“So you want to fly to US from India and return to China?” asked Ms Vlaicu when she finally reached me in India. She has been trying for two weeks. “And we have only two weeks for the visa … I doubt it is possible, but we can try if you want.”
I got the US Visa in New Delhi, just 1 day before my flight to Washington DC. I offered my 3kg Toshiba laptop as a gift, just before leaving to the New Delhi airport. Without it, my backpack weighted only 9kg. The clothes I carried were for hot weather and informal and all of them were dirty. I badly needed a haircut. I slept on the floor the last night in New Delhi and it was cold. Thirty eight hours have passed since I woke up and I was about to finally lay down. For the past three months I slept in a tent, in a 8 bed dorm without AC, in a few buses and even on a rooftop. The gigantic bed and the room only for myself were the most welcomed indulgences.
Feeling slightly out of place, dizzy from the timezone difference and in awe that I eventually made it there, the IVLP adventure was about to start on me, and I was trying to catch up.
IVLP stands for International Visitor Leadership Program and it is “the premier professional exchange program” of the US department of State. They pride with Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or Romano Prodi and other 334 current and former chiefs of state and heads of government who have participated in IVLP. You can’t even apply to the program. The U.S. Embassies handpick candidates and nominate them to Washington where the U.S. Department of State selects the lucky few they invite. Close to 5000 people considered “emerging young leaders” in their countries visit U.S. yearly on different topics. IVLP has been running for 75 years.
Fourteen of us got the invitation for “IVLP Changemakers – the impact of social entrepreneurship in U.S.” and since I saw the list, I was impatient to meet them. Gradually they would reveal themselves to be amazing people, charming characters and excellent professionals. Like Iongwa would joke: “true great leaders”. And from colleagues they became friends. Like a tune you hum in your head, I still hear the introductions we used to make 2-3 times per day, each one in a strong signature accent:
Hi, I am Karla Gradilla from Mexico …
I am Khalid from Oman …
I am Sophie from Greece
I am Annina from Switzerland
I am Ruben from Armenia
I am Iongwa Mashangao from Democratic Republic of Congo
Yeah, Hi, I am Mya Mio Chel from Myanmar
I am Nda from Zimbabwe
I am Surath Giri from Nepal
I am Carlos from Portugal
I am Shereen from Egypt
I am Dukencia from Haiti
I am Onur from Turkey
Sometimes Virgil and Minnie introduced themselves. They were the awesome team accompanying us from the beginning to the end, translating cultural differences, explaining, telling stories and helping us to put the meetings into a larger context. I think Virgil was also in charge with the jokes … he never missed an opportunity :-).
In the following three weeks, the 16 of us participated in countless meetings, we went to a symphony, to the cinema, we drank and cooked together, we watched a movie, shopped, danced, had dinner in american houses and much more. But more often than anything else, we attended meetings.
We started by spending 6 days in Washington DC. There we visited Department of State, we got familiar with federal structure of United States but we also met local organizations. Half of us moved to Vermont to experience the tiny green state in the north that has undergone a spectacular transformation in the past 30 years. Although our group won the “plane is too heavy, someone needs to get off” lottery, we reunited a day later with the other half of the group in Kansas City. While some know it for the barbecue, Kansas seems to be a rising star in entrepreneurship friendliness and the home of the famous entrepreneurship focused Kauffman Foundation. While walking on the streets in a weekend, Kansas City reminded me of a ghost town, but in accelerators like Sprint and Think Big Partners, we met with a vibrant entrepreneurship community. We ended our program on the west coast, in the charming Seattle, home of Bill Gates, the inspiration for The Jetsons and the headquarters of at least 3 empires: Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon. Here we fed our cultural appetite by going to both a symphony, but also queuing up for the opening of The Mockingjay part 2. The nostalgia was already present when we closed the program in the majestic Seattle Public Library – in the morning of 21st of November. Later that day we went for a cruise and had our last dinner together.
