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Settling In & Stepping Up

Settling In & Stepping Up

Settling into the daily routine of working in the city has been a new and exciting experience for me. All of the little things are falling into place – I’ve worked out the best route to take (across the rainbow bridge, go north first not west), I’m getting to know everyone at the office, and I finally got my key fob to get in the building properly. But most importantly, my work itself excites me, and the work environment is awesome. I walk into the OpenWorks building every day with purpose in my step because I know that I will be doing work that I’m passionate about, contributing to the success of Innovation Works (IW), and learning a whole lot from everyone around me.

It’s energizing to be working at a relatively young social enterprise accelerator, surrounded by a very small team. To say that the IW team is working hard is an understatement; everyone is exceeding their job descriptions in some way, and they’re doing it all because they believe in the power of Innovation Works to transform the way people think about Baltimore. It’s inspiring to see the passion my coworkers have for seeking out the untapped potential of the city they’ve lived in for years, or even generations; and those generations are tired of seeing a whole lot of funding go nowhere in solving the racial wealth divide.

Although Innovation Works has been over two years in the making, it’s technically only been operational for about six months, and IW is a team of just 8 people. But you can bet that they’ve accomplished great feats in those 6 months, and they haven’t slowed down since I’ve arrived; if anything, we’ve sped up with the implementation of Miller Center’s programs on top of everything else. In just the past six months, those 8 people have engaged with over 156 community members and prospective social entrepreneurs through outreach events, information sessions, and one-on-one meetings, and 81 social entrepreneurs are already actively engaged in their pipeline. These SEs are receiving support from nearly 30 local mentors....the list of statistics and milestones goes on. It’s really quite impressive, especially considering the general skepticism that Baltimore even has any social entrepreneurs to begin with.

Not just any old 9-to-5.

It feels strange to say that I like how my schedule works here more than when I’m in college. At first, I had to keep reminding myself that I’m not inundated with the usual homework each night; I can actually take a break when I get home for the day. It feels like a luxury, and definitely has me excited for the post-grad life, at a time when thinking about the post-grad life usually terrifies me. One of the most unique parts of the Fellowship is that the placement gives us a taste of real-world work. My final deliverables are constantly being re-shaped by the work I’m doing in the field. And it’s not like a college essay; there’s no long and detailed prompt telling me exactly what to produce and what the parameters are. I have to work closely with the people at my host organization to make sure that the work I’m doing is exactly what they need, and that it will be valuable to them moving forward. Shaping the form and direction of my own project is simultaneously liberating and terrifying, but I’m constantly reminded of my support system at Innovation Works, Miller Center, and back home. And every bit of progress validates the skills I've gained from my seemingly odd assortment of majors. If I can double major in dance and political science, minor in women's and gender studies, and discover a burning passion for accelerating social entrepreneurship, then who knows what's next. ("Burning passion for social entrepreneurship" sounds incredibly strange when I say it out loud, but who cares—it's true! I love my work!)

On a typical workday in the Innovation Works office, my hours may generally be around 9-5 (usually less than that, occasionally more if there’s an event), but it’s far from the usual office environment. There’s plenty of work to be done and meetings to be had at our home base, particularly in the aftermath of the Boost program, but I’m starting to see just how closely IW is tied directly to community engagement. I’ve gone on several unexpected and spontaneous adventures accompanying Jay, Sally, and Nick, including but not limited to: a meeting at the University of Baltimore discussing a new community mapping tool that’s in the works, a SOCAP 365 event at the Impact Hub, and a pizza-fueled design thinking workshop. Although these events and side-projects might not be directly related to my work surrounding the curriculum of the Miller Center and IW partnership, just getting to talk to so many different people in the city has been valuable. While I’m here, my goal is to learn, observe, absorb, and experience as much as I can that can only be had while I’m in Baltimore.

This is right outside our studio space at OpenWorks--check out the wooden cubicles!

This is right outside our studio space at OpenWorks--check out the wooden cubicles!

I’m even finding myself not so far removed from the arts & social justice scene that I love to be a part of. OpenWorks, the building where IW rents its office space, is an incredible maker space for Baltimore’s creative professionals. Every day in the office, we’re surrounded by entrepreneurs, designers, crafters, inventors, painters, leather workers, sewists, and even drone builders in the cubicles surrounding ours. Just downstairs you can find all the metalworking, woodworking, and sewing equipment that’s been made accessible to OpenWorks members. Some of my personal favorite products that come out of the businesses here include custom-made backpacks for dogs, and real, life-sized versions of swords from the Legend of Zelda! Even the cubicles (“studios”) were crafted right here in the shop, made from repurposed wood panels. It’s certainly a unique and energizing space to work in, even on quieter days.

One of the most inspiring parts of OpenWorks is the collaborative atmosphere and knowledge exchange that takes place here. The shared spaces are key to learning from one another, and makers with adjacent cubicles and similar products sometimes adopt each other’s innovative techniques. OpenWorks offers classes and workshops to the general public in its classroom spaces as well, and I’m determined to take a stab at one of the foundational courses before I leave (Will it be Photoshop? Embroidery? Maybe 3-D printing??).

This is part of a compelling set of pieces on display at Baltimore's Impact Hub.

This is part of a compelling set of pieces on display at Baltimore's Impact Hub.

The Impact Hub is another key spot for creative and entrepreneurial minds to gather in the same space, collaborate, and grow alongside one another. Aside from Boost and the SOCAP event, I've gone there several times just to work in their space for the day, surrounded by beautiful artwork, hardworking entrepreneurs, and even a few familiar faces from other events. Jay dared me to meet a new person every time I spend time there, and let's just say I have a lot of room for growth in the networking department...I'm working on it, I promise! There are Impact Hubs around the world, but this one specifically features the redlining exhibit which catches your eye right when you walk in. The exhibit spans several walls, visualizing not just the history of gentrification and the racial wealth divide in Baltimore, but the way that history continues to manifest in the present day. Everyone in Baltimore has heard of the "white L" and "black butterfly" shaped gentrification, and although the shape itself was new to me, I'd heard about the sharply divided lines. Baltimore is clearly divided racially and economically to this day; and it's gotten progressively worse.

The left image is unemployment data, and the right is demographic.

These images are not from Impact Hub, but you can clearly see the "L" and the "butterfly".

The racial wealth divide is by no means unique to Baltimore. It's been the root of many other problems in the city, and it's persisted after generations of both internal and external efforts towards change, for a host of complex reasons. But there's plenty of bad news (or no news) about Baltimore already, to the point where most people are jaded, and many have simply come to expect no better from their hometown. Innovation Works and everyone they work with are telling a different story. IW is shining a light on all of the aspiring and already-inspiring social entrepreneurs, connecting them to each other so that they can collaborate for greater impact, and walking with them to support their work. Transforming the city sounds impossible, but what happens when you start with just one small plot of an urban farm, one daycare center, or one after school program? What can happen when 28 of them gather in the same room? What happens when they leverage the tools of social entrepreneurship to start expanding the depth of their impact, partnering to meet each other's needs, and inspiring the incubation of even more social entrepreneurs? There's so much work to be done, but there's no doubt that it's happening here, and it's something truly special. (And there's no doubt that Jay and Sally don't seem to need sleep like other people!)

Baltimore's community assets.

What makes IW's work unique is that they're creating a complete pipeline of support for Baltimore's change-makers, starting even before an idea is formed. IW engages with people at five key levels of innovation: Ignite, Ideate, Create, Grow, and Scale. This is huge. No one is turned away who is looking for some kind of support, and each stage is meant to prepare you for the next one when you're ready. Whether you’re just a person with a crazy idea for helping your community, or an experienced social enterprise looking to scale your impact, IW will meet you right where you are and help you get where you need to go. Miller Center’s resources come in mainly at the grow and scale stages, but it’s been valuable to see how IW engages with people even prior to the ideation stage, when they’re just identifying a problem (aka an opportunity) in their neighborhood.

One of IW's four "Ignite Hubs," Fayette Street Outreach, is a key spot for fostering—you guessed it—the Ignite stage of innovation. Before people start sharing ideas, it's important to take a step back and look at what's already available to use as an asset in the community, from churches to black-owned businesses to parks and community centers. We wouldn't want to end up with two competing businesses on the same block, when the real problem at hand doesn't even require starting a business. As a part of the exercise, each group described the daily life of someone of a particular age group from their own community. It quickly felt personal, and the real-life stories that came out of the discussion were both moving and crucial to the way they were able to articulate the problems and opportunities in their neighborhood. In the end, we circled back to how the community assets could play a role in providing solutions.

Naming positive community assets that people are proud of requires a significant mindset shift from typical community association meetings, but that mindset shift is the first key step in working towards grassroots solutions. The FSO members who attended the design thinking workshop were able to take that first step. I'm excited to see where it leads in the future.

Photos are courtesy of Nicholas Mitchel. Check out the video recap he made of the event as well!

About the Author

Avery Rissling is currently a junior at Santa Clara University studying Political Science, Dance, and Women’s and Gender Studies. Her passion for civic engagement, interest in sustainable social impact, and background as a visual and performing artist have inspired her to pursue opportunities in innovation for social justice, whether it be in public policy, business, or the arts. She is a strong believer that the personal is political, and that art has the power to transform communities and bring people together.

What a View

What a View

If you know me, you know that I always have something to say. I’m an extrovert, an external processor. I am never shy to share my opinions and again I have a lot of them. Sometimes this gets me into trouble, but it is also the part of myself that I love most. I don’t shy away from any conversation and with every experience I have a strong desire to understand and be understood.

In 2018 I spent six months traveling through Africa and Asia and I turned into an avid blogger. Experiencing so many new cultures and landscapes heightened my thirst for reflection and understanding; I wanted to curate my memories and how I interpreted them in writing, for my own consumption and for my friends and family.

But here I am, over two weeks into my time in Tanzania, and I am at a loss. I don’t know what to write.

So far I feel comfortable. Part of it is certainly because my partner Emma and I have been staying in nice hotels and Airbnbs, eating restaurant food for almost every meal, and we are shuttled around in private cars. Even the weather has been a moderate 75 degrees most days. On our journey from Singida to Dodoma (our current home base) I spent the drive observing the people and infrastructure of the villages en route to our destination, pondering what to blog about. It wasn’t until I tried to summarize my thoughts and extract some greater meaning that I got really frustrated by the whole situation. The window glass felt like much more than a physical barrier. It was like I was just watching a movie of Tanzania, I couldn’t touch it. This approach to travel was different from what I grew used to in the past and seemed to hold me back from everything.

This was the first time that I have felt like I was in a funk here. I forced myself to really probe at this feeling. I questioned every experience that lead me here. At this point I have traveled to more developing countries than developed countries. I thought maybe I am just used to witnessing cultural norms so different from my own or even the poverty that is so visible in Tanzania.

In just this short time Emma and I have found ourselves in situations that most Americans never will. We had an unexpected overnight visit with some Catholic nuns, attended an entrepreneurship summit and interviewed almost 30 of the most successful Solar Sister Entrepreneurs, we have gone into the field with Business Development Associates to observe training and recruitment, and have even been able to visit some of the most beautiful national parks in the world. Currently we are road tripping through the country with our translator Lumba and our driver Vitalis. It feels like a family trip, the four of us do pretty much everything together.

I eventually came to the realization that it’s not that I haven't been connecting with local people or become jaded to the poverty. And I know that I am incredibly appreciative of this opportunity as well as the memories that I have in so many other countries. Rather with each new experience the world gets so much smaller. The differences between Africa, Asia, and the Western world feel less and less significant. Sure, globalization definitely contributes to this, but regardless we are so similar. We love and hurt in the same ways; we crave belonging, adventure, and stability and we fear being belittled, abused, and ignored. We all want to be viewed a complicated and important. We are all afraid of dying. As I have come to understand these truths more, I have also developed a greater confidence working, speaking, and being with people from backgrounds different from my own.

I came to Tanzania expecting so many moments to be met with discomfort and confusion. The ideas that Americans promote about “Africa” have certainly influenced how I imagined my role here. My entire life I have been exposed to images of Africans as being poor, helpless, and unsophisticated. The history of imperialism and development that has lead us to these ideas is not something I can get into in this post, but regardless these ideas are just untrue.

Fatma, the country manager of Solar Sister Tanzania and the mastermind behind the whole operation is one of the most busy, hardworking, and detail oriented people that I have met. The Solar Sister Entrepreneurs have some extremely innovative ideas and a perseverance that I see rarely in the US. Our translator Lumba is incredibly articulate and has the best sense of humor. I have learned time and time again that the single story of the over one billion people living in Africa’s 54 countries is so, so misguided. Learning from these amazing people hasn’t pushed me outside of my comfort zone, because they are so real to me, they make so much sense to me. With each day here I watch the world become more complicated but so simplified all at once. And I have such a view.


About the author


Amanda Eason is a current fellow for the Global Social Benefit Fellowship with Miller Center. She is double majoring in Environmental Studies and Sociology with an emphasis in Sustainable Development. She hopes to advance sustainable development and promote gender equity through women’s enterprise. She is currently gaining hands-on experience as a Fellow working with Solar Sister.



Editor’s note: This post is the final part of a three-part blog series from the author. Read part one here: Learning to Use my Voice for Good, and part two here: Reflection from Time in Rwanda

I can recall looking at the fellowship program and feeling drawn towards the chance to make a social impact. I desperately wanted to go into a cross-cultural context and do meaningful work. Despite this desire, I hesitated when it came time to apply. I told myself it was going to be too rigorous, too challenging, and that social entrepreneurship didn’t align with my future goals. Now I see I was full of doubt not in the program but in myself. My deficiency of self-worth and value was something that I hid very well. I masked my suspicion with a layer of false confidence and a smile. I essentially faked it till I made it and I am so glad I did because being awarded the fellowship was the most significant gift I could have received.


