of the church as Johana, Victorino and I explain the nutrition program.

With the Medical Brigade:


Dr. Custer and Dr. O’Connor operate on an umbilical hernia.


Dr. Custer (right) and Nicaraguan Dr. Montes (left) operate on a young boy.


American Dr. Shnell helps the Nicaraguan doctors on the left while Dr. Custer, Dr. O’Connor and Dr. Wood Bond operate on the right.


From left to right:

Back row: Nicaraguan nurse, Dr. Custer, Sandra (Nicaraguan head nurse), Dr. Wood Bond, Dr. Shnell, Dr. O’Connor

Front row: Me (Elayne Stecher), Luis Enrique (AVODEC, my host dad!), Louisa (Nicaraguan nurse), Yani (anesthesiologist with the brigade), Yessi (AVODEC), and Nicaraguan Dr. Julio.



The latest updates from our 2012 summer fellows:

Fellow: Katie Greenman

Hey all!!

I just arrived to Oakland, CA, and am getting increasinglyexcited to begin the on-the ground portion of my Empower project.  With the flexibility of the funding,I’ve restructured the project around my interviews and a workshop and begantoday.

The intention of this fellowship is to develop, and beginimplementing, a workshop for college students that offers tools andperspectives to foster healthy self-expression, effective communication and basicallybringing more joy to the crazy human experience of young adulthood.

The information and tools that will be offered in theprogram stem from research in Social Psychology and Human/Child Development,and, after this trip, will also stem from the work and experience of variousactive professionals in the field.

My California Agenda:

1. The first and most exciting experience, beganthis morning as I started attending a three day workshop entitled “Living theChange” hosted by Challenge Day Founders Rich & Yvonne Dutra St. John (aninternationally acclaimed not-for-profit organization that hosts experientialworkshops to cultivate “a world where every child feels safe, loved andcelebrated.”) Rich & Yvonne host this specific workshop “designed toempower participants with the tools and vision to Be The Change in every areaof their lives”.

2. Following the workshop, I’ll lead a focus group ofyoung people from the Challenge Day community to bounce ideas, hear theirexperience of college and gather suggestions and input for this program.

3. On Monday, I’ll connect with Soul Shoppe FounderVicki Abidesco and employee Jen Ferlito. Soul Shoppe hosts the CollegeLeadership Program that “challenges participants to look at their own personalleadership strengths.”

4.  Afterwards, I look forward to meeting with Ryanand Kristi Joslin, founders of I Be Me workshopat the Grand Performing Arts center in Pleaston, California. There workrevolves around promoting self acceptance through theater arts and Improvactivities.

5.  Lastly, on the formal schedule, I have a meetingwith Alara Castell, known as a “Sassy Spiritual Guide,” who empowers heartbased women entrepreneurs and has offered to consult me on building a financiallysustainable approach to launch this project.

I look forward to offering another update as the project progresses.

Fellow: Colleen Flanagan, Tufts Timmy

¡Hola amigos¡

Just letting you all know that I have safely arrived in Xela (also called Quetzaltenango), Guatemala. I moved in with my host family on Friday night and will be starting work on the biosand water filter project this week. Another member of Timmy Global Health (from Indiana University) has actually made some headway on the project and completed the first water filter as well as established relationships with suppliers, testing facilities, and a new partner  organization on the ground here in Guatemala. The original plan was to construct the filters under the umbrella of Pop Wuj, the Guatemalan organization partnered with TGH, but it became clear that they were ambivalent about taking on another project (Pop Wuj is already runs a school, a medical clinic, along with numerous social work projects). The group we are now working with is named ACAM, a women’s health organization based here in Xela. The first filter, built at ACAM, will be ready for water testing this week, so that will be my first move on the project. I am hoping to build four filters while down here, preferably in family homes, as this is the setting that will be most useful for the communities we work with.

Upon my arrival in Xela, I was informed about some possible problems with the project. The community, called La Victoria, who received the first round of replaceable water filters (from a manufacturer, not biosand filters) have grown quite attached to using them. Pop Wuj has also formed a deal with EcoFiltro, the manufacturer, and seems to be selling them at low prices to members of the community both in Xela and in La Victoria. This presents a few problems, considering the filters have to be replaced every year and, even at a lower price, present yet another financial struggle to families. The biosand filters, however, are capable of lasting 7-10 years and are made relatively cheaply. I am hoping that we can have at least one family in La Victoria accept the biosand filter (perhaps a family that cannot afford the EcoFiltros) so that we can at least have a case study of how well the filter works in this community. In addition, I am hoping that ACAM will aid us in locating other families in the area that will want the filters.

Of course the overall goal is to teach others how to build the biosand filters, but we have to make sure that they 1) work at killing microbial and parasitic agents in the drinking water that cause medical problems 2) can be and are properly used in the setting of a family home 3) increase ingestion of clean water (instead of other substitutes, such as soda) and 5) find out exactly how a family uses them (cooking, washing, drinking, etc). Therefore, it is important that I build the filters and monitor their progress. During this process, I will be working in conjunction with the Timmy member who begun the project to create instructional videos and manuals that we will distribute to community leaders either during the fall or when the Tufts Timmy chapter returns to Xela in January.

