The following is a conversation between Greg Van Kirk, Co-Founder and President of Social Entrepreneur Corps, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: The CEO of Warby Parker believes that the unique, immersive experience offered by Social Entrepreneur Corps is key to career success. Now that’s a statement that grabs your attention, and tonight, you’ll learn what makes that experience so special. From Greg Van Kirk, Ashoka Fellow, Executive Director of Community Empowerment Solutions, the Skoll Foundation’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2012, and the co-founder and President of the aforementioned Social Entrepreneur Corps: Good evening, Greg, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Greg: Good evening. Thank you, Denver.
Denver: Share with us the mission and objectives of Social Entrepreneur Corps.
Greg: Our mission is really to empower the leaders of the future. If you look at students from high school to college, university, young professionals, to be able to effectuate positive change in their lives and in the world through an experience in countries where we work, such as Guatemala, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and Haiti; working on real projects with real people and real communities and tackling wicked, complex problems.
Denver: Why don’t you walk us through one of your programs? Who are these programs designed for? How long do they go on? What exactly do these participants do? And what are they going to walk away with?
Greg: I’ll try to unpack it here a little bit. We first started Social Entrepreneur Corps in 2005. This was when I was living in Guatemala and leading our work there… social innovation work in communities in Guatemala. The original idea was really about: we understood that we needed more people to do more of what we were already doing and to learn how to do new things. We looked at the landscape and saw that students, particularly university students were very interested in social entrepreneurship and this budding idea of social entrepreneurship at that time.
So we originally designed the program really with the thought of: how can we work with university students in particular so that they can come down and help us to make greater impact in what we do. Looking at that and the question, How can we build a really strong program? As a former Peace Corps volunteer at that time, I had a bit of understanding about what made the Peace Corps tick, what worked really well. If you look at one of our signature programs, for example, right now is our eight-week program. We have an eight-week program. We partner with different universities, although the program is open to any university student. We have projects that we set up before the program comes down. These are social innovation projects for students: design in social innovation, as well as consulting projects where they do consulting for small grassroots organizations typically.
When students arrive, they stay with the homestay family– It’s all about triggering empathy and understanding– learn Spanish intensively, learn about what is it that makes social innovation, social entrepreneurship work. Then they get out in the field and work side by side with our team that’s working in these countries year-around to help to design and develop social innovations, and support other organizations. The idea, most certainly, the desired outcome is to help these organizations and to help to create some social innovations. But at the end of the day, it’s what the students take out of it. They are able to develop their adaptive leadership skills, their empathy skills, to be able to thrive in uncertainty, and all these things that are necessary, obviously, to succeed in the future.
Denver: Give us some examples of these social innovations that participants work on.
Greg: This summer in particular, we’ve had students come down and work with us in Ecuador, Guatemala, Dominican Republic. Two of the social innovations that we’re working on right now; one is what we call El Colaborativo, The Collaborative. As you know, Denver, what we need oftentimes in this work is for organizations to be working together more often. People tend to think that maybe nonprofits and social sector organizations would work together really well. But there are a lot of challenges there, which means there are a lot of opportunities.
So, students are helping us to design ways whereby we can build collaboration between local organizations in the countries where we work, so that they can leverage strengths, mitigate weaknesses. And at the same time as we build up those local communities, those local networks of organizations, then that can be a platform for people to support them virtually from the United States or Europe. So, that’s one innovation they’re working on.
The second is something that we call Boxed Impact. Briefly, it’s about: how can we get people in marginalized, rural communities things that we know that they need that we’ve learned over time–some basic technologies such as reading glasses or solar lamps. We’ve typically done that through the MicroConsignment model, which is a local model to empower women entrepreneurs to provide those things. As well, students can take these things down in a small box and deliver them to, say, an education organization which really knows their community best. That organization can then decide in their own way how to distribute to their own constituents… Ideas that are sort of in the beta phase that we’re trying to learn, and having the student input in critical thinking is hugely helpful to us.
Denver: One of the organizations you work hand in hand with is your sister organization, which is Community Empowerment Solutions. Tell us about CE Solutions.
Greg: We started CE Solutions in May 2004 when I was still down in Guatemala. We had already started a variety of different initiatives. I started a local tourism initiative, an education project. I had just started this MicroConsignment model that I had referred to previously. We saw that some of these things were working, but that they really needed further development if we were going to create the impact that we wanted to, and if we were going to be able to scale.