My junior year after I came back from abroad I felt a loss of community. Looking around I struggled to find others who related to me, and there was even a sense of feeling isolated in the Santa Clara bubble. Before going into the field, it became a concern of mine that I would feel alone in a new environment too. Even though I was going with a team, it was hard to picture the dynamic that would take place once we were in Rwanda. My fears disappeared immediately upon arrival in Rwanda. I was taken aback by the amount of hospitality we received from the moment we stepped foot in the country. Fr. Innocent who was one of the people running PICO Rwanda and a Jesuit Priest residing at Center Cristus took us under his wing. Many things were different from what we were used to in the United States such as the warmer climate, beautiful yet soft-spoken people, and roads with moto drivers shouting for passengers to get on the back. Fr. Innocent acted as our guide helping us assimilate to all the sensations around. He was so easy to talk to and I found myself settling in the culture very fast.

PASTOR JOHN R. AND I   Pastor John R. brought PICO to Rwanda. His presence at the workshops lifted peoples spirits.


Pastor John R. brought PICO to Rwanda. His presence at the workshops lifted peoples spirits.

SUNSET AT CENTRE CHRISTUS   The beauty captured here is just a glimpse at the heart and soul of the place I called home for seven weeks.


The beauty captured here is just a glimpse at the heart and soul of the place I called home for seven weeks.

FR. INNOCENT   Fr. Innocent worked tirelessly to make all of us feel comfortable and welcomed in Rwanda.


Fr. Innocent worked tirelessly to make all of us feel comfortable and welcomed in Rwanda.

The staff at Centre Christus ended up bringing a smile to my face every day and night. It became a ritual of mine to go into the kitchen to say hi to the staff. Although I didn’t know much Kirwanda, the little phrases I managed to memorize led to an uproar of laughter from every Rwandan in the room. In return, they gave me hugs before I went to bed. The simple acts of kindness from them were mighty and demonstrated that relationships transcend beyond just verbal language. The mutual ability to emote and show an understanding of love and respect was so strong that it created a sense of community. To be so far away from home yet feel so comfortable with the people around was an incredible realization. Despite the different backgrounds Centre Christus fostered a home-like atmosphere to build impactful relationships and learn. People from all walks of life would gather together to listen, share, discuss, and unwind. It indeed was never a dull day in Rwanda.

When discerning my vocation I can’t ignore the pull I feel to go back to East Africa. Not only is it where I originate from, but it is the place where I feel most like myself. Before I go to grad school for social work, it is a goal of mine to work in Uganda or Rwanda for a year or two to gain professional experience in community development and further explore my love for social justice.


Before the fellowship, I was recovering from a traumatic event. I couldn’t understand why people believed in me because I didn’t see my own value. Being selected as a fellow, I was ecstatic. I thought to myself FINALLY because growing up I had little to no mentors. My teachers in my suburban predominately white town didn’t see a future for a black girl and didn’t care to help me. The Miller Center, in contrast, saw that I was intelligent and had skills to offer in Social Entrepreneurship. For the first time, I wasn’t the only one believing in myself (which at times it got exhausting).

The spring before our departure I felt as if I was about to embark on something great but at the middle marker of our time in the field self-doubt crept in. My teammates were all set on what they needed and were supposed to do. To speed production along, we decided to handover the interviewing role to the translators and the Social Enterprise Interns that accompanied us fellows into the field appeared to have everything under control. As a project manager, I should have been happy about everything running so smoothly, but on the contrary, I experienced some confusion. If I was nonessential for the videography aspect of the project and the training wheels I acted as in preparation for the workshops were ready to come off then what was my role? I tried to remind myself that my team's success was a reflection of my project management but I still couldn’t shake off the feeling of purposelessness.

INTERVIEWING IN THE FIELD   Before I stopped doing the interviews I really enjoyed getting to ask people questions and learn more about their stories. I was sad to not do them anymore but it ended up being best for the team. One of our translators Kiki (pictured above) took over and she was incredible.


Before I stopped doing the interviews I really enjoyed getting to ask people questions and learn more about their stories. I was sad to not do them anymore but it ended up being best for the team. One of our translators Kiki (pictured above) took over and she was incredible.

FINDING JOY THROUGH DELEGATION   As a project manager I became more comfortable delegating tasks to my team.I learned to adapt and embrace the different elements being thrown in our way.I enjoyed the pressure that came with my role and as time went on I grew to become a strong leader.


As a project manager I became more comfortable delegating tasks to my team.I learned to adapt and embrace the different elements being thrown in our way.I enjoyed the pressure that came with my role and as time went on I grew to become a strong leader.

I remember sitting eating dinner feeling still a little sad when a problem arose. There was an issue of communication between PICO Rwanda and the Miller Center which lead me to spring into action, conversing back and forth between the two organizations. PICO Rwanda wanted to show us a coffee factory, and our team needed to focus on our deliverable to make sure everything was in place for the workshops in one week. I was challenged to make sure everyone was comfortable, understood, and walked out with at least something that they wanted.

I remember how exhilarating it was to come up with a solution on the spot and act quickly to keep the conflict from escalating. As a mediator, representative of my team, and spokesperson on behalf of the program I had to balance the complexity of the different parties emotions. For many, that sounds like a situation from hell, but to me, I was in pure bliss. Not only was I managing this communication mishap, but I was confident that my interventions would result in a good outcome for all.

The sense of empowerment I got after the crisis was averted was a feeling I desperately needed. I was overcome with a sense relief knowing that my talent was needed at that moment. When other situations appeared after I leaped at the opportunity to support my team and contribute to the project by effectively communicating with others and solving problems that emerged. Reflecting on this memory, I have now gained a new style of confidence and spirit stemming from self-empowering times in the field. Recounting stories like these from Rwanda additionally leads me to honestly believe in myself and the gifts I have to offer.

When looking at what I want to do in the future, I want to have that feeling of empowerment, confidence, and some pressure to overcome a barrier because that is when I feel the most alive/the most excited. Talking to people and helping everyone feel understood is something that matters a lot to me. I can't think of a better possible way to help others then through communication and empathy.


I use a lot of “I” statements and throughout this essay have been talking mostly about me, but from my time in the fellowship and toward the end of my time in the field I learned the power of “We.” The most important thing I learned that will forever shape my actions is that sustainable growth and community development does not happen alone. To create change their needs to be collectivism. I saw this throughout my time in Rwanda, working with the villages and seeing the fantastic work they accomplished by coming together as a team. This spirit of collectivism I witnessed, in turn, impacted my last interactions with my group comprised of three fellows and three social enterprise interns.

Group dynamics are tricky, and ambiguity makes it even harder. For our team the biggest struggle was communication. I remember the glue keeping us all together was slipping towards the end of the seven weeks. It was the day before our last visit into the field, and everyone was upset sick, and annoyed by each other. During our time in Rwanda, we had all hit breaking points where we felt like we weren’t being listened to and justified our actions without consulting others. By the end, our frustration turned into exhaustion, and we collectively decided to convene for some resolution. We realized that we only work well when we were on the same page. After recognizing that all of our feelings were important, we needed to forgive each other and learn from the situation. Our team was quick to bounce back and we went into the field the next day stronger than ever. We came in with a plan, directly talked to one another, and most importantly validated each other's feelings. The visit to the last village proved to be our most successful. I now perceive the altercations that happened among my team and our ability to solve them as a strength of ours because at the end of the day we were able to set aside our intentions to make a difference in something far more significant than us.

PICO RWANDA FELLOWS   I got close to the other two fellows (Jenny and Neil) who traveled with me. We had many adventure that I will remember for a long time.


I got close to the other two fellows (Jenny and Neil) who traveled with me. We had many adventure that I will remember for a long time.

PICO RWANDA WORKSHOP TEAM   The workshop team and I learned to come together as a team to successfully deliver workshops to urban women in Kigali


The workshop team and I learned to come together as a team to successfully deliver workshops to urban women in Kigali

I believe that as humans were naturally inclined to think about our own needs first. From my time in Rwanda to now, I have developed a new perspective. I can step back and question what good is glory when you're alone and have no one to share in the success? I am much more willing now and honestly, would prefer to overcome obstacles with a strong diverse and multidisciplinary group. In the past nine months, I had a lot of powerful transformations, but they would be nothing and mean nothing without my team.


What’s next?


The fundamental values of social entrepreneurship that I have obtained from my fellowship experience are something I have decided I want to continue practicing in my future vocation. I have always dreamed of entering the vast field of social work and my time in Rwanda helped establish a better picture of what that could entail. My passions in social work lie in social change and innovation. I want to help strengthen and organize communities whether that is working for a particular agency or being an advocate for marginalized groups. I think by intersecting social work and social entrepreneurship it can lead to a beautiful thing that not only can improve lives, but save lives.

About the author


I am half Ugandan and proud of my multicultural background. While I was growing up, I was fortunate enough to travel to Uganda every summer. Spending time with people who have different life experiences than my own instilled me with values of compassion, consciousness, and cultural competence, that have guided my career choices and activities tremendously. While studying psychology, sociology and ethnic studies at Santa Clara University, my mentors and peers have challenged me to think creatively in response to problem-solving.

Programs at my school that are passionate about social justice have helped me discover that I love learning in new cultures and being pushed to grow. Through my fellowship program, I became a project manager for a community organizing nonprofit in Rwanda. It was there that I realized sharing and listening to experiences has the power to change how we see and interact with those around us. Now I strive to empower, strengthen, and engage underserved communities so that our world becomes a just place for all.

Reflection from Time in Rwanda

Reflection from Time in Rwanda

Editor’s note: This post is part two of a three-part blog series from the author. Read part one here: Learning to Use my Voice for Good.

Close your eyes and picture the United States government requiring everyone to do community service once a month. What does your state look like? How connected is your community? It seems too good to be true right? In Rwanda, this is the reality and is one of the reasons the country has grown and developed significantly since the genocide. For Rwandans, the first Saturday of every month is called Umuganda day, and on this day, the government makes it mandatory for everyone to participate in a day of service. 

My experience with Umuganda day began at the crack of dawn as my team, and I journeyed three hours out to Nyange, a village where previously visited the week before.  When we last reached out to Nyange, the community members explained to us that they were going to be expanding a small narrow path that they use to retrieve the clay for their bricks and tiles. Since this clay located at the bottom of a hill posed a difficult challenge for the villagers, they hoped that by expanding the path and building a road it would create more efficiency. When we arrived, the whole community was already out working on expanding the route, but some still came to greet us from the roadside. They were covered in dirt, making the whites of their teeth stand out with their big smiles. I felt instantly comforted by their warm welcome. The women advised me to cover my recently braided hair from the dirt like they had, shielding the dust and grime with a kitenge headwrap. I was amazed I had only been in this community for less then 10 minutes, and they were looking out for me as if I was one of their own. I wasn’t used to this hospitality, and I found it interesting that despite all the cultural barriers between myself and these women, there was still a strong feeling of support.

I can recall staring at the men and women and noticing how frail and light they looked compared to the pickaxes they were holding to dig up the earth. This perception of them being weak though was quickly squashed by a blind man named John. During Umuganda day, he came up to me and grabbed my hand. I couldn't understand what he was saying, but I went off with him, and everyone followed behind. We came to a halt right at the place we were going to dig. I wondered how he had decided that this was the right place to dig. I looked down at the ground and noticed his bare feet wiggling in the burnt auburn looking soil. We were both handed hoes, and as I tried to lift mine, he had already swung ten strikes into the dense clay. He was a machine. They all were, and they all worked in sync. They were far from being weak and nimble. Within less than half the day, they cleared a significant portion of the trail and surpassed their goal. Nyange villagers individually might be small, but collectively, I realized they are extremely determined people who will power through and work in unison to achieve their goals. 

What I learned that day was the importance and emphasis of collectivism. For me, although I love my community, I am constantly battling my society’s individualistic tendencies. In the United States and especially Silicon Valley, everything centers around getting ahead. We are so focused on our success that other things, such as community growth and development, get pushed to the back burner. There is nothing wrong with wanting to reach personal achievements, but it comes at a cost. Individualism creates isolation, a lack of community, and ignorance towards the problems of others. Nyange recognizes that other people's problems affect them too. If it's hard to bring up clay for one person, it affects someone who needs bricks to build a house. With the collectivism, I experienced how nice it was to have other people looking out for you (ex. the women worried about my hair). This support takes some stress and pressure away from the individual, and I genuinely believe it makes for a happier environment. Therefore, working more as a community is so important because we are only as strong as the people around us. 


In Mumeya, the oldest Pico Community, we saw how strong the community had become. They worked together as a community to help themselves. A woman named Speciosa shared with us a story of how they identified a critical problem in their village. Mumeya desperately needed a clinic because too many pregnant mothers were dying due to a lack of proper health care. One Orhan baby named Pico tragically came into Speciosas life because the baby’s mother died in labor. Something avoidable had the nearest clinic not been miles away. When Speciosa adopted Pico she realized that too many friends of hers have passed away from delivering a child. Speciosa, together with her community, made an action plan to build a running clinic. 

We got to see this clinic when we visited Mumeya and were impressed. It was fully functioning and offered an amenity of services. When Speciosa spoke of the clinic and baby Pico there was some sadness recalling all the people who lost their lives before, but also pride because she and her community accomplished something together. I wasn’t surprised to hear that on top of her being president of her cooperative, she is a veterinarian and is also trying to install a program in her village to educate youth about teenage pregnancy. What did surprise me was to hear that she used to be extremely timid before PICO. Upon hearing this, I realized that transformations are possible and that even when you reach a level of success like becoming a president that shouldn’t be a reason to stop and slow down. 

