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The Community of Detroit

Sorting through my thoughts about Detroit's bankruptcy (or whatever it turns out to be)

Different ideas about how companies can be organized and run are floating around. What resonates with me are institutions that support communities: "communities" of employees, of local citizens, of people interacting with the natural environment. Too often, though, companies barely acknowledge the importance of these communities while they bend over backwards to better meet the needs (make that wants) of investors.

Many people reflexively respond that the main (or only) purpose of a company is to make money, and that companies must be organized to serve the needs of the "community" of investors.  (They don't). Of course, investors may have no connection to a company at all -- they don't work there, don't live in the towns where their investments are put to work, they may not even like the products the company makes. Yet to business traditionalists -- but not to me -- investors' desire for making money trumps everything else.

I would like to think that when it comes to a real community -- I'm thinking of Detroit -- that we wouldn't even need to question whose rights should be considered ahead of all others: the rights of those who call the community home. Other discussions about social issues can take on a moralistic dimension: deficits somehow correlate with lack of character (though empirical evidence indicates it is appropriate to stimulate a stalled economy); poor people don't deserve to eat; ill-supported (and often mean spirited) advice like that.  

But when it comes to a city -- a place where people live, raise kids, and shape our future -- moralizing or scolding make even less sense. Police, firemen, and other pensioners contributed to the city for years -- some for decades. State law says their pensions cannot be reduced. Those not owed pensions are owed essential services, including timely responses by police and fire fighters, working schools, and working street lights. They did not cause Detroit's decline, but they have suffered greatly from a transformed auto industry and corporations' decisions to decamp to the 'burbs, taking with them their tax dollars.

With change, comes the opportunity to reflect upon new ways of doing business. Shifts in population growth and in spending have made companies aware of new markets in the developing world, if not yet in as dramatic a way at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Similarly, in the next several decades, large-scale transfers of corporate ownership provide an opening for a dramatic shift towards inclusive corporations.

And now Detroit is facing bankruptcy. This grim circumstance creates an opening, too. What kind of city does Detroit deserve to be? Most essentially, for Detroit to "work," people must work. And there is work to be done. With more than a quarter of Detroit's 140 square miles abandoned, projects to raze and re-purpose these properties are being undertaken. Detroit Blight Authority is taking a lead, appealing for federal funds. This is a perfect opportunity for the government to release funds, contingent upon the training and hiring of Detroit's idle workforce. What's more, Detroit can follow the lead of other downtrodden communities, including the South Bronx, to create a green, energy-saving, and even energy-creating city.

Detroit's schools are the next (if not the first) obvious place to make changes. Detroit Public School's newly appointed emergency manager can help foster an environment that couples academic rigor with real-life relevance. If you've followed this blog, you know how high I am on the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship">, a model that creates life-changing educational experiences for low-income students. 

Even with ObamaCare, negotiating the healthcare maze will be daunting. Programs like Rebecca Onie's Health Leads demonstrate how non-traditional health care workers can help cut through red tape to ease the problems faced by the ill, poor, and elderly. Where Health Leads relies on college students to fill "prescriptions" for food, clothing, housing, etc., Onie suggests that local community members themselves can staff similar positions. Such staffing (jobs!) can avoid expensive emergency room visits and head off long term health problems. Suitably structured and financed (possibly with social impact bonds), hospitals can serve more patients, more effectively, and save money.

As Governor Snyder has been saying, Detroit's problems did not just occur; they've been unfolding over decades, caused in large part by a dis-investment in the city. Now at the point of crisis, we can begin to point Detroit in a new direction. Detroit's resurrection will take time, as did its decline. It will take investment, but investment in, and of, the community. Not investment aimed at making investors wealthy ahead of the needs of the city. 

The city that helped more than any other in winning World War II; the city that created a modern society through the automobile industry and industrial efficiency -- this city needs our compassion and support. This does not mean our charity: for by re-making a working, well-educated, healthier Detroit, we set the country on a stronger course.

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Presidential Debate: Focus on Inclusivity

If I were hosting the upcoming presidential debate on domestic policy, what questions would I ask?

They would center on inclusivity:

  • How can we challenge the economic beliefs that are holding back our economy?
  • How can we include the poor as a source of resourcefulness, innovation, and business opportunity?
  • How can we better identify and support local (social) entrepreneurs?
  • What urban centers are taking the lead in creating sustainable, inclusive communities?
  • What innovative approaches to education are working and can prepare students for meaningful careers?
  • How does social wellness use existing resources to create more inclusive health for us all?
  • What does inclusive leadership look like?
These broad questions deserve our unwavering attention. No matter how you keep score--99 to 1, 53 to 47, or something else--too many are struggling to have decent life. 

What if I were asked these questions--how would I answer them?

Glad you asked: In my new book Inclusivity: Will America Find Its Soul Again (written with Christian Sarkar, who also created paintings for the book), we tell fifty stories about those who are taking giant strides in tackling these issues. These vignettes tell of entrepreneurs leading a resurgence in Detroit, Tony Hsieh (founder of Zappos) reinventing Las Vegas and David Orr (a leader in the environmental movement) creating the most sustainable community anywhere in the US, the midwest community of Oberlin, Ohio. We tell how poor kids--in our inner cities or equally poor rural areas--are being given new educaitonal opportunities and are rising to the occasion. We tell how doctors are writing prescriptions for food, how struggling high school students become devoted and successful tutors, and how a national entrepreneur identification and training program in South Africa could become a model for the United States.

More inclusive education and health care would go a long way towards fully using the talents of our populace and creating expanded opportunity for everyone--wealthy and poor alike. More inclusive places to live coupled with more inclusive economics would create not just a fairer, but a stronger, country. Those blazing the trail of inclusivity exhibit a kind of leadership that is uncommon--creating value for others first. But it is within the reach of us all.