So, that necessitated starting up a nonprofit organization as an administrative tool and as a way to access some capital. We see solutions that started in Guatemala, and then as we saw some of our work start to have a bit of success, we expanded that work to other countries in Latin America, in particular with the idea that we go in and try to work with people to create new social innovation, start new ideas, but then we step back after we help to set up social enterprises or other local organizations, so that local people can take the lead.
It’s essentially a means… to get people things, vital technologies, vital things that they need that exist, but they’re not quite getting yet… the issue isn’t just about capital…; the issue is really about access and empowering new businesses, new entrepreneurs to be able to go out and sell these things.
Once they go out to the community and they sell something, they earn a profit. What comes back, we reinvest to help their business and to help them grow.
Denver: One thing I’m going to ask you to expand upon is the MicroConsignment model, which actually has its own Wikipedia page… about 10 of them as a matter of fact. Describe for us what it is.
Greg: It’s essentially a means to get people in what people would say, the last mile. In golf, you might even say, the first mile; to get people things, vital technologies, vital things that they need, that exist, but they’re not quite getting yet. In many regards, it’s a distribution mechanism, if you were to look at it through a business lens. The idea is that we know that people need reading glasses; 95 percent of people in the world are going to need them when they’re over 40. But 95 percent of people don’t have them. We know that people need water purification solutions or solar energy solutions, or a whole host of different things. We know that people need them. We know that people aren’t getting them. So, the question is, how do you get something from here to there?
The issue isn’t just about capital. Although microfinance, microcredit is an amazing tool, obviously to use when somebody has a going concern, and they need to be able to have more money to be able to buy more things to sell more things; the issue is really about access and empowering new businesses, new entrepreneurs to be able to go out and sell these things. Essentially, the way that it works is we work with communities and find out what they need. We see if we can get access to these types of technologies; then we identify women who go through a process of learning about the technologies and learning how to run a business. Then instead of asking them to invest money that they don’t have to buy the products upfront to sell them, or instead of simply offering them capital because capital is necessary but insufficient, we actually bring in the products, and we offer the products to them on a consignment basis– which means that they can test it and try it. Once they go out to the community and they sell something, they earn a profit. What comes back, we reinvest to help their business and to help them grow.
Denver: All with no collateral.
Greg: All with no collateral.
Denver: Your program goes to a whole lot of different countries, a number of them: Ecuador, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, but you spent a significant amount of time in Guatemala, as you said, starting in the Peace Corps back in 2001. Not many Americans know much about Guatemala. Tell us about the country and what you find to be particularly interesting about it.
Greg: I consider Guatemala in many regards a second home. It’s a wonderful, diverse country. Wonderful people, but then you probably say that about most countries. I guess some of the things that people might not know is there are 22 different languages in Guatemala. So 22 different dialects but these aren’t… it’s not like I speak with a New York accent….somebody speaks with a Southern accent. These are entirely different languages. So, you have all of these different communities, which obviously is one of the rich parts of the culture, but at the same time can create challenges in terms of communication and working together.
There is, I think, a misconception about Guatemala that it’s this dangerous place, that if I get off the plane, something bad is going to happen to me. We tend to unfortunately paint countries with a very broad brush. There are dangerous parts of Guatemala, most certainly. But the majority of it isn’t dangerous. Wonderful people who, just like you and I care about our communities, care about our families and just want to do our work. I think apart from that, it is just incredibly welcoming, incredibly dignified, incredibly receptive to working together in trying to build solutions together.
Denver: Greg, who are some of your partners and champions who help support this work, whether financially or otherwise?
Greg: You know we have a variety of different organizations. The mission is the same for all of these organizations. It’s really about: how do we create systems change and social impact at scale? You set up different organizations for different legal reasons, or because of different geographies. Within the different organizations that we’ve created, we work with a variety of different partners. As you referred to in the beginning, we work with Warby Parker. I’ve actually known Neil, their CEO. We worked together in El Salvador back when he was right out of college. So, we’re one of their partners for their Buy One, Give One Program. When their employees finish three years, they come down to the field and get to see the impact of their work.
I do work with Levi Strauss Foundation who supports our work in Haiti. We work as a strategic through partner for their overall worker well-being initiative. We do some work with the IFC. We’re currently doing an agricultural project in Haiti with them. Certainly, with Social Entrepreneur Corps, in particular, we partner with a whole host of different universities. So, we have students from Duke, from Northwestern, University of Maryland, University of Connecticut. I think overall, I’m a big believer in partnership and collaboration as I referred to earlier. The more that we can find opportunities to work with people who share the same values and the same goals and objectives, the better it is for all of us.
