SociaEntrepreneurship : Stories from the Field
Most of us have this image of a social entrepreneur as an individual who receives prestigious awards or gains international recognition for his/her work, or even as someone who appears on television in various shows such as Ted Talks, and astonishes the viewers with stories of innovation and change. It is therefore of no surprise that one may encounter many individuals, particularly those from the younger generation, who are all striving to be social entrepreneurs with the aim of changing the world. Many however fail to realize that being a social entrepreneur is not that glamorous of a career after all. Often, it may involve anything from writing hundreds of grant applications (none of which may prove to be fruitful) to trying to overcome language barriers in order help communities that do not even speak the same language as the entrepreneur. Sometimes the job of a social entrepreneur may seem frustrating, and often times it is a lot of hard work without recognition or even acknowledgement from peers and friends. For every entrepreneur that we see on tele, there are thousands more who invest their time in changing lives yet never make it to the limelight, and thousands others that never really make it at all. But, why do social entrepreneur risk it all then? Friends… family-life… a stable job. Well, the force that drives many social entrepreneurs is the influence they see in communities and in individual lives that their social ventures affect. And for many others, it is about keeping one’s ideals and having a stance that enough is enough - the way things are happening in the world cannot be the only way it can happen, and that an individual can effect systemic change.
My own experience regarding social entrepreneurs was very similar to the starting lines in paragraph above. Having been fortunate enough to attend an Ashoka conference earlier this year, and being able to see many of the Ashoka fellows firsthand, I was enamored by what they achieved, and the future potential of their ideas. Talking about social entrepreneurs or systemic change with likeminded friends, once I returned from the conference to my school at Rollins, was a rush for me. Therefore, it was only natural for me then to apply to the Sullivan Foundation’s Summer Institute on Social Entrepreneurship in Costa Rica when I heard about it. It seemed like a logical step at the time.
The first weeks of classes with Professor Debbie Brock at the Summer Institute was an eye opener. I have to admit that my knowledge of what social entrepreneurship entailed was very restricted to the biographies of famous social entrepreneurs. The more concepts and ideas I learned during the class phase, the more I realized how limited my knowledge of social entrepreneurship actually was. Getting into the nitty-gritty and learning the basics of social entrepreneurship was not only enlightening but also got me excited as I was eager to implement many of these aspects once the internship portion started. Concepts such Social Value Proposition, Theory of Change, and Business Models brought about an enthusiasm in me, and I felt I had the tools to really effect change given the oppurtunity. When I was told that the first two weeks of the internship portion actually involved helping out with a summer camp for underprivileged children in the community, I have to admit, I was a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong. I love working with kids, and in any other time, I would have jumped at the idea of volunteering to spend time with kids. But I felt it was different for me this time. We had all just recently been informed about our group projects, and I was tasked with the Ecotourism project, where we would help a group of teens, mostly high-school dropouts, to start their own ecotourism business. I was impatient to use the skills I had learned during the class portion in the real world. I wanted to really change lives, not play with kids.
However, I realized how selfish I had been by being reluctant to volunteer with the summer camp. Most of the kids that we worked with through a local NGO, CEPIA, were from underprivileged households, and playing with foreigners every morning was probably the highlight of their day. Often times, we fail to recognize the real needs of the community we are trying to serve, and rather try to perceive what we feel are the real perplexities of the community. Every individual striving to become a social entrepreneur has to understand the simple fact that social entrepreneurship is not about the entrepreneurs themselves, or their ideas. It is, and has always been about the community that the social entrepreneurs are trying to serve. The needs of the community come first, and only then do the personal aspirations and individual goals of the entrepreneur follow. It is the core behind the concept that is social entrepreneurship. Without it, there are only entrepreneurs and not social entrepreneurs.
I was asked to switch groups from the Ecotourism project to Harmonia Pura, a spa service started by eight women from the Guanacaste region, Costa Rica. The women needed support to set up a structured business, and help networking with local hotels and resorts that did not have a spa. I jumped at the opportunity, as I felt it was more along the lines of my interests (it was more business orientated than the tourism project). Working with the ladies, however, was quite the challenge unlike what I expected. None of them speak English and only one of the three members in our group speaks Spanish. It is often difficult to get simple ideas across, and to teach them anything about business models, or theory of change is quite the daunting task. Also, they all have their own individual commitments and jobs, and it is usually a pain to try to get a meeting time that works for all. Even then, punctuality is not very big in Costa Rica, and individual women show up at different times for the meetings– life, it seems, moves at a very relaxed pace here. Do these obstacles bother me? Not really. I have a great group working on the project with me, who regardless of these obstacles, work tirelessly, and we have been gaining a lot of ground. We still have about three weeks remaining in Costa Rica, and a lot can be achieved in these upcoming weeks, and our group is very optimistic about the outcomes of the project.
I have definitely grown a lot from my experience so far in Costa Rica. It is astonishing what changes only a few weeks can bring about in a person’s perspective. From knowing nothing more about social entrepreneurship but biographies of social entrepreneurs, to learning the theoretical background on the subject, to being able to implement (well, starting to implement anyway) many of the same concepts, this past month has been quite the experience. I have also learned to be much more patient, and more of a team player than before from my time in Costa Rica. There are a few more weeks remaining in the program and I know the upcoming days will without doubt bring a new light to my understanding of not just social entrepreneurship, but also of my individual self.
