Archive for the ‘Alumni’ Category

What the SE Experience meant for me

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

By Usman Gul

Sometime during my sophomore year at Wooster, I began to weigh my options about the many different paths in life that I could adopt after graduation.  Public policy, urban planning, behavioral economics and econometrics all seemed to be fine options, but first I had to decide whether I wanted to create jobs or seek jobs – was I to be an employee or an employer?

I wanted to be an employer. As a budding entrepreneur, the Social Entrepreneurship (SE) program was the only program at Wooster that provided students an opportunity to explore their entrepreneurial talents in a real-world setting. I worked with a non-profit organization that operated on grants from generous donors to promote the use of solar energy in and around Wayne County. As consultants, my teammates and I were required to propose a revenue generation model that would help the organization move closer to financial sustainability.

Usman Gul, Sam McNelly, Shitong Zhan and Moledina at the SE Seminar

For me, the SE program was a very effective reality check. I realized through first-hand experience that I needed to be more flexible in working with my teammates. Maybe I was a better candidate for a particular task, but what if my teammates really wanted to do that task as well? It seemed like I had to choose between group performance and team chemistry. However, faculty members who were supervising our project helped me find extremely simple solutions through which I did not have to compromise on either end. I ended up putting in my best effort for team performance, while also staying on excellent terms with my teammates.

Working with an external organization that had nothing to do with the College was an experience of its own. I learned all the little things that pile up to make a big difference in professional relationships. Working under pressure, constructing flow diagrams to visualize our project in group meetings, preparing an agenda before each meeting (and sticking to the agenda!), and being (or at least sounding) enthusiastic about the discussions in early morning meetings were only some of things I was able to master at an early stage.

Perhaps the most important lesson, for me at least, was to think outside of the box. One downside of taking so many objective and quantitative courses is that we begin to assume that there is one right answer to every question. Through the SE program, I realized that there were so many different ways of going about a particular project that possibilities were literally endless. However, the trick was to eliminate the uncertainty by acquiring the necessary information and then objectively and collectively decide the merits of every potential solution.

I feel that my time at Wooster would certainly have been incomplete without the SE experience.

Editors note: Upon graduation Usman was an Invest2Innovate Fellow. Thereafter he moved to New York where he worked for MasterCard. He is now in the Bay area working for Marqeta, a payment processing firm.

Alumni spotlight: Rashmi Ekka

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

rashmi-thumbnailFrom time to time, Wooster alumni that are engaged in poverty reduction or social entrepreneurship will post to this blog. Below is a thought piece by Rashmi Ekka. Ekka graduated in 2008 with an economics degree. Her Independent Study empirically assessed the efficiency and profitability of microfinance organizations with a focus on group lending.  Rashmi’s goal is to create financial institutions that are both socially and financially sustainable. While at Wooster she received a fellowship to attend StartingBloc’s Institute for Social Innovation and also developed a plan to start a microfinance institution for Adivasi’s (Sanskrit for indigenous peoples). Ekka works in DC as a finance
consultant for an international development firm. She is co-founder of Adivasi Development Network

Mainstreaming Socially Responsible Finance and Balancing Mission Drift

In the last edition of the Economist, there was an article which proclaimed that financial innovation for the poor had a place in society.[i] For the past thirty years microfinance practitioners all over the world, starting from Bangladesh to Brazil have been building up the microfinance industry and have taken financial services to over 100 million poor people (more than half of who are women) who were thought to be “unbankable.”

In the first 20 years, most microfinance institutions were non-profit organizations. Their focus was more on achieving social benefits and not much consideration was given to rigorous business practices such as internal controls, risk management and achieving financial sustainability. Repayment rates were high (often in excess of 95%) but many institutions continued to depend on donor financing. Even so, with its growth the microfinance sector became very vibrant, with each country having its own unique challenges and corresponding innovations. In India, where democracy and civil society movements and organizations are firmly entrenched, microfinance took on the form of self-help groups where women organized themselves into small groups and started saving in a common fund and using the group to access credit. These groups then consolidated themselves into federations, further bolstering the institutional structure and the women’s economic power.

In the 90s, there was a push in the microfinance industry for increased financial sustainability. Policy makers in many countries caught up with the sector and put in place enabling microfinance policies including the opportunity to start offering deposit services. Slowly some of the best microfinance institutions started reaching scale and becoming financially self sufficient.