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Detroit, Ghana, and Fashion

Unusual post today: short thoughts and some shout outs. 

Jake Cohen  generously gave me an hour of his time yesterday answering questions about Detroit Venture Partners (DVP),  the Gilbert family of companies, and rebuilding Detroit through entrepreneurship. At the end of our conversation, he mentioned some other people to talk to. One was Jerry Paffendorf, a name that was completely new to me.  After a bit of Google stalking, I've learned that he's doing some truly interesting things including crowd sourcing the ownership of land in Detroit for a buck an inch.  My is-this-synchronicity side noted that he tweets under the name WELLO,  the same name as Cynthia Koenig's company to deliver water to the poor of India. I've been interacting with and supporting Cynthia for several years.

DVP  invests in software and digital companies poised for rapid growth. A "sister" company in the Gilbert / Quicken Loans family, Bizdom,  is a nonprofit that helps smaller entrepreneurs get off the ground with funding, support, and space. Oh, and connections to other companies in the extended family.

Bizdom and DVP share space in the beautifully restored M@dison Building along with other companies connected to the family in some way. One,,  has a small business doing crowd sourced home videos for weddings. I spoke with its founder, Brett Demeray,  about the kind of  connections he'd benefited from. 

Among others were: 
  • support from Quicken Loans' director of marketing in launching an AdWords campaign
  • introduction to Crowne Plaza Hotels so that WedIt  could be in on all the weddings that took place 11/11/11
  • HR training from the head of Quicken's HR department
  • a mockup of the packaging WedIt could use for the cameras they'd send in the mail, courtesy of Fathead, a company in the family.
 The fee for any of these?   "Nothing. You wouldn't ask your cousin to pay you back, would you?"

I had a check-in meeting with David Merritt this week. David continues towards the launch of his amazing fashion brand -- one that will give 20% of its revenues (yes, revenues) to support poor kids attending college. David's company, Merit,  shows how a for-profit company can have, at its heart, an unmistakable ambition  to make a big difference. MERIT is currently exploring its best options for manufacturing its line of clothing and is raising capital for its product launch.
I also had a check-in with Teresa Fisher who, along with co-founder Gilliam Henker, is leading the efforts of DIIME to develop health technologies for infants and mothers in Ghana. DIIME has developed a life-saving, affordable blood transfusion device which has recently been proven effective by independent lab tests and is awaiting animals trials.  DIIME is hoping to do clinical trials with its partner, the Komfo Anoyke Teaching Hospital in Ghana, by the end of the year. 

DIIME is hard at work preparing for future tests and raising the necessary money to support them.

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Food Gleaning Hybrids

glean  verb:  to pick over in search of relevant material

In America, the wealthiest country in the world, more than one in seven families are unsure if they will have enough to eat.  Among these 50 million people are 17 million children.

Yet, our country has more than enough food to feed us all. The USDA estimated that more than one-fourth of all food produced is never even eaten.  Others  put the figure at nearly forty percent, or more than 29 million tons of food wasted each year.
So, there is ample "relevant material" to pick through.

That is where organizations such as Gleaners Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan come in.  Founded in 1977, Gleaners obtains and "banks" surplus food, which it then distributes to other agencies that provide food directly to those in need.  In 2010, Gleaners distributed 36.7 million pounds of food.  Gleaners purchases at low cost about one-third of the food it distributes with the rest being donated by grocers, retailers, manufacturers, the government, and others.

Gleaners is a large organizations with $75 million in revenues, including $55 million in donated food.  Gleaners provides food through nearly 500 partner agencies.  The very scale of its operations requires food to be collected, "banked," and then redistributed to others.  This places an emphasis on non-perishable food.

This is where other "hybrid" models of food gleaning have taken up the challenge.  For instance, B-Line Sustainable Deliveries in Portland, takes a very -- well, Portlandia -- approach to gleaning and to delivery more broadly.  Fully in keeping with its ultra bike-friendly culture, for-profit B-Line's goal is to create sustainable, livable urban communities.  Pulling their 600-pound capacity storage crates with electric-assist cargo "tricycles," B-Line makes local pickups and deliveries, freeing businesses from managing these details, and packing a wallop of carbon savings at the same time. Now, B-Line has entered the food gleaning business.  

By being completely "connected" in the local distribution network within Portland, B-Line is able to use its trikes to make small pickups and timely deliveries.  Partnering with high-end food companies like Whole Foods, B-Line whisks food around the city, providing meals at half the typical cost to shelters and food kitchens, and letting them serve delicacies including fresh, organic produce (which might otherwise be landfilled). B-Line's financing model relies on B-Shares, or tax-deductible contributions individuals and its partners make to its mission to eliminate hunger in Portland.  B-shares can be purchased in one-time, $20 denominations (which provide 40 meals) or on a recurring, subscription basis.

But this is but one of many other hybrid gleaning models.  In Ames, Iowa, fresh, gleaned food is intended to provide the ingredients for Food-At-First's non-profit restaurant.  This is a restaurant that serves all strata of Ames -- from those who would typically go to a food pantry to others who simply want to enjoy a meal out. Customers may donate what they can (helping subsidize the meals of others) or offer to work in exchange for what they have eat.

Many benefits flow from this model, certainly not the least of which is the ability to feed the hungry with food that would otherwise be wasted.  But the restaurant also fosters a sense of community between those of us fortunate enough know that there will be a next meal, and those who aren't.  In many of the problems we face as a society, creating a shared mission among community members from different walks of life is a vital first step.

In their book Cradle to Cradle (read it if you haven't) Will McDonough and Michael Braungart describe a new industrial model where waste equals food. In other words, industrial processes should produce "waste" that can become an input ("food") for producing something else.