As amazing as Speciosa is, many people I’ve told about her assume she is an anomaly, and that’s a mistake. Many other women are doing incredibly impactful work transforming their communities. When talking about these people making a change, I have been asked, “Who helped them to do that?” inferring that their work would not be possible without help from outside. When I explain that they did it all on their own, their reaction is as if I told them pigs could fly. I always have had to explain to people since I’ve been back from the field that I didn’t sleep in a tent and people there aren’t all living in huts. Being half Ugandan, it sometimes feels like people are labeling half of who I am with false depictions of Africa.


Reflecting on the workshops we did, I think about how some people who attended barely had completed primary school. The workshops became a fun and exciting environment for them to learn and explore in. For me, the workshops became a place to realize my privilege. I am very fortunate to have received the education I have today, but I still wake up sometimes and don’t want to go to class. I even indulge in complaining about the workload I have, and I still think about just quitting. I didn’t realize the influence I can have because of my privilege until I was standing in front of a classroom and being perceived as a teacher, even though I was younger than most of the room. Toward the end of the workshop, I remember receiving praise for coming to Rwanda to teach and couldn’t understand why I should be receiving that praise. I questioned if I deserved it. It wasn’t until one of my post-workshop evaluation interviews that I realized that they were praising me because they felt fortunate to have been allowed to learn.  I remember visiting Nymatta, a village where many participants in the workshops resided. We visited them after the workshops to figure out what they thought of them. 

When we arrived, I walked into the church where they hold their cooperatives meeting, and upon my first footstep, my ears flooded with the noises of an electric piano playing an African beat. The people of Nyamata were waiting for us and sprung up to their feet. They clapped their hands, and the drumming began. I knew what I had to do. I put down my bag and started swinging with a woman who was singing a melody. She had a soft yet powerful voice, and it was ever so welcoming. Midway through the dance as beads of sweat started to form on my forehead, I realized how much energy these men and women have. All of whom could have probably danced for three more hours if it wasn’t for the group interview.

As my Co-Researcher was listening to them speak, I noticed her nodding and smiling. She whispered to me, “I think this is one of the best interviews we have done.” Now I know she was right because Nyamattas energy and desire to learn set them apart from the rest. It was one of their first workshops, and it meant more to them than I even realized. For the other older cooperatives who had had other workshops before this was exciting but not wholly new. For Nyamatta, the workshops to them represented so much more than just acquiring more knowledge. It meant finally recieving  a chance. Pastor John always said, think about what Nyamatta could do if they put all their energy into a project of building their community. The workshops allowed them to see what he meant. One man said with glee that he’s going to save money and work with others to help his community. 

“I am thankful to PICO Rwanda and all the people involved in making these workshops possible you help ignite the confidence within us. You gave us a chance to meet up altogether, and you helped us meet with entrepreneurs like from the bank of Africa and people from the Bank of Africa. When they came, they explained to us what they do and how they do it, so I decided right after the workshops that I was going to open a bank account… I think my mind is opened. I am now starting to see that my future is going to get better. I think I am going to work hard and work with entrepreneurs/investors”.

It is with that energy he had along with the boost of confidence the workshops ignited within him that helped him develop the drive to take action. I then realized education has the power to instill confidence into students. The way I viewed education before was just something that you do. You complete grade school, then go to college, and because of these previous notions, I took for granted what school has done for me. Now I see that it has impacted me more than I think. Just like the man from Nymatta, my education has given me confidence and a drive to take action to make impactful change. 


About the Author


I am half Ugandan and proud of my multicultural background. While I was growing up, I was fortunate enough to travel to Uganda every summer. Spending time with people who have different life experiences than my own instilled me with values of compassion, consciousness, and cultural competence, that have guided my career choices and activities tremendously. While studying psychology, sociology and ethnic studies at Santa Clara University, my mentors and peers have challenged me to think creatively in response to problem-solving.

Programs at my school that are passionate about social justice have helped me discover that I love learning in new cultures and being pushed to grow. Through my fellowship program, I became a project manager for a community organizing nonprofit in Rwanda. It was there that I realized sharing and listening to experiences has the power to change how we see and interact with those around us. Now I strive to empower, strengthen, and engage underserved communities so that our world becomes a just place for all.

Learning to Use my Voice for Good

Learning to Use my Voice for Good

I was born into the loving home of compassionate, patient, and resilient parents. Growing up in Uganda during the time of Idi Amin, my father could never have predicted that he would end up falling for my mother, who grew on the outskirts of New York City. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, my mother yearned for someone with a greater perspective for the world. Raised in a wealthy white American neighborhood, ignorant residents alienated my mother for viewing everyone as equal, and she in return despised the judgmental environment she grew up in. The two eventually would meet in Boston College’s School of Social Work and would go on to raise two girls, my sister Sarah and me. My parents raised us to speak up and use our voices for good, and as result, it has shaped who I have become.

I was raised in Arlington, Massachusetts, just six miles outside of Boston. The town of Arlington was predominately white and it impacted my experience as a young biracial girl. I developed many insecurities, the biggest being the texture of my hair. Since my mom wasn't familiar with styling black hair, my dad took charge--and he was great. He would decorate my hair with beads and braid in patterns that when I looked into the mirror made me feel beautiful. But when I went to school, that beautiful feeling quickly disappeared when people would touch my textured soft hair and pull out my beads. Not only did I feel like a zoo animal, but it was distracting and bothered me. One day I came home and told my dad that I didn't want him to do my hair anymore. He looked upset and asked me why. It was hard to tell who liked my hair more, my dad or me, but he knew that something had happened. He asked if what bothered me was kids playing with my hair, and I nodded as tears rolled down my checks. Then he said something I will never forget. He told me, "If you don't like something, you can tell someone to stop.” Later, with my mom, the two explained to me that I had to speak up when something was happening that I didn't like or feel comfortable with--so I did. The next day I went to school and a classmate tried to touch my hair.  I said, "Please don't do that. I don't like when you touch my hair.” She stopped and looked surprised, but I didn’t dwell on it because, finally, I felt comfortable.


Being able to use my voice and speak up became a way for me to realize what I wanted, and what I wanted more than anything was to see more of the world. I was eager to look outside the one perspective my town offered, which led me to spend every summer in Uganda where my dad’s side of the family lives. I developed a cultural competence early on and began to see things through multiple lenses. The culture, music, and people being so different from what I was used to in Boston was refreshing. I embraced and cherished all the unique values--some of which I like more than America--and as I got older, each summer became an opportunity to do more meaningful work, like helping my grandma with her nonprofit, the Makula Fund.  

When I came back from summer vacations, I was frequently met with judgment about Africa. My friends would ask me if there were any lions by my house and assume that it was a dangerous place to be. I was puzzled. Why would they think Africans would be okay with having lions running around a city? Didn't they know Africa has cities and not all countries in Africa have lions? If it wasn't safe, why would I be there? It took me a while to realize that they asked me questions because they were curious. They had pre-existing views of entirely false depictions of Africans. 

I felt that, as a friend, I should speak up and use my voice to break down their views. I wanted to start an open and honest dialogue about it, but I was nervous. I didn't want my friends to feel attacked or shamed for asking these questions. In addition, it was hard to speak to my friends because I wasn't sure how they would react. I went to my mom to seek advice because as a therapist, she knows a lot about the best way to communicate to people about things they don't understand. After all, she had to do a lot of that growing up. She told me that if they were true friends they will want to listen and learn. If they didn't want to change their opinions, then it was their loss. Ultimately, with the help of my mom, I found that I If I spoke to them instead of at them then they could not only understand my experiences better but gain an interest in something I loved.


When picking colleges, Santa Clara University stood out to me for its commitment to service and education. I am a major in Psychology and Sociology and am fascinated by people and groups. I am passionate about learning why people do things and how people and communities can create meaningful change. It was my desire to learn and drive to make a positive impact on the world in a sustainable way that led me to apply for the fellowship. During my first year at Santa Clara, I was faced with many challenges, all of which led me to where I am today. The biggest challenges gave me a new outlook on life and were the result of a traumatic event. After it happened, everything was altered in the blink of an eye. I was lost, confused, down, and broken. With time I started telling others what I had gone through and continue to face as a trauma survivor. What happened to me was awful and shouldn't happen to anyone, but as I struggled to overcome my trauma, I learned that I was not alone in my pain. As I healed and shared my story, peers, friends, and even family entrusted me with their similar narratives. I realized that my voice was powerful and evoked a common thread among many who otherwise felt alone. It was a challenge trying figure out how I could use my voice to inspire, motivate, and comfort others, but I found and am still finding that empathy is the best way.  Empathy, through listening, validating, and understanding people, can encourage others to pursue their voice and passions in return.

Over time, I have come to realize the power that my words have. Being a woman, it is easy to be complacent in the face of numerous barriers. It took numerous challenges for me to realize my inner strength, but with amazing opportunities that have come my way like the Global Social Benefit Fellowship, I have learned to use my voice for good. More importantly, I have learned that empathy is something that I not only want to continue to practice in my relationships, but also in the projects I undertake while discerning my vocation.

Learn more about empathy and how to apply it to a wide variety of real-world situations on Ashoka’s Empathy 101 resource page.



I am half Ugandan and proud of my multicultural background. While I was growing up, I was fortunate enough to travel to Uganda every summer. Spending time with people who have different life experiences than my own instilled me with values of compassion, consciousness, and cultural competence, that have guided my career choices and activities tremendously. While studying psychology, sociology and ethnic studies at Santa Clara University, my mentors and peers have challenged me to think creatively in response to problem-solving.

Programs at my school that are passionate about social justice have helped me discover that I love learning in new cultures and being pushed to grow. Through my fellowship program, I became a project manager for a community organizing nonprofit in Rwanda. It was there that I realized sharing and listening to experiences has the power to change how we see and interact with those around us. Now I strive to empower, strengthen, and engage underserved communities so that our world becomes a just place for all.

Maternal Health Consulting in India: Meeting the Women Behind the Statistic

Maternal Health Consulting in India: Meeting the Women Behind the Statistic

World Health Day and Miller Center

While there are millions of problems in the world today, global health is arguably one of the most crucial. Health is at the core of everything we are and everything we do; without health, we cannot function. Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship is taking vital steps to improve global health through its work with health-based social enterprises all over the world. Thanks to Miller Center, I was able to work with CareNX Innovations last summer, a company striving to eliminate preventable maternal and neonatal deaths in India. I had the opportunity to hear powerful stories from pregnant mothers and hospital employees, and experience gaps in healthcare first-hand. Solving the global health crisis will not be easy, but by giving social enterprises the tools they need to succeed, Miller Center will continue to improve access to healthcare worldwide and improve countless lives.

Why India?

The CareNX Team at the HQ at IIT (Mumbai, India)

The CareNX Team at the HQ at IIT (Mumbai, India)

I spent the summer of 2017 working at UnitedHealthcare as a sales and market analyst intern. While I loved the fast-paced environment and enjoyed learning about the healthcare system and insurance cycle, I couldn’t see myself as a healthcare sales representative. I was yearning for something more hands-on. I wanted to be a changemaker. I registered my interest in the Global Social Benefit Fellowship, with the inkling that it could lead me in the right direction. When I read about CareNX’s mission to decrease neonatal and maternal mortality rates through a smartphone integrated diagnostic kit, I knew I was looking in the right place. I was excited by the possibility of spending my summer doing meaningful work that could truly impact the lives of thousands of pregnant women in India. 

Fast-forward six months to June, and I was on a flight to Mumbai, India.

Fast-forward six months to June, and I was on a flight to Mumbai, India.

My partner, Varsha, and I had spent the three months before the trip building a detailed, 54-page research plan. We had spent countless hours mapping out the logistics of our research project, and I was ready to tackle every step of our plan, which I believed would allow us to gather the research necessary to complete our deliverables successfully. I was confident in our ability to provide enhanced social impact reporting and support CareNX’s scaling through implementing strategy recommendations and business model innovation. 

While I was prepared from a business standpoint, I wasn’t prepared from an emotional one. Varsha and I had collectively read dozens of articles regarding India’s maternal and neonatal mortality rates. I was aware that India accounts for 20 percent of maternal fatalities globally, resulting in approximately 44,000 deaths every year. However, understanding a statistic and meeting the women behind the statistic are two very different things. I was ready to create solutions to fix the maternal healthcare crisis, but I wasn’t mentally prepared to come face to face with the problem.

Reflecting on Hardships

Varsha, Preeti and I sat on the floor of Jyotsana Varthak’s home. Jyotsana was the very last community health worker we interviewed in India. Jyotsana is a highly skilled community health worker, with 30 years of experience as an auxiliary nurse midwife (ANM). We asked her what barriers—personal, familial, societal—she saw preventing the successful adoption of CareMother in mothers. Jyotsana told us that the biggest obstacle for maternal care was education. Jyotsana explained that most of the pregnant women she visits are uneducated, illiterate, and unsure of their age.

Uncertain of their own age. 

This detail shouldn’t have been surprising to me; at this point in our journey, we had interviewed a handful of mothers who looked confused when we’d asked the question.

To me, it was such a simple question. It was a question I was asked frequently as a child. Eager to grow up, my response would usually involve a fraction. I’m nine and three quarters, and I would state proudly — each birthday I celebrated with family, friends, and a homemade cake. I couldn’t fathom the idea of not knowing my age. I realized I had taken my birthday for granted in a way I hadn’t known was possible.