Overall, I am optimistic about the success of the project and excited to get started. I hope all of you are safe, happy and experiencing as much success as possible on your projects!

Fellow: David Schwartz, GroupShot

Dear Empower fellows,

Reading all of these updates has been incredible–all of you are up to such fantastic things. Best of luck to everyone still working on his or her projects and the prolific aftermath of publication, monitoring, and evaluation.

I realize there hasn’t been an update from the Impact + Scale trip, a development-by-design research workshop directed by Adam White, founder of Groupshot and Tufts alum. Our project began in the beginning of June, starting in Bangalore and continuing through Hyderabad, Jaipur, and Delhi. The on-the-ground work involved researching and understanding the differences between cultures and conditions, integral, inseparable facts that give breadth and individuality to specific contexts. Our work was particularly interested in how cultures and conditions are subjects of scale, which is why our research focused on four different cities in India. While we saw similarities (e.g. the importance of business in Hyderabad and Bangalore and the importance of tourism in Jaipur and Delhi), the differences were really what defined each area. Religious makeup, languages spoken, and ethnic diversity gave each of these four cities a different space in which we had to work.

Our work was multifaceted as well. Part of our workshop involved researching the implications of introducing the Leveraged Freedom chair (LFC), a wheelchair designed by MIT for rural usage, throughout India. This involved meetings with doctors, government officials, and specialists in each area to understand specific cultural perceptions about wheelchair-bound inhabitants and what their lives are like. Researching the different types of environments, services available, and notions about immobility in different parts of India were essential for the success of this project. One way we did this was by following around one wheelchair user in each city and developing an extensive ethnography afterwards. This combined with our other research and our meetings with a variety of professionals helped Impact+Scale to publish a report for the LFC with advice on how to maximize its impact in its implementation phase and what decisions must be made as it moves out of the prototype.

Another side of our research was problem-focused as opposed to solution-focused. It followed the problem-solving process employed by human-centered design organizations like Ideo. Because Adam had experience designing a social entrepreneurial project for English language education in the past, the group decided to focus on studying the spaces in which spoken English language learning exists in India. Our goal was to conduct extensive research in each city on this topic, and, at the end of the trip, develop an idea for the most impactive English education project. We arranged meetings with students, teachers, tour guides, hotel owners, and business and NGO owners. We went to summer camps, arcades, and parks to understand the multiple manifestations of concepts like “confidence” and “recreation” and “incentivization.” We mapped English interaction spaces, urban instances of English, untapped time blocks in a student’s schedule. We consistently refined our ideas, zooming in and analyzing the fine details and zooming out to more theoretical understandings, pivoting from potential projects that would not be as helpful nor as needed. In the end, we developed the SPoken English Assessment Certificate (SPEAC), a benchmark/assessment program that encourages school youth to practice English with each other and sign up for certifying oral examinations to earn specific “badges.” These scores and certifications will then be sold to telemarketing companies as a service, as 99% of employees in these Indian organizations don’t speak the required level of English. Having a proper benchmark and a more elucidating record for English speaking, these companies will be able to hire with more ease and efficiency, all while providing school youth with a more fun, productive, incentive-oriented system for spoken English language learning.

Our systems-focus on this project played into the last tenet of our research, which was the pure study of social enterprise. We saw and toured the largest telemedicine center in the world, started by Cisco as part of its corporate social responsibility (CSR) program. We met with Simpa, a pay-as-you-go solar energy organization, a representative of TOMS shoes, an Affordable Private Schools rating organization… the list goes on.

My experience in India was eye-opening. During that month, I began to see the difference between output and impact, the importance of area-specific nuance, and the incredible opportunity that social enterprise offers for international development. What’s more, though, is I witnessed the full process of ground-up human-centered design of a social venture–a lifecycle which involves pivoting, or observing and adjusting, in order to avoid failure and guarantee some sort of success.

Our work has just begun, though; we’ve been generating deliverables and other publishable outputs like design concepts and problem briefs all summer. I’ll be sure to share them with the Empower community once we’ve finished. Thank you for taking the time to read about our project!

Fellow: Hafsa Anouar

I greet you with a very warm greeting from Morocco. I am enjoying my summer back home after a splendid National Entrepreneurial Camp (NEC)

To be on the same page, I will share with you how did NEC start:

My name is Hafsa Anouar from Morocco. I am a graduate of the African Leadership Academy. Located in Johannesburg, this pan-African school strives to develop the next generation of African leaders. There, I focused on entrepreneurship as the process of identifying needs, and designing and implementing solutions. Eager to engage others in social entrepreneurship, a group of my Moroccan friends and I initiated Rabat Entrepreneurial Challenge (REC), a six-day summer training program that promotes entrepreneurship amongst youths in Morocco. This year REC evolved to a National Entrepreneurial Camp (NEC), which won this year’s Kathryn Davis Peace Prize.