Gleaners, B-Line, At-First-Food, and other organizations like them show how this advice can be taken literally -- and nutritiously -- to address a problem we are more than capable of solving. 

A number of us at the University of Michigan are banding together to explore sustainable food systems.  Among us are are faculty members representing Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Natural Resources; Urban and Regional Planning: Public Health, Political Science, Complex Systems; and Business.  The University is funding five faculty positions to support this work.  Stay tuned as I report on this exciting initiative.

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I will occasionally publish articles by others that illustrate central ideas in my  book. In this essay, Michelle Lin, a former student in my course on “Solving Society’s Problems through Innovation and Enterprise,” writes about Growing Power, a revolutionary nonprofit urban farm.

The essay illustrate how Growing Power embraces Big Picture Design by ensuring that it considers all aspects of its operations, not just farming.  It exhibits an ability to Make It Appropriate by recognizing, and even taking advantage of, its urban location.  It helps Make It Stick by familiarizing local citizens and others with its activities and involving them when it is possible.  Finally, Growing Power is Making it Bigger through partnerships, education campaigns, and even technology it has developed, all of which can help others around the country and the world participate in the “Good Food Revolution.”


Towering at 6’7” and resembling a retired linebacker, Will Allen is the last person you would expect to be an urban farmer.  After a brief stint as a professional basketball player, followed by a successful career as a salesperson for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Procter & Gamble, Allen returned to his family roots, farming on a full-time basis. What began as a desire to reconnect with a childhood surrounded by food and farming is today driven by Allen’s motivation to provide equitable access to healthy food.

Allen started Growing Power in 1993 on a two-acre plot of land situated less than one-half mile from a public-housing project. Today, Growing Power produces at $200,000 per acre and feeds 10,000 people each year[1]. It is the only zoned farmland in Milwaukee and arguably the nation’s leading urban agricultural project. In a space smaller than the average supermarket, it boasts 20,000 plants and vegetables, thousands of tilapia and perch, a thriving livestock of chickens, goats, ducks, turkeys, and rabbits, an apiary, and thousands of red wiggler worms.            

Allen’s path to creating Growing Power was almost accidental—or directed by a higher power depending on your perspective. While still at P&G and living about 20 minutes outside Milwaukee, Allen was developing plans to sell produce throughout the city. He happened upon a greenhouse that had been repossessed by the city. Competing against a religious group intending to build a mega-church, Allen wrote a proposal to keep the greenhouse in use and added in a youth education component. The alderman reviewing the proposal was a former priest and felt Allen’s proposal was “religion in itself”[2]. However, it was a youth group that approached Allen for help with gardening and selling produce that truly inspired what Growing Power is today.

 Big Picture Design

While Growing Power’s urban farm is impressive on its own merits, its mission to provide equal access to affordable, safe, and healthy food is fueled by big, difficult, institutional challenges that range from lack of availability to unaffordable healthy foods.  The public housing by Growing Power, the largest in the state, is more than three miles away from the nearest grocery store chain, an inconvenience for anyone without car. McDonald’s and Popeye’s are both a 5-minute walk away. This is all too common a problem in inner cities.  In Detroit, as another example, there is not one single national grocery chain, although the city’s area is larger than Manhattan, San Francisco, and Boston combined.

On a national scale, this translates into “food deserts” in lower-income areas, where healthy food is almost non-existent and if it is available, is likely too expensive to have on a regular basis. This perpetuates poor eating habits in lower-income populations, limited exposure to non-processed foods, long-term health problems, and lack of understanding of nutrition and how to prepare nutrient-rich meals.

What makes Growing Power’s approach powerful is that it is not just an urban farm. Rather, it has a big picture goal of impacting a “social, ecological and economic bottom line”[3] which is achieved by an ecosystem of programming that includes sustainable growing practices, education, training, community outreach, and advocacy. Furthermore, Allen is not just focused on Milwaukee, but is also demonstrating that Growing Power’s approach can be adopted anywhere, in cities across the US and even abroad.

Making it Appropriate

As we know from shopping at places like Whole Foods, Sparrow Market, and the weekly Ann Arbor farmer’s market, there is a price premium to buying local, organic food and produce. To achieve Growing Power’s commitment to creating local food systems and equitable access to healthy food, Allen has experimented and innovated to develop low-cost, closed-loop growing techniques.

At Growing Power, plants are densely packed and vertically grown, bringing in $5 to $30 per square foot. Farming at this level of intensity requires rich nutrients, which is enabled by thousands of highly productive worms that create 10 million pounds of castings (worm poop). This waste product is also diverted from landfills. Since compost generates a lot of heat, Growing Power has identified ways to leverage this heat source. Compost heaps, which reach temperatures of 150 degrees Celsius, sit within the greenhouses to keep them warm. Plant beds also sit on top of compost heaps. These methods allow Growing Power to reduce their costs, grow year-round, and increase their revenue streams.

 Allen’s greatest innovation is the aquaponics system he developed, a symbiotic process for growing fish and plants.  The waste in fish tanks is filtered by natural means and converted into plant nutrients as the water in the tanks is routed to the plant bedswhere crops grow, and ultimately returned to the fish tanks to complete a circuit. Allen’s system cost a mere $5,000 to build, compared to a $100,000 commercial system.

