By Julio Gonzalez, MBA '06
with Kirsten Olsen, MBA '06, and Katherine Boas, MBA '07
What does it take to be a leading social entrepreneur? Sixteen GSB students, along with Public Management Program Director Peggy Reid, Professor Rick Aubry, and travel guru Terry Cumes, MBA '04, spent spring break in Brazil finding out. The inaugural Service Learning Program trip took us to Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre, and Salvador, where we visited three social entrepreneurs at the forefront of worldwide social innovation
The energetic Rodrigo Baggio formed the Committee for Democratization of Information Technology (CDI) in Rio de Janeiro in 1995 after leaving his technology career to pursue social entrepreneurship. "I began to see myself in 10 years. I was more rich, but not more happy," Baggio said. "In 1993, I had a dream. I saw young people using technology, and I was so excited about this dream that I had to make it a reality."
At nearly 800 learning centers in Brazil and almost 200 abroad, CDI provides computers and training to underserved communities in urban slums, mental health facilities, and prisons. Its mission is to use access to and training in information technology as a tool to promote citizens' rights. We visited CDI at its headquarters as well as at computer learning centers in a favela and a mental health facility.
Our second visit took us to see Fabio Rosa and his Institute for the Development of Natural and Renewable Energy (IDEAAS). We met Rosa and an IDEAAS installation crew in the rural community of Maquinae, outside Porto Alegre.
For a small fee, IDEAAS installs solar panels on the roofs of rural homes that are off the power grid. The upfront cost of each panel is significant and, as such, isn't affordable for the rural poor. So, Rosa rents the panels to customers, making it affordable for them and allowing him to recoup his investment over time. His solution also reduces or eliminates reliance on kerosene, replacing it with this clean and renewable form of energy. IDEAAS works with several partners, including local government and banks, to achieve the scale o install, service, and bill. "Electricity can provide well-being for people as well as productivity and income generation," Rosa said.
We made our last stop in Valente, four hours outside Salvador. There, in the arid northern farmlands of Bahia, we met Ismael Ferreira and learned about his 20 years of work building the Association of Small Farmers of the Municipality of Valente (APAEB). The group's stated mission is to promote "sustainable economic and social development in order to improve the living standards of small farmers in the sisal producing area." APAEB manages a sisal carpet manufacturing factory, a retail store, a goat milk and candy producer, and a cooperative bank. It also has a formidable community center with a large outdoor pool-a welcome oasis in the hot Brazilian sun. Both Ferreira and Rosa have found innovative and effective solutions to support rural life in Brazil and stem the tide of migration to urban centers of Rio and Sao Paulo, cities where the promise of prosperity and a better life is often unfulfilled.
Returning to our original question of what it takes to be a leading social entrepreneur, we synthesized our observations of the three entrepreneurs and came up with the following suggestions based on their similarities:
1. Use optimistic, concrete language.
The entrepreneurs effectively used concrete ideas to paint a picture of optimism. For example, Baggio told us an extraordinary story of how a CDI computer center helped stop a border conflict. According to Baggio, an indigenous group in southwestern Brazil used CDI training and computers to email an ultimatum to the president of Brazil: either the federal government would patrol the border for violent drug smugglers who victimized the indigenous people, or the group would take matters into its own hands by declaring war on the smugglers. The email made it to the president, who dispatched jets and other military resources to the area. Baggio's story was both a great platform for the optimism inherent in his social venture and a memorable example of the positive impact that expanded computer access can have.
2. Leverage technical ability.
Each entrepreneur leveraged his skills to deepen the impact of his organization's model and to gain credibility. For example, Rosa is an agronomist by training, which helps him deal with electricity dilemmas in the outlying agricultural areas in Brazil. His technical background also affords him legitimacy when dealing with utility companies, bureaucrats, and his rural customers. Similarly, Baggio built his own computer services firm before transitioning to social entrepreneurship. The network he formed in his private-sector days remains an important part of the support base for CDI today.
3. Foster quality recruitment.Any organization that fails to recruit top-quality people will have a tough time meeting its goals. All three of the social entrepreneurs we visited had effectively recruited personnel who helped them meet their needs. Yet they had no universal template for human talent except energy and commitment. For CDI, talent meant a tech-savvy deputy with strong English and interpersonal skills. For IDEAAS, it meant a handyman lawyer who enjoyed installing solar panels as much as negotiating legal contracts (and singing Bob Dylan).
4. Remember that all social entrepreneurship is local.Local alliances with government, nongovernmental organizations, and community groups were a key facet of success for the entrepreneurs we visited. CDI had to work with its local partners to get access to space for its computers. IDEAAS invited the mayor of Maquinae to join our visit because the mayor's office can help the organization as it deals with larger bureaucracies. And according to APAEB, Ismael Ferreira got so tired with the family oligarchy governing the city of Valente that he chose to run for mayor himself.
5. Develop humility and patience.
Leaders who are humble and patient have an easier time building interpersonal confidence with key allies. What's more, in organizations where there may not be money to reward high-performing staff, leaders must draw on these traits to share the spotlight and engender teamwork.
6. Create a "movement culture."
Wiring a home's battery or bundling sisal creates social impact only as part of a larger effort. That's why each social entrepreneur we visited found it important to build a social movement culture in his organization. Without that culture, many of the perfunctory tasks that are critical to achieving change would be done poorly, if at all. Each of the entrepreneurs wanted participants to be motivated not by money, but by the mutually reinforcing camaraderie that comes with being part of something socially meaningful.
At APAEB, for instance, we observed a meeting of about 200 members. It's hard to imagine such a strong showing without some traces of a movement culture. "Have your head in the clouds, but your feet on the ground" is Ferreira's explanation for how APAEB accomplishes so much with so little.