As the Co-Founder of NEC, I have been has been engaged in various steps of making the camp a successful one from pitching the idea to donors, writing proposals, developing the curriculum, contacting guest speakers, and reaching out to entrepreneurs. One of the accomplishments that I am really proud of is signing a partnership with a the largest mining company in Morocco, called OCP to sponsor the camp. I remember the day when Mr.Belafrej, the Director of Sustainable Development in OCP, called me in his office and asked me to pitch the idea to him and at the end of the short meeting we had together. He smiled to me and said; “Well, I guess we should start on the paper work. I am looking forward to working with you” I almost jumped from my seat. Up until now, my parents and my family members cannot believe that I actually met Mr. Belafej and signed a long-term partnership.

Despite the tremendous challenges I and the rest of the team faced in looking for sponsors and guest speakers, designing the curriculum, etc, spending one week with motivated and energetic youth from all around Morocco is an enjoyable experience that made me forget the challenges I passed through and the sacrifices I had to make to develop a great camp. The most rewarding thing about organizing this camp is to witness the development of the youth. When they first come, they are really shy, they do not really talk that much ; but after spending one week in the camp, they are able to speak out, develop their business plans, pitch their ideas confidently in front of the judges and most importantly develop long lasting friendships.

The last day of the camp was the final competition. We had three winners with outstanding projects in various fields: recycling, e-marketing and tourism. The NEC team is currently working on developing a strong follow up system for the final projects to see the lights. Thus, I am still busy working after the NEC and I will always be. But, I really enjoy what I do!!

To conclude, the camp was a blast! I am really proud of all the participants, who showed great interest in learning the fundamental skills of entrepreneurship and knew more about themselves and their communities.


2012 Empower fellows Zoe Schlag, Erin Griffard, Emily Ginsberg and Maia Majumder reflect on their experiences from the field thus far:

Fellow: Zoe Schlag began her Schwab Foundation Empower Fellowship with Fundación PETISOS, an initiative-turned-organization of Fundación Gente Nueva in August of 2011. Based in Bariloche, Argentina, Fundación PETISOS is dedicated to protecting and promoting children’s rights.

This was the final piece. I looked outside our office window, where fallen leaves and a sharp wind chased any thoughts of the Patagonian summer into a distant memory. For the past nine months, I had been immersed in numbers, statistics and all of the objective facts of my host organization, Fundación PETISOS. My task had been to design and implement a social impact assessment—essentially, to ascertain how exactly its presence has affected children’s rights, both in Bariloche and on a larger scale, within Argentina.

When I began working with Fundación PETISOS in August of 2011, I had little experience in the field of social impact assessments. Conversations with organizations that were defining the field—with Planned Parenthood, Ashoka and the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN)—steered me to a seemingly endless array of resources, theories and metrics. These initially guided my way as I sought to help my organization articulate their Theory of Change and identify what would become their primary and most indicative metrics, but I quickly realized that their key metric—changes in human rights—would be quite difficult to measure. In fact, in a conversation with a Program Associate at the GlIN, I discovered that standardized metrics in human rights have not yet been defined due to the difficulty in measuring them.

Knowing that measuring and quantifying our impact on human rights would likely be my greatest challenge, I moved forward on those indicators that—though perhaps only indirectly related to human rights—were nonetheless significant in measuring our organization’s impact. I set out collecting statistics about our programs, recording the numbers of clients served and in what manner. By combining these numbers with psychological analyses of the children involved in our programs carried out by psychologists and social workers, we were able to extrapolate trends between the level of client-participation in our programs and direct improvements in areas such as self-esteem, group participation and educational performance. Beyond that, one significant trend that emerged from these measurements demonstrated that as the level of participation in PETISOS’ programs increased, dropout rates, teen pregnancy and delinquency all decreased.

I also explored Grameen’s Progress Out of Poverty Index because, although the mission of PETISOS is to defend children’s rights, the region-specific violations of children’s rights relate directly back to poverty: many of the children we work with are or were child laborers, working in Bariloche’s trash dump. On this end, I began to define metrics for my two other main responsibilities, initiatives that directly address poverty: a microenterprise group made up of the mothers of child laborers and the microcredit program that PETISOS began in January. One of the greatest challenges I confronted when measuring the impact of our programs working with children is that although the programs had been existence for ten years, this would be one of the first times that we sought to quantifiably measure their impact. As a result, those metrics lack the comparative temporal analysis that allows us to evaluate results with yearly benchmarks. Conversely, because PETISOS’ microenterprise initiatives began concurrently with our social impact assessment, their baseline measurements will correspond with the launch of each program.

