Social enterprise

On Systemic Change

“I could talk about reducing the price of malaria nets,” she says, “but I think we need to get away from ‘$10 will save a life’ and other slogans that fit on a T-shirt. Instead, we need to build lasting solutions that fundamentally change the system, so that everyone can thrive without having to be dependent forever on charity.”

Jacqueline Novogratz quote in SSIR

Question of the Day: Exploitation in Social Enterprise?

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about exploitation. How do we end exploitation in the workforce? In society? How do we build social good models that don’t continue to exploit individuals in a new way? How do we advertise and raise awareness about social missions without creating “poverty porn?”  Is exploitation in some form or another inevitable?

I came across this blog post that encapsulates some of my many questions and concerns quite well.

“Though we didn’t reach an agreement, this conversation did bring up very important ethical issues for social entrepreneurs. When creating a sustainable organization for BoP populations, are we creating a social enterprise or have we created a way to legalize social exploitation? As Talent would ask, “when you employ people from impoverish communities are you simply utilizing your access to cheap labor?” When financing poor entrepreneurs are you simply exploiting debtors? When providing micro-insurance to underserved populations are you simply exploiting the poor?”

Perhaps this is over thinking the issue too much. But I have many questions and doubts, and no answers.

What do you think? 

What Affordable Private Schools Teach Us About Social Enterprise

The hype around social enterprises often trumps a deeper investigation and critique of the challenges facing those organizations.

After spending nine months exploring affordable private schools (APS) and social enterprise in India, I’ve noticed a number of challenges with APS that also apply to social enterprises more broadly. Below, I discuss three critiques and myths about affordable private schools, and offer some lessons that those working in the social enterprise ecosystem can take into consideration for their own work.


Five Lessons From a Retail Failure (SocialStory)

Another Celebrating Failure piece

This edition of SocialStory’s Celebrate Failure Series is a story of a retail store that achieved early success but eventual failure. Though it wasn’t an organization with an outright social mission, it’s important to remember that businesses such as retail stores also have a social impact by creating jobs and impacting the local economy. And any lessons about failure can apply to both the social and private sector.


Why hasn’t TOMS Shoes changed?

A few weeks ago, I posted a (rather harsh) article on my Facebook wall about “the worst” international aid ideas. It sparked a lively debate among my friends about good intentions vs. bad ideas in aid, preventing and discouraging failure, and social good business models.

TOMS: Shoes For Tomorrow.

TOMS: Shoes For Tomorrow. (Photo credit: anita.marie)

TOMS Shoes is the most well-known example of bad aid with good intentions. I don’t have to go into the details about why because so many others have already raised great points. (If you are unfamiliar with the arguments, read those articles, then continue here.)

I want everyone to always be thinking about how to make the world a better place. So it’s great when someone comes up with a new social good initiative. But when you explore that idea, or maybe even pilot it, and learn that your idea isn’t having the kind of impact you were hoping for, it’s time to rethink the concept and pivot. As Sasha Dichter of Acumen Fund explains, the social sector should learn from Eric Ries–The Lean Startup author–and create a Build-Measure-Learn cycle to identify failures and pivot.

My main criticism of  TOMS and organizations like TOMS, beyond the negative consequences of their business model, is that after all of the public criticisms of TOMS, it has made no effort to change or pivot. TOMS could be more transparent about its opaque supply chain or even move its operations to local communities, or shift its model away from giving shoes for free to using profits to support local jobs, training, or schools. TOMS has a strong brand name with a large customer base. Imagine if they used their name recognition and community to raise awareness and serve as an example for how similar organizations can also improve.

Ultimately, TOMS is not an example of bad aid for its faults, but because it hasn’t attempted to change its ways. Public criticism of social good organizations like TOMS aren’t discouraging social entrepreneurship or preventing people from trying a risky new approach to make the world a better place; rather, it’s encouraging more thoughtful, intentional aid initiatives that revisit their model when they aren’t achieving impact or are potentially doing more harm than good.

I really enjoyed the debate on my Facebook wall and I believe this is a very important discussion that needs a lot of voices and opinions involved, so feel free to share your thoughts here! 

Attempting Sustainability (SocialStory)

Attempting Sustainability (SocialStory)

My article for SocialStory

You’ve heard the term “sustainability,” but have you thought about it outside of the environmental context? There are many ways in which social change programs can be unsustainable. Programs can be designed without a community’s real capacity, interest, or needs in mind. They can provide expensive and unfamiliar tools that community members don’t know how to use or fix on their own. Programs can give away resources for free without consideration for the potential long-term negative effects. They can be carried out without the proper processes or documentation in place that would ensure continuity in the event of staff or user turnover. Programs can also be managed without a financially sustainable model.


