April 2012 Archives

Awethu: Imported to Detroit?

As anyone reading this space knows (anyone? anyone? I can read your comments if you click the "(No) Comments" link above, you know), I've been thinking a lot about Detroit. And I think it's fair to say that, once foreign cars began to arrive in the United States, and then gain wide acceptance for being affordable, high quality vehicles, Detroit was in trouble. Imports have not been kind to Detroit.

But here's one that could be.

I met Yusuf Randera-Rees several weeks ago at the Skoll World Forum and talked to him on the phone a few days ago.  His organization, the Awethu Project, is creating vibrant businesses where they rarely exist: South Africa's townships, or what we would call slums.

The Awethu Project conducts brief trainings for those in the townships on how to create a business and then tells them to think up a business idea and put it into practice in their community. A month later, those who have created the most profit (with records to back up their claims) begin a more extended period of training. They receive support both for personal development and formalizing their business ideas, being taught "hard" topics like time budgeting and record keeping as well as "softer" topics including personal discipline. Those who excel become part of Awethu's business accelerator, where Awethu helps move them from being small, isolated business towards becoming what Awethu really expects of them: to become business that are as good as the top businesses in the world and to link up, as appropriate, with that business ecosystem. Awethu also invests in these businesses, so their success benefits Awethu, further reinforcing the relationship and Awethu's desire to see them excel.

The idea behind Awethu is simple: identify gifted entrepreneurs in under-resourced communities, and provide them with the training and resources needed to compete with the world's best. The underlying premises, of course, is that there is a latent pool of such individuals everywhere who lack the opportunity, but not the inherent skills, to launch world-class businesses.

And if those potential world-beaters are everywhere, then they are certainly in the poorer parts of Detroit.

Yusuf is well educated, optimistic, and idealistic. And his efforts produce: he has developed a model of business talent identification in the township of Alexandra that has been noticed by the South African national government, which is now funding the project. In the coming year, Awethu will identify and put through its business accelerator program 1,000 entrepreneurs with world-class talent. As Awethu expands, Yusuf expects to take this idea across the country and then across the African continent.  

You've heard Chrysler's new slogan: Imported from Detroit. This is an idea Detroit (and the US) need to import themselves. Now.

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Phillip Cooley opened a restaurant in Detroit, Slows Bar BQSlows anchors a block in Detroit's Corktown, a row of shops which  is changing from seedy to hip. Cooley opened Slows with some backing from his parents,  his own carpentry skills, and the sweat equity of his partners--who were also his chef and sous-chef. With sales of   $1.8 million the first year (2005), Slows and Cooley have also spread the wealth. Their very presence created a  bright spot across from Detroit's massive, but abandoned Rail Depot. Astro coffee is now next door, bustling with activity, and Cooley, himself, is marching with tools in hand from building to building making improvements. He dispenses  advice and stakes others  who want to build businesses to help the community.

A half-mile or so down the street from Slows is another Cooley idea -- Ponyride. The name, of course, evokes a sense of childlike wonder, and that is surely what the facility will create. Now, it is a 30,000 square foot industrial space being converted into a launching pad for Detroit-changing businesses and activities. Tenants wield crowbars and hammers, exchanging their labor for incredibly low rents: $.10-$.20 per square foot, utilities included.

Among current tenants are artists, furniture makers, and studios for tango, fencing, and dance. And Veronika Scott. 

Veronika Scotts space at PR.JPG

Inside Ponyride7.JPG

Scott's organization, The Empowerment Plan, is a social enterprise that makes a self-heated, waterproof coat that expands to become a sleeping bag. Made by homeless women, the coat is designed precisely for those not lucky enough to know if they'll have a place to sleep for the night, or where.

Eventually, Ponyride will hold monthly open houses where community members can take classes in things like letterpress, woodworking, fencing, maybe even accounting--people in these professions are all tenants, too--to learn something they didn't know and that they may be able to apply in their own lives. "Ponyride is a tool to challenge the imagination," said Nick Piotrowski, Ponyride's office manager and Executive Board member.