These baseline measurements of program outcomes were the first piece of the puzzle, but would only allow us to extrapolate about human rights improvements. After consulting with several different people at Ashoka, it seemed clear that legislative changes in favor of children’s rights should necessarily be included in the report. While a change in legislation is not causal for an actual improvement in human rights, it does reflect a more favorable government environment, and therefore notable impact. Referring to Ashoka’s model of impact measurement, I tracked the extent of PETISOS’ involvement in governmental forums and their participation in advising or writing key pieces of legislation concerning children’s rights. Nine months later, I had in front of me a synthesized report, detailing the numbers and objective outcomes of each of PETISOS’ programs.

It was on one of my first days on site that I proposed carrying out a social impact assessment. Given the potential it holds as both an internal and external tool, my boss and I were both incredibly excited about the prospect. However, after the first week of brainstorming, we both shared a common worry: that in writing this report, the organization would effectively be boiled down to numbers and graphs. Discussing the different ways we could avoid this, my boss relayed to me her opinion on the matter:

These numbers, while they are important, they are not PETISOS. The number of children who attend our workshops on a weekly basis, the number of entrepreneurs to whom we make loans so they can start their own microenterprises, the weekly forum on children’s rights that a PETISOS representative created—this is not PETISOS. PETISOS is the fact that one of the first children rescued from the trash dump is now a paid employee on the PETISOS staff. PETISOS is the fact that our interventions with older siblings working in the trash dump translate to their younger sisters and brothers never having to step foot there. PETISOS is the fact that two years after PETISOS began its interventions in the dump, when asked what they didn’t like about the dump, children responded ‘the smell.’ That is our strongest metric. When you work in the dump everyday, you become accustomed to the smell—it stops bothering you. The fact that the kids could smell again—that was when we knew that we were actually having an impact on child labor and succeeding in protecting their rights.

So this was the final piece. Along with the numbers—of children served and loans given, of conferences held and keynote speeches made, of forums attended and participation in the legislative process—was this, the final metric: the storytelling.

Fellow: Erin Griffard

The mission of Amigos de las Américas is to build and inspire young leaders through collaborative community develop and intercultural experiences. I am currently serving as the Associate Project Director for the AMIGOS program in Boaco, Nicaragua. We are working in 25 communities, and the program focuses the rights of children through the use of art and multimedia. Additionally, AMIGOS seeks to initiate collaborative community development processes through the engagement of local youth leaders and existing community structures. Using an asset-based approach, the AMIGOS program in Boaco specifically incorporates multimedia as a means of inciting critical thought and discussion around prominent social issues, with the long-term goal of self-sustaining, community-driven development. The multimedia component of our program uses technology in rural settings to both develop personal skills and to strengthen the leadership skills of local youth. AMIGOS volunteers from Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and the United States are placed in rural communities and are partnered with local youth. Multimedia projects, mostly short films, are then created, focusing on a variety of social themes identified as important by local youth. My role as the Associate Project Director is to oversee the general management of the project, ensure the safety and well-being of our 76 volunteers and project staff members, collaborate with partner agency contacts, manage the project budget, investigate local donor potential, develop plans for long-term sustainability, and evaluate the impact and results of our programs.

As a part of my Empower Fellowship, I have been working on creating a more sustainable framework in which the multimedia program can grow and progress, as the on-the-ground presence of AMIGOS begins to lessen over the course of the next year. We had originally envisioned that the most sustainable and effective addition to the program would be a community multimedia and technology center that would serve as a hub of collaboration for youth from different communities and regions. Although I still consider the multimedia center to be a long-term goal and a necessary addition to the current structure, due to recent challenges and shifts in focus, I do not foresee completing the execution of the center during the course of my fellowship. In keeping with responsible development principles and in the name of flexibility, I do not believe that the program in Boaco is currently in a place to successfully utilize the resources a media center would have to offer. At this stage, it will be more beneficial to develop a regionalized structure, including the strengthening of existing mediums for collaboration and overall program outreach. Such mediums include regional multimedia groups that bring together youth from different communities, youth encuentros focusing on technical training so that existing equipment may be mastered, and providing youth with platforms to share their multimedia projects. I am confident that this shift will more effectively enable the program to be sustainable, and that AMIGOS, in collaboration with local partner agencies, can more successfully facilitate the creation of a media center later on this year with the foundation of the work carried out this summer. Additionally, the resources of a media center will be more beneficial with a well-developed and solid foundation. With adjusted goals and more realistic expectations, I am both comfortable and hopeful moving forward. While a different fellowship outcome than I had imagined, I have no doubt this work will be more beneficial and more sustainable in the long term.

Fellow: Emily Ginsberg

My office won an award!

I have now been here for about a week and am settling into my internship and setting timelines for what I want to accomplish over the next 12 weeks. While at FIT I am primarily focusing on designing, researching and writing a book on price trends, supply and demand for a selection of key commodities in Uganda. I have the help of everyone in the office and am really excited by all that I will learn both about agriculture in Uganda and managing a team in a different culture.