In this three-week tour we met more than 30 organizations. Most of them are on the list below, in a chronological order. I have combined descriptions I found online with my memory and notes. Just a few times I added my reflections or comments. So, the list:
US Department of State – Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs ” works to build friendly, peaceful relations between the people of the United States and the people of other countries through academic, cultural, sports, and professional exchanges.” IVLP is one of the programs they implement for this purpose.
World Learning is an 80-years-old organization working in 60 countries. It started in 1932 with the Experiment in International Living when 23 students from New York went to live in Germany, paired with local host families. Our IVLP program was organized by World Learning. The 14 of us were among the 2000 people they receive on behalf of the US Department of State annually.
Beeck Center for Social Innovation at Georgetown University is a fresh organization launched in February 2014 with a 10 mil $ gift from the Beecks – a family who’s two children study at Georgetown. The fresh new center is lead by Sonal Shah and Marta Urquilla, coming from outside the academia with an impressive track record in Obama Administration – Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. The center “strives to amplify existing initiatives, ignite new ones, and drive creative and critical thinking on issues related to social impact and innovation.” They “actively promote policy-relevant, cross-disciplinary approaches to research, ideas, and action”. It seems that its popularity is rising in Georgetown campus and I bet they will produce important work in the policy arena.
U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs (EB/CBA) coordinates the Entrepreneurship Efforts. Dr. Vanessa Beary, who serves as the Senior Advisor on Youth Entrepreneurship presented the work of the department. Among other initiatives, EB/CBA organizes Global Entrepreneurship Summit, an event that gathers thousands of participants. Last year it was organized in Kenya and in 2016 will be back in U.S., in Silicon Valley.
Busboys and Poets is basically a restaurant while also being “a space for art, culture and politics to intentionally collide” They believe that “by creating such a space we can inspire social change and begin to transform our community and the world.” We had an introduction to the U.S. federal system and we got to meet the owner and got more insights about how they operate. Details like the small bookstore, the events they were organizing and the leaflets at the door were indicating that the place is boiling with debate and it really is a hub for discussion and social change.
Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship designs entrepreneurship curriculum for schools and works with teachers and schools to deliver it in one-year courses or in a three-week intensive program. They also complement with a national business plan competition.
1776 – “Where the revolutions begin” – is a global incubator and seed fund helping startups transform industries that impact millions of lives every day—education, energy & sustainability, health, transportation and cities. It looked like a hub/co-working space but they seemed to have a powerful network of partners including local authorities, big companies and local universities.
SCORE Association was previously known as the Service Corps of Retired Executives, but is now “Counselors to America’s Small Business”. It provides free business mentoring services to entrepreneurs in the United States, by both active and retired business executives and entrepreneurs who donate their time.
Community Forklift is a Non Profit Reuse Center. It means that they receive donations of different construction materials, furniture and appliances and they resale them. In their words: “We pick up donations of unwanted and salvaged building materials throughout the metro DC region. Then, we make the building materials available to the public at low cost, and provide vintage materials for restoring old homes. We also offer public education about reuse, and distribute free supplies to local nonprofits and neighbors in need.” It is a powerful place driven by a passionate and creative team. In terms of organizations with a soul, it really stands out.
Halycon Incubator’s exceptional feature is an incredible mansion in Washington D.C where the lucky social entrepreneurs can live and work from for 5 months, while they also receive a 10.000$ stipend. This article has the full story.
Dog Tag Bakery
In their words: “From the early hours of each morning, our bakery is mixing up batches of handmade baked goods while providing valuable work experience for disabled veterans and caregivers. The Dog Tag work-study program combines education with the experience necessary for our vets to succeed post duty as civilians.”
Ashoka – is a behemot and an icon when it comes to social entrepreneurship. “Ashoka is the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, with nearly 3,000 Ashoka Fellows in 70 countries putting their system changing ideas into practice on a global scale.”. I like the way they matured and how their current mission goes to the essence.