The question is: How do we elegantly combine all of these things in a way that it creates change and empowers students to survive and thrive in this VUCA world that we’re going to be living in?
Denver: One other organization we haven’t talked about is Career X, which is really the first global internship and personalized leadership program out there. Tell us about them and how they differ from some of the other things that we’ve discussed.
Greg: Now, we’ve done some restructuring. Created a program much like Social Entrepreneur Corps under what we now call Project X, which is a new partnership with a good friend and colleague, Jeff Hittner. Briefly, Career X… what makes it a bit different is Jeff in particular has done a lot of work around purpose and mindfulness here in the US. So much of my work and our area of focus has been internationally in social entrepreneurship. So, what we decided to do in pilot this past year was: could we create a program that combines all of that? Right now, we’re based out of New York. We have programs that are open to all different university students. We have a series of workshops with mentoring, where folks design their own social innovations, working in teams. Then they go down to Guatemala and work on consulting in the same types of innovations they’re working on here in New York City. At the end of the day, it’s an effort. There are mentorship programs. There are study-abroad programs. There are social venture competitions. The question is: How do we elegantly combine all of these things in a way that it creates change and empowers students to survive and thrive in this VUCA world that we’re going to be living in?
I think empathy is at the heart and the foundation of everything. I would say that it’s looking at empathy as a verb. It does take practice. I know that when I’m not engaged with communities and with people, I lose it. It’s something you have to keep at.
Denver: Let’s turn our attention, Greg, to things that it takes to be a successful social entrepreneur; and it really all begins with empathy, first and foremost. You’ve led Ashoka’s “Start Empathy” work here in North America. What does empathy really mean, and how do you get better at practicing it?
Greg: I certainly agree wholeheartedly. I think empathy is at the heart and the foundation of everything. I would say that it’s looking at empathy as a verb. It does take practice. I know that when I’m not engaged with communities and with people, I lose it. It’s something you have to keep at. When you look at empathy… a couple of quick things, if I could. One, I did some work for this really great guy, Chris Atkins, who was with William and Mary and is now at Notre Dame. The way that he puts empathy is: there are three ways that you can get empathetic, sort of trigger your empathy. One is, you’re naturally empathetic with, say, a family member if something happens with your wife, your son, what have you. So, that’s one trigger of empathy.
The second is people who don’t have the same backgrounds, but have shared experiences. If you look at Alcoholics Anonymous, people are naturally empathetic. And the third way is simply physical proximity. If you think about empathy as a basis, how do we understand each other, work across the differences, in particular when we’re working in communities where we don’t have experience? Those first two triggers of empathy, family member, shared similar experiences aren’t there. So, you have to go, and you have to engage, and you have to learn about each other and how to work together. So, you need that as a foundation to get understanding.
But then as a second point, what I would say is, we’re in the innovation business and we’re in the change business. To innovate, you need to work as a team. When you’re innovating, you need to be able to fail. It’s all about continuous failure and improvement. If you think about it, if I want to innovate, I have to work as a team, which means I have to be able to fail. We have to be able to fail together as a team, which means that we have to forgive each other; which means that there needs to be trust. Before you get to trust, you have to have respect, mutual respect. Before you can have mutual respect, you need to have empathy…on so many different levels, if you think about creating change or simply creating understanding, we have to proactively seek out and work on empathy, or else we’re not going to make the change that we need to in communities.
Denver: Let me pick up on one of those, and that would be trust. What’s its role in social innovation? And how do you go about gaining trust?
Greg: I think it’s critical to everything that we do. If you look at the MicroConsignment model which we referred to and you said, “With no collateral.” I believe in my experience, seeing other social innovations around the world, what really makes it tick is trust. Certainly, we know that microfinance, or so many other innovations, are built on social capital, which is all about trust. So, a group of people who trust each other and will do something together; either you want to leverage that, or you want to create it. But at the end of the day, it’s by… entering in trust, entering with trust begets more trust. It’s something to be careful about because we have the tendency, I think, inadvertently to try to create solutions where there is implied mistrust.
If I go to a community in Guatemala, and I want to work with a community or work with an organization, and I say: “Well you have to sign this big contract up front before we start to work together,” there’s implied mistrust there. We’re already starting off the relationship sitting on opposite sides of the table. Whereas, the only way to create change is to be sitting on the same side of the table. That trust part, not just to be able to create innovations, but also… we don’t have all the answers. Great phrase I heard someone say is: Make your problem someone else’s opportunity. The only way to do that is to really trust others and help them to thrive.
