By: Keith Douglass Warner OFM, Director of Education and Action Research
This July, in partnership with a local Jesuit social ministry center in Togo, Miller Center co-sponsored the largest ever GSBI Boost workshop, providing training for 30 West African social entrepreneurs. This was the first Boost ever delivered in French, and the largest ever set of participants. It fulfilled a multi-year dream for a Jesuit friend of mine, Fr. Bossou Constant SJ, and was made possible with the inspiring leadership of a fantastic GSBI mentor, Jose Flahaux. Although I had a trivial role at the workshop, I was blessed to witness the joy of these two good colleagues in the field. Bossou is a native of Benin, with a Togolese mother. Benin and Togo are two of the smallest countries in West Africa, and few Americans can find them on the map. After trying to explain African geography, he resorts to explaining that he is from Nigeria. Numerous times I have heard Bossou say: “Driven by the idea to serve, I have always dreamed of positively impacting the world. And that is what got me into engineering, becoming a Jesuit, and lately, promoting social entrepreneurship.” He came to Santa Clara University to pursue a Masters in Computer Engineering, but quickly discovered Miller Center, and last year, became a Jesuit In Residence. He describes this experience as integrating all three of these dreams. He pulled on many Jesuit colleagues to help him organize a GSBI Boost in Liberia, and in Togo. In these two countries, plus Benin, Bossou and other Jesuits also organized social enterprise training sessions for local pastoral agents.
Almost all of the roughly 30 enterprises represented had a clear social mission, and my perception is a majority brought an earned income model, or the potential for that. About one-third were agriculture or food-system related, one-third focused on IT training or education, and the rest were miscellaneous.
The entrepreneurs were so focused and enthusiastic! I saw the demand for this type of program in Francophone West Africa. I got the sense that access to this kind of social entrepreneurship curriculum is scarce in this region, and that the GSBI Boost fed a genuine hunger. Jose made the module on financial models more accessible, which helped – this is usually the section of the GSBI Boost program that causes headaches for participants. I was impressed by how all the entrepreneurs hung in there, and worked on this. I think they realized this topic is critical to their success. There were very moving expressions of gratitude on Saturday night and Sunday — I suppose that is fairly common — but the overall experience was that of joy.
Another occasion of joy was Bossou’s smile. He smiles most of the time I am around him, but it was a particularly big and sustained smile over multiple days. Others commented to me daily on the size of his smile. I got the sense that this was a “coming out” party, of sorts, a significant milestone in his own personal journey. Bossou speaks four languages, and his English is fine, but I witnessed a different dimension of him in French. Miller Center staff had inklings of this, but he projected a big, dynamic public speaking persona in Togo. He had command of the room, whether with pastoral ministers or social entrepreneurs. It was a privilege to be there with him.
But it was Jose’s quality of presence that most captivated me. I don’t know him as well as Bossou, but in the various conversations we have had over the years, I am accustomed to his executive focus on strategic execution, as well as his articulation of faith with service as a mentor of entrepreneurs. He is a native of Belgium, but has lived and worked in the states for decades. He ran operations for a multinational corporation manufacturing memory technology, shuttling between the Bay Area and China countless times. For many years, he has served as GSBI mentor, with special expertise in operations.
But in Togo, many more dimensions of Jose came forth. He teaches at San Jose State — maybe teaching brings out the nurturing, generative sides of him. But there was a lightness, a humor, an extra dimension of personal warmth that was striking to me. He has such a wealth of experience and brought a gentle touch on the material that the entrepreneurs seemed to hang on his every word. He would alternately drill down hard on key concepts, or break up the room with a gentle, self-deprecating joke. I felt like I was watching a master craftsman at work. We need to find some more Francophone mentors, but Jose has set the bar very high.
Even with the large number of enterprises, the Boost worked rather well due to the number of quality mentors. They all seemed to enjoy the sense of community among the entrepreneurs. Two other Jesuits who had studied social entrepreneurship with me at Miller Center, Fr. Victor Setibo SJ and Ismael Matambura SJ, came up from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and they were able to mentor effectively. At times, they teamed up with Pamela Roussos, Chief Innovation Officer for Miller Center, but for a lot of modules, they were able to draw on a combination of their basic knowledge of the GSBI Boost curriculum with strong critical thinking and language skills. It was a joy for me to watch them as my “students” putting their skills to use in helping the social entrepreneurs reflect critically on their mission and vision, as well as the foundational principles leading their organizations.
Virtually every day in Francophone West Africa, people would describe to me how French Africa is different, and that these countries have an even greater need to develop entrepreneurial solutions to poverty than those in English-speaking countries. The need may be great, but my observation is the hunger is even greater. For all of us who participated, feeding hungry social entrepreneurs with practical ideas for scaling their enterprise brings joy indeed.
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