Vermont is the home of Ben & Jerry Ice Cream, Burton Snowboards and the progressive candidate Bernie Sanders. Our first meeting in Vermont was with four people: Tom Torti , president of Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, Karen Paul , counselor in Burlington City Council, Emily Piper – co-founder of LaunchVT Competition and Bruce Seifer – a local activist and co-author of a book about Vermont’s impressing success story. Bruce – a veteran that got involved when Bernie Sanders got elected in 1981 – is said to be also the co-author of Vermont’s success.
Vermont is using 100% renewable energy, Burlington regularly shows up in rankings of the healthiest, happiest, best place to raise a family cities and, to really impress me, they also have Vermont Employee Ownership Center that helps regular businesses convert into coops. An example is the case of New School of Montpelier which became the largest cooperative in Vermont after converting. This is just one example of progressive thought in action. In explaining their success, one of the ingredients I picked up is that, being a small community, they were able to turn a culture of competitiveness into a climate of collaboration. Burlington’s success seems to be the result of having a long term vision that was consistently followed. Their recent development plan is a beautiful magazine that resulted from a long process of consultations. It was a good example of how they co-create the long long term vision of the city.
Middlebury College is a private liberal arts college founded in 1800. It is one of the oldest liberal arts colleges in the United States, one of the highest ranked (#4 in US on this list) and also one of the most expensive (you need 62.000$/year to study there). In total, 2526 undergraduates from 50 states and 74 countries study there and choose from 44 majors in the arts, humanities, literature, foreign languages, social sciences, and natural sciences. The daughter of Jeff Bezos is rumored to study there, probably being among the 50% that don’t have a scholarship.
We met with Tiffany Nourse Sargent – Director, Community Engagement Center and John Isham and Mustafa Babak from the Center for Social Entrepreneurship. The two centers aim to prepare students for lives of meaning and impact. The work of the two centers is connected and hosted by the same cozy house. The CSE is at its begining, but already has some big names as partners. They organized a fellowship for 6 people, a summer internship abroad in social enterprises and they give small grants for summer projects initiated by students. Their work is mentioned in this article. You can also hear John Isham reflect on the first year experience.
Ben & Jerry’s – the activist and fun company
Ben & Jerry’s competes with Haagen Dasz in the super premium ice cream category. If you go on their website, first thing you see is “We’re on the ground at COP21 in Paris bringing you daily updates from the movement and breakdowns on negotiations.” You can see and feel the legacy of Ben&Jerry having fun and being activists, everywhere in the factory we visited. They proud themselves of being a company “founded by two hippies”. In their history you would find them scooping free ice-cream at Occupy protests in New York, being pioneers in fair trade or protesting oil drilling in Alaska. In 2000 they have been acquired by Unilever but they say that “through a unique acquisition agreement, an independent Board of Directors is created to provide leadership focused on preserving and expanding Ben & Jerry’s social mission, brand integrity, and product quality.”
My 2 cents: they seem to be for real, a company with a soul. I would guess their are struggling to keep their DNA inside Unilever but I just love the idea that an ice-cream company would have the balls to campaign, for example, for money out of politics. After visiting them, Ben&Jerry has become one of my favorite companies. And if they don’t live up to that awesome image they are projecting, that image will still inform my vision about how a company can be a fun-to-be-around, engaged citizen.
New Farms for New Americans
“New Farms for New Americans (NFNA) mission is to help refugees grow more of their own food that is fresh, culturally appropriate and free from harmful chemicals, while also recognizing the social, psychological and physical benefits associated with gardening. NFNA currently works with participants from Vietnam, Burma, Bhutan, Congo, Burundi and Somalia.”
We visited one of the farms where they were raising goats, chickens and cultivating vegetables. I find it to be a lovely project, brilliantly adapted to the local context. It is serving at the same time the market that exists, the cultural traditions of refugees, conserves the land, builds community and helps refugees integrate and provide for themselves both healthy food and self-esteem.
