Light in Nepal

This little light of hers is sold by women entrepreneurs in remote villages in Nepal. Mentors with SCU’s Miller Center helped the social enterprise that started the program, Empower Generation. Photography courtesy Empower Generation.

This little light of hers is sold by women entrepreneurs in remote villages in Nepal. Mentors with SCU’s Miller Center helped the social enterprise that started the program, Empower Generation. Photography courtesy Empower Generation.

By Ed Cohen, Originally featured in Santa Clara Magazine

These Silicon Valley execs are finding something even more interesting than growing businesses: helping others grow hope.

The light in Nepal that illuminates a page for a girl to read and learn also burns bright half a world away. The lamp is powered by the sun—and, indirectly, through a network of a hundred or so successful Silicon Valley business executives who, for kicks or karma, in words and deeds, put some energy into saving the world. They mentor social venturists.

Juli Betwee is a mentor and consultant on strategic-growth planning for midsize companies. She is also one of the volunteer mentors with the Global Social Benefit Institute, part of SCU’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. The GSBI provides free business training to social entrepreneurs developing innovative solutions to problems like access to clean drinking water. The enterprises—for-profits, nonprofits, and hybrids—promise a sustainable path out of poverty for people in the developing world. 

Since its launch in 2003, the institute has helped more than 560 social ventures in 67 countries; 90 percent are still operating. The entrepreneurs value the work with their mentors. For the mentors, work doesn’t seem like quite the right word to describe it.

“That’s become a joke among us,” says Betwee, “because we’re thinking, ‘This is a gift from heaven.’”

She’s talking about helping people like GSBI alumna Anya Cherneff, a women’s-rights advocate who in 2011 started a business in Nepal called Empower Generation. Less than 40 percent of people in the mountainous country (home of Mount Everest) have electricity, and where they do it’s often out for up to 12 hours a day, even in the president’s home. 

With Empower Generation, women serve as CEOs of their own energy businesses and also recruit women salespeople. Both go door to door in remote villages offering solar-powered lights and electrical systems and a few other items. The business is focused on solving two problems: energy access and providing women a means to self-sufficiency.

Cherneff’s mentors, Betwee and Bill Scull, a marketing consultant with 30 years of experience helping tech companies grow, talked with her weekly during her 10 months in the GSBI Accelerator program, ending in 2015. Their advice included helping fine-tune forecasts of future revenues. She was asked, for instance, how long it usually took for new participants to begin generating sales after training, and what percentage drop out. Such data help build more believable forecasts. “Investors don’t like numbers coming out of the air,” Scull says.

Scull found his work with the Miller Center so rewarding that he’s made what he calls a career pivot. This spring he heads to India to train entrepreneurs as part of an award the Miller Center received to bring clean power and off-grid electricity to a million Indians during the next three years. From there he plans to travel to Thailand to train Seagate Technology employees to be mentors like him.