Mid-Year Update

Field Trip

It has been nearly six months since I moved to India for the IDEX Fellowship in Social Enterprise. Since then, I’ve been serving in a consulting role to an affordable private school (APS). My foremost goals have been to design and implement sustainable programs for the school, and to gain a better overall understanding of the challenges in low-income communities and the social enterprise market in India. So, what have I been working on here?

India's Independence Day

I’ve spent significant time just settling in to India and observing how my school works. I wrote this post on my first impressions of APS. I sat in on classes, spoke with teachers, students, parents, and administration. And I read a lot about innovations in education, low-income education, and social enterprise in India. My fellowship provided us with speaker sessions about social enterprise and trainings from organizations like J-PAL on impact assessment and theory of change.

One major challenge I’ve faced is that I’ve jumped a bit from project idea to project idea. Some of my initial concepts for projects–such as a school expansion for a playground and an assessment of APS through surveying alumni–weren’t feasible given financial, time, and resource constraints. Other ideas either didn’t make sense for the school or for my goals here, or partnerships fell through. The initial observation phase was vital in coming up with project ideas, but I continue to learn new things about how my school and the local community functions all the time which changes the feasibility of projects or what projects I want to focus on. And many hurdles weren’t realized until plans for implementation were put in place.

Career TrainingI did implement a number of small-scale projects, such as Design for Change and coordinating a health camp and a career training. As a secondary assignment for my Fellowship, I’ve also become a contributing writer for the great team at

Right now, I’m focusing on several priority projects for the remainder of my fellowship.

One project is a very exciting mobile phones pilot with two major education and education technology companies in India. The pilot will test students on a subject weekly and provide performance feedback to parents and teachers. But the novel component is that the program will be used on mobile phones that the families already own for a very minimal cost (no hand-outs of expensive new technology), and it’s a brand new pilot. We’ve held initial meetings with the two pilot schools, parents, and students, and plan to launch at the end of January.

Previously, I wrote about my interest in learning more about India’s unbanked, and how that might improve school fees payment. I’m still very interested in this concept, but have found it difficult to identify and secure partner organizations for a savings and/or financial education program, with school resource constraints and lack of local partners being major impediments. With my fellowship working group, we’re still in the process of trying to build a partnership between a financial education program and APS in Hyderabad.

Another major focus is my work for a forthcoming report on educational tablets and technology in low-income schools in India. This report is based on a tablets pilot at APS in Hyderabad and field research we conducted. The report will provide a lot of new insights into the market of low-income educational technology users in India.

I’m also hoping to help my school purchase and install internet access for their computer lab, after which I will train teachers and students on how to use and take advantage of the endless resources for education on the internet. I’ve also worked on a test-taking and study skills lesson plan for teachers and students, since such skills as multiple choice strategy aren’t taught at these schools, yet passing 10th class state exams is vital for every student.

IDEX Fellowship

This doesn’t nearly encompass the many things I’ve learned, tried, implemented, or thought about during my first six months here, but it’s an overview of my work thus far. I have three more months to implement and wrap up my key projects before the end of my fellowship. Overall, this experience has been invaluable in allowing me to have an entrepreneurial experience in a developing economy, to spend significant time researching and learning, and to better understand the roadblocks in designing and implementing social enterprise projects in India.

My thoughts on the affordable private schools model are being reserved for a future post.

Bombay Connect: Creating Space for Social Innovators (

My article for

On the top floor of a modest building on a quiet street in Bandra, Mumbai, you’ll find a colorful and cozy office space. Inside, you’ll see bookshelves with an eclectic library collection and in between sunny windows, you’ll find pictures and colored post–its taped to brick walls. On one side of the post-its wall, people list support they need—graphic designers, new team members. On the other side, people list support they can provide—editing, business plan feedback. On any given day in the office, about 30 individuals can be found working on laptops at shared desks or holding meetings in one of the meeting rooms, all busy launching and developing business models to promote social change in India.

Co-working is a growing phenomenon that has doubled every year since 2006, with an estimated2,150 co-working spaces worldwide. India’s co-working scene is still nascent, but one of the most popular spaces is the aforementioned office in Mumbai—Bombay Connect, a co-working space for social innovators. It was founded three years ago under UnLtd India, an incubator for early-stage social entrepreneurs. UnLtd India started their incubation model with the intention of creating a complete support ecosystem for social enterprise in India, which is where Bombay Connect plays an integral role.



Bombay Connect works on a membership model, and benefits include access to working space and events. The office co-working space includes desks, wireless internet access, a library, kitchenette, and conference and meeting rooms. Bombay Connect also hosts one to two events each week, including clinics on marketing, HR, finance, and fundraising. Fostering a strong sense of community among its members is of the essence to Bombay Connect, which hosts regular networking events such as music shows, pottery-making, cooking courses, and movie screenings. They also host monthly Dabba Chats, which are member-led meetings for peers to share ideas and solutions to problems such as sanitation, education, and technology. Events are open to both members and non-members to introduce non-members to the space and encourage new and different perspectives.