TEDx KC Team, hosted by VML is a volunteer team that organizes one of the biggest TEDx Events in the world. They have 3000 people attending and several talks end up having millions of views on TED global website. VML is a huge creative agency headquartered in an old airport. Their offices look great. Even though I am familiar with TED and TEDx events, I was inspired by the story of this team. You could see the passion they put into organizing the event and the local impact and global resonance this has lead to. The experience reminded me that TED is not only a great source for content but also an impressive global undertaking worth studying for its astounding scaling model.
Sprint CSR / Sprint Accelerator
Kansas City is the home of Sprint. We met with the CSR team and also visited the Sprint Accelerator where a startup weekend event was taking place. The CSR team we met was in an interesting moment of transition, scaling back and embedding their successful “green” initiatives in the day-to-day operations and switching their focus to empowering youth through education. I will keep a close eye on their progress, as their track record with green initiatives suggest they will do a good job with this.
Startup Weekend KC was taking place right when we got there so we took part in the kickoff and then we went back to watch the final pitches. Global Entrepreneurship Week was starting right after that, so on Monday so we went to the Multicultural Business Happy Hour taking place at Think Big Partners – which is a hybrid combination of a technology focused accelerator, innovation center and coworking space. Just before heading to the airport to leave Kansas we dropped by UMKC Henry W. Bloch School of Management to listen to this year’s Regional Entrepreneur of the Year award recipient, Danny O’Neill, telling his story of how he turned his passion for good coffee into The Roasterie.
Technology and Social Change Group at Washington University
The Technology & Social Change Group at the University of Washington Information School explores the design, use, and effects of information and communication technologies in communities facing social and economic challenges.
“FareStart is a culinary job training and placement program for homeless and disadvantaged individuals. Since 1992, FareStart has provided opportunities for over 7,500 people to transform their lives, while also serving over 6 million meals to disadvantaged people in our community.” Best cookies I had in US.
Tiffany McVeety, the author of Entrepreneurial Edge Small Business Tools delivered an workshop at Seattle Impact Hub. Being there gave me the opportunity to explore around and to briefly meet Michael Libes, founder of Fledge – a conscious company accelerator and proffesor of entrepreneurship at Pinchot University – a university committed to the common good, hosted by the same building. The third organization hosted there is Social Venture Partners. Partners in the SVP Network pool their funds and together they make multi-year, unrestricted gifts to carefully vetted nonprofit investees with proven potential for social change.
Gates Foundation gives grants totaling billions of dollars and it is considered very influential. They have an inspiring visitor center, one of the best interactive museum-like experiences I saw. I was surprised to hear that Gates Foundation hires 1200 people in Seattle. But I was most impressed by the activists campaigning for divestment of Gates Foundation 1,4 billion they have in fossil-fuel companies. They were campaigning daily for more than two months, with no success in getting at least a meeting with the foundation – so I admired their determination and questioned the Foundation’s attitude. I think they have a point and you can read more in this article.
After 23 days of sleeping in hotel rooms, for the last three days in U.S. I moved to a family in a residential area of Seattle. Charity – my host – happened to be an educational consultant, helping schools to implement project-based learning. Our breakfast and lunch conversations were a delightful and rich exchange of ideas and resources about progressive education – complementing Charity’s delicious cooking.
During the 3 days left in Seattle, I reflected on the experience. Three weeks, spending quality time with 15 amazing people and visiting more than 30 organizations in four states.
The feeling I had was that social entrepreneurship is work in progress, helped (probably) by its trendy popularity. Many talk about it, many things are being labeled with this tag but when you strip it of this noise – it is a hard thing that few people/organizations achieve. It takes the courage, creativity and all other skills of entrepreneurship combined with the big heart and wisdom of someone that cares so deeply about an issue that sticks to it for years. We are looking for two rare things combined.