Much like his approach to experimenting with growing techniques, Allen pays close attention to needs of those he is working with and adapts Growing Power’s programs to meet those needs. When Allen first started working with kids, he noticed they had trouble reading and writing, so he instituted a reading and writing program closely tied to the work they did at Growing Power. To combat drug dealers who hung out in empty lots, Allen worked with kids to create “flower explosions”, drawing unwanted attention that discouraged drug dealers away from the lots. These kids not only got paid and learned about healthy foods, but also gained valuable life skills.[4]

Making it Stick

A primary goal of Growing Power is to educate others on sustainable growing practices that can then be brought back to individual communities and contribute to the creation of localized food systems. Without demonstrations and education, Growing Power’s effectiveness would stop at its own borders. Therefore, the farm works with youth and adults alike to spread the knowledge that it has evolved for the past 15 years.

Every day, Growing Power offers 1:30 hour tours, whose admission price of $10 is funneled back into the farm. The true impact of the tours is for visitors to see the farm and all its various components in action and become inspired by achievable possibilities for themselves and their communities.

After school and job training programs, as well as paid internships, are available to kids and students. Allen often works alongside youth, acting as a role model and further instilling a strong work ethic. Kids can take what they are learning with their hands into the classroom and vice versa, making connections between what they study in class and what they experience on the farm. The knowledge and skills gained as a youth are carried throughout adulthood, into a future in which Allen believes urban agricultural skills will become increasingly important.

For adults, Growing Power provides workshops and conducts outreach programs with other organizations to create their own localized food systems. Growing Power also participates in events across the US, including a recent two-day workshop in Detroit on building hoophouses that included a lecture by Allen.

Outside of educational programs, the farm’s onsite retail store is a powerful expression of what local agriculture is capable of. While retail supermarkets often stay away from poor neighborhoods, Growing Power’s retail shop is often packed to the brim on Saturdays, demonstrating that demand for healthy food exists regardless of socioeconomic standing.

At its core, all of Growing Power’s programming and outreach efforts are community- and relationship-building activities. To truly embed healthy foods into daily life and practice, Growing Power is breaking down the barriers that limit healthy food to just those who can afford it and pioneering urban farming practices. Urban farming happens in public places and feeds an entire community, whether it is a school, workplace, neighborhood, or city. As a shared resource that is visible and accessible to all, an urban farm creates pride and a sense of communal ownership that ultimately contributes to “making it stick.”

Making it Bigger

Growing Power’s mission to localize food systems drives it to purposefully develop simple, cost-efficient, and effective methods that are accessible to all. Though Growing Power was borne through supporting neighborhood youth, it has since expanded to include adults, churches, companies, cities, governments, foundations, and even Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign. Beyond Growing Power’s original site, it is working on over 100 acres of land throughout the greater Milwaukee and Chicago areas and has partnered with numerous organizations on outreach projects.

Allen’s innovative techniques have led to notable awards and recognitions, including the MacArthur Fellowship and Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. In 2009, Allen became a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, through which he is raising $2M to strengthen food security in South Africa and Zimbabwe. All of this gives Allen the platform to advance the methods he has pioneered on a much grander scale and allow Growing Power to immensely scale up its impact.

The greatest compliment to Allen’s work is when others steal shamelessly from Growing Power. Sweet Water Organics, an urban aquaponics company launched in 2008, is the first commercial extension of Allen’s home-made aquaponics system. Sweet Water started with a $50,000 investment and in less than two years has garnered $1M in funding. It is currently discussing a whopping $30M concept for Sweetwater villages which would be supported by commercial-scale aquaponics.[5] Who would have imagined that a home-made $5,000 system could turn into multi-million dollar commercial projects?

Allen himself is still experimenting and pushing urban agriculture to new applications. Growing Power is proposing to build a carbon neutral, solar-powered 5-story vertical farm. In line with Growing Power’s focus on community-building and educational activities, the facility is complete with classrooms, a demonstration kitchen, meeting spaces, and a retail shop. This $8-$10M vertical farm is currently under review by the Milwaukee’s zoning and development commission and may be the first facility to test the capabilities and viability of vertical farming.[6] The success of this project would re-imagine how food is produced and transform the agricultural industry in the US and beyond.

Even with all that Growing Power tackles through its programming, Allen believes that all the important stakeholders involved in making good food accessible to everyone are never at the same table. September 2010 marked the first Growing Power Conference, which brought together 1,500 attendees and over 100 speakers to help eliminate fragmentation amongst the proponents of localized, equitable, and accessible food.[7]

The embodiment of a multi-disciplinary approach, the conference’s participants included farmers, government officials, academics, doctors, nutritionists, people in fitness and renewable energy, environmental specialists, recyclers, and youth to name a small sample.[8] Why does this diversity matter? In order to build a new food system, the input of all those involved is critical to designing a successful system that is capable of providing equitable access to healthy food. The conference provides a means to forge connections, inspire new ideas, and create momentum around building sustainable communities.

Through all of its initiatives, Growing Power is not simply making itself and its own reach bigger, but is enabling others to participate in what Allen calls the “good food revolution” and make the future of localized, equitable, and healthy food systems a reality. Growing Power is not out to do it alone, but rather wants its methods to be improved upon and scaled up, shamelessly copied, and successfully deployed all over the world.










Who's going to save the world -- Wal-Mart or the social entrepreneur toiling away with little fanfare?

Let's consider:

Wal-Mart, the world's largest company, sells slightly more than $400 billion a year.  The poorest two-thirds of the planet -- people living $4 a day or less -- spend about ten times that amount.

Each year, Wal-Mart serves 100-200 million customers.  At most, that's less than 3% of the world's population.

Wal-Mart's recent shift from focusing exclusively on everyday low prices to finding profit in acting in pro-social ways has been commendable.  It has committed to creating zero waste and obtaining all its energy from renewable sources.  It announced this week that it will open 300 stores to bring fresh food to inner-city "food deserts" in the next five years (on top of the more than 200 it already operates).  It has entered the low-income banking business in Latin America and, in the U.S., where it can't officially run a bank, it works through partners to offer unbanked Americans low-cost money orders, check cashing, and overseas remittances.