“I’m very happy with the ecosystem we’ve created. We’ve seen connections happen,” says Preeti Dawane, who oversees membership engagement and outreach activities at Bombay Connect. “I like the environment here—it’s easy-going and everyone is really helpful and easy to approach,” noted a new Bombay Connect member, who recently moved back to Mumbai to work on a marketing start-up and a NGO after living in the United States. “It’s a great platform to get to network with people who are very forthcoming in sharing ideas and insights.”

Bombay Connect has gradually grown in membership and now has over 50 members. Membership ranges from 1250 to 7200 rupees per month, depending on the number of hours a member works in the space. Approximately 90 percent of members work in social enterprise and 10 percent work with mainstream business. “We like to include mainstream entrepreneurs because they come with fresh ideas and energy, so that social entrepreneurs will benefit from their perspective,” says Dawane.


While co-working spaces have taken off in other countries, there are few co-working spaces in India. One reason, Dawane explains, is that entrepreneurs looking to keep low budgets will use their wireless connection from their home for work. Distance and travel time, especially considering Mumbai’s slow and unpredictable traffic, are also factors. Nonetheless, Dawane has seen a continued rise in membership, noting that “a lot is changing because of the benefits from co-working.”

Bombay Connect’s model enables India’s social entrepreneurs to pursue their ventures at lower start-up costs and foster synergies with other social enterprises. In the past three years, Bombay Connect has already seen its members thrive. “It’s great to see how members have grown out of the space when their team is big enough for them to move out. If they manage to grow out of the space and have their own office, and have their ideas take off, that’s part of the impact that we are having in the social space,” says Dawane. Bombay Connect eventually aims to move into a bigger office space and add different locations throughout the city, and throughout India, so that social entrepreneurs across the country can develop their ventures and collaborate in a Bombay Connect space.

Learn how to become a Bombay Connect member or attend an event here.

Bombay Connect: Creating Space for Social Innovators (

GoodWeave’s Market-based Solution to End Child Labour in India’s Carpet-Weaving Industry

My article on GoodWeave for 

When you purchase a new rug for your home, do you ask yourself who made it and under what conditions they work? With an estimated 250,000 child laborers currently trapped in South Asia’s robust carpet-weaving industry and adult workers also facing daily health and labor rights challenges, this is something that every socially mindful person should know.

One of India’s untold stories is that pockets of slavery still exist throughout the country, in the form of child labor. UNICEF estimates that 12% of children in India between ages 5 and 14 are exploited in child labor activities. According to some estimates, India has nearly 60 million child laborers, despite having 65 million jobless adults. GoodWeave, a business-NGO hybrid founded in India in 1994, creates a market incentive for the carpet-weaving industry to end its practice of child labor.

GoodWeave certifies rugs as child-labor-free and provides rehabilitation and educational opportunities for children rescued from carpet manufacturers. Now working in India, Nepal, and Afghanistan, it has sold more than 7.5 million certified carpets in Europe and North America, while decreasing the estimated number of children working in the carpet industry in South Asia from 1 million to 250,000. Rug exporters and importers sign a legally binding contract adhering to several standards including child-free labor, and agreeing to unannounced inspections. GoodWeave generates 20% of its income from licensing fees that exporters and importers pay to support GoodWeave’s monitoring and educational programs.

If a child laborer is found during a GoodWeave inspection, the rug manufacturer loses its certification and the child is immediately removed from the factory, returned to their family, and provided opportunities for education through local rehabilitation and education partners. To ensure that rescued children stay out of work and receive an education, GoodWeave provides monthly payments to the families, only released after assessing school records and regular check-ins.

India’s laws regarding child labor and education are becoming stricter, which assists GoodWeave in its mission. Along with the passage of the Right to Education Act—which guarantees free education to every child under 14—a new amendment to the Child Labour Act 1986 would ban employment of children under the age of 14. The current law only bans child labor below age 14 for “non-hazardous” work.

“One of harder things to look at is incidence of child labor and how that’s changing over time,” explains GoodWeave Executive Director Nina Smith, who won the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2005. As a market-driven model, GoodWeave assesses their impact with data from both the marketplace and the field. “Our theory is, as there is more market acceptance and as we gain market share [in the amount of certified carpets] and reach more communities, child labor is deterred and more victims are reached,” says Smith.
As the business environment has evolved, there has been increased consumer awareness around sustainability, and interest from bigger corporate buyers that face issues of compliance beyond child labor, explains Smith. GoodWeave recently revised its certification standards to address a range of factors affecting the carpet industry in South Asia including labor rights and environmental issues. Developing the new holistic standards was a complex, stakeholder inclusive process completed over three years. The revision fulfills GoodWeave’s founding charter’s goal to keep no-child-labor as the central focus while also addressing sustainability, health, and workers rights issues affecting the industry.