Within the first few days of arriving, I was informed that FIT was nominated for the Rural E-Services award for their “E-Marketing Information Alert,” a program they run that allows farmers to send text messages to FIT regarding sales of the commodity they work with and in exchange, the farmers receive updates of going market prices throughout Uganda. FIT was competing against the major phone service companies in Uganda but ended up winning two awards that night in recognition of their wide reach, innovativeness and work with rural farmers. Through this program, FIT works with organizations like Grameen App Labs and a few USAID contractors.

While the office celebrated the awards, they are continuing to work to improve the initiative ensuring that farmers can rely on the information they receive from the text messages. Below is a picture of the office with the award. While I didn’t do anything to earn the award, I’m excited to be a part of this team.

Fellow: Maia Majumder and the Village Zero Project

After an incredible journey (the first of many!), Kate and I have recently returned to Boston! Needless to say, David and Kate did an amazing job acclimating to the (luxurious) heat and humidity of Bangladesh in the summertime and embracing Bangladeshi cuisine, hospitality, and traffic jams. I am so blessed to have two partners who approached this trip with such gusto and curiosity – not only for our work at the Village Zero Project but also for Bangladeshi culture!

David is still in South Asia, working in Nepal with Nyaya Health on another mHealth-related project, while Kate and I begin data analysis here at home. Thanks to help from our friends at the ICDDRB, we have 10 years of Matlab’s cholera hospital data at our disposal that has been geographically-coded! We will begin mapping the data in space and time over the next several months. We hope that this preliminary visualization will be helpful in obtaining the large research grants we need to begin our real-time data collection in and around Matlab next spring. Moreover, if the visualization produces results that are worth publication (which we think it will!), we plan to submit an abstract to  the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Conference!

Initial analysis suggests some very interesting geographic progressions of cholera over the course of different seasonal transmission cycles, and we can’t wait to see what our preliminary visualization will yield. Expect it to be up (and interactive, so our users can see how we plotted the data retrospectively) by early Fall 2012! We hope it’ll be indicative of the maps we’ll be producing and updating once we begin real-time data collection, and we look forward to keeping all of you posted as we progress.

Room for Thought is a casual space for Empower Fellows and interested commenters to opine on issues within the field of social entrepreneurship, and to further debate towards a better understanding of the role of the social entrepreneur in society.

Round II: Are there different “definitions” or forms of social entrepreneurship in different countries?

Patric Gibbons

Ok, so while I believe the definition of social entrepreneurship stays the same no matter where you go I really think the form can change from country to country. This is essentially because to me, every country has different needs. For example, in countries like Guatemala, where I have worked, there is a huge need for clean water. In other countries, malnourishment is a big problem, and in other countries maybe both malnourishment and lack of access to water is a problem. Some countries may have warfare and conflict further exacerbating their problems or may be far behind in recognizing women’s rights, which poses greater challenges for us as social entrepreneurs. Culture can also have a huge influence on our form too. How will the people we work with accept our values? What is their view of us? Do they trust us? Therefore, the form of our SE can vary greatly depending on the needs and cultural differences of the populations that we are trying to help.


Lucia Smith

I think social entrepreneurship can manifest itself differently depending on the circumstances in which it is enacted. Cultural traditions and policies inherently shape the willingness and ability of a venture to successfully take root and propagate. Just as the needs and demands (and the ability to supply those needs and demands) change depending on the environmental context, societal views on how these products and practices should be implemented greatly shape how these ventures come into play. A system that works well in one context may not be appropriate in another; for example, how might Islamic restrictions on money-lending affect finance programs and training? Such factors must be taken into consideration when considering the development of a particular type of social entrepreneurship.


Meagan Maher – Collaborative Transitions Africa, Uganda

This question is difficult since I don’t know very much about definitions of social entrepreneurship in different countries.  The definition varies so much in the United States alone, so it seems reasonable to believe that it varies abroad as well.  It’s also likely that the term “social entrepreneurship” isn’t in popular use in some other countries.  The NGO I worked with in Uganda over the summer didn’t have a definition of social entrepreneurship, even though its activities were, by an average definition, related to social entrepreneurship.  If I asked them what social entrepreneurship was, I’m not even sure they would have an answer (I’m emailing them about it now).  I think that many times individuals or groups will set out on projects to improve a community without taking the time to define what they’re doing or put it into a category.  So people are often social entrepreneurs without being conscious of it.  Perhaps these people could fit into one category of SE, but it makes more sense to me to put different forms of SE into categories by the nature of the activity, not by where the activity takes place.


Chrissy Goldbaum – Foundation for Sustainable Development, Cochambamba, Bolivia

While the nature of a social entrepreneur’s or NGO’s work will vary depending on the country in which they are working, I believe that the tenets of entrepreneurial or development work remain the same. For example, the issue of an outsider gaining locals’ trust and ensuring community financial buy-in and participation in project idea creation and maturation (this could be an entire discussion in itself!) are issues that any entrepreneur will encounter in any given part of the world. However, given the differing social/economic/political needs and individual and institutional assets in different regions, the type of project one develops will change in order to meet the needs of those who they are working with and to utilize the local skills available effectively.


Erica Goldstein – Physicians for Human Rights, Cambridge, MA

Many people do not know what social enterprise means. Therefore, social enterprise is defined across countries by the social entrepreneurs themselves. I think that social enterprise is pretty much defined as the same thing, but the limit and focus of social enterprise in each country is going to vary. For example, looking at the Schwab Fellowships this summer, I found that each country had a certain “niche.” For example, there is a big focus on microfinancing in India.


Cody Valdes – Sisi ni Amani, Nairobi, Kenya

We would like to think that we can adjudicate between what is good for society (which is the centerpiece of social entrepreneurship business models) and what is merely wanted by society (what is generally pursued by regular old businesses). By placing the moral luminance of the first above the second – a judgment that Social Entrepreneurs freely make for themselves – we clearly are not moral utilitarians. In other words, we ascribe higher value to outcomes x, y, z (such as the reduction of poverty, or the creation of jobs for women) above outcomes a, b, and c (such as the enjoyment of an iPad, or a nice cigarette). As Social Entrepreneurs, we take liberty in making these judgments. But should we allow somebody like the billionaire Bill Gates into our club? Did he not single-handedly take the world into the 21st century? What about his competitor, the late Steve Jobs, whose company was a design-based refinement of the basic computer components? Did he do anything except make us happier with our toys? Did he add productively to society on the scale that Gates did, or reduce poverty on the way Gates did? It is difficult to understand where the continuum of business crosses over from social entrepreneurship on the one end to greed-driven profit maximizing on the other – where we might discover the bankers and traders who secured their year-end bonuses by selling stock options of questionable quality.

But American thinkers on business and management during the post-WWII years never drew a bright and sharp line between social enterprises and businesses-as-usual. The men who towered over the field of corporate, management, and business theory in the 20th century, such as the late William Drucker, held the following maxims: 1) That corporations are organs of society, and so are inherently value-producing, or else the body society will eject them. Interestingly, these were not the words of an apologist for cigarette corporations; he was delivering a warning to corporations who thought they might run roughshod over their community or customer in order to maximize their profit; 2) Profit is never the goal of a company; it is merely the means by which a company sustains itself, so that it can produce its benefit for society. Marks & Spencer began in the late 1800s with the mission of reducing the visibility of class divisions in the UK by providing low- and medium-income people with affordable, high-quality clothing and goods. Consequently, the argument goes, they continue to thrive today. Sears began in America in the early 1900s in order to service disconnected rural farmers and provide their clothing, materials, and other needs. They found a number of people who weren’t being adequately serviced in society and set out to fix that; the motive was neither profit nor the creation of jobs at Sears’ headquarters. Profit must be secondary to the mission’s execution.

Is this how it works today? We see in the unabashed proclamations that “greed is good” that America’s corporate culture took a wildly inappropriate swing in the late 20th century. CEOs and middle managers genuinely began to believe that the profit motive ought to be their calling card, that their guiding mantra would indeed be “greed is good.” American companies who once listened to men like Drucker (these consultants and writers were mostly men) incorporated the philosophies of social enterprises; nowadays, many or most do not. One might say that in light of Occupy Wall Street, in a small way, corporate America’s chickens are coming home to roost.

Room for Thought is a casual space for Empower Fellows and interested commenters to opine on issues within the field of social entrepreneurship, and to further debate towards a better understanding of the role of the social entrepreneur in society.

Round I: What is Social Entrepreneurship?

Cody Valdes – Sisi ni Amani

Social entrepreneurship is endemic in informal contexts. Little of the economic movement that occurs in a slum, or a market, is superfluous economic activity. There are no Botox screening centres, no retailers of brand-inflated handbags, and no professionals in the business of interior designing to speak of. These sub-zones of society should not be understood as poverty-driven caricatures of asceticism. Nevertheless, they are economies that have the endemic characteristic of producing value, from the Nairobi “Mamas” cooking the beans that feed young male day-labourers, to the self-taught carpenters and metal welders that weld desks and chairs for classrooms. Innovation in informal contexts is thus propelled by the necessities of building a society and the many means of addressing them; and yet, the imaginative capacity of informal contexts is limited by available tools, norms, and modes of thinking that circulate within an economy. As an outsider, the bar is thus raised to a height that must, by all moral and purposive demands, exceed the creativity of informality’s existing entrepreneurship. One must approach old problems in informal contexts not by displacing existing transactions with new ones that are merely better funded and compellingly foreign, but by bringing new ideas and tools to bear upon old problems, leveraging technological fluencies and the fresh creativity of outside perspective, to engender social innovations.