What was even more unsettling was the impact this lack of education had on these women’s health. The pregnant women Jyotsana cares for had never learned about reproductive health—or even taken a general health class. Instead, they learned about myths and superstitions from their mothers and grandmothers. One of the superstitions Jyotsana told us about required the pregnant women to stay locked in their rooms where they gave birth —alone— for three days. During this time, the women were forced to clean up the mess that had been made during their labor. A different myth required mothers to burn their baby on his or her ribcage with an iron rod. I’m not sure if I would have believed this if Jyotsana hadn’t lifted up the shirt of a baby boy for us to see the scar. The child immediately shrieked. It was evident he had been scarred from the experience in more ways than one.  

I was filled with disbelief and rage. How could a mother put her child in pain? I didn’t understand. Did they love their children less?

The rage slowly turned into embarrassment. I realized I was imposing my own beliefs on these women’s culture. Of course, they loved their children. They didn’t want to see them in pain. These mothers felt obligated to harm their babies because of the cultural traditions and societal norms imposed on them.

There was no logical reason for these mothers to trust medical doctors. To them, western medicine seemed more foreign and dangerous than the superstitions their families’ had been following for generations. Choosing to seek medical care for their pregnancies was not only seen as foolish, but disrespectful to their elders.


This was just one of many moments where I felt helpless in India. The language barriers had also proved to be a more significant hindrance than I had expected. While Varsha could understand three different Indian languages, I struggled to comprehend my fellow CareNX team member’s broken English. Most of the mothers and community health workers we interviewed couldn’t understand my American accent either, so Varsha or Pritee (our translator) conducted most of the interviews while I jotted down notes. From speech and debate club in high school to numerous sales roles in college, I have always felt confident in my communication skills. Being unable to have a leadership role on the communication front made me feel utterly useless in the field.

However, this weakness gave me the opportunity to build invaluable listening skills. When Varsha and I returned from the field, we sat down together to analyze our data and discuss our findings. Flipping through my notebook, I realized how much knowledge I had gained. I had scribbled down notes on stories mothers had shared, ideas about ways to increase partnership efficiency, thoughts from a customer experience perspective after talking with community health workers, and much more. The language barriers and communication obstacles had given me the chance to devote all of my energy towards listening and observing. This allowed me to better understand India’s maternal health crisis as well as CareNX’s own business challenges before jumping to creating solutions.

Looking Forward 


Nine months ago, I knew I wanted to be a changemaker. However, I was unsure the best way to incorporate that goal into my career path. This fellowship has given me a deeper understanding of the types of work I enjoy and a more clear direction for my vocational journey.  

I discovered that slow-paced work environments frustrate me, and it is essential for me to work with people that know how to prioritize and balance responsibilities effectively. I am more likely to succeed in a fast-paced environment, surrounded by highly-motivated and competent individuals.  

This fellowship also taught me how to truly collaborate - and I’m not talking about the typical “collaboration” facilitated by group projects in college classes. Varsha and I carved out 20 hours each week to meet up and work on our deliverables in person. True collaboration can foster some of the best ideas, and when Varsha and I created a solution to a problem we had been circling it was exhilarating.  

I learned that I love strategizing. Analyzing the way current systems work and creating solutions to optimize efficiency excites me. While most people consider an entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, and curiosity as common traits for entrepreneurs, I discovered that I don’t need to start my own company to utilize these talents. By questioning the logic behind current processes and creating change with creative solutions, I can provide value to any organization.  

My passions lie in helping current, mid to large size organizations create and change products to accelerate social impact. This isn’t limited to changing drink beverage companies’ straws from plastic to biodegradable, although this certainly is important. We know that the way we create and consume products impact the world from an environmental perspective. However, products also can impact consumers in countless ways, ranging from physical health to child psychological development and so much more. Changing and creating products within organizations through a social impact lens can make a difference in the quality of millions of lives. The opportunities to make the world a better place are endless, and I am excited to see where my journey will lead to next.

Beautiful Himachal Pradesh, India

Beautiful Himachal Pradesh, India

About the Author

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Jess graduated from the Leavey School of Business in March 2019 with a degree in Business Management and a minor in Entrepreneurship. As a 2018 Global Social Benefit Fellow, Jess worked with CareNX Innovations in Mumbai, India, conducting research for a social impact assessment and business model innovation. Jess is currently seeking full-time job opportunities, and hopes to work for an innovative company where she can use both her analytical mindset and creative edge.

All Wrapped Up

All Wrapped Up


I have always felt the calling of Mother Nature. It has never been particularly strong, but it has always been present. As I grew up, perhaps I had pushed it aside to follow in the dreams of my parents, who stressed a life of financial stability and personal growth. After the hardships they faced growing up, they wanted to ensure that I would not endure the same struggles and thrive in modern society.

Only recently have I realized the loss of focus on my own goal.

When I first declared electrical engineering, I was never truly set on becoming an engineer. Yes, I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation and the practical and theoretical mix of work, but something was missing. I knew what I wanted to do with my life and where I wanted to be, but I lacked a clear path towards my end goal.

I wanted (and still want) to combat climate change, but telling people I was interested in the environment consistently led to discussions on the topic of renewable energy, and I slowly embodied everyone’s thoughts and this idea began to define who I was.

My Future.PNG

In everyone’s mind, I was to use electrical engineering, create power systems, and somehow save the world by only implementing solar and wind. This was unrealistic and not who I wanted to be. But it was what everyone saw in me.

At the same time, even going along with everyone’s perception of me, I realized that I lacked action behind my words. I was a fraud, and this needed to change.

Declaring a double-major with environmental science proved as an outlet to help me come to terms with my identity (as I’ve mentioned in my introduction). I found myself diving headfirst into anything related to sustainability. I went on an immersion trip to Appalachia to learn more about coal mining and environmental injustice. I joined the Center for Sustainability and worked hard to make an impact on our campus through any means possible. I started a Solar Regatta team to teach people more about the intersect of renewable energy and engineering, interned at a solar company and at an engineering consulting firm to further the development of power systems, and recently began an internship at a utility company. Yet, throughout all this, I still felt like a fraud.

Tree planting through the Center for Sustainability (Source: Center for Sustainability)

Tree planting through the Center for Sustainability (Source: Center for Sustainability)

I kept ignoring the voice in my head. The one that made me passionate about the environment in the first place. I had the urge to do something and to do it well. I was tired of having this dream of helping the world, but when it came down to it, I couldn’t follow through. I needed something new. Something to turn my cynicism into hope and to remind me what life truly means. Something that showed that people aren’t self-obsessed and stressed about the minute details of life, but to create a vision of the world that they want to live in.

Luckily, Global Social Benefit Fellows (GSBF) was that something.

(read more about that here)



Having a momentary existential crisis? (Source: James Wang)

Having a momentary existential crisis? (Source: James Wang)

Applying for the fellowship was a last-minute decision. I had originally decided to intern once again at the same engineering consulting firm due to the lack of engineering-related projects provided through GSBF, but I realized almost too late the value of this program. This was an opportunity to broaden my horizons, explore social entrepreneurship (I had previously taken a class in high school about entrepreneurship and hated it, so I was a little scared to try again), and learn more about creating the impact that I was dying to achieve.

Yet, even after being accepted, I continued to question my decision.

When I told people that I was going to Zambia this summer, I received mixed reactions. Some of awe and support, others of fear and ignorance, and there were others who simply disapproved of my life’s path.

One remark haunted my decision: “Are you even a real engineer?”

Now, this may not seem too complicated. Many reading this might respond, “Of course you’re an engineer. You’ve taken the right classes, you’ve had a few internships, research opportunities, and participate in engineering clubs. Why wouldn’t you be one?”

Well, think about it this way. Here I am, a student who is so passionate about wanting more out of his life that he abandons a highly technical internship to undergo a fellowship that has little to no connection to engineering whatsoever. I’m “throwing away” my future to take part in a summer trip where I will not gain the same skills as I would at a company. Taking this class has a time conflict with other electrical engineering classes that would make me more qualified to be a designer, so instead, I’m on the path towards sales engineer at best, which apparently, would make me not a “real engineer.”

Wow. I truly struggled with this statement. Sure, I had come into college not really knowing or wanting to be an engineer, but after three years, it had grown on me. It was the first thing I told people when they asked me to introduce myself. It was my second skin. I had been a dorm counselor for a summer program (S.E.S.) educating high school students about what it was like to be an engineer. I gave tours every week to prospective students to show them what it was like to be an engineer. I had dived headfirst into engineering with the full intention of becoming an engineer, but suddenly, people were telling me that I wasn’t real.

It was an identity crisis. If I wasn’t an engineer, then who was I?

I found my answers throughout my journey in Zambia. I saw firsthand how beneficial an engineering product could have on the lives of so many people, but also the importance of even having the engineering mindset that I developed studying engineering. It helped me discern some of the problems within the agent trainings by being detail-oriented. It helped me optimize visuals and graphics within the sales manual, create schedules to ensure efficiency at work, and even with conflict resolution by rationally listening and explaining both sides of the story. I learned that being an engineer is more than just creating products. It is about fostering a problem-solving mindset to do good and help people. 

Engineering is like a social enterprise, regardless of the classification, what really matters is the intention. I had the intention to create change with my engineering degree, and I slowly came to terms with being an engineer, or at least not being the stereotypical engineer. 

Interviewing one of the sales agents

Interviewing one of the sales agents

And in this, I learned to appreciate that there are so many opportunities in life that we don’t need to just focus on only being good at one thing. We’re not trained for assembly lines, but to use our minds and think creatively. Sure, maybe we don’t know what our true interests are or where we may end up in 10 years, but we know what we like to do and what we want to do. If we understand that our passions can all be interconnected, then we have achieved what we set out to do.

I know this is a simple lesson, but it has had profound impacts on my future. Before the fellowship, I had always considered following the engineering route and seen myself as just another engineer who dabbles in sustainability, but now, I’m excited to learn more about different opportunities within the realm of sustainability with my engineering mindset to enable success.


College, especially Santa Clara University (though I cannot speak for other colleges since I have only ever attended SCU), spends a lot of time focusing on the individual.  What is your mental health status, how stressed are you, and what can you do to move forward in your life? We are rarely ever asked the bigger questions about who we want to be in the world, so we forget to think about ourselves in the bigger picture. I’m not saying that we should neglect who we are, but I believe that finding ourselves requires more external action rather than internal self-reflection. Like Gandhi says (which doubles as my favorite quote): “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

The meaning behind this quote has truly helped me come to terms with my idnetity. Throughout my youth, I volunteered consistently, and that gave me a purpose. Talking with people and seeing the reactions on their face as I provided a simple meal or helped a child with homework made their and my day a hundred times better. But the ambiguity of my own future and the need to finalize it within four years of college put me at a standstill, where I focused more on my own development rather than on addressing the needs of others.

Coming back from this fellowship provided this mental break that I needed. Throughout my journey, I met so many inspirational people—peers, mentors, and Zambians—who all reminded me to be my unapologetic self. That smiling at strangers was not creepy. That being optimistic didn’t make you a dreamer. That sometimes, a conversation with an open mind and an open heart is all that is required. I truly enjoyed being able to be present and interact with the people I was helping, and I can honestly say my heart is a little bit fuller.

Lying on the mattress on the way to Shiwang’andu

Lying on the mattress on the way to Shiwang’andu

I remember lying down on a mattress in the back of a truck on our way to Shiwang’andu from Mpika. Drew and I had begun talking about how all the upcoming and popular movies were about superheroes. We discussed how our culture continually looks for a savior in times of need, with people projecting concerns onto others, hoping that one person can create the change, so the rest of us remain complacent. Drew noted that social enterprises don’t focus on the individual, but rather on encouraging everyone to step up and become their own superhero. 

Before, I had always envisioned business as an evil entity to exacerbate planned obsolescence and consumerism, the work we did showed that business can and should create social value (echoed in Laudato Si). After reading Poor Economics and Getting Beyond Better, I had already really liked the concept of social entrepreneurship, but Drew’s statement at that moment resonated with me. The entrepreneurial mindset was not taking advantage of others but engaging them in the world.

Group of sales agents trained in Kasama and the future for VITALITE

Group of sales agents trained in Kasama and the future for VITALITE

Looking back at these past nine months, I feel both pride and sorrow. Pride at all the things that I have accomplished, learned, and experienced, but sorrow at no longer having this class and seeing all the amazing people who went on this journey with me. Although I never quite realized my transformation throughout the fellowship, as I write this, I finally understand how much I have grown and changed.

And although my future remains uncertain and my path somewhat undecided, I cannot wait to find my place, knowing that we are not limited by our major or our skills, but by the passion and dedication we hope to bring. 

Sunset on the Zambezi

Sunset on the Zambezi

In true engineering fashion, here are some TENTATIVE markers of success for me within the next ten years:

  • (1 year from now) Carry out Fulbright research in France OR find a sustainable company to work for

  • (2 years from now) Develop a useful product

  • (3 years from now) Apprentice at a bakery, while working in a sustainability-related career

  • (4 years from now) Earn another degree, potentially in something related to the interconnection of technology, environment, and sustainability

  • (6 years from now) Pursue geoengineering (now referred to as climate change intervention strategies)

  • (8 years from now) Work with a social enterprise (or multiple) to travel through different countries in West Africa to address needs and encourage participation


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James Wang is a fourth-year double-majoring in Electrical Engineering and Environmental Science with minors in Mathematics and French & Francophone Studies. He is currently researching the ethical implications of geoengineering and working on his senior design project, an aquaponics system for food insecure communities.

Upon graduation, he hopes to receive a Fulbright scholarship to research in France regarding a new energy storage system—a hybrid supercapacitor. In the future, he hopes to couple his passion for the environment with his interest in technology to pursue climate change intervention methods, potentially geoengineering.

For more information, he welcomes anyone to contact him through email or Linkedin and exploring the rest of his blog!

Miller Center’s Top 10 List of 2018

Miller Center’s Top 10 List of 2018

As the end of the year quickly approaches, I look back over these past twelve months and am humbled by our community’s progress and accomplishments. The urgency to advance and accompany the social enterprises that our Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI®) programs serve was undeniably powerful this year.

I start each day scanning streams of social media and news outlets. This routine has unsuspectingly become my daily dose of hope. There is an abundance of stories that are at once poignant and energizing. One morning I’ll come across an approach developed by a Miller Center GSBI alum to help refugees earn respectable livelihoods, the next day I’ll read a fiery piece from a female-led enterprise that invokes my personal commitment to social impact. One of my favorite parts of my day is sharing these updates across our channels and amplifying the work of our Global Social Benefit Fellows, GSBI alumni, partners, mentors, and my Miller Center colleagues.

As a marketer, I appreciate that these stories–all this “content”–also offers context about you, our readers. With the help of Marketing Associate Alexis Tong, we collected and analyzed a year’s worth of media mentions, website analytics, click-throughs from our bi-monthly newsletters, and social media engagement across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn to inform the composition of this Top 10 list. We generated an algorithm that ranked each news story, blog, and social media post to discover which were most engaging.

Serendipitously, this data-derived list authentically aligns with what the team agrees as our 2018 highlights. Here are the results:

10. #MeToo at SOCAP

In October Miller Center joined 20,000 participants at SOCAP (Social Capital Markets)–a gathering of impact investors, entrepreneurs, and cross-sector practitioners focused on increasing the flow of capital toward social good. Our staff and Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI®) alumni participated on a variety of panels, including Tools for Scaling Social Ventures, Pioneering Social Enterprise Solutions for Refugees and Trafficking Survivors, and Creative Tensions: Investment & Impact. Yet, it was Senior Program Manager Karen Runde’s submission of Collective Voices Beyond #MeToo that was granted both a panel session and a workshop to explore the topic within the social impact ecosystem. The sessions at SOCAP explored restorative justice, the paradox of power, and even inspired this post-event blog by Avary Kent, Founding Executive Director of

Senior Program Manager Karen Runde introduces panelists participating on Collective Voices Beyond #MeToo Part 2. (Santa Clara University)

Senior Program Manager Karen Runde introduces panelists participating on Collective Voices Beyond #MeToo Part 2. (Santa Clara University)

9. Social Entrepreneurs, Mentors, Impact Investors… Oh My!

In August we welcomed 25 social business leaders, 63 executive mentors, and 18 social enterprises to the Santa Clara University Campus for our GSBI In-Residence accelerator. The gathering is an intensive 10-day convening of changemakers focused on scaling their innovative solutions that address the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.  Journalist Catherine Cheney of Devex met with a number of entrepreneurs in the cohort at the Investor Showcase and reported [h]ow grants can help for-profits and nonprofits alike fund pathways to scale. Visit our YouTube channel to view the pitches from the showcase.

Miller Center Chief Operating Officer Cassandra Staff hosts the 2018 GSBI In-Residence Accelerator Investor Showcase. (Chuck Barry)

Miller Center Chief Operating Officer Cassandra Staff hosts the 2018 GSBI In-Residence Accelerator Investor Showcase. (Chuck Barry)

8. Mastering Scale Out

Replication can significantly decrease the time and resources spent on getting a social enterprise up and running. In fact, replicated enterprises present reduced risks for impact investors. Associate Director of Replication Neal Harrison’s Scale and Adaption: The Two Sides of Replication and Global Social Benefit Fellow Lauren Oliver’s 5 Lessons Learned from Creating a Sector-Specific Accelerator Program make Miller Center’s Replication Initiative #8 in our Top 10 List of 2018.

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7. From Fellows to Fulbrights and Beyond

The accolades abound in 2018 for Miller Center’s Global Social Benefit Fellows (GSBF). Poets & Quants recognized Haley Harada as one of 2018’s Best & Brightest. Nithya Vemireddy received a William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India from the American Indian Foundation. Five of the fellows were awarded Fulbright scholarships, one of whom, Erika Francks was also named a Rhodes Scholar Finalist. However, the GSBF story that took top honors in 2018 was the announcement that Athena Nguyen was not only awarded a Fulbright but was also named Valedictorian for the Class of 2018.

Santa Clara University Undergraduate Commencement, Class of 2018. (Santa Clara University)

6. Alumni in the Headlines

There was an abundance of news and updates from the social enterprises that make up our GSBI alumni network. For the first time, two GSBI alumni made a pivot to partner, forging a stronger path to scale. Vava Coffee, Neopenda, 734 Coffee, and Good Nature Agro were named by Conscious Company as Social Entrepreneurs to Watch in 2018. KadAfrica was one of four winners of the 2018 Roddenberry Prize. Of note, the alumni story that had the greatest reach in 2018 took place just over one week ago on stage in Johannesburg at the Mandela 100 Global Citizen Festival. Recording artist Usher and Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins presented GSBI alumna Wawira Njiru, Founder of Food for Education, with the Youth Leadership Prize and $250,000!


5. Bay Area Boost

This summer Miller Center joined forces with Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County to offer a three-day capacity building workshop specifically for social entrepreneurs that are impacting the lives of those in need in the Bay Area. Journalist Heather Adams of the National Catholic Reporter covered the collaboration and Miller Center’s Chief Innovation Officer Pamela Roussos and Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County’s CEO Greg Kepferle wrote this op-ed. "The university brings intellectual capital; Catholic Charities brings social capital," Kepferle said. "Marrying them both helps us address the reality of poverty in innovative ways."


4. The Power of Partnership: Addressing Maternal and Child Health

In partnership with GE, Miller Center ran its second cohort of the Healthymagination Mother and Child Program. Eleven social enterprises participated in the program and in March presented to impact investors in Nairobi. One of the eleven cohort participants, doctHERs, connects female doctors in Pakistan to underserved communities such as refugees. doctHERs was in Rome last week as one of the top 13 companies to be recognized by the Laudato Si’ Challenge.  

Robert Wells, Executive Director, New Growth Markets and Business Innovations at GE featured on CNBC Africa.

Robert Wells, Executive Director, New Growth Markets and Business Innovations at GE featured on CNBC Africa.


3. Ending Poverty Takes Energy

There are 1.2 billion people worldwide who have little or no access to electricity. This lack of access perpetuates a poverty trap and that’s why we are so focused on accompanying social entrepreneurs who make clean energy affordable and available.  Energy Access India was a program run by Miller Center and New Ventures from 2015 to 2018, with the support of USAID, which helped 30 renewable energy companies raise $40 million of investment and provide clean energy to over 2.5 million Indians through a customized capacity development and investment facilitation program. Andrew Lieberman, Miller Center’s Senior Director of New Programs, together with Colm Fay of William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan, and Mark Correnti of Shine Campaign, published the research paper Closing the Circuit: Accelerating Clean Energy Investment in India.

The report analyzes business models and strategies, identifies barriers, and offers actionable recommendations.

The report analyzes business models and strategies, identifies barriers, and offers actionable recommendations.

2. Impact Investing: Positioned to Accelerate Impact

It may come as no surprise that the blog most read in 2018 was The Justifiable Ask: Realities of Raising Impact Capital written by GSBI Funding Facilitation Lead Anastasiya Litvinova. Lack of capital can be the biggest obstacle to growth. Bringing on the right investors can be course defining. Case in point is Miller Center GSBI alum Husk Power Systems–raising $20 million in equity investment in January, making it one of the largest investments in the mini-grid sector.

GSBI alum Husk Power Systems closed $20 million in funding in January 2018. (Husk Power Systems)

GSBI alum Husk Power Systems closed $20 million in funding in January 2018. (Husk Power Systems)

1. Accelerating Solutions At The Margins

Miller Center launched an experimental cohort named Social Entrepreneurship at the Margins (SEM) in January: could the lives of refugees, migrants, or human trafficking survivors be improved at scale through social entrepreneurship? In his blog Mobilizing for Migrants, Refugees, and Slaves, Miller Center Executive Director Thane Kreiner wrote about the third Vatican impact investing conference that convened in July. It sought to mobilize capital to address pressing, interconnected, global problems, including migrants and refugees. Of the final 13 winners of the 2018 Laudato Si’ Challenge, four are Miller Center alumni, three of which are from the SEM cohort (Five One Labs, Leaf Global Fintech, and Workaround).  From the accolades and media coverage surrounding the cohort to growing commitment to unlock the power of refugees, the 18 social enterprises that made up the SEM cohort captured our attention throughout the year and tops our list for 2018.



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Karen Paculba had the privilege of serving Miller Center in 2018 as its Senior Marketing Manager. With an eye for the nitty gritty and a natural curiosity for the big picture, Karen enjoyed the breadth of programs and sectors supported by Miller Center accelerator programs. Karen is continuing her career at Santa Clara University and will kick off 2019 as the University’s Director of Social and Digital Strategy.

Banner/thumbnail image photo credit: Instagram/Wawira Njiru

What You Give is What You Shall Receive

What You Give is What You Shall Receive


Lots of laughter. And lots of love.

Lots of laughter. And lots of love.

When I look back on my summer fellowship in East Africa, I can't help but think of the first memory that I have from there. Walking out of the airport in Uganda, I remembered feeling an overwhelming sense of what I can only describe as home. It is the same feeling that I get when I walk out of the Islamabad airport in my home country of Pakistan. And it feels like a wave of peace has washed over you. As if the arms of the universe are cradling you and welcoming you back to your true nature.

My trip to East Africa made me think a lot about my "true nature". When I speak of my "true nature", I am referring to the part of me that connects with others on a level outside of the superficial. In Pakistan and in East Africa, no one cared what university I went to. No one knew about my extracurricular activities. My value to others did not stem from any superficial forms of success that I had attained. Instead, people cared about who I really was as a person. They cared about how genuine our interactions were. We often engaged in conversations that I find so difficult to have here in America. In Uganda, we often conversed about the hardships of political corruption or the complex nuances of Western charity work in Africa. In Rwanda, I bonded with many of my friends and co-workers over discussions of the shared genocidal history of Rwanda and of Kashmir (my mother's homeland). I've gotta say: things just felt so much more real in East Africa. I didn't feel like I had to put on a front. Though people on the streets often referred to me as a mzungu because of the color of my skin, engaging them in conversation made us realize that we had more in common than I often feel like I have with people in America.

In East Africa, people cared about the love we shared and the laughter we bonded over. They cared about what we could learn from each other's lives and shared experiences. And it never took too long for me to engage in genuine conversation with anyone. It was as if I could finally throw away the rose-colored glasses I often feel pressured to wear in the US and actually immediately dig at what I wanted to know most about people: how they engage with life, what they genuinely struggle with, what brings them joy and what brings them pain, and what they really care about doing with their lives.

Our incredible Rwandan translator, Agnes, sending us off at the airport.

Our incredible Rwandan translator, Agnes, sending us off at the airport.

People in East Africa were so open to being genuine and spreading love. And it was evident in everything they did. People often went out of their way to be kind to us. To be generous. Women in the villages we visited would often make us food or bring us water bottles they had gone out to buy for us, even though water was a scarce resource in their village. I remember getting really sick at one point during our trip in Rwanda. We made a visit to the office at some point and, upon mentioning in conversation that I had a sore throat, the country manager, Benon, left the office in the middle of work just to buy me Amoxicillin from the local pharmacy. Agnes, our translator and good friend in Rwanda, went out of her way just to drive with us to the airport so she could send us off before our flight back to Uganda.

One particularly memorable moment was when some of the lovely staff at the Uganda office surprised us on our last day in Uganda by making an impromptu visit to our hostel just to squeeze in one last goodbye to us before we left the continent altogether. What made this moment so memorable, was the fact that we'd had the loveliest goodbye party full of cake and dancing and pictures the day before. We had so woefully said what we thought would be our last goodbyes the day before, but were absolutely thrilled to find that half the staff had piled into the company van just to see us off one last time.

We were so thrilled to find the staff from the Uganda office waiting for us downstairs on our last day at Bushpig!

We were so thrilled to find the staff from the Uganda office waiting for us downstairs on our last day at Bushpig!

Even the staff at Bushpig (the hostel we stayed at in Uganda) along with Father Innocent and the guards at Centre Christus (the Jesuit center we stayed at in Rwanda) were so beyond hospitable and loving towards us. From having long and lovely chats at breakfast with some of the waitresses at Bushpig's breakfast (who would later sneak some extra fruit onto our plates) to playing cards at midnight with the security guards at Centre Christus, everything about East Africa just felt so fun and so homey. It was little moments like these that made me realize that the people there truly understood the value of making others feel welcome like family. 

I think more than anything, what my trip to East Africa made me realize is that what you put into life is what you get out of it. What you reap is what you sow. If you spread love and kindness and are genuine with others, you will receive it in your own life. If you live a life where you choose to be generous to others, the universe will find a way to bring that generosity back to you. If you go forth into the world seeking a means to make it a better place, life will find a way to make itself better for you. Life is about choosing to embody certain values in your interactions with the world. And whatever you embody, life will embody that back for you. 

All smiles and good times at the weaving center in Rwanda

All smiles and good times at the weaving center in Rwanda

A snapshot from our goodbye party at All Across Africa's Ugandan office.

A snapshot from our goodbye party at All Across Africa's Ugandan office.

We live in a culture where we can often get lost in attempting to increase the importance of our own individual journeys in the grand scheme of things. This can lead to high rates of depression, anxiety, lack of self worth, and endemic self doubt. I find that the East African culture can inspire a lot of positive change in our lives if we choose to let it do so. From both East African culture, as well as many other Eastern cultures, I find that the West can benefit from learning the value of community building and choosing to live a life beyond ourselves. Uganda and Rwanda are by no means perfect. Decades of government corruption in Uganda as well as the ghosts of the genocidal past that haunt Rwanda make it clear that both countries still have a lot of work to do for their citizens, as do all nations. Any success stories from both of these nations, whether they came in the form of women empowering one another to develop financial livelihoods outside of depending on their husband's income, such as the weavers in both nations did, or whether they came in the form of people from conflicting backgrounds choosing to put aside their differences to work together, all stemmed from the basic value of prioritizing community needs over individual desires.