When it comes to addressing the global issue of child labor, Smith explains that there’s a need for individual, government, and business action, and education for the next generation. Smith argues that consumers have a major role to play in thinking about everything they buy, from GoodWeave certified carpets to local agriculture products (child labor is also a big problem in the agriculture industry). Consumers also need to ask questions and advocate for change at the business level. “When you go to buy a product, ask questions,” says Smith. “Be more active at the point of purchase and understand where products come from, and make sure that people on the sales floor know where their products are sourced.”

The historical trend has been that market-based models result in the systematic exploitation of children. What’s innovative about GoodWeave’s solution is that they enter the market from the same angle, but do so to end the problem instead of fueling it.

Learn more about GoodWeave’s work and resources here.

GoodWeave’s Market-based Solution to End Child Labour in India’s Carpet-Weaving Industry

So, what did you accomplish, really?

This is a really good response to the typical “so, what did you accomplish abroad” question. Remembering that its not always about products and tangible results is vital.

“The problem is that really good, high-quality development work isn’t about products.  Instead, it’s about processes, and about challenging and even changing systems.  In the end, societal change doesn’t come about when you build a clinic or school room, though those are certainly good things. Societal change comes instead when people have the capacity, knowledge, and desire to change their own circumstances.  After all, what good is a clinic or a school if there are not people to staff that building, or if local residents don’t know how to use it, or don’t trust it? And what happens when the bench outside the clinic breaks?  “That volunteer built it; they should come back to fix it.”  Community buy-in and locally-based knowledge sources are, in the end, more important than brick and mortar buildings (or thatch and stick, if you are using appropriate technologies).”

So, what did you accomplish, really?


Over Memorial Day weekend I attended the five day StartingBloc Institute in Social Innovation at Babson College in Boston. The other future fellows-around 100 in total-were passionate, diverse, and genuine.

The main focus was on relationship-building and creating what has become a tight-knit community of young leaders who want to make the world a better place through social enterprise, entrepreneurship, and intrapreneurship. Never before have I found a community where everyone was so open about their goals and fears, and where enthusiastic support for individual goals and opinions came so naturally.

The relationship-building activities were supplemented by a case competition for ReWork, lectures, and interactive skill-building sessions.

Here are some takeaways from some of the featured speakers: 

Mitchell Wade, of StartingBloc’s Board, is the founder of Institute3, a think tank for practitioners obsessed with sustainable growth, one of the topics he spoke about. 

  • We are all passionate about change, changing the way things are done and the way issues are viewed. But the only change that matters is the change that happens when you are gone and the change that happens with other people. 
  • Institutions create space for community.

Ted Gonder, of MoneyThink and fellow University of Chicago alum and StartingBloc Fellow, gave an invigorating final session on “smashing fear.” 

  • You have to realize the assumptions going into any situation, and detach emotions from expectations.
  • If I’m not at least a little scared to do something, it’s probably not worth my time.
  • There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that others will feel comfortable around you.
  • Fear is forget everything and run, or face everything and rejoice.
  • Release the FOMO (fear of missing out) because you’ll never know what you’re missing out on. So enjoy what you have now.

Cheryl Heller, a designer and brand strategist, ran an interactive session on collaboration and designing for change. 

  • Communication can be designed to get the results that you want.
  • What’s more important than your idea? Relationships.

Cheryl Kiser of Babson, Anne Kelly of Ceres, and Michael Levett of Citizens Democracy Corps, led a discussion on CSR.

  • When do you change systems and when do you work within a system to affect change?
  • You don’t just want to work for a company that has social impact. You want to work for a company with POSITIVE social impact.
  • Companies should be pre-competitive, and be proactive about the impact they have in communities.
  • You can’t have corporate social responsibility without individual social responsibility.

Here are some of my main takeaways from the StartingBloc experience: 

  • I’ve been fortunate to be a part of several communities of aspiring leaders, most notably Junior Statesmen of America and Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. StartingBloc, out of any community, understands true relationship-building. It began with a transformative session with Scott Sherman, and continues with an entire community of fellows worldwide that will support any other StartingBloc fellow, whether or not they have met. StartingBloc has also created incredible brand loyalty. 
  • There are a lot of young people who don’t care about making money or climbing the corporate ladder, but truly care about using their skills to help other people and make the world a more sustainable and better place. If they do want to make money or work for a corporation, they want to do it through social enterprise, or working for a company with a positive social impact. But because many young people are not taking traditional career tracks, I wonder what that means for the skills-gap for when/if these same individuals do try to apply for more traditional jobs. 
  • While I am still skeptical of entrepreneurship for the sake of entrepreneurship, most of the budding entrepreneurs at StartingBloc were thoughtful with game-changing ideas. In addition, I think many fellows were motivated by the concepts of intrapreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking.