Unite for Sight Social Entrepreneurship Institute recap (with reflections by Julia Marin MA’14 and Wayne Ng ’16)

Julia Marin, Wayne Ng, Anna Cash, and Raghu Appasani at the Unite for Sight Social Entrepreneurship Institute, December 2012.

Julia Marin, Wayne Ng, Anna Cash, and Raghu Appasani at the Unite for Sight Social Entrepreneurship Institute, December 2013.

In December, I and two students – Julia Marin and Wayne Ng – attended the Unite for Sight Social Entrepreneurship Institute in New Haven, Connecticut. Wesleyan alumni Raghu Appasani ’12 and Anna Cash ’11 met us there, and we connected with colleagues and social entrepreneurs from several other academic and professional institutions.

The conference focused on global health and social entrepreneurship, building an effective organization, sustainability, measuring impact, and how to successfully scale. Overall take-away messages for aspiring entrepreneurs included many familiar themes:

  • First step is to identify the problem, then find an innovative solution and identify who the other players are
  • You need to recognize your passion, mission, skill set, leadership tendencies, ability to be nimble, tolerance for setbacks and pivots (“Can you handle the hustle?”)
  • Cross-sector partnerships and well-developed cultural competency are key
  • Find advisors, develop great materials (“storytelling” and “fake it ’til you make it”), and make sure data is a foundation rather than an afterthought
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of idea design, logistics, and feasibility

For students interested in social impact work, I recommend a measured interpretation of some of the advice above. Sometimes, supporting an existing solution to a proven social problem is more effective than inventing a new one; “intrapreneurship” can be as gratifying as entrepreneurship. I’m skeptical of the “fake it ’til you make it” approach, although I understand that early fundraising is impossible without skillful storytelling. I do agree that cross-sector partnerships, cultural competency, good advisors, airtight logistics, and data-driven decision making are keys to success and deserve a substantial investment up front.

Following the conference, I asked Julia and Wayne to share their reflections, and here’s what they said.

From Julia:

Wesleyan and the Patricelli Centre gave me the opportunity to attend the Social Entrepreneurship Institute in December. Even though the schedule of the event was very multidisciplinary, covering many different ideas from the wide field of international development, I soon realized that these group of talented professionals that I was lucky enough to be listening to shared a basic common intention: they were all working to create a long and enduring change, as the greatly inspirational Jane Aronson, from Worldwide Orphans Foundations put it. Only a couple years older than me, Tyler Gage tells us the story of when he discovered guayusa, a local plant brewed like tea that has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years throughout the Ecuadorian communities. He confesses he has become “passionately addicted to creating products that can improves people’s lives because injustice is the heart of true entrepreneurship.” Bearing in mind the current changeable philanthropic landscape, I was moved to see all the different ways in which social and environmental change can happen. It was encouraging meeting the faces working behind those incredible projects that were clearly improve the world that we live in.  If we listen to Rodney North, of Equal Exchange, “it doesn’t matter if change comes from a good management, a good leadership, or from a good entrepreneurial initiative…it’s only a matter of getting stuff done.” And you are also a candidate for that task.

From Wayne:

I was extremely excited [to attend this conference] because I will comparing systems of health and community the following semester in New Orleans, India, Argentina, and South Africa on an experiential study abroad program. A few speakers that stood out to me were Jane Aronson, Will Harris, Mark Arnoldy, and Jen Chiou.

Jane Aronson, pediatrician, adoption medicine specialist, and the founder and CEO of Worldwide Orphans, along with an endless list of other credentials, was one of the most charismatic speakers I have ever seen. What she emphasized was that with NGO missions and models, they can be replicated in other countries but they must fit the culture. According to her, although being sustainable is usually a key goal, it isn’t the end of the world if it isn’t since psycho/systematic change needs time. A wave of understanding and laughter filled the room as she exasperatedly declared that partnerships are absolutely necessary, but impossible. Her advice to the audience on sustaining a partnership is that “[you] cannot be afraid to tell the truth,” especially when it seems difficult to avoid fears and anxieties that will lead to (passive aggressive) conflict.

Will Harris, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and a part of Design That Matters, proposed designing with empathy. With the example of a design case study called Firefly Newborn Phototherapy, he focused on locating and identifying a problem to solve while being mindful of local culture. Finding and collaborating with a local partner will achieve immersion into local culture and an understanding of the bureaucratic hurdles in possible future work. What I found interesting about his talk is how he compared both observational and direct research. He pointed out that usually what users say versus what they do is incongruent. His insights on designing highlighted a modern aesthetic instead of an ancient-looking, but more reliable design, making something “hard to use wrong”, and durability because conditions that work in first-world environments may not last in the third-world.

Mark Arnoldy, Executive Director of Nyaya Health, emphasized the power of transforming our definition of Global Health. He called for a more comprehensive medical center that provides high-quality and low-cost service instead of programs that eliminate one big health issue in order to create health care systems in the world’s most impossible places. By have a nonprofit organization partnering with the government, the organization would not become financially burdened and be able to reach the “poorest of the poor.” What I thought was amazing was how the organization utilized a crowdfunding model to completely change the game and create an accountable and national referral network.

Jen Chiou, Executive Director of Crisis Text Line (CTL), explained how CTL provides a 24/7 free support line for teenager. The tech startup utilizes SMS in order to provide counseling and emotional support for teens that may not have the resources to get private support. What I thought was incredibly insightful of Jen’s discussion was how she emphasized that organization need core values that are known (so they aren’t hard to forget) and are lived up to. This applies to any kind of organization: people who are hired should live up to and embody the spirit of the core values.

I am excited to see how each of these speakers’ discussions on health, nonprofit organizations, and social entrepreneurship apply or vary in the various countries that I will be travelling to in the spring semester.

Unite for Sight sponsors a few social entrepreneurship events every year (including this one on March 14), and they offer volunteer trips to their field sites in Ghana, Honduras, and India. For more information on all of these, visit http://www.uniteforsight.org/.