I think that if we work together as a nation on creating a culture that fosters more of this, we will be so much happier for it at the end of the day. If we focus on improving the lives of others, on spreading happiness and love wherever we go, and on fostering more genuine interactions with others, we will come to find our own lives improved, our own happiness skyrocketing, and our own sense of self strong and secure. We will find strength in places we never knew we could rely on before. We will climb mountains higher than we think we could, and we will boundlessly open new doors. We will break barriers that lie in our relationships between each other and connect deeply on levels beyond what we had once perceived. For what you give to this world, is what you shall receive. 


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Huda Navaid is a fourth-year Political Science major and Creative Writing minor. After college, she aims to pursue a gap year before applying for graduate school. In her gap year, she intends to travel and do research on how culturally-competent mental health care policy can be implemented across the world. She is currently working on writing her first book and is jumpstarting a PAUSD student mental health initiative called The Palo Alto Project. Huda also runs a blog where she reflects on life, discusses cultivating life skills, and talks about developing organizational skills. She also posts her own music, poetry, and short stories on her Instagram page.

What are our Global Social Benefit Fellows up to now?

Some of our GSBF alumni are engaged in exciting international work!

Click on bolded fellow names and company names to learn more.

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Kaci McCartan (GSBF 2014, Bana/Mechanical Engineering) is in Ghana on a fellowship with Burro to develop frugal agricultural technologies.

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Lauren Oliver (GSBF 2017, Teach A Man To Fish Foundation/Civil Engineering) has accepted an offer from the Peace Corps to work with agricultural technology in Benin starting next year.

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Erika Francks (GSBF 2016 ONergy/Environmental Studies and Class of 2017 Valedictorian) begins her Fulbright research project on socio-economics of solar microgrids in Lesotho (South Africa) in December 2018.


Athena Nguyen (GSBF 2017 KoeKoeTech/Public Health Science and Class of 2018 Valedictorian) is in Vietnam as part of her teaching Fulbright.

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Katrina Van Gasse (GSBF 2013, Solar Sister/Marketing) begins her Fulbright research on women and entrepreneurship in Fiji early next year.

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Marisa Rudolph (GSBF 2017, Farmerline/Environmental Science) is conducting research on women’s economic empowerment in Ghana’s agricultural sector.


Katie Diggs (GSBF 2017, Sistema Biobolsa/Environmental Science) has a year-long internship with Impact Amplifier, a GSBI Network partner in Cape Town, to support their acceleration work with energy enterprises in Southern Africa.


Nithya Vemireddy (GSBF 2017 Awaaz.De/Psychology) received a William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India from the American Indian Foundation, and has begun working at Chindu, a nonprofit focused on promoting capacity building.

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Carson Whisler (GSBF 2016, ONergy/Economics) is preparing to start Fulbright research on solar energy in Indonesia early in the new year.

5 Lessons Learned from Creating a Sector-Specific Accelerator Program

5 Lessons Learned from Creating a Sector-Specific Accelerator Program

Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship accelerates the success of high-potential social enterprises all over the world. We have worked with more than 900 social enterprises through our suite of accelerator programs. These enterprises have raised more than $940 million, and impacted 320 million lives. While each of the enterprises that make up the Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI®) alumni are unique, many operate using similar business models, face common challenges, and employ common strategies for distribution, customer education, sales management and more.

With this in mind, Miller Center’s Replication Initiative works to understand the best practices of our most successful alumni and other pioneering enterprises in order to help early-stage enterprises grow more quickly. We created the Last Mile Distribution (LMD) Playbook, a comprehensive guide for distribution-focused enterprises, and designed a four-month program for the entrepreneurs. To create the LMD Playbook, the Replication team took Miller Center’s proven business model-centric curriculum and tailored the material to meet the needs and specific challenges faced by LMD enterprises. The LMD Playbook not only includes examples and advice from “Originators”— successful distribution-focused enterprises—it also incorporates several distribution-specific modules designed to help LMD enterprises recruit and train sales agents, manage inventory, and more. See Figure 1 for a full list of the LMD Playbook Modules.

Figure 1: Last Mile Distribution (LMD) Playbook Modules

Figure 1: Last Mile Distribution (LMD) Playbook Modules

Miller Center’s Replication Initiative has now successfully run two cohorts of the Last Mile Distribution Playbook program for a total of 20 early-stage distribution enterprises that sell a range of products from solar lanterns to water filters and agricultural inputs. After working with these entrepreneurs and testing the playbook concept for the first time, here are the five most important lessons we’ve learned:

1. Replication works

After the completion of the two cohorts, we sought to answer two core questions in our evaluation of the LMD Playbook and the program itself:

● Is the LMD Playbook program valuable for early-stage entrepreneurs?

● Are we achieving our goal of helping LMD enterprises launch and grow faster?

Through a series of phone and online surveys as well as analysis of the lives impacted, investment, and revenue data from the Originators, we found that the answer to both of these questions is a resounding yes. On a 10-point scale (10 being highly valuable and relevant) participants rated the program, on average, an 8.7. When giving feedback, participants frequently noted that they appreciated having the opportunity to learn from both the successes and failures of the Originators, followed by feedback and expert advice from their mentors.

Additionally, data collected from the participants and the Originators suggests that the LMD Playbook participants are, in fact, growing their social impact more quickly than the Originators did in their early years. Figure 2 compares the average “Total Lives Impacted” metrics of nine Originators to the Playbook participants, and shows the significant and enhanced growth of LMD participants. We also compared the Originator’s revenue and investment data to that of the LMD Playbook participants and discovered similar, positive results. However, this is data collected 1-8 months after program completion and we plan to keep monitoring the progress of the enterprises so that we can better understand how these early-stage enterprises continue to grow and develop, and what continued support they need to be successful.

Figure 2: LMD Program Participant KPI Data compared to Originator average

Figure 2: LMD Program Participant KPI Data compared to Originator average

2. There is no “one-size-fits-all” or “business-in-a-box” solution

The LMD Playbook program was designed to help entrepreneurs replicate the best practices of the Originators, but it has limitations. Even if LMD enterprises share several common traits with another, each will still face unique challenges that cannot be aided through replication guides. In fact, several of the entrepreneurs reported that some of the distribution-focused module content was too specific and could not be applied to their region and/or growth stage. For example, Module 7: Technology and Tech Requirements advises entrepreneurs to manage their business operations using software like Salesforce and QuickBooks. While these complex software packages may work very well for enterprises that have been operating for several years, three of the LMD Playbook participants reported that this module was not as valuable as others because the specific technology requirements suggested in the module are too sophisticated for their enterprises.

Feedback collected from the participants’ mentors also emphasized the importance of learning by doing, rather than learning by studying the LMD Playbook. For example, a new solar distribution enterprise in Kenya should understand the Originators’ business models and how successful enterprises segment determine their target markets, but the new entrepreneur should also be prepared to spend time in the field working with customers and defining their own unique target market. The LMD Playbook was designed to help entrepreneurs avoid some of the most common challenges associated with operating a distribution enterprise, but participants should still expect to make mistakes and learn from them.

3. The Playbook material was valuable for all enterprises, regardless of their growth stage

Figure 3: Cohort Growth Stage Breakdown

Figure 3: Cohort Growth Stage Breakdown

When recruiting participants for the first and second cohort, we tried to identify enterprises that we felt could derive the most value from the program. Based on the content of the playbook, we decided that enterprises in their pre-pilot, pilot, and immediately post-pilot growth stage were the best candidates. We analyzed the survey responses to determine how the experiences of the entrepreneurs varied depending on their growth stage.

We learned that all participants found the program to be valuable because it is focused on the specific needs and challenges of growing an LMD enterprise, but the enterprise’s growth stage dictated which modules the entrepreneur found most valuable. For example, entrepreneurs who have yet to launch their pilot found the first module, “Mission and Impact” to be especially helpful because it encouraged them to first clearly outline the problem they are trying to solve and how they are solving it. But, entrepreneurs who have already successfully completed a pilot found the modules on fundraising and modes of financing to be more helpful as they are looking to raise money to expand their operations.

Regardless of their growth stage, all of the entrepreneurs found the Financial Modeling module to be particularly useful. Several of the entrepreneurs reported that the financial modeling spreadsheet, also known as the “What-If Analysis” tool, was the most valuable aspect of the entire program, and several more plan to keep using this tool regularly. Participants also gave high marks to Module 4: Sales and Sales Agents as the module offered entrepreneurs advice on building and managing a network of sales agents, which is key to the success to any LMD enterprise.

4. Early-stage entrepreneurs working in the same sector value peer interaction and support

There was one key difference between the Cohort 1 program and that of Cohort 2: Webinars. After collecting feedback from Cohort 1, nearly all of the entrepreneurs suggested that future participants have the opportunity to communicate with each other during the program. In response to this feedback, we added a group collaboration component to the second cohort program. This collaboration occurred during scheduled webinars, a time when the entrepreneurs would all join on one call and review the most recent modules with each other and with the webinar facilitators (Miller Center staff).

The Cohort 2 entrepreneurs unanimously agreed that these webinars were one of the most valuable aspects of the LMD program. Several of the participants enjoyed the webinars because these meetings allowed the entrepreneurs to share vendor lists, grant opportunities, business advice and more with people working in the same sector. Participants also found intrinsic value in them, valuing the camaraderie of talking to like-minded entrepreneurs and knowing that they are not alone in the difficult challenge of growing an early-stage LMD enterprise. In this way, the webinars provided additional value to the participants by providing a space the entrepreneurs to support each other.

5. Focusing on a specific sector allows us to leverage the knowledge and expertise of partners

The LMD Playbook program would not have been possible without the assistance of expert partners. While Miller Center has worked closely with social entrepreneurs for more than 20 years, the creation of new sector-specific content required additional knowledge and resources. Therefore, Miller Center looked for partners with experience working in distribution who could add value to the content of the LMD Playbook, support recruitment efforts, and provide additional resources to the participants during the program.

The Replication initiative was fortunate to find and work with several organizations such as D-Prize and Global Distributors Collective (at Practical Action UK) , that share a similar mission and dedication to working in this sector; D-Prize provides grant funding to distribution enterprises and the GDC offers “support, information, and expertise” to last mile distributors. To create the LMD Playbook and run two successful cohorts, Miller Center worked closely with both D-Prize and GDC before and during the program. By focusing on distribution, the formation of the LMD Playbook created this opportunity to bring together like-minded partners who could offer their expertise. This collaboration with both organizations also created additional value to the participating entrepreneurs as D-Prize and the GDC provided distribution-specific support and resources to the participants.

With the success of the first playbook behind us, Miller Center’s Replication Initiative looks forward to creating more sector-specific playbooks for early-stage entrepreneurs. In a few months, we plan to launch both a new playbook and an accompanying program designed for Microgrid enterprises. Like the LMD Program, this new program offers participants the opportunity to learn more about operating a microgrid enterprise through a series of modules and the support of a trusted Miller Center mentor.

As we create new playbooks, we will keep helping LMD enterprises by incorporating the LMD Playbook content into Miller Center’s GSBI Accelerator program as an affinity group. For more information about applying to GSBI and the new affinity groups, click here. Applications are due November 2.


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Lauren Oliver started working with Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship as a Global Social Benefit Fellow in 2017. For her fellowship, she worked with the Teach a Man to Fish Organization in Uganda researching social value products. Lauren is a Santa Clara University graduate who completed her Bachelor's Degree in Civil Engineering with a focus in Water Resources in June 2018 and plans to continue working in the social impact sector, ideally for an organization focused on improving access to clean water.

Banner photo courtesy of Empower Generation.

Shifting the Paradigm

Shifting the Paradigm

What do you do when poverty stares you in the face? When it’s five years old, chasing you down the street with a basket full of maize and grabbing your hand? Or when it’s a hesitant smile from a villager, mustering up the courage to speak what’s on her mind? Throughout my time in the fellowship, I witnessed three differing responses to poverty that have radically altered the way I view the world and plan my future.

Kristi Chon conducting action research for NUCAFE as part of Miller Center’s Global Social Benefit Fellowship (Summer 2018).

First, the response of the privileged. The one who uncomfortably averts their eyes from poverty. The problem of poverty is something they don’t see on a day-to-day basis or are trained by society to ignore. This was me, and at last I lived day to day next to the problems my classmates and I have only read about, without a comfortable distance of a book in between us and the problem.  

Second, the response of the man or woman who has “made it out” yet fights to do everything he can to distance himself from the problem. My coworkers tell me of their friends who receive a western education and end up returning to Uganda, discouraged by the lack of employment opportunities and institutional support in their countries of education.

Third, the response of the man or woman who stays for the fight: the response that gives me hope. NUCAFE encapsulates this response throughout its entire organization. After interviewing farmers, my partner and I left deeply moved by the impact the organization is making in many lives and generations to come. We saw how farmers were able to grow financially through receiving higher and consistent prices, having access to trainings to transform their farming capabilities, and in general be united as a community through cooperatives.

NUCAFE was essential in providing this support to farmers when no other institutions had done so. Since the liberalization of Ugandan coffee in 1951, the cooperatives that had previously supported coffee farmers collapsed. Rather than the farmers having bargaining power in numbers, they found themselves isolated and targeted as individuals by middlemen and large multinational corporations that underpaid the farmers leaving them in a cycle of poverty.

