July 2011 Archives

Be Encouraged

It's easy to be discouraged, even cynical, these days. 

We're inching towards defaulting on our national debt.  China is worried we're acting like a third world country playing financial chicken. 

As our government sputters over issues of consequence, the House did just muster the "courage" to pass one bill to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing the Clean Water Act and another to prevent the Energy Department from enforcing higher energy standards for light bulbs.

(Why was I surprised that I saw a car on the highway today with a bumper sticker that read, "I support global warming"?)

We are starting to get used to our middle of the international pack stature in education.  U.S. 15 year-olds scored below the developed world (OECD) average on mathematical literacy (and well behind China and Singapore).  In science literacy we did better: about average. (Want your kid to be better in math?  You could send them to Korea, Finland, Iceland, Slovenia, or the Slovak Republic.)

Other statistics reveal that health care in Cuba is better than ...

... no:  Let's look at why we should be hopeful!

I'm writing a book to support social entrepreneurship.  Tentatively titled What I Wish I Knew Then: Becoming a Social Entrepreneur, the book  uncovers and addresses the questions and issues holding back early stage social social entrepreneurs.

In the course of researching the book, I've been talking to social entrepreneurs from around the world (including my co-author, Cynthia Koenig, founder of Wello), who are working on problems spanning the spectrum of societal ills.  Here are very brief profiles of two of them.

Derek Stafford never intended to start a social enterprise.  He started two.  Stafford is a political scientist with expertise in the mathematical properties of social networks (stuff like how many links to Kevin Bacon, which truly is important in studying power and influence).  La Unión, Honduras, provided the perfect spot for his research, its geographical isolation and rich tapestry of personal connections creating a social network with just the properties he wished to explore.

Stafford and team did extensive research on the ground, mapping relationships among people who had long histories with others in the community, even if they typically only knew them by their first names.  To compensate them for their time, Stafford wanted to provide something of value to La Unión -- but what?

The region produces outstanding coffee, but most residents, working for much wealthier coffee growers, earn subsistence incomes.  Stafford launched Unión MicroFinanza to provide microloans (in the form of fertilizers and coffee inputs) to small farmers, extended them credit, and purchased their coffee through his second social enterprise Microloan Coffee.  He also banded farmers together into a coop and encouraged them to use the coop's market power to improve their bargaining power with him.   He is looking at the role of crop insurance and price guarantees to further support small coffee farmers in La Unión.

Maria Springer's route to social entrepreneurship was also serendipitous, but perhaps less surprising.  She was about to join the Peace Corps after receiving a bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations when she received a phone call from her cousin asking if she'd like to be part of a local solution to local problems in Kenya.  The call changed her life.

At the age of 22 she founded Kito International along with Wiclif Otieno.  The organization trains Kenyan "street youth" and employs them as as salespeople through Kito's companion organization iSmart.  The street youth, who formerly endured all the hardships that confront the homeless everywhere, now earn steady salaries. 

Through its deeds and relationship building, iSmart has gained the support of suppliers who provide products such as solar lights and LED lamps on credit.  The Kito-trained sales force provides "last mile" sales and distribution, benefiting themselves, suppliers, and the slum residents who can't easily obtain the kinds of beneficial products that the former street youth sell.

Derek and Maria both excelled in school, have palpable drive and energy, and have countless opportunities they could pursue.  And they are working to make a true difference in the lives of those who are eking out a living.  Their work reflects the their humanity, commitment, and integrity.

There are more Dereks and Marias today than ever before.  Perhaps all the things that make it tough to get a foothold in today's ultra-competitive job market are tipping people (and not just young people) towards social entrepreneurship. 

But I think it's more than that.  In a world where traveling and living internationally are more and more common; where communicating with one (or thousands!) of people is just as easy if they are half-way around the world or next door; and where there is more opportunity than ever to receive support for an idea that can change the world -- in that world, our world, we are seeing an awakening to a life of purpose. 

That world is a world that should encourage us all.

Postscript:  As this blog entry marinated in my drafts folder, Google just announced the winners of its first ever science fair.  The winner, a 17 year old girl, discovered how a cellular energy protein might help a cancer drug become more effective.  The winners in the 15-16 and 13-14 age groups, also girls, studied the effects of air quality on lungs and how to control the carcinogens produced by grilling meat, respectively.

Education correlates with income.  Using Ted Rosling's wonderful Gapminder program I've created a graph showing showing how adult literacy correlates with income around the world.


If you want to see these trends change over time (my chart only shows the situation for 2007), try this interactive animation of the data.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2010, which I've charted below, show how income varies with education in the United States.


There is a reinforcing (and unfortunate) symmetry to these data.  Lack of education leads to economic hardship, which leads to a lack of educational opportunity.  ProPublica, the non-partisan, investigative news organization, recently completed a nation-wide study that showed that "poverty [is] the predominant factor in determining the proportion of students in a school or district who were enrolled in higher-level education [such as Advanced Placement courses]."

Can this circle by unbroken?  By and by, let me list two reasons to be hopeful.

College Summit, a Washington, D.C., based nonprofit, works with high schools by providing tools and helping shape their culture to increase the rate at which bright, college-ready students understand that college is even an opportunity for them, and then take advantage of their opportunities.  As the organization reports, "students from the low-income quartile who get get A's on standardized tests go to college at the same rate as their higher income peers who get D's on the same tests."  But with support from College Summit, things are turning around:  Participants enroll in college 22% more than non-participants.  Seven hundred teachers and staff members are trained every year, providing opportunities to 25,000 students.

