By Devin Thorpe for Forbes Magazine
Santa Clara University is a relatively small Jesuit college located in Silicon Valley. A few years ago, when they set out to touch 1 billion lives through their social entrepreneurship programs by 2020 that might have seemed, shall we say, “optimistic” for a school with just 8,000 students. The 75 million people they’ve helped so far certainly aren’t laughing.
On Friday, August 22, 2015, I was invited to campus to see the Global Social Benefit Institute more commonly called the GSBI at the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship first hand. I first met Thane Kreiner virtually last year when he was a guest on my show. Pat Haines is the Senior Director of Marketing for the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship and Pamela Roussos is the Senior Director of the GSBI. They work with Kreiner, who leads the entire Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Their passion for social entrepreneurship is genuinely inspiring.
The GSBI program strikes me as one of the best examples of a mission-driven program I’ve encountered. The program generates no revenue for the University. The entrepreneurs it supports get tremendous value from the program but have no connection to the school; they aren’t students, alumni or even Catholic. The school has put mission ahead of any self-interest.
The entrepreneurs in the program are impressive. While all meet the Silicon Valley definition of a startup, these are not startups in the sense of two guys and a business plan. All are already achieving scale, typically measured in tens of thousands of customers. The program is intended to help them scale even more rapidly, allowing them to touch more lives in more meaningful ways.
There are 15 companies in the current cohort. I met ten of them during my visit. Let me tell you just a bit about each of them in the order they presented their companies to me:
This nonprofit social venture operates in South Africa, working to help students get into and graduate from college. Focusing on leadership skills rather than academic skills, the students not only help themselves they help their friends and have a meaningful impact on the school. Led by Rob Taylor, the enterprise has already run the program over 191 times, yielding 2,675 graduates in seven different provinces.
Anya Cherneff is working to empower women with small business opportunities selling solar power products in Nepal. Like Solar Sister, a GSBI graduate selling solar power products in Africa, Empower Generation sells solar lanterns through its growing network of entrepreneur retailers and sales agents around the country. Every time
a family replaces a kerosene lantern with a solar one, the family’s air quality and health improves and the risk of a potentially lethal burn is eliminated and a deadly weapon is disarmed.
Prashanth Venkataramana has developed a network of 1,100 retail shops with hopes to quickly grow to more than 8,000 on its way to 400,000 around India. Essmart doesn’t own or operate the shops, instead, each pre-existing shop is provided with a catalog of 65 eco-friendly and socially responsible products that can quickly be delivered to the shop or customer by an Essmart delivery person. The shops increase their revenues and profits with no capital outlay and their customers begin acquiring goods like solar lanterns.
Judith Joan Walker is impressive in a room full of amazing people; born in the Netherlands, has lived all around the world and speaks English with a perfect American accent. She helps lead her family business making clean burning cooks stoves for Africa. The stoves are equipped with solar power generators that can power LED lights and a cell phone. More remarkably, the high-tech stoves will burn a variety of fuels with absolutely no smoke—the fuel is completely vaporized. After I bashed holes in walls in Nepal in March to install stoves there, I was fascinated by this almost magical improvement.
Sanjay Banka first connected with me two years ago. He is working to solve one of the world’s greatest problems: the practice of open defecation. In India alone, he explained, there are about 600 million people who lack access to a toilet. Banka Bioloo has created an affordable, hi-tech toilet that provides on-site human waste treatment. While the hardiest of our readers can imagine living without a toilet, I suspect few can comprehend living in a community where no one has one. Banka is working to ensure that no one has to live in that world.
While none of the entrepreneurs in the group appear to have been born before I was, they are mostly in their 30s and 40s. Not Karim Abouelnaga. He launched his business as a sophomore at Cornell and still isn’t old enough to rent a car. His program, the only one of the cohort focused on the U.S. market, works with at-risk kids in New York City schools. He remembers being one of those students and the good fortune he had to have had some special help along the way. He’s created a summer enrichment program that helps kids gain academic ground over the summer rather than lose most of what they learned during the school year.
Pavin Pankajan has developed a low-cost, fully automated water purification and dispensing system for India. One unit can purify 1,000 liters of water per hour. Up to now, Pankajan has been selling the systems to NGOs in India, but has used the GSBI experience to develop a new model where he’ll partner with local communities to operate the water treatment systems. To date, AquaSafi is operating 130 “water stores” and plans to grow to 1,100 by 2018.
Jonathan Mativo has created an information and communications technology training program in Kenya. By leveraging a single CPU across 20 computer terminals, he can equip a computer lab for $3,000 and use it to train over 100 students on basic computer skills. By helping high school students and recent graduates in Kenya who may never have touched a computer to learn basic skills like how to use orinary office software, he helps them to become employable. So far, Mativo has trained over 20,000 students.
Naandi founder and CEO Anoop Ratnaker Rao has developed a strong network of backers in the India government and among NGOs working there as well as among its 500,000 customers for clean water. Naandi sells clean water for about 1 U.S. penny per gallon. At this rate, however, the business isn’t fully self-sustaining. Rao is working to further enhance the Naandi brand to enable it to charge 20 to 30 percent more, allowing the company to be fully self-sufficient and to grow infinitely to meet the need for clean water in India.
Eric Sorenson co-founded Carbon Roots International to manufacture charcoal from agricultural waste in Haiti, which is already 97 percent deforested. The company’s green charcoal is now the largest manufacturer and most popular brand of charcoal in Haiti. Sorenson explains that they still have only a small market share in a highly fragmented market. His goal is to supply 25 percent of Haiti’s charcoal by 2020.
The enterprises who weren’t able to share their stories with me include Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (Mama), Naya Jeevan, PACE MD, Rangsutra Crafts India and The Youth Banner.
After my visit, it was clear to me that while I can’t guess whether they will reach their goal to impact a billion lives by 2020, it isn’t a pipe dream. These folks are for real.