…besides economic capital… there may be a deficiency in economic capital… there’s an incredible wealth in so many other forms of capital. If you look at human capital, amazing human capital. If you look at experiential capital, all the different things that they know about their community — institutional knowledge. Social capital which we touched upon. This incredible social capital in the community. Looking at it from an asset perspective and not a deficit perspective helps you work with communities in a very positive and powerful way and helps them to then engage and come up with their own solutions, which is ultimately the way to really create change.
Denver: Of course, if you want to scale, you’re going to have to trust because you’re going to have to decentralize and delegate, things of that nature.
As you think about the work of social innovation, you say it can really be hampered if we look at these communities from a poverty perspective, something that’s pretty easy to do. Why is that problematic?
Greg: It’s looking at something…looking at a community or looking at an individual from a deficit perspective, from a poverty perspective, I think is very limiting. When you look at, for example: when you look at communities, and you look at so many types of communities that we work with, the natural thing is to say, this community is impoverished. The natural place to jump to then is to think about: when we think about poverty, what do we think about? We think about money. Of course, the community has limited access to capital, has limited funds. But if we just look at that through a money perspective, we’re just going to provide a money solution. Whereas, we need a whole lot of creativity to create change. But if you look at that community from more of an asset-based perspective, not from simply a deficit perspective, then what you can see is, besides economic capital… there may be a deficiency in economic capital…there’s an incredible wealth in so many other forms of capital. If you look at human capital, amazing human capital. If you look at experiential capital, all the different things that they know about their community — institutional knowledge. Social capital, which we touched upon. There’s incredible social capital in the community. Looking at it from an asset perspective and not a deficit perspective helps you work with communities in a very positive and powerful way and helps them to then engage and come up with their own solutions, which is ultimately the way to really create change.
I think oftentimes, when we fail or we confront challenges is when we start with resources.
…having clarity around: What are your core values that drive your work? At the end of the day, it’s not about my thing. It’s not about my social innovation and my tool. It’s about creating change, and however that might happen, that’s wonderful.
Denver: Great point. I’ve always wondered why we have so much emphasis on a nation’s GDP. How did that became the one and only measure in terms of ranking nations?
Final thing on this is that one of the challenges in this work is to be clear and stay clear about desired social outcomes– which can easily be lost. What advice do you have for gaining and maintaining clarity around these outcomes?
Greg: I think oftentimes, when we fail or we confront challenges is when we start with resources. I have something… what am I going to do with it to make it work? Or we start with an activity, I can do this well, I know how to teach. How can I go teach, which in the short term may provide a solution but in the long term, you’re going to often times get off track. The first question you have to ask yourself is: Why am I doing this, and not why am I doing this for me or my organization? But what is the change that I hope to help create for the lives of the people that I’m working with? If you can define that and if you can… it’s a process harder than you would think. If you can really define that well, and if you can really define: how am I going to know if it happened? What are my indicators of success? Then I think the rest can fall into place. What that means if I stay true to my desired outcome, my indicators of success might change a bit. But then that means I can change what inputs I use. I can change what activities I do. You’ll need to because you’re working in a dynamic environment. So I think it’s having clarity around that, having clarity around: What are your core values that drive your work? At the end of the day, it’s not about my thing. It’s not about my social innovation and my tool. It’s about creating change, and however that might happen, that’s wonderful.
…helping people to have the ability– which is the knowledge and skills– helping people have the means, the resources, and/or helping people to have the incentive and the motivation. The question is simply: Where do we intervene? Where can we play the most positive role in that equation?
Denver: That’s a great distinction because we are somewhat self-absorbed. We go to our board and say, “We distributed a hundred thousand pairs of glasses,” not thinking: How many people learned to read? How many people were able to continue with their employment. It’s always me, me, and what we did.
Greg: I think the way we look at it, you get into the measurement, right. A hundred thousand pairs, that’s an output, it’s not an outcome. The proxies you can know because you’ve done research, but the way that we look at it too is we’re in the change business. What we’re trying to work on is empowerment, helping people to become empowered in whatever way we can do it. That’s either going to be by providing…helping people to have the ability– which is the knowledge and skills, helping people have the means, the resources, and/or helping people to have the incentive and the motivation. The question is simply: Where do we intervene? Where can we play the most positive role in that equation?