However, after our time learning about NUCAFE, I left inspired seeing social enterprises challenge the first two responses to facing the issue of poverty in society. I look forward to exploring how organizations such as NUCAFE harness the third response to address poverty through a career in social impact.


About the Author

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Kristi Chon is a fourth year Economics major and Sustainability minor. Since her time as a Global Social Benefit Fellow working with the Ugandan social enterprise NUCAFE, she desires to pursue a career of social impact consulting. She currently works as a Program Assistant advancing Replication efforts at Miller Center.

How Human-Centered Design Thinking is Transforming Lives Around the World

How Human-Centered Design Thinking is Transforming Lives Around the World

Cooperative leaders and micro-entrepreneurs gathering empathy at an innovation workshop in Kigali, Rwanda.

Cooperative leaders and micro-entrepreneurs gathering empathy at an innovation workshop in Kigali, Rwanda.

“Design thinking is just a fad.”  “We’ve been doing design thinking for the last 20 years–it’s just the same old process with fancy new words.” “People who use design thinking never follow through with their projects–it is a waste of time to generate ideas that never get implemented.”  These are examples of a few of the kinder critiques of design thinking. Detractors are suspicious, antagonistic, and downright hostile about design thinking and the types of promises being made about its integration into business and education.

In my own journey as an educator learning human-centered design thinking at the Florida Hospital Innovation Lab (FHIL) in Orlando under the tutelage of Dr. Karen Tilstra, I must admit the process seemed at best silly, and at worst absurd.  I kept thinking, “What is the deal with all those sticky notes and whiteboards filled with insights?”  But then I started seeing the results of design thinking firsthand. Teams of students came away from the innovation process empowered, and with an important tool to make social impact.  FHIL helps Florida Hospital save lives and money, while social enterprises use design thinking to serve the poor around the world.

In the last six years, I have been transformed from a doubter into an evangelist for human-centered design thinking.  I integrate it into every class I teach, and I am always thinking about new ways it can be used. Instead of depressing students with the problems of the world, I now teach them to use their knowledge of problems to come up with desirable solutions.

What is Human-Centered Design Thinking?

Human-centered design thinking (HCDT) is a helpful tool that guides interdisciplinary teams to create viable solutions to social and environmental problems.  At its essence, human-centered design thinking is an innovation mindset and a problem-solving methodology used in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. It is also increasingly taught in colleges and universities.  HCDT focuses on the needs of the end user or beneficiary and can be used to tackle any problem. The fast pace of change and the complex problems of our world demand new ways of innovating solutions, and HCDT is a game changer for social enterprises.

Makers Unite is an inspiring example of how HCDT is being used in the social enterprise space.  Makers Unite, a Global Social Benefit Institute enterprise based in Amsterdam, works with Syrian and African refugees and integrates design thinking throughout its business.  Refugees, called “newcomers,” are taught creative confidence and HCDT in a unique 6-week curriculum, and make products that are sold through e-commerce. Newcomers are then matched with appropriate employment or educational opportunities.  The founder of Makers Unite, Thami Schweichler, is a trained designer; he is always asking the end users how his enterprise can be more helpful and he constantly strategizes how Makers Unite can be financially sustainable and better able to scale.

Design Thinking at Santa Clara University

Human-centered design thinking is transforming the lives of students at Santa Clara University, and specifically at Miller Center.  Our Education and Action Research division trains and sends out interdisciplinary student teams to work alongside social enterprises in the developing world.  A year ago, student teams used HCDT to assist a rural cooperative in Mumeya, Rwanda, in building a business plan for a crop storage facility, and to provide insight to Pollinate Energy, a clean energy social enterprise serving urban slums in India.

Kelly Grunewald, Social Enterprise Intern, leading a design-thinking activity.

Kelly Grunewald, Social Enterprise Intern, leading a design-thinking activity.

Source: PICO International

This summer, working alongside PICO-Rwanda, a community-organizing nonprofit, Miller Center deployed six Santa Clara students to conduct “Business 101” and innovation workshops for rural cooperative leaders and urban women micro-entrepreneurs.  HCDT was at the heart of the preparation of the students and the content of the workshops.  Kelly Grunewald, Miller Center Social Enterprise intern, summed up the power of design thinking: “Human-centered design thinking is a vehicle for transforming the world into a more just and sustainable place.”  Kelly experienced firsthand how design thinking guided Rwandan leaders in framing their challenges and discovering solutions “on their own.” She remarked that it helped leaders “tackle big problems,” by making them “more manageable”. The foundation of design thinking is empathy–listening to others and getting to the heart of the challenge.

Michelle Stecker's innovation model, developed at Santa Clara University (2018)

Michelle Stecker's innovation model, developed at Santa Clara University (2018)

The HCDT method we use at Miller Center is called “The Innovation Journey,” which I developed this year with the help of Shagun Patel, illustrator; Caitlin Blohm, graphic designer; Allan Báez Morales, Director of Frugal Innovation Hub; and countless students, staff, and faculty, who were kind enough to give terrific feedback at all stages of iteration and refinement.  A class of engineering, business, and arts and sciences students, learning how to facilitate HCDT, inspired the model. The Innovation Journey focuses on the needs of end users and reminds us that the journey never ends. We now have teams of SCU students using HCDT for field research, Engineers Without Borders projects, student club challenges, and everyday life problems (like how to keep the kitchen clean!).  A team even used HCDT to create an innovation space in Nobili Hall for Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship employees and SCU students.

The PICO-Rwanda/Miller Center design-thinking innovation team at Centre Christus in Kigali, Rwanda.

The PICO-Rwanda/Miller Center design-thinking innovation team at Centre Christus in Kigali, Rwanda.

Human-centered design thinking transforms people.  Instead of being paralyzed or overwhelmed by the complex problems of the world, practitioners are trained to develop solutions while focusing on the spoken and unspoken needs of the end users.  HCDT is not a fad–it is here to stay, and it is a new tool in the hands of passionate change makers. There are innumerable examples of people around the world who are following through with HCDT projects that are changing lives.  Our Santa Clara students are living proof of how human-centered design thinking is transformative!

Note:  If you would like to help support the Global Social Benefit Fellowship or Social Enterprise Internship program, please click here or contact David Harrison at  These transformative programs are dependent on financial support from generous donors.



Michelle Stecker, PhD, Miller Center’s Director of Education and Action Research, teaches and designs social innovation and entrepreneurship curriculum and leads the effort to integrate human-centered design thinking into the College of Arts & Sciences at Santa Clara University.

Photo and image credits: Video produced by PICO International; all other images and photos property of Santa Clara University.



Over the summer, Miller Center accompanied over 150 social enterprises through our accelerator programs to help them discern pathways to scale their impact as they serve the poor, protect the planet, and economically empower women.

Bay Area Boost (June 2018)

Bay Area Boost (June 2018)

We worked with Jesuits in Cameroon and Benin to accelerate more than 60 community-based enterprises that support women farmers and artisans and provide IT training to women. In partnership with Catholic Charities, we ran a Bay Area Boost for 32 social services organizations and enterprises. For ten days in August, we hosted 26 entrepreneurs from 18 social enterprises on the Santa Clara University campus as part of our 9-month GSBI® In-Residence accelerator program. Over 150 “friends and family” welcomed them at Testarossa Winery, site of the historic Novitiate Winery, an enterprise of Jesuits in formation for almost a century. 240 impact investors, mentors, and guests attended our GSBI Investor Showcase and our social enterprises had on average 3.6 investor meetings each. Our 18 2018 Global Social Benefit Fellows returned from 7 weeks in Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, India, and Zambia conducting action research for GSBI alumni social enterprises. Indeed, it’s been an amazing summer of walking with change leaders around the world.

2018 Miller Center annual report

2018 Miller Center annual report

Witnessing social entrepreneurs discern growth plans is a spiritual experience for me. Because their intention is for the greater good – to improve, transform, or save lives of people living in poverty, their work is powered by love and compassion. As we accompany them through this process, we see what more we can do to help others, a manifestation of the notion of magis. They are architects of hope, the theme of Miller Center’s 2018 Annual Report.

After I chaired a panel on mobilizing resources to help refugees at the Third Vatican Impact Investing Conference this summer, people asked me about my faith. Similar questions arose following my welcoming comments at our August GSBI events. I describe myself as spiritual, not religious, as you can witness from the story of my communion experience at St. Peter’s tomb. Because we are multi-dimensional and intersectional in our identities, so too is our spirituality. This I am sure of: social entrepreneurship is a core component of my spirituality.

Wildfire smoke blankets California  Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Earth Science Data and Information System (ESDIS) project

Wildfire smoke blankets California
Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Earth Science Data and Information System (ESDIS) project

The view from my home in Sonoma County is obscured by smoke drifting down from Mendocino County, Oregon, British Columbia; a hurricane hurls towards Hawai’i, where I have planned a brief dive vacation next week. Climate change is affecting our lives, but it affects the poor the most.

Refugees flee violence driven by hunger, thirst, political corruption, greed, power; many have nowhere to go, rejected by those who claim moral authority. There is much reason to lose hope.

Despite the smoke, I prepare for Friday afternoon yoga, putting on a soft t-shirt with a Jimi Hendrix quote: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”

The opportunity to accompany architects of hope is proximity to the power of love, and that connects us all. We invite you to join Miller Center on this incredible journey.

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Global Social Venture Competition Features Miller Center Connections

Global Social Venture Competition Features Miller Center Connections

The Future of Social Ventures Conference that took place on Friday, March 16 at UC Berkeley featured several Miller Center Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI®) connections, including keynote speaker Carlos Orellana, CEO of the 2012 GSBI® alumni enterprise salaUno, and current 2018 GSBI social enterprise Untapped.

The Global Social Venture Competition (GSVC) is a pitch competition providing exposure and mentorship to aspiring social entrepreneurs, a model that complements Miller Center’s accelerator programs. GSVC focuses on finding innovative solutions in the social enterprise space, while Miller Center’s Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI) offers stage-specific support to social enterprises to help them scale.

Pictured (L-R): Richie Garner, Gavin Cosgrave, Lauren Oliver, Christina Harris, Will Paton, Marisa Rudolph

Pictured (L-R): Richie Garner, Gavin Cosgrave, Lauren Oliver, Christina Harris, Will Paton, Marisa Rudolph

Several Miller Center student employees attended, including Gavin Cosgrave and Richie Garner, and 2017 Global Social Benefit Fellows Will Paton, Christina Harris, Marisa Rudolph, and Lauren Oliver. The students networked with conference attendees, learned from successful entrepreneur speakers, and watched presentations from several of the competing teams.

Orellana kicked off the conference with his keynote speech about his path from a career in finance to pursuing degrees in business and public health at UC Berkeley. There, he learned about Aravind, and realized that a similar business could benefit Mexicans suffering from blindness. Orellana discussed the challenges he faced with adapting Aravind’s business model to Mexico, and how salaUno and Aravind have since worked together to achieve mutual success. Today, SalaUno is the leading provider of cataract surgery in Mexico City.

Next up, Miller Center student employees attended a workshop hosted by OpenIDEO titled “Circular Design for Social Impact.” OpenIDEO is an online community platform that hosts challenges around a variety of global issues, an excellent pipeline partner for GSBI programs.

Founder, Food 4 Education, Wawira Njiru   Photo credit: Food 4 Education

Founder, Food 4 Education, Wawira Njiru
Photo credit: Food 4 Education

Wawira Njiru, founder of the 2017 GSBI Accelerator alumni enterprise Food 4 Education, started her business through an OpenIDEO challenge for creating ideas to help urban slums combat climate change.

At the workshop, OpenIDEO staff presented on the potential for rethinking products and services to account for their whole life cycle, from manufacturing to disposal. Teams of conference attendees were given two options for imagining new solutions: repurposing material waste from Nike shoes to create new products, or creating a new venture around reducing food waste. Each team progressed through the design thinking process and presented elevator pitches for their ideas at the end of the short workshop.

Following the workshop, Samasource and LXMI CEO Leila Janah spoke about her journey founding the companies, and about the potential of social enterprises to reduce poverty. Samasource has employed almost 10,000 bottom-of-the-pyramid workers to complete data entry and machine learning algorithm work. Janah recently wrote a book, “Give Work” about the power of jobs to lift people out of poverty.

During the afternoon pitch competition, the seven Global Social Venture Competition finalists from the U.S. West Coast region pitched their ideas and fielded investor questions.

Second among the batch was current GSBI In-Residence enterprise Untapped, which provides a clean water and last-mile distribution platform for developing markets. Untapped creates water-treatment centers that double as local distribution hubs to reach remote villages. Although Untapped did not advance to the world finals in Milan, they will continue to hone their enterprise for the 2018 GSBI In-Residence in August.

New beginnings: Four Miller Center Global Social Benefit Fellows awarded Fulbright scholarships

New beginnings: Four Miller Center Global Social Benefit Fellows awarded Fulbright scholarships

I love April because many new exciting things begin!

We have begun teaching the new cohort of 18 Global Social Benefit Fellows! Fourteen of these will be working in Africa this summer, in Ghana, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zambia. We will be working with nine social enterprises, eight of them alumni graduating from the GSBI Accelerator in 2016 and 2017. Replication is a strong theme across the action research projects, with half of the projects testing and refining lessons for accelerating social impact in rural Africa. Half of the projects will evaluate and propose business model innovations with our social enterprise partners. Please come meet the new fellows at the Research With a Mission Open House and Expo on Wednesday, May 23, 2:30-4:30 pm, in Locatelli Center. 

April brings news for our alumni fellows and the exciting next stage of their journeys! I am particularly proud of four of our Global Social Benefit Fellows (GSBF) who have received prestigious Fulbright awards to continue researching social entrepreneurship in the developing world!

Please join me in congratulating Ericka, Carson, Athena, and Marisa!