Despite Wal-Mart's heft and new found focus on creating business opportunities from addressing societal ills, it can't meet many of the most basic requirements of the needy. 

In the developing world, access to clean water is arguably the most fundamental need of the poor.  Protection against preventable diseases, including malaria and diarrhea, is close behind.  These are beyond the ambit of Wal-Mart's merchandising. 

Even Hindustan Unilever, with its more targeted efforts to address the needs of the poor, has been unable to respond effectively enough to these needs.  With revenue one percent of Wal-Mart's, Hindustan Unilever does reach deep into Indian rural life through efforts such as its Project Shakti, which creates door-to-door selling opportunities for poor, rural women. (Have you heard of Avon Ladies?)  It recently announced an altruistic effort to study the under-supply of water, and has made previous efforts to help renovate village ponds, manage watersheds, and promote improved water harvesting.  Despite these efforts, clean water remains in short supply, with more than 750,000 deaths occurring each year in India alone from water contamination.   

In the United States, basic needs are under-served, too.  Despite (or motivating) Wal-Mart's food efforts, food deserts exists throughout the country.  (See the USDA's interactive map.)  The consequences?  Poor people eating less nutritious, usually fattening food, or inconvenient and costly (in time and money) travel to obtain food of higher quality.  Likely, too: a higher incidence of serious illnesses and premature death.

Nor is the financial services picture rosy for the U.S. poor.  The FDIC estimates that over one-fourth of all households, accounting for 60 million adults, are unbanked or underbanked.  For blacks and Hispanics, the proportion is approximately 50 percent.  The alternative financial services that these un- and underbanked use -- non-bank money orders and check cashing, payday loans, pawn shops, and others -- are necessary, but costly, ways to live without formal banking.

So, where do social entrepreneurs come in?

Social entrepreneurs provide services where companies are absent, where they don't sell the right products, or where they sell products that are simply too expensive.

Social entrepreneurs (or non-profits) together with companies form a co-adaptive ecosystem.  What companies leave unattended -- in their "background" -- creates the foreground environment for social enterprises, shaping their opportunities .  In turn, social enterprises can serve as a type of free, and early, testing ground for companies.  The success of non-profit microfinance institutions in providing banking services for the poor, for instance, caught the notice of larger, for-profit banks, spurring their entry into the same market.

social entrepreneurs prove successful in reaching their constituents, for-profit companies take notice.  And, as companies change their focus, they affect social entrepreneurs.  This interplay has led nonprofit microfinance institutions to serve poorer, more rural customers as larger, for-profit providers use capital markets to offer more, and larger, loans to wealthier segments of the poor.

Today, we are seeing examples overseas of early-market activity among social enterprises in the field of water:  Naandi (water purification and delivery), Wello (water transport and business opportunity), and Sarvajal (a filtration and franchising model). 

In the U.S., healthful food is offered to the poor through a variety different kinds of social enterprises.  D.C. Central is a community kitchen that not only "recovers" and delivers good food headed for waste, but trains low-income individuals for jobs in the food services industry.   Peaches and Greens, a mobile produce market, makes scheduled delivery stops and home-deliveries in inner-city Detroit three seasons a year.  And even urban farming is proving viable, as organizations such as Growing Power, headquartered in Milwaukee, are proving. 

It waits to be seen whether such efforts in water and healthful food will one day be viewed as attractive opportunities for many large companies.


So, who's going to save the world -- mega-corporations like Wal-Mart with their size, reach, and efficiency; or social entrepreneurs, who can attack deeply entrenched problems without a slavish focus on bottom-line results?

My answer: both -- by acting and adapting in response to each other even as they continue to do what they do best.

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Those of us who seek societal change have to think about how we can create impact. As an educator, I have the opportunity to share my ideas with students, who can think about them, modify them to suit their needs, and apply them to problems they are attacking. That source of impact is my privilege.

Erica Anzalone-Newman was student in a course I teach on "Solving 
Society's Problems through Innovation and Enterprise." In the essay 
that follows, she beautifully illustrates key themes from the my book, Design Your Life, Change the World: Your Path as a Social Entrepreneur. These themes are:

  • Big Picture Design. First, design everything:make sure that you consider everything in your design thinking, not just the central product or service you're providing. Among other features, these would likely include how you distribute your product, gain acceptance for it, and make it affordable. And second, steal shamelessly: attempt to identify ideas with proven merit and use them for the problem you're addressing.
  • Make It Appropriate. Ensure that your product or service not only is relevant -- but is also perceived as being relevant -- to the context in which you are working.

  • Make It Stick. Make sure that you have the means to successfully introduce a product or service to a new region and that you can "embed" it so that it gains long-term acceptance.
  • Make It Bigger. Find ways to spread you product or service to other regions so that it benefits more people. Also, you can increase awareness of your ideas or recruit others to join you so that your idea is taken up and spread.

Learning from Brazil's Assault on HIV/AIDS: Applications in US Urban Communities

by Erica Anzalone-Newman

Examples of transplanting modified, developed-world innovations to the developing world are rampant. Yet there is much to be gained by organizations serving US populations adopting and adapting business and service delivery models developed in developing countries. More specifically, Brazilian groups have developed and executed one of the most successful responses to HIV and AIDS in the developing world, if not the world at large. The Brazilian response to HIV/AIDS is based on component elements that might be modified for implementation in US urban centers, including Newark, NJ.

