Embracing Uncertainty

By: Kaci McCartan, Santa Clara University Class of 2015

Cyndy and Kaci with the Iluméxico team.

Cyndy and Kaci with the Iluméxico team.

In Letters to a Young Entrepreneur, Ricardo Levy discusses the inevitability of uncertainty in entrepreneurship and the entrepreneur’s ability to take on that uncertainty. My journey with the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, through the GSBF, and the Roelandt’s Grant has taught me to cultivate the ability to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I think that skill alone helps many social entrepreneurs become successful.

The reason behind my journey to Mexico:

Kaci McCartan Making a cardboard model of her Solar Refrigeration Device

Kaci McCartan Making a cardboard model of her Solar Refrigeration Device

During my week in Mexico, Cyndy Ainsworth, Director of Finance and Administration at the Miller Center, and I had the to opportunity to visit with two GSBI alumni: Iluméxico and Sistema Biobolsa. Over the past year I worked on my senior design project with four other senior mechanical engineering majors. Our project was a portable refrigeration device that could be used in off-grid communities like those where Iluméxico sells their solar systems. All school year we worked with Iluméxico to gather information about their potential customer base; using this data we developed a prototype that we believed could work for them.

While Cyndy and I were in Mexico City, we spent a day in the Iluméxico office. There we built a cardboard model of our prototype and drafted a survey for the different groups of people we thought might be interested in refrigeration. We wanted to learn more about the requirements of potential customers to see where improvements could be made so that the refrigeration unit would best suit their needs.

The next day, Manuel Wiechers and Ana Coll from Iluméxico, took Cyndy and I on a four-hour drive to a community called Chichicoaxtla to conduct the interviews. Since Cyndy and I could not speak fluent Spanish, Ana asked the questions and recorded the answers for us. We were able to interview four housewives of all different ages. It was helpful to hear more about their daily routines, what they currently used for energy, and their feedback on our prototype.

Getting feedback from the customer:

Ana Interviewing a few of the housewives.

Ana Interviewing a few of the housewives.

All of the women liked the idea of refrigeration over ice and a cooler. They did not however like how small our design was, nor how the backpack straps were the only way to carry it. The part that impressed me the most was how helpful all the women were and how willing they were to share with us. I think that showed just how respected and trusted Iluméxico is in this community.

We were also able to interview two different small store owners in the community. Each of them required large refrigeration systems and did not need them to be portable. This was when I realized that one product could not satisfy everyone’s needs. Even though we only were able to finish six interviews, we learned enough to start making advancements in the design of the refrigeration device.

The people and entrepreneurs I met:

I think the biggest takeaway from this trip regarding my vocation and my passion came from the conversations we had with Manuel and Ana from Ilumexico and with Esther from Sistema Biobolsa. The passion they have for their work was clearly evident throughout my short time with them.

Cyndy and I were at dinner with all three of them one night in Mexico City. After some time, Ana suggested there shouldn’t be any more work talk at dinner. Manuel looked at her and asked, “Do you love what you do?” She nodded, and said, “Of course.” Manuel then continued, “Well, you talk about what you love and we just happen to love what we do for work, so of course we can keep talking about work at dinner.”

At that moment I could tell all three of them were living out their passions through their work. Esther, who speaks four different languages, told me that she worked in the corporate world for a few years. She learned a lot, but she told me that the most valuable thing that she learned was that she was not meant for the corporate world. She is very passionate about reducing carbon emissions, and when she learned about Sistema Biobolsa she knew that this was going to be her way of helping reduce the carbon emissions in Mexico. This was going to be her way to improve the lives of local farmers.

Later, Esther and Ana talked about the difference between their lives and the lives of their friends who worked for large corporate companies. They noticed that there is a difference in passion. Not that their friends are not passionate about what they do, but it is a different kind of passion. Esther and Ana have a passion for improving livelihoods in the rural communities in Mexico and improving the environment.

While other people may have this passion as well, Ana and Esther are trying to make it happen by working for a social enterprise. Their work is their passion and their life; it is not a job that simply ends at 5 pm everyday. Sometimes a 20-hour drive to drop off a new pickup truck at an Ilucentro to install more systems is required instead of putting a folder away and turning in for the night.

Many social entrepreneurs have said that if they knew how difficult it would be to run a social enterprise then they would have never done it. But many more see past their personal hardship and sacrifice because they are so passionate about making a difference and empowering others.

Seeing the Sistema Biobolsa's biodigesters in action:

After leaving Ilumexico, Cyndy and I traveled to San Martin to visit two GSB Fellows, Elizabeth and Paul, who are working with Sistema Biobolsa. While there, we had the opportunity to visit two homes, which had Sistema Biobolsa’s biodigesters and to learn more about how the families use the biofuel and fertilizer produced from the systems. Each family was very willing to show us around their homes and to turn on their stoves to show us the blue flame that is produced from the biofuel.

The fuel created by Sistema Biobolsa’s systems can also be used to power a water heater or an outdoor firepit. With these systems, families greatly reduce the amount of gas they have to buy or wood they have search for every day. The first house we visited had a pig farm with over eighty pigs. With the biodigester, there was not the slightest odor of pig manure because all of it went in the system. I had no idea that we were less than 100 feet from the pigs when we were looking at the system - there was no smell! It was amazing to see how many different benefits these systems had: reducing carbon emissions, reducing the smell of manure, producing biofuel and fertilizer, and creating a more livable atmosphere for farmers and families.

Learning lessons outside of the classroom:

Being in the field with a social enterprise has given me such priceless information that cannot be found in an office. Ricardo Levy was right: Being an entrepreneur comes with constant uncertainties. But I think being a social entrepreneur in a developing country comes with even more uncertainties.

A successful social entrepreneur learns to embrace and handle the uncertainties as they come. Manuel from Ilumexico taught me that if we love what we do then we should share our stories with others. He also taught me that anything is possible, and that we should always keep trying to create change. Ana from Ilumexico taught me that social entrepreneurship is not always easy and it can take over your life, but it is worth every minute because of the impact you can make in other people’s lives.

Finally, Esther from Sistema Biobolsa taught me to follow my dreams and to never settle; if I am not passionate about what I do with my life then it’s time for a change. Social enterprise aligns itself with what we are taught at Santa Clara from the first day of orientation: the three C’s – competence, conscience, and compassion. I am blessed to have discovered the Miller Center my junior year, and since then I have never looked back -- it has been one adventure after another. It has shown me a different kind of engineering that can improve the lives of others, and it definitely has strengthened my grasp on my vocation.