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.