Denver: Let me ask you about your organization itself. Tell us what it’s like to work at Social Entrepreneur Corps? And in your mind, what makes a corporate culture exceptional and distinctive?
Greg: It’ll probably be better to ask my team about that. It’s challenging because we work in a variety of different countries, and we work on a variety of different projects with limited resources. I hope the culture is one where team members feel empowered to be creative and to try new things and to fail. We’re just blessed with wonderful people all the time that frankly, it goes back to the trust; that I trust implicitly. Again, if we all care about the same things, and we’re working towards it, then because we work in different environments, as well as different countries, people need the freedom to be able to create and try new things.
It’s a culture of friendship where people don’t just value themselves as colleagues, but also as friends that are mutually supportive, and one of respect. One of the things certainly in this field, as you well know, and in particular when we’re working internationally, we have very few people that stay for a long time besides our local team members because people come in, and they do this for two years, sort of like the Peace Corps. Then they leave. It’s not a fight against that. It’s to work with it. Certainly, one of the big parts of this is hopefully we can continually show that we’re respectful of people who are going to have to transition and try to support them as much as possible in the future.
I always knew I wanted to do this kind of work. I didn’t really know what it was or where I could contribute.
I guess the trigger was, I was nearing my 30th birthday, and I read the Price of a Dream by David Bornstein… about Muhammad Yunus and microfinance. I thought maybe this was some way that I could apply some business acumen to try to do something that I can become passionate about and find my purpose.
Denver: Let me ask you a little bit about your personal journey. After you got out of school, you went into banking, UBS, I believe. What led you to be doing this work?
Greg: It’s interesting. As you said, I went into banking for five years, and then I left. Then I went into the Peace Corps, and I think people jump to the conclusion oftentimes when they hear about that that I became disenchanted or angry at capitalism. Throw everything off, put on a robe and sandals and go to Guatemala. That wasn’t really the case. I always knew I wanted to do this kind of work. I didn’t really know what it was or where I could contribute.
When I worked in banking, I worked with a wonderful team of people. It was an incredible education for me. I guess the trigger was, I was nearing my 30th birthday, and I read the Price of a Dream by David Bornstein; wonderful man, good friend… about Muhammad Yunus and microfinance. I thought maybe this was some way that I could apply some business acumen to try to do something that I can become passionate about and find my purpose. So, I left and I joined the Peace Corps, thinking: I’ll just do it for two years, and then I’ll come back, and I never left. It’s been an amazing journey.
In this journey as social entrepreneur, oftentimes there can be this hero worship thing that creeps in. We need examples of success, and we need to be able to point to those and learn from those. But you’re constantly questioning who you are and what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.
Denver: A lot happens when people approach their 30th birthday. Many stories like that.
Let me close with this, Greg. It is so difficult to create change– change in our daily habits or our lives, much less a system, or a community. With all the experience and wisdom you’ve been able to gain doing this work, what does it take to make change happen?
Greg: I think about people that I admire who just do tremendous work in this field. Certainly, some of those qualities– David Bornstein or so many others– is when people approach it with the intent of: how am I going to create change in communities, and that’s their goal; that’s their mission. Certainly, it’s not about just this constant self-sacrifice. You try to find that balance in your life. But I think approaching it continuously with that in mind, being incredibly thoughtful; it’s just really complex, hard work, and you have to continuously be thoughtful and think critically, be willing to beat up your own idea.
At the same time, ideally, having a good amount of humility. In this journey as a social entrepreneur, oftentimes there can be this hero worship thing that creeps in. We need examples of success, and we need to be able to point to those and learn from those. But you’re constantly questioning who you are and what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. I think it’s that understanding your mission, I think it’s that being very thoughtful and thinking critically, and being willing to change, and then trying to maintain some real humility around the work.
Denver: Greg Van Kirk, the President of Social Entrepreneur Corps, thanks for being here this evening. Tell us about your website and what you have waiting there for visitors.
Greg: We have a new website when this airs. It’s www.yourprojectx.com. Within there, you’ll find Social Entrepreneur Corps and Career X; you can link over to Community Empowerment Solutions, as well as some of the consulting work that we do around world supporting other organizations.
Denver: It’s about time you got an umbrella website.
Greg: I know. It’s certainly not one of my strengths.
Denver: Thanks Greg. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Greg: Thank you very much, Denver. I really appreciate it.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.