The Preuss School UCSD, a combination middle school and high school, provides a rigorous, college-prep experience.  It strives to produce students who are accepted at selective four-year colleges.  To achieve its aims, it uses a combination of pedagogy (including tutor-assisted teaching), high tech, and high expectations.  Teacher salaries are about 10 percent below the district and state averages.  The school enrolls 6th through 9th graders who must be motivated and have the potential to succeed academically.  

Most unusually, they must come from poor families (with incomes of no more than 185% of the poverty level; for instance, under $40,793 for a family of four), and their parents or guardians can not be college graduates.  

By 10th grade, approximately nine students in ten is "proficient" or "advanced" in both math and English/language arts, in contrast to half that many at the district and state levels.  By graduation, 100 percent of students meet all state and local graduation requirements, including California's state exit exams in math and English/language arts.  Nine-five percent are accepted to college.  

For  its accomplishments, Newsweek rated Preuss School the country's thirty-fourth best high school, and the number one "Miracle," or "Transformative," high school.

Want other examples of transformation and hope?  Then watch the 80's movie Stand and Deliver about an East L.A. math teacher who took "can't make it" students and taught them calculus.  Or read about the extraordinary teacher, Marva Collins.

Or bookmark this blog and keep checking back.  I'll be presenting other examples, just as persuasive as these, to indicate other ways to change the educational lives of young people, and thus their futures.

Physics Pop Quiz.

Can something be in two places at the same time?
The answer from advanced physics is a clear (if counter-intuitive) Yes.

Can you create something from nothing?
We all know that you can’t — except scientists explain that you can, by taking a vacuum (nothing) and blasting it into its dense, complementary matter - anti-matter components (lots of something).

Can these esoteric observations help us address societal problems - problems operating on the scale of billions of people, not the sub-atomic level of quantum physics?
As metaphors and guiding questions, yes.

Let’s start with money. As a physical medium, if I’ve got a $5 bill in my wallet, it can’t be in yours at the same time. But, as a representation of financial value, my five dollars can be many places at once. If I deposit it in a bank, it’s mine, even if the bank considers it theirs and then uses it to make five $1 loans (meaning “my” five dollars is now in seven places at once).

A loan is the most basic financial derivative, a building block that, in effect, creates money and puts it into the hands of those who need it and can use it to create value. (This is not to overlook derivative’s frightening power and potential destructiveness. Derivatives too numerous and too complicated to describe account for more than twenty times the amount of money in the world’s annual economy, and those tied to housing values brought financial chaos to the world when they imploded.)

But let’s not forget the fundamental lesson: loans let us store the same medium of value in several places at the same time. And these loans need not be money. For instance, Impact Everyday is creating a credit card that lets you loan it the “points” your card earns, whose cash value is then used to fund renewable energy projects. Where do your points “live?” With you, with the card company, or with the solar farm you’re supporting?   It’s not a stretch to say they live each of those places at once.

Or consider your time.  We know that we can’t get it back, but we can come awfully close when we bank it. Time banks create non-monetary markets, often in income-strapped communities, where a unit of effort I perform (say, an hour’s worth of computer programming) is banked until I redeem it (maybe for an hour’s worth of repairs on my car). In obvious ways, this non-cash economy creates a powerful means for putting idle time to productive use and bootstrapping economic activity.

Lent time, as with lent money (credit card points, or other items of tangible value), unlocks value.  In different ways, each transforms potential into value that can help people and communities right now. Dare we say, being in two places at once creates something from nothing?

I consider these examples of Big Picture Design. A principle of Big Picture Design is never to let a good idea go to waste. Good ideas are everywhere, often requiring nothing more than imagination to be applied in a new context. If you can lend money, why not credit card points, time, airline miles, equipment, … ?

Big Picture Design also teaches us to consider everything in developing a solution to a societal problem. By considering everything, not just features that first come to mind, solutions are more comprehensive—and better.

Wal-Mart, poster child for much that needs changing (especially in the area of labor rights), has also jumped to the forefront of the environmental movement by (finally) considering everything involved in its products’ manufacture and delivery. A company that values low costs over everything else discovered it had ignored waste. Once it recognized this oversight, it eliminated the water in its gallon-sized laundry detergent, producing a much smaller container that eliminated three-fourths of the packaging, weight, shipping costs, and shelf space associated with the product. Customers got a less expensive, more convenient product that cleaned clothes equally well. Wal-Mart made more money.

From 2005 to 2008, Wal-Mart shifted its entire detergent inventory to small-size containers, pulling the industry’s production (one billion units) along with it. During this period, Wal-Mart’s actions alone caused 95 million fewer pounds of resin from petroleum to be used, 400 million fewer gallons of water, and more than 60,000 fewer tons of cardboard. The reduction in weight resulted in less fuel being consumed by its fleet of trucks, saving the company money and keeping 11 million pounds of CO2 out of the atmosphere

Wal-Mart also learned that, while it had believed it had nothing in common with soft-headed environmentalists, they both wanted the same outcome. Whether driven by lower costs (Wal-Mart) or a sustainable planet (environmentalists), finding common cause was the best way forward.

To both, waste was the enemy. While it may have appeared that nothing could be gained from Wal-Mart and environmentalists joining forces, this nothing became something. A big, profitable, sustainable something.

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