My specific interest is around nurturing social entrepreneurship in youth. My overarching question was: what are some architectures and experiences that successfully provoke and nurture social entrepreneurship in young people in their twenties. Middlebury’s CSE and Beeck Center were two places we visited where they had “hands on” experience, although a recent one. Sprint CSR team was just starting to focus on that. AshokaU is bringing universities together around this question and will be the go-to place to explore further. Annina explained the nuts and bolts of her work and I got excited by Impact Hub Zurich’s Summerpreneurship architecture and the results they have so far. And Vermont was an inspiration in terms of how a larger ecosistem can help. Most of the other organizations and meetings had something to teach me, even if not directly related. There are pieces of solutions scattered in US and around the globe and there are also people scattered around the globe, trying to complete their puzzles.
I had a pronounced interest in how they think about youth’s relationship with authority. All the people and places I interacted with seem to have the same blind spot I usually encounter. They don’t seem to give much thought to it. Everywhere I look I see us paying an enormous tribute to our current mental models, commissioning our schools, universities and most non-formal projects to pass them on. And of course our thinking patterns come with the same patterns of action/inaction attached.
The universities are busy asking the questions for students. The teachers and administrators are active and the students passive. The young of our planet are busy playing the grades game that university designs for them. In relation to knowledge and wisdom, students are disempowered. They don’t get to ask the “naive questions”. They don’t get to explore the world on their terms – the world is being presented to them and interpreted for them. And maybe this world of ours is sometimes a mess because existing generations failed to find and adopt different patterns of thought and action. But we are busy passing the existing patterns further, robbing the young spirits of their essential role in a human society – to question the status-quo, to rebel and ultimately to refresh human society with new thinking-and-doing. The good stuff of past generations will be rediscovered but it needs to be challenged first so it can reveal its relevance and value. A debate in a university course is as good as it gets. But if you are sitting in a course, the big questions have been asked already. The rules and boundaries have been set and the basic assumptions about what is a valuable use of your time and focus are embedded.
As a social entrepreneur, I find that the hardest-to-win battle is with the existing mental models. I think we badly need young people to become social entrepreneurs, the type that challenge the ideas we have about happiness, lifestyle, work, good thinking, research, truth, consumption, ownership, media, trust, security, impact, justice, collaboration and many others. For doing that, I think they need spaces where they have the power as individuals to determine their goals and their use of time and also as groups to self-organize. I tried to read between the lines the willingness to accept an inverted power dynamic between the young generation and the one in power. Most likely it is unrealistic in the whole of society but I am inclined to think it should be the norm in learning environments. And if not in all learning environments, at least where we hope to nurture social entrepreneurship.
There was little time for an in depth conversation about this specific topic, so I am only making a guess that the places I visited are not actively thinking about this. They might be doing it in a way that is not self-evident in a short visit. Either way, it is a conversation I will try to have with some of the people involved in social entrepreneurship education.
This is just one of the many reflection points that our visit to US enabled. I have a long list of follow-ups and hopes of staying connected. I leave U.S. with a different representation of it, embodied by the real people I met and the places I visited. It is a great country after all because of its normal people, in spite of the questions I have about the actions of its politicians. This time, for me, U.S. was about Peace, Love & Ice Cream. The general environment was peaceful in every way, starting with the general politeness and the smiles as a norm. It was peaceful for me as a personal experience, having everything organized in contrast with being in the chaotic India, on your own, for 6 weeks. The places we visited and my awesome colleagues were full of love for people and the environment. Our group was full of love of life. Social entrepreneurship seems to be fueled by love. And Ice Cream – because I indulged myself in ice cream and milkshakes while the whole group was savoring the rich and comfortable material life in US.
It has been an awesome experience for which am grateful to Ms. Gabriela Paleru, Ms. Stephanie Boscaino, Ms. Cornelia Vlaicu, Ms Geetha Rajagopal, Mr. JP Das, and Mr Scott Van Alstine, Amy and Allie, my thirteen awesome colleagues that became my friends (a.k.a “great true leaders and future presidents”) and the amazing Minnie and Virgil, and to all the people that invested their time to meet us and share their experience, and especially to Dave and Lynna and to the Massell family for inviting us into their homes.
To all of you, a wholehearted virtual hug from Beijing!