Before I explain how that can occur, I present a brief history of the spread of HIV/AIDS in both 
locales. HIV/AIDS in Newark, NJ: History and Context Newark has a long history of a high incidence of HIV/AIDS cases, wrought by the virus essentially since its first detection in 1981. The context for Newark's AIDS crisis began with the infamous race riots of 1967, after which the population declined significantly and many businesses left the city. Employment rates plunged, and the poverty rate soared. By the late 1980s, one-third of the residents lived below the poverty line, and homelessness was three times that in New York City [1].

As the city lost the vast majority of its middle-class, an "underground" economy began to thrive [2], and Newark became plagued by political corruption, insidious crime and, importantly, pervasive drug use. According to a New York Times article written at the height of the AIDS epidemic, "[New Jersey] stands apart as the first state in which intravenous drug abusers, rather than homosexuals, make up the largest group of victims." [3]

This was especially true in Newark, New Jersey's largest city. Indirect effects of intravenous drug use were that women, with virtually no job prospects, turned to prostitution to support addictions, increasing exposure to and the spread of HIV [4]. Drug-addicted men, as well as those engaging in sex with prostitutes, were similarly exposed; in turn, they began to infect non-drug using wives and other sexual partners, who were often unaware that they were infected until their newborns were found to be HIV-positive at birth. According to one Coordinator from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, "'In cities like Newark, AIDS [had quickly] become a disease of the family" [5]. By early 1989, there were nearly 1,200 cases of AIDS in Newark, of which more than half resulted in death [6]. Clinical research was fairly prominent in Newark; however, community-based efforts, such as outreach, prevention, treatment and care were minimal [7]. 

HIV/AIDS in Brazil: History and Context The first case of AIDS in Brazil was recorded in 1982 [8]. In the early years of the epidemic, the majority of HIV carriers and AIDS victims were men who have sex with men in large urban centers. Other populations initially affected in disproportionate numbers included intravenous drug users and individuals requiring blood transfusions [9]. However, since 1993, heterosexual transmission has been most prominent [10]. During the early- to mid-1980s, as Brazil was realizing true democracy for the first time, NGOs were instrumental change agents within Brazilian society. These groups were vocal proponents of government intervention on a variety of fronts, including HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. They were also instrumental in encouraging "a climate of social solidarity, allowing open and frank debate about HIV and AIDS." [11]. The responsiveness of the government, inspired by the pressure imposed and partnerships formed by NGOs, has been central in stemming the spread of HIV/AIDS in Brazil. 

A Critical Look at the Brazilian Approach to Combating HIV/AIDS

  • Big Picture Design and Making It Bigger

Based on the spread of HIV in Brazil through the early 1990s, World Bank estimates indicated that 1.2 million Brazilians would carry HIV by 2000; instead, the true figure was only six hundred thousand, and HIV growth since 2000 has been slower than in many other nations, as well [12]. 

It seems that adherence to the tenets of Big Picture Design and emphasis on growing efforts to scale have been central to this relative success story. Certainly there were numerous elements of the Brazilian approach that were grassroots in nature (i.e. not developed as part of a master "Big Picture Design" plan); still, the approach is impressively comprehensive in terms of the demographic and geographic segments it covers; the attentiveness to all aspects of product and information dissemination - including the underlying tone or message accompanying each individual initiative; the combination of top-down and bottom-up 
initiatives; and the efforts aimed at both prevention and treatment. 

NGOs started the conversation about HIV in Brazil, but quickly sought government involvement to set the tone for addressing the virus nationwide. The government first undertook distribution of information, to raise awareness and educate on prevention, with a focus on the highest-risk groups within the population [13].

In 1988, the country's new constitution included legal protection against discrimination for people living with HIV, as well as free access to healthcare for all Brazilians. Healthcare for all included the provision of free antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) to people living with HIV; by 2007, 80% of those requiring ARVs were receiving them [14]. Availability of ARVs drastically improved AIDS-related mortality rates and also reduced the number of mother-to-child transmissions.

The government has also promoted growth within the Brazilian pharmaceutical industry, which is now equipped to produce 40% of AIDS drugs domestically; this increases the long-term viability of free distribution to citizens, as it enables the government to purchase ARVs at lower prices those drugs that must be produced internationally, the government has put significant pressure on foreign pharmaceutical firms, threatening the issuance of "compulsory licenses" to elicit lower prices. "Compulsory licenses allow countries to override patent laws and produce their own generic (copied) versions of company-owned drugs, and can be issued when the government of a developing country deems it to be a public health emergency." [17]

In 2007, the Brazilian government actually issued a compulsory license for an AIDS drug produced by Merck. This action has had an impact beyond lower ARV prices; it demonstrates the government's willingness to provide bold support for HIV/AIDS initiatives even in the face of harsh criticism. 

These are just a few examples that illustrate the collaborative "passing of the baton" back and forth, between the Brazilian government (top-down) and NGOs (bottom-up), which has contributed to Big Picture Design in that the Brazilian approach has the necessary scope and scale to be effective.

These examples also illustrate the notion of "designing everything." For instance, it is not enough to make HIV testing available; you must also provide resources, so that people are not deterred by their inabilities to respond to the test results, financially or otherwise. Finally, these examples speak to the complementarity between prevention and treatment efforts, which could only be discovered through careful analysis of the "Big Picture": the virus's entire life cycle.

  • Making It Appropriate

The Brazilian approach involves a supreme focus on being relevant and perceived as relevant. For example, media campaigns for testing have featured celebrity advocates, who tend to be especially influential among youth, and prevention campaigns use all types of media, including TV, newspapers, billboards, bus shelters, and others [18]. Much HIV-prevention work is based on condom distribution, with particular emphasis on settings and geographies in which condoms are most absent. For example, during the 2009 carnival season, 65 million condoms were distributed - an increase of 45% over the usual number distributed in an average month - because carnival season tends to be correlated with increased sexual activity in Brazil [19]. Condom distribution and other forms of grassroots education and support have also been especially prominent for sex workers, as prostitution is legal in Brazil, and sex workers are at high risk for both contracting and transmitting HIV [20]. 

