Omnibus Blog Update

My apologies for the lack of updates lately! It was kind of a hectic month, spending the first half of January in Costa Rica at INCAE Business School and the second half acclimating to the start of the semester and my courses.

The seminar I attended at INCAE, entitled "Business and the Environment: Lessons from Latin America", was a wonderful experience and I feel like I learned more about sustainable development than I ever imagined. The school was founded more than 40 years ago under the guidance of Harvard University, and the rigorous nature of their MBA program was quite impressive.

Well, there are a lot of little things to catch up on, which is why I called this an "omnibus" blog post. So here's a short list of notes, in no particular order of importance:

1) The Unreasonable Institute, which helps train promising young social entrepreneurs, announced the finalists for their contest. In true crowdsourcing fashion, people are encouraged to vote and sponsor the social entrepreneurs and ventures that they support most. The first 25 ventures to raise $6,500 get to attend the Institute and receive business incubation help. They are all clever, noble ventures, so check them out and cast your vote! Three I think are especially cool:

- Kito International: In Kenya, Kito partners with street youth to harness their entrepreneurial spirit, providing the training and tools they need to launch their own microenterprise, become self-sufficient, and move off the streets forever.

- Frontline:SMSCredit: In the world of mobile money, Frontline:SMSCredit hopes to use cell phones to make financial services accessible and affordable for the bottom of the economic pyramid.

- Light Up Malawi: LUM hopes to free one nation off the grid by bringing 100% sustainable energy to Malawi. This clean technology will eliminate poor lighting and dirty fuels, therefore improving health quality.

2) Essential Tools to Start a Social Enterprise: This list of resources, compiled by Martin Montero, is a great starting point for those looking to build a business that is a social changemaker.

3) In a previous post, I mentioned Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder and CEO of Acumen Fund, a venture capital firm that invests in social enterprises. There was a great interview with her on NPR's "Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett" today. They've also posted one of the things I really admire about the Acumen Fellows Program, their required reading list. It is a very broad compilation of philosophical, questioning, culturally aware, empathetic readings; I hope to slowly read them all and put myself through a sort of mock version of Acumen training.

Imagine Leadership

I came across this video about leadership from Harvard Business School's Leadership Initiative. Being a visual thinker, I tend to like these types of inspirational montages when they're done properly. Makes you think about what kind of impact you can have on the world if you only think outside the lines society has created for us!

Mobile Technology and the Developing World



It's become increasingly apparent lately that there are exciting things afoot involving technology and social entrepreneurship. As technological devices continue to get smaller and more cost-efficient, they are opening up a great deal of opportunity for improving quality of life in the developing world. This is especially evident in the mobile phone sector.

Mobile phone technology can be used to enhance lives in many ways, beyond simple communication. For example:

Agriculture - Farmers can get messages about crop prices and general information via SMS, arming them with more information and increasing their ability to compete in a market economy.

Healthcare - In rural Ghana, people are using mobile phones to better administer health care to pregnant women. Also, a recent New York Times article described a $10 cell phone attachment that could turn the phone into a microscope. This could revolutionize how labwork is done as well as how disease is detected and treated.

Financial - Money transfer via mobile phone is not utilized heavily here in the U.S., but is quite popular in African countries. The ability to have financial capital flowing freely can open up great possibilities. Imagine financing a loan, receiving disbursements, making payments, and receiving updates all electronically via your phone.

There has been recent blogging lately about cell phone maker Nokia, who has lost market share to Apple and the iPhone, but also provides a product that can be used by people in the Bottom of the Pyramid (people who live on less than $1 a day). Nokia's expansion in this sector of the developing world presents a great growth opportunity for them, while providing a valuable service to their customers.

Additional Readings:

Acumen Fund - "Dialing for Development", David Lehr
NY Times - "In Rural Africa, a Fertile Market for Mobile Phones", Sarah Arnquist

Costa Rica Seminar: Business and the Environment


This January I'll be going on a two-week seminar through the Carlson School, to Alajuela, Costa Rica. There, we U of M students will be in classes and field trips with students at the Instituto Centroamericano de Administracion de Empresas (INCAE). The focus of the seminar will be on green, sustainable business - how businesses can maintain and even increase profit by taking care of the environment.

It should be very exciting and challenging! I've got my passport in hand and I'm trying to read applicable materials in my spare time. (I obtained an English-Spanish Field Glossary of sustainable development terms.)

You can find a video about the program here. I'll have plenty of my own pictures to post when I get back!

Products with a Purpose, Part II

Mumbai Slums.jpg

This spring at the University of Minnesota, a seminar in sustainable design was held with the goal of student groups creating viable engineering solutions to compete in the Acara Challenge, sponsored by the Acara Institute. The winning team went to Mumbai, India this summer to hit the ground and do further research about bringing their solution of delivering clean drinking water to fruition. If there are any MBA students such as myself, you may be interested in the business plans the student groups presented. They offer a good glimpse of the start-up venture side of social enterprise.

Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition (GSEC)

The application window for the University of Washington's "Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition (GSEC)" is now open! The deadline for applications is November 11, 2009, and the actual competition takes place in March 2010.

Information about the competition can be found here.

They're also on Facebook.

Products with a Purpose

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Hippo Roller.jpg

About this time last summer, we here in Minneapolis were fortunate to have an exhibit at the Walker Art Center that addressed the topic of product design for the poor, a traditionally underserved group of people. The exhibit was called "Design for the Other 90%," and it was associated with the non-profit design group D-REV.

One of the items featured in the presentation was the Hippo Roller, shown here. This is a simply designed product, and yet, is effective in its design because it allows a person to transport 24 gallons of water, five times the amount collected using the traditional methods. As improved access to water is crucial in developing countries, this is quite a product.

I was reminded of the Hippo Roller again recently because I was perusing the website of Engineers Without Borders. Our EWB group here at the University of Minnesota has been involved in very interesting work in Haiti and Uganda regarding access to water.

Even though I'm not an engineer by trade, the idea of creating products that make a meaningful impact seems like it has truly uplifting qualities. I think a lot of major companies are now coming around to the idea that simple yet thoughtful products, albeit with modest profit margins and targeted toward a demographic of limited income, can promote both profit and social good.

Filling the Lending Gap

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Kiva provides an excellent way for people to engage in peer-to-peer lending by providing microloans to small entrepreneurs in poor countries (and now in the U.S. as well). However, how do you find funding for larger projects that require greater amounts of capital? One option is an organization like Root Capital, which is run by a social entrepreneur named William Foote.

I had never heard of Root Capital until recently when they won the 2009 Financial Times Sustainable Banking Award. According to their website, they deal specifically with rural entrepreneurs, and focus on filling the gap for loans that are too big for microfinance and too small (and risky) for mainstream banks. (Though I think I could make an argument that our mainstream banks took plenty of risks in the last decade.) Still, it's interesting to see more segments of the market being served by investment.

Founder of Acumen Fund to Appear in Twin Cities

Blue Sweater.bmp

Jacqueline Novogratz, social entrepreneur and founder of the Acumen Fund, which invests in promising business models in developing countries, will be appearing at the Barnes & Noble in Edina next Tuesday evening (June 16, 7:00 PM). She'll be discussing her book, "The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World." I'm trying to get through the book right now (and prepare for summer class, which starts next week as well)!

Barnes & Noble
3225 W 69th St.
Edina, MN

Minnesota Cup Deadline This Friday

For anyone interested in stepping out into social enterprise, the Minnesota Cup business plan competition has a special category just for social entrepreneurship. The deadline for applications is this Friday at midnight!

You can find more info here.

Beads Provide Bedrock for Transitional Program

There was a story on "The Newshour with Jim Lehrer" the other night about BeadforLife, a venture started by a social entrepreneur, Torkin Wakefield. (Watch the video here.)

The premise involves women in Uganda creating beads, which are then sold in the U.S. However, the founder, Wakefield, has taken an interesting angle by building homes for the women to own. These women are not encouraged to make beads forever, but it is seen rather as a transitional program. After 27 months, they are required to start learning a new trade, and they are assisted in that vocational training.

Overall, it seems like an interesting concept, and it will be nice to see the long-term stories of these women.

ACCION and the Power of Microfinance

Narrated by CBS News' Mike Wallace, and filmed on location in the U.S., Peru, Uganda and Tanzania, this video series takes you into markets around the world to meet microentrepreneurs, and presents the challenges and opportunities of bringing financial services to the working poor.

The series can be found at

WSJ Article: The Rise of the Underground

There's an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal this weekend about the underground economies in developing countries. Though many economists have considered underground economies bad, they have functioned as a safety net for people who've been laid off from formal jobs during the economic crisis. These underground businesses are often entrepreneurial.

The article can be found at

FRONTLINE/World Series on Social Entrepreneurs

FRONTLINE/World has profiled a computer engineer in India who puts Internet kiosks in poor neighborhoods throughout his country, helping bridge the digital divide for thousands of children. In Kenya a world-class long-distance runner uses her prize money to start a training camp for poor village women, like herself, whose lives are changed forever. In South Africa a business entrepreneur invents and installs a merry-go-round pushed round by children that pumps enough water for a village of 2,500, making the delivery of clean water child's play. In Guatemala, an American coffee distributor helps develop organic growers among the region's poor farmers, whose beans can be marketed as "fair trade" providing them a living wage. In Uganda, two young social entrepreneurs develop a revolutionary model for microlending, using the Internet to connect borrowers with lenders, person to person, a venture that has grown from one small village in Africa to 11 countries around the world.

In a nutshell, these are stories about individuals whose ideas leap beyond charity to find systemic solutions to poverty, education, health and social justice.