The 2nd half of the internship with Dr. Keith Whittingham from the Crummer Business School was very much different from what the internship team had been through in the first month. Form Tamarindo, our home for the past three weeks, we moved to Brasilito, a town where people lived at a much slower and relaxed pace than the hustle-bustle of the tourist attraction of Tamarindo. We were housed in an international school, and I much preferred the quiet country life to the confusion that was Tamarindo. Keith had the whole team take the RightPath 4 profile - an online personality assessment tool that helps show an individual’s behavior traits. Unlike other personality assessment tools that I have come across, I felt that the RightPath 4 profile evaluation really helped show the inherent qualities of an individual, and in the upcoming weeks, this assessment was very helpful for Team Harmonia Pura, as each team member knew the other member’s strengths and weaknesses. Many a times when we work on teams, we often fail to grasp that being knowledgeable about every individual member’s personalities and working styles is very crucial on whether or not the team can work effectively together.
I personally felt very confortable in being cognizant of every individual team member’s fortes and limitations, and was really optimistic about being able to achieve a lot in the upcoming month. Yet the challenge of getting the ladies to show up for team meetings, because of their other commitments, was still a problem. However, we did not allow the empty seats on our meetings with the ladies of Harmonia Pura to be a letdown. As a team, we agreed that it would be best if we actually started working on partnering Harmonia Pura with the hotels and resorts in the area, and so compiled a list of all the hotels in the area that did not have a spa, got their emails, and even started informally contact some of them. We were eager to get Harmonia Pura to partner with at least five hotels by the time we left. Only after a very neatly drafted introductory letter and an eight-page contract (which we were very proud of), did we, as a team, realize that what we were working on was all well and good, but in the excitement of creating partnerships, we had missed the most crucial aspect of any business- the internal structure of the business. In trying to help Harmonia Pura, we failed to realize the real perplexities that the business was confronted with, and rather tried to solve what we thought was the actual problem.
Harmonia Pura did not have any set regulations, and almost worked as a co-operative where every member needed to be present for every decision that was to be made (an almost impossible task…it was difficult to get half of them to show up for any of the meetings). If we had sent out the introductory letters and the contracts, and if the hotels had gotten back with an offer of a potential partnership, Harmonia Pura, as a business, was in such shambles internally that the partnership would not have been an effective one. The realization that social entrepreneurship is not about the entrepreneur’s own aspirations, but is rather about the community’s actual needs hit us hard. So, we put the idea of partnering with the projected number of hotels in the backburner, and started working on creating a concrete backbone to the structure of Harmonia Pura.
Because Harmonia Pura was so egalitarian in its structure, no member actually held one another accountable for anything. To set up a system of checks and balances, and to be able to expedite most of the decision making process, we formed an executive board. There were four executive board members in total, and they were all voted into their positions. Each executive board member was responsible for specific duties, and our team trained each individual executive board member on some of the basic skills that were required to be able to better function on the specific duties that they were responsible for. The hope was that once the executive positions were trained, they would further pass the knowledge to the next executive board. We also helped set up the bylaws of Harmonia Pura in partnership with the ladies. It was very interesting to witness each member of Harmonia Pura really blossom into a much professional individual. We ensured that each team meeting started with an empowerment activity, and the same ladies that rarely spoke in the first few meetings were the ones that not only contributed extensively, but also conducted most of the later team meetings. This instance clearly illustrated to me that each one of us has potential. All most of us require however, is a little nudge to actually realize our own capacity.
As the final weeks of the internship approached, we were all swamped with work. On one hand, we were all working with our individual projects, which were really gaining momentum, and on the other hand, we had to work on our group social business plans and on the final presentations. Writing the business plan was definitely the culmination of all our work so far in Costa Rica. It tied the theoretical aspect, which we had all worked with Debbi to develop, with the practical aspects of the group projects. The business plans got all of us thinking about many of the concepts such as theory of change and social value proposition once again, and many of the models that were ambiguous in the classroom at Tamarindo finally started to make sense.
Working on the projects and the social business models was quite the experience, but got frustrating at times. During our time throughout the internship, our team kept on hitting barriers, many of which we had never really foreseen, time and again. These impediments, which I am sure we will keep encountering frequently after graduation, were referred to as “real world ambiguities” by one of the professors in the program. This internship experience definitely gave us a taste of, and also helped prepare us to encounter such ambiguities. Classrooms can only provide us with so much knowledge, but wisdom, it seems, can only come from experience. I have definitely come out of this experience as a more confident and self-assured individual.
All in all, the Costa Rica internship was one of the most memorable and fulfilling experience in my life. I have been a regular volunteer on many community engagement trips before, and a lot of the times such trips are very meaningful, as they not only educate us on various social justice issues, but also help develop a sense of personal connection with many of the concerns that our society currently faces. Yet, I always come out of such trips feeling a little bit saddened, and frustrated that I was not able to make a sustainable impact in the lives of those that I interacted with. Seeing the ladies of Harmonia Pura in the last few meetings take charge, and really start to think professionally gave me a sense of satisfaction that our time and effort was all worth it. I felt confident in leaving Costa Rica knowing that the ladies of Harmonia Pura were competent enough to really make a difference in their own lives, and in the lives of their families.