The following article was written by CHRIS MARTIN ’10 (CLAS)
Too often we fail to see the positive social impact that businesses can have on communities, confusing human rights and commerce as two distinct and dissociated spheres. Yet, some ambitious entrepreneurs have linked the business world with human rights, reinventing the way we approach many socioeconomic issues. Social entrepreneurship takes the enterprising and innovative spirit of the business entrepreneur and applies it to socioeconomic problems, creating the most efficient and effective solutions to some of the world’s most enduring problems.
As part of the Social Entrepreneurship in Guatemala program co-sponsored by the School of Business and Honors Program, I traveled to Guatemala to apply business-based solutions to issues ranging from water purification and eye care to small business assistance and low-cost solar lighting. This emerging entrepreneurial field represents an important shift within the human rights establishment from an era of static and unfocused efforts at human development, to one of dynamic, goal-oriented approaches that delivers results.
Like much of the developing world, Guatemala lacks the necessary water infrastructure to supply its citizens with potable, affordable drinking water. The World Health Organization estimates that over 1.1 billion people across the world lack basic access to any consumable water. As part of the Millennium Development Goals, the United Nations committed to halve the number of people living without drinking water by 2015. But securing a reliable water supply for millions of people has never been easy, and the UN consistently misses its goal. Luckily, smaller entrepreneurial start-ups across the world continue to introduce efficient new systems that meet human rights where large organizations struggle to protect them.
The Social Entrepreneur Corps (SEC) confronts the water crisis in Guatemala with their own business model that links the interests of enterprising individuals with the delivery of water purification systems. The SEC employs indigenous Guatemalans who know their communities and can accurately represent local needs and preferences. Together, we find the most cost-effective and durable water purifier that we can deliver at the lowest price. A range of consumer surveys and pilot programs helps us gauge exactly what kind of purifier rural Guatemalans actually want, what price they are willing to pay, and the impact our products will have on their families’ health and budget. This emphasis on the rural poor as our customers drives us to meet their every water need, just as other businesses must please their clientele. Like any business, our livelihood depends on our responsiveness to our customers’ needs. In this way, we force ourselves to constantly innovate, reduce cost, and improve service or face financial losses. This market environment necessitates the regular participation and input of indigenous Guatemalans, placing them in charge of how their right to water will be secured.
As a human right, “access to water” cannot be a temporary provision, but a standard that should be universally applicable across peoples and time. To make it sustainable, this human right requires the creation of a network of reliable agents responsible for providing access to water purifiers. The Social Entrepreneur Corps has developed a strong business infrastructure that connects the interests of Guatemalan workers who want to earn a living with the enduring social need of safe drinking water.
We train these agents and consign them water purifiers to sell, providing real incentives through the commission earned from their sales.
Thanks to their bold ideas, the SEC has created markets for social change in which answering the needs of these communities becomes profitable. Across the globe, social entrepreneurship successfully teams the world of bold social ideas with the world of efficient and creative solutions. Instead of transferring wealth, social entrepreneurs can create wealth that the low-income people can grow indefinitely. Their business creativity and commitment to social change challenges us to see business and human rights as part of the same positive-sum game in which the welfare of the world’s poorest citizens can improve without bound.
Chris Martin graduated in May of 2010 with his bachelor’s degree in Political Science with minor concentrations in both Economics and Human Rights.
The following article was written by SEAN BUTZE ’10
For most undergraduate business students, the Social Entrepreneurship in Guatemala program is unlikely to be an obvious choice when considering how to best spend a summer vacation. At first glance, the relevance of socially-oriented development work in comparison to traditional internships can be rather unclear for those looking obtain a job in the corporate world. In my own case, however, my desire to launch a career in international business caused me to consider the benefits that becoming exposed to another culture could have for my career development.
Given the highly globalized nature of business today, I realized that I would never be prepared to lead in this new environment if I was not able understand any culture but my own. In addition, the opportunity to apply my knowledge toward making a lasting impact on people’s lives made the program even more appealing to me. As a result, I decided
to stray off the beaten path and see what I could learn about both the world and myself in Guatemala. What I would ultimately discover is that my experiences provided me with a unique perspective and skills that I believe will greatly contribute toward my development as a future manager.
During my stay in Guatemala I found that the most rewarding aspects of the program were the many challenges I was presented with on a daily basis. The first of such challenges was overcoming the language barrier: I spoke hardly any Spanish before the program, and
so living in a Guatemalan household where no English was spoken forced me to be creative and resourceful in my attempts to communicate. Adapting to the customs and routines of Guatemalan society was also not an easy task, and I encountered many embarrassing moments as I struggled to navigate the incredibly hectic bus system and marketplace.
In addition, through my work in the program I was also challenged with learning how to help and influence local people in an environment where I was very much considered an outsider. This was really the first time in my life that I was able to experience what it feels like to be a minority, not only in physical appearance but also in cultural and economic background. As a result, I had to work to constantly interact with the local people in order to build trust and reduce the negative stereotypes associated with being an American in a foreign land. Overcoming all of these obstacles was certainly not easy or always enjoyable, but doing so pushed me to demonstrate a far greater level of commitment, patience, and awareness than ever before.
After spending eight weeks in Guatemala working to overcome the many challenges of cultural immersion, I realized that I was able to gain much more than an opportunity for adventure and philanthropy. The Social Entrepreneurship program allowed me to transform from a tourist into an active participant in Guatemalan society, greatly enhancing
my appreciation for cultural differences. For the first time ever, I was able to begin looking at the world and understanding economic problems from a very non-American point of view. This ability, I believe, is an incredibly important asset to be able to bring into a career in the 21st century. As globalization is driving businesses to operate at an increasingly cross-cultural level, the most successful of tomorrow’s managers will be those who are able to understand the complexity of culture and how to deal with the difficult problems it often presents.
Months after returning from Guatemala, I now believe my experiences provided me with a solid foundation in developing such an understanding. As a result, I now feel well-equipped to begin my journey toward becoming an effective and compassionate leader in tomorrow’s workforce.
Sean Butze graduated in May 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in International Business. He has joined General Electric in their Financial Management Program.