There are other examples of "making it appropriate," too. There is an emphasis on preventing HIV-positive mothers from breastfeeding, by providing both education and breast milk alternatives. Additionally, rapid HIV tests are widely available in maternity wards. Needle exchange programs for intravenous drug users are widespread, as is counseling and access to treatment targeted at this group. In "shanty towns," NGOs have fostered peer-to-peer education networks by training youth representatives [21].

The Brazilian approach involves being present at absolutely every touch point in an individual's life when HIV could potentially be transmitted, and providing information and products through channels that are familiar and disarming.

  • Making It Stick

The paramount explanation for why the fight against HIV/AIDS is so embedded in communities within Brazil is the work that has been done to de-stigmatize and de-politicize the virus. From the outset, NGOs pushed the government to approach the need for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment as a human rights issue, not a moral or religious issue, or one that impacts only certain minority groups withinthe country [22]. "The Brazilian response has... pushed for everyone - from the President to prostitutes - to practice safe sex. Public health experts say Brazil's approach works because it doesn't discriminate" - just like the virus [23]. Brazil's fight against stigma, as well as its "tolerant, non-judgmental approach to HIV prevention," are considered unique differentiators in the fight against AIDS [24].

Potential Applications in Newark, NJ

It is reasonable and realistic to acknowledge that certain Brazilian programs, particularly some of the governmental programs, are not precisely replicable in the US due to fairly different social mores; some Americans may raise moral objections to some of the Brazilian methodologies. Ultimately, however, Brazil's success vis-à-vis the de-politicization of responding to HIV/AIDS, is too great to ignore. (Recall: Big Picture Design advocates "stealing shamelessly.") Perhaps the only way to respond to HIV/AIDS so comprehensively within the US is to shift the majority of the load to private organizations, rather than relying on government intervention to the degree that Brazilians did. (Making ItAppropriate means seeking relevance through flexibility, not rigidly applying an approach that will be unwelcome and rejected.)

One opportunity area involves modifying the Brazilian model for partnering with sex workers, to partner with intravenous drug users in Newark instead. These two populations are approximately the same in their respective locales in terms of bearing disproportionate risk of carrying and transmitting HIV. There have been some recent needle exchange efforts in Newark, but there is also a long history of NJ state government opposition to such programs. Needle exchanges have consistently correlated with reduced spread of HIV in pilot areas, and given the direct and indirect contact that drug users have with other segments of the Newark community, this would seem to be a worthwhile early investment.

Perhaps a new enterprise is needed for this to be feasible: a syringe manufacturer that sells syringes to local doctors' offices, hospitals, and clinics in order to subsidize the costs associated with needle exchange programs. This enterprise could even arise as a subsidiary of one of NJ's many pharmaceutical and medical supply producers. To be most relevant, needle exchanges would need to be most prominent around the first of each month, when welfare checks are distributed and spending on drugs is highest in Newark.

Another opportunity area involves replicating Brazil's myriad campaigns to reduce the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS,as this has historically been a severe problem within the predominantlyblack and Latino communities in Newark. The subject matter of the campaigns could run the gamut from human rights-themed messages, to celebrity (local or national) endorsements of HIV testing, to educational public health messages that inform/remind people about how HIV is transmitted.

While there are surely a number of other specific applications of the Brazilian strategy for Newark, generally speaking, Newark should focus on a few thematic lessons from the Brazilian case: First, Newark organizations should learn from the Brazilian concentration on being relevant and relentless at every touch point in individuals' lives at which they might be exposed to HIV; action at manyof the aforementioned touch points in the Brazilian context would be directly transferrable to the Newark context. Second, Newark organizations should recognize the importance of making AIDS a sustained, public conversation about a public health issue - whether that is done with or without the government's assistance. Finally, Newark health organizations (e.g. hospitals and clinics) and/or the local government should focus on identifying incentives for private sector producers of products that are needed for prevention and treatment efforts, in order to procure these products at manageable prices. 

[1] Williams, L. (1989, February 2). Inner city under siege: fighting AIDS in Newark. The New York Times. Retrieved 13 Nov, 2010, from

[2] Tierney, J. (1990, December 16). Urban Epidemic: addicts and AIDS - A Special Report: in Newark, a spiral of drugs and AIDS. The New York Times. Retrieved 13 Nov, 2010, from 

[3] Narvaez, A. A. (1987, July 21). Newark hospitals seek unit for AIDS treatment. The New York Times. Retrieved 13 Nov, 2010, from

[4] Tierney, J.

[5] Williams, L. 

[6] House of Representatives Committee on Governmental Operations. (1990). "The AIDS Epidemic in Newark and Detroit." Washington, DC: U. S. 

Government Printing Office. Page 50.

[7] Ibid, page 35.

[8] Accessed 14 Nov. 2010.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bacon, Pecoraro, et al. "HIV/AIDS in Brazil." UCSF Country AIDS Policy Analysis Project. San Francisco (2004): 9.

[11] Accessed 14 Nov. 2010.

[12] The Economist. (10 May 2007). "Brazil's AIDS Programme: A Conflict of Goals." Sao Paolo. Retrieved 13 Nov, 2010, from

[13] Accessed 14 Nov. 2010.
14 Ibid.