Anne Wolfe – Fundación Paraguaya

Social entrepreneurship, for Fundación Paraguaya, was about being at the front of their field, about constantly innovating. They spoke of constant monitoring and evaluation, which was designed to provide them with data to identify problem areas and improve their program. However, when put into action, there seemed to be a lack of understanding about what areas of their program they should be monitoring and evaluating. They focused mostly on quantitative data, such as increase in income, rather than asking the women, staff and other clients what they thought of the program. Social entrepreneurship is not standing still, it is about constantly striving to move forward, to find new links between social and economic goals, to look for ways to merge business and social improvement. Basically, it’s trying to find the middle ground between financial profit and social benefit.


Manas Baba – BUILD India

In general, I define social entrepreneurship to be a business or venture aiming to enact social change and measuring its success by the social value generated. For BUILD’s income generation project in Thottiyapatti, we were aiming to introduce a supplemental, secure source of income in a place accustomed to unstable daily-wage agricultural labor. It’s hard to tell if the goal or measurement of this project qualifies for social entrepreneurship. I tend to think that it doesn’t: in the end, the goal is for Thottiyapattians to have more money. Ideally, this money would be used for reinvestment into the community and bettering health and education for families, but we can’t dictate how people will spend this money. But in the end, if people severely lacked access to income opportunities, does the mere fact of having it qualify as social value in itself?

An additional complication in this project is defining BUILD’s role and Thottiapatti’s role. In some ways, BUILD could be considered social entrepreneurs in trying to tackle this income issue and create economic empowerment. However, in the end, we want the business to belong entirely to Thottiyapatti, with us out of the picture. We envision them managing a business just like any other person would: does their rural background turn this seemingly non-social objective into a social one because of economic empowerment?

A final complication for me in understanding social entrepreneurship comes from the different organizations we met over the summer. Take SELCO for example: they are a self-proclaimed social enterprise whose mission is to enhance livelihoods through sustainable energy solutions. Their model is for-profit and involves providing villagers a service. On the other hand, BUILD’s gains are not-for-profit and are derived from experiential learning, and instead of Thottiyapatti being a customer, we want them to be the producer of some sort of good or service.

Overall, I think the core of my struggle in defining social entrepreneurship lies with understanding what “social” exactly is and how the roles of the actors involved shape this definition.


Allie Wollum – BUILD India

Right now we are in the process of defining what social entrepreneurship means to BUILD: India in the context of Thottiapatti. We felt tension between the goals of income generation and addressing a social problem. We have begun to realize that within social enterprise is room for both. By looking at both of these issues as intertwined, we begin to see where social entrepreneurship differs from strictly business entrepreneurship.  As a concept, social entrepreneurship is a way to innovatively look at social issues and find new ways to solve them. For us, looking at the gendered structure of social life in Thottiyapatti has highlighted the need to look at issues in a new way; the need for supplemental income in a way that empowers women to think about their role in the larger social and political context.


Meagan Maher – Collaborative Transitions Africa

I had an internship, but they didn’t have a definition for social entrepreneurship.  I worked with two different organizations.  The one the initiated the peace messages/multimedia project had a philosophy of finding out from the communities what they needed, including them in the brainstorming process, and then working together on the final project.  The organization that I was working with in the field had other projects going on as well and their overall philosophy was to work with the youth on initiatives that would improve economies on the local level, improve “sovereign efficiency”, and bring peace.  I don’t know if any of this is really helpful with a definition of social entrepreneurship, so I’ll take a stab at it myself.

To me, social entrepreneurship is any activity or business that initiates something new in order to work towards solving some problem; the end goal should be improving the world in a creative and effective way.


Erica Goldstein – Physicians for Human Rights

The philosophy at Physicans for Human Rights is to stop mass atrocities using the authority of health professionals. Social entrepreneurship is innovative in nature, approaching social problems using a business model.

I would not consider corporate responsibility and social entrepreneurship equivalent; however, businesses can be social enterprises if social or environmental responsibility is included in the mission statement.


Marla Spivack – Innovations for Poverty Action

The NGO I was working for did not define themselves as a social enterprise, but over the course of the summer I came to see a variety of ways in which they were a social enterprise.  IPA is a research NGO, they conduct randomized controlled trials of development programs.  In my empower application I wrote about how the specific research project I was working on, which was investigating youth financial literacy education and group savings accounts, was related to social entrepreneurship because it could inform financial access projects.  After working on the project for several weeks it felt as if I was doing much more computer coding, data management, and people management than research or development work.  I asked my supervisor, a young Middleberry Alumn who had also studied Economic Development in college how he felt about the work we were doing, and if he felt like we were contributing to development in Uganda. I was frustrated by the lack of impact I felt our project was having on beneficiaries.  The most immediate beneficiaries, he explained, were our employees not our research participants.  The data we were collecting would eventually turn into one or more papers about financial access and would join a larger body of research which might eventually affect funding and policy choices in the financial access sector. Our employees, on the other had were educated Ugandans whom we were providing with decent, meaningful jobs through which they were gaining transferable skills in a growing industry in Uganda. Good enumerators in our organization had room for upward mobility, becoming auditors, team leaders, and eventually field mangers, with increasing salaries and in the case of field managers benefits packages.  We trained them in new computer skills teaching them new excel shortcuts and how to code in STATA. This type of personel development may eventually decrease opportunities for ex-pat workers, especially at the intern level, in the organization. I do not think that our hiring or training practices means that IPA is a social enterprise, but I think this highlights the ways in which any NGO or private company can have a positive social impact not only through fulfilling its mission, but also through the way it operates, and the way it trains and empowers its local staff.