Our alumni fellows are building the social enterprise ecosystem

We are proud of our alumni fellows starting graduate studies


Unless stated otherwise, photo credits: Santa Clara University

CocoAsenso: Reflections from Launching a Social Enterprise in the Philippines

CocoAsenso: Reflections from Launching a Social Enterprise in the Philippines

The rural Philippines: hot, wet, lush. Though I wasn’t exactly sure where I would end up after graduating from Santa Clara University and hiking the Pacific Crest Trail for 4.5 months, I’ve come to settle in at Paranas, Samar, my home away from home. Don’t get me wrong, living in the Eastern Visayas has not come without its challenges—never quite “fitting in”, sweating—always, and living to the cacophonous soundtrack of roosters—but behind the curtain of this small provincial town, innovation is brewing in the coconut industry, and I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of it.

Rice fields and coconut in Paranas, Samar

Rice fields and coconut in Paranas, Samar

For many of us, coconuts have begun to play a larger role in our daily lives over the last 5-10 years. We cook with its oil, munch on its dried meat in our snacks, moisturize our skin, and of course, bake macaroons. Despite its wonders, the journey of a coconut and its farmer remains mystery to most. Prior to beginning my work in the Philippines, most of my coconut related thoughts revolved around devising a strategy to best chisel open the outer shell without injuring myself, this generally required moving from the kitchen to my garage to select more appropriate tools.

For the more than 15 million Filipinos who farm coconuts for a living, the coconut is more than just a guilty pleasure. Throughout its 7,000+ islands, generations of farmers and their communities have harnessed coconuts to build homes, sweeten meals, create art, and generate income. Its many uses and frequent fruit production has led to the coining of its eternal name, “the tree of life”. And with the rise of globalized markets, more people are demanding its coconut products, yet, despite this growth, 9 million of these coconut farmers still live in poverty.


The Disconnect

Copra drying process

Copra drying process

Understanding this discrepancy begins at the farm. In Samar, most farmers lack access to higher-value markets for their coconuts and are thus forced to produce a low-value product called copra. In the Philippines, farmers spend long hours drying coconut meat to make copra. After the moisture content is reduced to the required maximum, farmers sell copra to village-level traders who then send it to regional oil mills for energy intensive processing. This ultimately creates a low-value coconut oil called refined, deodorized, bleached (RBD) oil, used primarily for cooking. Despite the intensity of their efforts, the average farmer in Samar earns around $620 per year from copra production.

Concurrently, producers of high-value virgin coconut oil (VCO) operate large, but costly processing facilities in more industrialized regions of the Philippines (Manila, Cebu, Davao). In these areas, many high volume, multi-million dollar facilities compete for expensive whole coconuts to be shipped from the closest farmers who are able to meet their demand. These heavy whole coconuts are costly to ship and are commonly processed into dried coconut flakes (desiccated coconut) before being expelled into VCO.

Large scale coconut processing facility

Large scale coconut processing facility


The Opportunity

It’s at this juncture where you might be thinking: why not produce desiccated coconut in rural areas and employ farmers in the processing? With this model coconut farmers could increase their incomes by forgoing the need to make copra and access employment at a municipal-level processing facility, at the same time, the large, multi-million dollar facilities could access less expensive desiccated coconut (DC), forgoing the need to ship whole coconuts, which are 7x heavier than DC.

This is what we are doing at CocoAsenso.

For the last 2 years our team has been assembling the necessary partners, funding, and equipment to begin creating high-value coconut products in the communities where coconuts are grown. Our next challenge: can we scale this innovation beyond our first facility to make a more equitable and efficient coconut industry in the Philippines? We think so.



After beginning my journey to social enterprise as a Global Social Benefit Fellow in early-2015, consulting Jibu during its early growth stages, and helping launch CocoAsenso since May 2017, I’ve assembled a few reflections to consider for those looking to create scalable ideas in the social enterprise space:

CocoAsenso’s first processing facility in Paranas, Samar

CocoAsenso’s first processing facility in Paranas, Samar


1. Let your community shape your model

The traditional model for starting a business or implementing a new innovation begins with the idea, then finds a financially capable market segment. While this may work for proven businesses that are trying to target established certain groups of people in new areas, new ideas seeking to solve social and environmental challenges in impoverished areas must understand its communities first. Some important questions to ask yourself during the brainstorming process:

  • How much investment is needed to carry out given solutions? How can I minimize investment while maximizing impact?

  • Has anyone pursued my idea? If yes, why didn’t it work or why couldn’t it scale? Was it a capital, human, or infrastructure problem? How will you overcome it?

  • What is the broader context I’m operating in? What resources are available locally, regionally, globally? How will I be disrupting the livelihoods of existing business owners, how vulnerable are these entrepreneurs? How will I give disrupted groups a voice?

  • What is my role in bringing this idea to fruition? How will I ensure my idea has local ownership and management?


2. Focus, with a broad vision

Coconut jerky during trial phases.

Coconut jerky during trial phases.

In the world of coconuts, there are hundreds, if not thousands of ways to extract value from this tree of life. Many are quite niche, and alluring along the long, lonely path to establishing a processing facility in a remote farming community. For CocoAsenso, coconut jerky caught our attention, but, ultimately proved economically infeasible. While exciting in the moment, exploring the feasibility of this products ultimately slowed our progress toward our core model.

  • In short: let your competitive advantage drive sustainable revenue, then expand into other areas once you know how to do what you do best.


3. Strategically target financial partners

While the social enterprise ecosystem is still young in the Philippines, impact investing is continuing to gain traction among NGOs and government. More impact-oriented capital is enabling social enterprises to scale with less reliance on traditional financial institutions. CocoAsenso has raised most of its capital through competitions and grants, largely from local and regional partners. We believe these sources will continue to play a substantial role in supporting our early growth stages. A few insights from our experience:

Opening day at our first facility alongside many of our partners.

Opening day at our first facility alongside many of our partners.

  • Build resilience in disaster-affected communities: As more NGOs look to fund capacity building, target organizations who may have left over or partitioned funds from disaster response efforts. Of course one should not predate funding which helps the most vulnerable bounce-back from a disaster, but in many cases, 2-3 years after a spike in NGOs have left a disaster affected community, there will be remaining financial support best suited for establishing social enterprise. CocoAsenso has been able to access capacity-building grants by working with farming communities affected by Typhoon Haiyan which damaged much of the Eastern Visayas in 2f014.

  • Find partners to widen your scope: While much government funding & support remains excluded from for-profit social enterprises, other groups who may share your same vision can work with you to carry out your idea in exchange for ownership or repayment. CocoAsenso was able to establish its first facility by partnering with a local farming association interested in our vision.

  • Access university resources: As more universities are directing resources and attention toward catalyzing social and environmental change off-campus, utilize their capacity to carry out your shared vision. The Miller Center’s Global Social Benefit Institute is a perfect example of this: a win-win for Santa Clara University and the enterprise. Other Universities, such as the University of San Carlos (USC) in Cebu City (a Miller Center partner), are even going a step further. With the recent announcement of their new Center for Social Enterprise (CSE), undergraduates will soon be required to enroll in social enterprise curriculum. USC’s CSE will also be working to target and launch enterprises in communities throughout greater Cebu.


4. Consider how to prioritize your impact model

Balancing impact and growth can be a difficult trade-off in social enterprise. Founders generally want to be as impactful as possible, but market and political conditions may limit their efforts. At CocoAsenso, we’re beginning to ask difficult questions that will have a significant impact on our model as we scale. While unique to our model and the local coconut market, these questions serve as a framework to think about other challenges:

Whole coconuts ready to be delivered to CocoAsenso directly from the farmer.

Whole coconuts ready to be delivered to CocoAsenso directly from the farmer.

  • How do we best compensate farmers for their coconuts? Do we pay farmers above market rate for their coconuts? Or generate more profit to enable faster scaling? While paying higher prices for locally sourced coconut may have more immediate benefit, this leaves less money for reinvesting, paying farmer employees or funding community development activities.
  • How do we protect tenant farmers from being kicked off their land? Many coconut farmers in our community do not own their land. Some operate under an agreement with the landowner and share the revenue from selling copra. With the establishment of our coconut processing facility, landowners have the opportunity to sell whole coconuts, freeing up the needed labor for copra production. Anticipating the potential for tenants (often the most vulnerable farmers) to be kicked off their land, we must establish protective measures that are fair for landowners and tenants. 
  • Who owns my enterprise? In an ideal world, new social enterprises will always be launched and owned by the most vulnerable and capable. In reality, many are launched by people who are better resourced, may come from another country or community, and have a vision for high level change. As a committed founder, spending time, energy, and passion, you must ask how best to balance fair compensation for your efforts while maximizing benefit to the people you are working to help. It’s here where the core of your company’s “why” lies.


The Road Ahead

While coconuts may not have been on the top of my mind amid my post-graduation job search, CocoAsenso has challenged me to better understand the role of social enterprise in global development. Upon my completion of Miller Center’s Global Social Benefit Fellowship, I’ve thought more and more about starting an enterprise of my own, but for now I’ll be in the Philippines, working with coconut farmers of Paranas, and dreaming about the road ahead.

To learn more about CocoAsenso, and its mission to improve the livelihoods of remote coconut farmers in the Philippines, click here.

To read more of Tom’s reflections and follow his upcoming Pacific Northwest Trail thru-hike, check out his blog:

Hewa Tele: Saving Lives One Breath at a Time

Hewa Tele: Saving Lives One Breath at a Time


You never really think about oxygen until you desperately need it. Yet, no matter where one lives, access to oxygen can be a matter of life or death. Having personally had an anaphylactic reaction, I know the discomfort and anxiety that one feels when having difficulty breathing. Moreover, in my work as an EMT on Santa Clara University’s campus, I carry and administer oxygen quite frequently. For us it’s routine and as members of the developed world, we often take access to medical oxygen for granted. But for millions of our fellow human beings, an unjust social equilibrium exists in which they don’t have this privilege.

I first realized the gravity of this health inequity when I spent two months working in a health setting in Uganda. As a 2017 Global Social Benefit Fellow for Miller Center, I spent last summer conducting action research in Nansana, Uganda at a health clinic run by a social enterprise called Nurture Africa. One weekend while in rural Uganda, one of the other fellows had an allergic reaction. I remember feeling so helpless because there was nothing we could do for him. We didn’t have Benadryl, oxygen or an EpiPen and we were in a small village, nowhere near a health facility that could handle such an emergency. Luckily his reaction was mild, but it still scares me to think about what could have happened had he had a more serious reaction and gone into anaphylactic shock.


Although this was an isolated experience, it opened my eyes to the fact that this is the way that most people in developing areas actually live. They live in a reality without access to lifesaving medication or any sort of emergency care. And even if one can get to a health facility, it’s likely the facility won’t have the means to effectively treat them. While in Uganda, I had the opportunity to visit a handful of medical clinics, but Nurture Africa, along with several other private clinics, did not have medical oxygen. Although the World Health Organization lists oxygen as an essential medication, lack of affordability leaves it difficult to find in health centers in the developing world.

That’s where HewaTele comes in, a true game-changer in health system development and delivery in sub-Saharan Africa. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, the mission of HewaTele is to provide a regular supply of medical oxygen at affordable rates to reduce delay in access to emergency healthcare. As a member of the GE healthymagination and Miller Center Mother and Child Program, HewaTele, along with the 14 other social enterprises in the first cohort, participated in a 6 month, online accelerator course. Through this program the social entrepreneurs strengthened and refined their business models, improved their strategic thought processes and planned for sustainable scaling. At the end of the program, each enterprise articulated their business plans, which demonstrated impact, growth and long-term financial sustainability, to potential investors and supporters.

A few weeks ago, I got the opportunity to speak with Dr. Steve Adudans, the Executive Director of the Center for Public Health and Development (CPHD), the organization that designed and developed HewaTele as a social enterprise. Adudans is actively involved in HewaTele’s operations and was the enterprise’s representative during the healthymagination program. Speaking with him was truly inspirational; he exudes passion and commitment and it was incredibly motivating to hear about the ways in which GE’s healthcare expertise and the Miller Center’s business acumen have positively influenced HewaTele’s operations and expansion plans.

HewaTele’s work exemplifies the power of collaboration to create systemic change. In 2014, HewaTele received $1 million in seed funding from the GE Foundation, the philanthropic branch of GE. After completing the in-depth mentoring and acceleration process through the healthymagination program, HewaTele received a $1 million grant from Grand Challenges Canada. Hewa Tele was able to leverage the Grand Challenges Canada funding to raise matching contributions from UNICEF and the Kenyan government. With this money, HewaTele opened two fully operational oxygen plants in Kenya in 2017.

Additionally, HewaTele has capitalized on connections made with other healthymagination enterprises and is currently in talks to partner with and provide medical oxygen to Lwala Community Alliance, Health Builders and Access Afya. Looking forward, HewaTele plans to build two new oxygen plants in Uganda and Tanzania, expanding their geographic reach and scaling their social impact. By working to reduce the health disparities evident in their societies, social enterprises like HewaTele engage and empower communities to live healthier, more fulfilling lives.


It’s inspiring to hear stories of the ways in which being a part of the healthymagination program has allowed enterprises to better articulate their business models and begin to execute their plans for sustainable scaling. I am confident that this collaborative effort by the Miller Center and GE has helped create a more interconnected ecosystem surrounding health enterprises and has consequently improved maternal and child health outcomes.

On March 1, 2018, the second cohort of the healthymagination program, consisting of 11 social enterprises, will be pitching to potential investors and supporters at the Sankalp Africa Summit in Nairobi.  Please join us at Sankalp to support the growth of our next class of health enterprises and show your commitment to improving maternal and child health throughout our global communities.

Photos courtesy of Santa Clara University and Hewatele