Cooley hopes that current tenants like Veronika Scott burst the seams of the space they occupy at Ponyride, finding bigger digs where they can do more good, hire more people, and maybe even take the idea of Ponyride and start something similar. Ponyride itself is creating an open-source description of its own operations, successes and mistakes, for others to learn from. 

Just as Henry Ford borrowed his ideas for his assembly line from meat packing plants and then saw his own innovations widely adopted in manufacturing, Cooley is not the first to undertake urban revitalization, but he is laying down a model that others will surely follow. His energy, commitment, success, and willingness to share guarantee it.


Slows lets us know that there are ways that entrepreneurial activity can bring inclusive gains. Good ideas create ripples, immediately and in ways never intended or imagined. The pebble that gets the ripples going seems to be money, but it is really the unleashing of productive energies. Money, moolah, hard cash can do that. But there are other ways., which we'll cover another time.

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A World of Empathy

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I spent last week at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, UK, a gathering of social entrepreneurs bent on changing the world. 

Ask them what's on their mind, you will often hear "scale."  After all, isn't helping more people better than helping fewer? (And to get investment funding or donations, you better be thinking that way, too.)

Yet I think this emphasis is somewhat misplaced. If you could feed 1,000 hungry people, say, and others who were acting independently of your efforts could do the same, it would only take one or two million such efforts to reach the poorest 2 billions people on the planet (if that was the group everyone was trying to reach). One or two million people acting to end hunger seems like a reasonable number

What about funding? Most funders think with denominators. Again, simple math says that it's not just the number of people that you serve, but the level of benefit in relation to their cost. So, if you and I provide similar support but you're three times as cost-effective, your efforts should be rewarded--no matter which of us has greater scale. And, by the way, the numerator--quantifying the level of benefit--is much harder to determine than the denominator.

All that said, Ashoka's thinking about scale is breathtaking. I had the pleasure, once again, of listening to its CEO and Chair, Bill Drayton, at Skoll.  

If someone other than Drayton were proposing the idea, I might dismiss it out of hand. But, then again, he suggested the idea of markets for tradeable pollution rights--something still considered too avant-garde for reducing carbon in the atmosphere--in the 1970s. He coined the phrase social entrepreneur and, more than anyone else, has made social entrepreneurship a field that is growing in prominence and importance.

And now: He wants to make everyone a "changemaker" by teaching empathy. Everyone? Yes, with an emphasis on teaching empathy to all school-aged children.  

Research has shown that recognizing your own feelings as well as others' sets a strong foundation for creating change. Mary Gordon (no relation) shared the stage with Drayton. Her program, Roots of Empathy, has elementary school children observe a very young baby over the course of a school year, learning to see the world through the baby's eyes, and "experiencing" its needs. In so doing, the school children come to understand their own feelings, leading to less aggressive behavior, better social/emotional understanding, and become more caring.

Drayton believes that our repetition-based way of life is near its end. Instead of following directions by rote, to be a contributor in the emerging world--whether you're a waitress, bank clerk, social worker, or friend--you need to understand the needs of others, and view their "problems" from their perspective so they can become challenges you're equipped to take on.

This is the planetary movement that Drayton speaks of, and is creating. If this sounds audacious, his methods aren't. Relying on a team of teams, selected schools will implement empathy programs in the manner they see fit, sharing their practices, successes, and concerns. Their success will invite others to follow. Ashoka has 700 of Fellows, including Gordon, already working on issues that center on children. Their efforts will be incorporated in this larger effort.   

If one school that is successful in teaching empathy is modeled successfully by two others, and they in turn are each successfully modeled by two more, in just twenty such cycles, more than two million schools will be teaching empathy. (And who better than children to teach new behavior to their parents?)

Two million schools teaching empathy could teach nearly a billion young children to have the essential foundation for successful team work, leadership, and becoming changemakers. These young changemakers will be positioned to have significant impact on the world's toughest problems.   

Within this decade, Drayton expects the world's children to have been taught empathy. This is a model of what he describes as collaborative entrepreneurship, with teams of teams working locally but also in collaboration. With small local gains contributing to staggeringly large effects in aggregate.

Just imagine.  Drayton has, and he's been right before.   

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This page is an archive of entries from April 2012 listed from newest to oldest.

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