Note to the reader: this post was originally posted on my personal blog. I am currently in the midst of a one-year fellowship working with both Fundación Gente Nueva and Fundación PETISOS in Bariloche, Argentina.

Do you consider yourself to be lucky in life?

Twitter, my newfound love (addiction) asked me this, then directed me to an online discussion about poverty and international aid. Completely reorients the conversation, when you stop looking at numbers and start looking at experiences.

Today was the first official meeting of Madres Verdes, a new initiative ofPETISOS. A microenterprise offered to the mothers and family members of child laborers, the team will be producing and selling household and living accessories made from recycled products (think Bead for Life). Ultimately, the money earned from the microenterprise is intended to alleviate some of the monetary pressures that compel families to send their children to scavenge for useful materials in the garbage dump. Very triple-bottom-line.

Instead of jumping right into training and production though, our first day was dedicated to team-building exercises and get-to-know-each-other activities to explore the different realities that we come from. Because the Madres Verdes team is composed of two groups of four mothers, each one coming from one of the two barrios where PETISOS has a community center, they promptly divided along those lines to explain “como es mi barrio.”

The majority of responses that followed illuminated the hardships that these women lived through on a daily basis: “the city still hasn’t installed running water or gas in our neighborhood,” “the bus only comes every hour and usually there isn’t enough space for everyone waiting to get on, so I’m often late to work” and “one of my walls is made of cardboard, but we don’t have enough money to buy the materials to construct a new wall.” The last is particularly difficult, given that Bariloche’s winters are incredibly wet, cold, windy and long (and I say this having spent four winters in Boston).

When it was my turn to speak, I was somewhat embarrassed to share with the group what my ‘barrio’ is like. Unlike them, I do have running water and gas. I have a car to take me wherever I want—on my own time–and I have a house that is not only well-constructed, but has central heating and air conditioning, should the weather outside not exactly suit my comfort level.

However, this kind of mentality is an incredibly detrimental and progress-inhibiting one for the following reason: the way I (and perhaps some of the other women) perceived the situation in that moment was solely through a quantitative lens. Summarizing and analyzing our respective realities exclusively based upon these measures fails to properly reflect the complete story. Because it discounts qualitative experiences of growth, progress, and happiness, it necessarily victimizes an individual lacking basic resources, regardless of whether that individual does in fact perceive him or herself to be victimized. True, 2.5 billion people live on less than $2 a day—which undeniably compromises several of their human rights—but that does not mean that they are among the ‘unlucky ones.’

If we’re really going to make any kind of meaningful changes to the international aid and development machine, let’s start by abandoning the one-sided poverty pornography paradigm that depicts poverty exclusively as a situation of hopelessness and disrepair.

After the draft of the Libya report was completed, I began two major projects: telemedicine research and an emergency investigation checklist.

After PHR completed the draft of Witness to War Crimes: Evidence from Misrata, Libya, I began researching the validity of video conferencing as a means to conduct a psychiatric or forensic evaluation.

The reasoning behind this new project, called telemedicine, was that telemedicine could be used instead of sending doctors to foreign countries to perform evaluations. Telemedicine would be especially helpful in countries that have travel bans. For example, Bahraini doctors have been detained for treating patients harmed during protests against the government. These detentions violate the principles of medical neutrality. If PHR could use telemedicine to determine that recently released doctors experienced trauma, it would have a stronger case to advocate for the release of the remaining doctors.

After an extensive search of academic articles and comparable studies, a fellow intern and I determined that telemedicine could replace in-person evaluations, opening a window of opportunity for PHR and potentially saving PHR several travel costs.

The other project I worked on after the Libya draft was a checklists of everything that goes into an emergency investigation. I made three checklists: trip preparation, packing lists, and research.

During this project, I learned the extent of work that went into an emergency investigation, from project planning stages to distribution of the report and advocacy. There were several items that I had not encountered before – the project proposal, ERB (ethical review board) approval, budgets, press, arranging interviews for investigators, contact with the UN and governments… the list goes on and on. To make the checklist, I began conducting interviews with many of the people in the office. I had the opportunity speak one-on-one with established professionals in several fields and get a sense of what they do on a daily basis.

This was one of my favorite projects because I know the checklist will be used long am I was gone. It also gave me chance to understand the roles and organization of a successful social enterprise. I am incredibly thankful for my experience and cannot wait to hear about all of yours!

If you have any questions or comments, please post!


-Erica Goldstein