[15] Public Radio International. (11 Jan 2010). "Brazil's Effective HIV Prev

ention Strategies." Accessed 13 Nov, 2010, from

[16] Accessed 14 Nov. 2010.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.
 20 Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Public Radio International. (11 Jan 2010). "Brazil's Effective HIV Prevention Strategies." Accessed 13 Nov, 2010, from

[24] Accessed 14 Nov. 2010

My daughter graduated from Oberlin College on Memorial Day.  The ceremony took place in a park with little shade on a crystal clear day, the kind you get in the Midwest when the temperature spikes 40 degrees in twenty-four hours.  It was sweltering.


But the true intensity came from the anticipation of what lies ahead, measured in people to be helped, a planet to be saved, lives to be changed.


Of course, the template for graduation speeches is to remind students to remember friends and institution; follow their dreams; and give back to others. 


But Oberlin is different.  A liberal arts college and music conservatory founded in 1833 in Oberlin, Ohio, it admitted women from the beginning, and granted women the first bachelor's degrees in the country in 1841.  In 1835, it became the first college to adopt a policy to admit students regardless of race. 


The town has long had progressive roots as well.  It was a pivotal stop on the Underground Railroad that ushered slaves to freedom in the north.  Residents' of Oberlin and the neighboring town of Wellington efforts in helping a fugitive slave flee to Canada reportedly sparked the Civil War.


Today, Oberlin and its environmental visionary, Professor David Orr, are in the early stages of creating a carbon-neutral, economically vibrant community that brings together town and gown, farm and city, today's needs and tomorrow's demands.  The Oberlin Project is a beacon pointing to the kind of world we can create if we try.


So, there was a rich and storied context as Oberlin's commencement speaker, Dr. Helene D Gayle, spoke about changing the world. 


Dr. Gayle had planned to be a pediatrician but had an epiphany at her brother's college graduation, where an epidemiologist described a successful campaign to eradicate smallpox.  The speech allowed Gayle to see how her own skills in medicine could be more broadly applied in a career in public health, providing her the opportunity to address interlinked problems of poverty, lack of affordable health care, and a broad set of inequities throughout the world. 


Thus was launched her remarkable career, first with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where her efforts focused on HIV/AIDS; then at the Gates Foundation, where she directed the foundation's HIV, TB and Reproductive Health program; and now at CARE (one of the best known organizations in the world devoted to fighting poverty, supporting women, and bringing about social justice), where she has been President and CEO since 2006. 


All because she was moved by a commencement address.


Some Oberlin graduates undoubtedly were moved by Dr. Gayle's remarks, their futures shifted in positive ways that will be revealed over the course of their lifetimes.  And yet others - including those who want to make a difference in the world - are still searching, despite the glimpse of all things sustainable, equitable, and right about the world that four years at Oberlin exposed them to.  I know, because I asked.  And because I teach students who are also looking to create meaning in their lives.


As a professor at the Ross School of Business I teach courses with titles that are a bit too long, like Solving Societal Problems through Innovation and Enterprise.  In these courses, I want my students to see that innovation can propel for-profit and nonprofit organizations to tackle some of the world's chief challenges: poverty, health care, education, the environment.  And taking these problems on can be done from a sense of opportunity, not just responsibility. 


We discuss ways to dramatically improve health care with cell phones, discarded medicines, and video games.  We consider improving education for children in India with "educational Karaoke," teenagers in the worst Bronx schools by training them as entrepreneurs, and college-ready students in Arica who cannot afford tuition by providing free, world-class college curricula.  We discuss charities run as for-profits, multinational corporations working in full-partnership with slum dwellers, alliances between environmental NGOs and huge retailers who intimately depend on each other for their mutual success through saving the rainforests, and powerful means of harnessing the power of collective action to identify, solve, and accelerate solutions to the world's most pressing challenges.


Why do students flock to these courses?  Because they hunger to combine their intellect and their hearts.  They crave the sense of meaning that comes from creating, especially when they find work that provides them with a means of support and a vehicle to have huge impact.  And mostly because they see the world with fresh eyes, free from the cynicism that that can come from thinking that anything that can be tried, has been tried.


The companies and organizations that are forging a better world need fresh eyes, too.  The practices that have gotten where we are - a physical planet in perilous shape and a socio-economic planet where the distribution of wealth and access to life's necessities (let alone luxuries) is more skewed than ever before in history in favor of the "haves" - are not the same practices that can lead us to a planet capable of sustaining us physically or providing a secure, healthy world that truly creates opportunity for all.


Graduation is both an end and a beginning.  It is a time to reflect, give thanks, and seek renewal.


To my daughter Hannah I say, 

"Congratulations on completing your degree. I'm so proud of you.  As you take your Oberlin degree into the world, I know we are lucky to have you joining the fight for a more sustainable world.  Lead, take action, and become a life-long student."  (The word "student," derived from Latin, suggests study, scholarship, and learning - not necessarily formal education, you know.)


And to students everywhere - whether you're enrolled in a degree program; striking out on your own as a (social) entrepreneur; working in an organization; or possibly running one - I say, 

"There's never been a time we've more urgently needed new ways of addressing the societal issues in front of us.  There are innovative ways for business to seek opportunity to serve, rather than acting purely with greed, frustrating progress, or withholding their formidable talents that could be used to create immeasurable benefits.  It's time to see the world with fresh eyes and create a better world.  It's time for us to graduate from old ways, which no longer serve us, and look at the world anew."


I have had the privilege to teach and learn from "students" of all stripes who want a more just society: those enrolled in my classes of course; but also those who I've worked with and supported on the ground in inner cities and the farthest corners of the planet;  officials of organizations devoted to a more equitable society, whether they occupy corner offices or cramped quarters in an attic; and like-minded do-ers seeking to make inroads against injustice through the provision of clean water, access to microfinance, more sustainable food systems, the elimination of homelessness, to name a few areas.


I invite you to join me in exploring a new world where we solve societal problems through innovation and enterprise.   Let us learn together.

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