With the increasing popularity of corporate social responsibility, microfinance has become the best answer to socially responsible investment needs. Armed with remarkable social and financial returns, microfinance institutions make good candidates for formal financing through the global capital markets. On the other hand, the big investors have found out that social investing does not only earn them karma points which are well-respected in the financial industry but also the diversification in the portfolio has proved to be a good risk management strategy during the global financial crisis. Calvert Foundation’s Community Investment Notes (bonds) have performed very well during the crisis and now there are several opportunities for institutional and individual investors to invest in microfinance.[ii]

In business there are always trade-offs. With all this good news from the commercial investors, many microfinance practitioners are concerned that they might not be able to adequately balance their financial responsibility with their social responsibility. SKS India is one of the biggest and the most successful microfinance institutions in the world with over 5 million clients. SKS has attracted a lot of interest from investors and those who are in, are expected to make a tidy sum. SKS is soon expected to have its first IPO and many in the industry are worried that the microfinance institution might suffer from mission drift – i.e. become so commercially oriented that its social mission is compromised.

So where does Microfinance go from here? The microfinance industry and generally the social finance industry is in a good place to be. Many industry experts have already banded up together to ensure that microfinance remains a double bottom line industry, i.e. be socially and financially responsible.[iii] With the industry being so quick in addressing mission drift, as well as accessing global capital markets for finance, the microfinance industry should continue to grow at a remarkable pace, expanding outreach to the many poor who are still unbanked. The current size of the industry is estimated at $25 billion and the market demand is estimated at over $250 billion. Let’s hope that microfinance is able to deliver on its promise!

[i] You can read the article brief here:

[ii] If you have $20 (or more) to spare and would like to make a microfinance investment, help the poor around the world and make anywhere between 1% to 6% annual interest rate go to

[iii] Microfinance practitioners have come together under the Social Performance Management Taskforce to ensure that the microfinance industry can be socially and financially responsible. To learn more about this, read the Social Performance Management Guide.

Migrant farmworkers in North Carolina

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

Visual culture can be used as an instrument for social change. Our SE Program Associate, Laura Valencia ‘12 spent the summer of 2009 working for Toxic Free in North Carolina.

She researched the risks that pesticide exposure poses to migrant workers. Her picture documentary is posted on Photo Philanthropy. Also her video documentary is on the Toxic Free site. She won the 2009 student award from Photo Philanthropy! Congratulations, Laura!

Wild Ideas

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

By Ashley Baxstrom

Social entrepreneurship: in the words of Eleanor Newman ‘10, it’s “not just about helping people – it’s about developing a business and also providing social value in a community.”

Since 2005, the College of Wooster has introduced students to the process and concepts of social entrepreneurship by connecting student teams and real-world clients to find solutions for financial and organizational problems.  The SE program offers a combination of experiential learning and cooperative problem-solving to develop business opportunities with sustainable social and economic value.

In the spring of 2008, a small team of students put their creative thinking to the test to create a business model for The Wilderness Center in Wilmot, OH.  Executive Director Gordon Maupin asked for help to put together a sustainable model for a regular podcast.  “It had been something I’d been looking at for a period of time, but hadn’t had time to make the business plan,” Maupin said.  “I thought computer-savvy college students could be a big help.”

The SE program had several students interested in taking on the challenge.  Newman, originally attracted to SE because of a poster, was intrigued by the responsibility and progressive thinking which was expected of students, “something you’d expect to see at graduate level.”  Thomas Stikeleather ‘10 was attracted to the environmental factor and the emerging technological issues.  With the help of their teammates and faculty advisor Amber Garcia of the Psychology department, the students got to work.

Newman had never heard of a podcast making any money, but thought the idea had a lot to offer.  “It struck me that there were people who knew so much about the wilderness and had so much to share” she said.  “It seemed like a great way to … be able to spread that knowledge to a greater community than the one that’s local.

The process was a combination of teamwork and individual responsibility.  Initially meeting every day, the students was able to bring their own ideas to the table and utilize their separate interests to put together a multi-faceted model.  “We worked really well as a group,” Newman said, but added “it was a very independent process – we were expected to get along and do our own thing.”  Separately they researched concepts like marketing, technology and profitability, and weekly met with each other, their advisor, and again with Maupin to gradually lay out what fit the proposal.

Stikeleather thought communication between the parties went very smoothly.  “They really had a passion about the project as much as we did.  I know other groups ran into hurdles (with communication), but they were rooting us on the whole way.”

“I thought they did a great plan and I was very pleased,” Maupin said.  The model was so feasible that in 2009 he went back to the SE program for help putting it in effect, and Stikeleather, involved with the College radio station, found himself working with the Wilderness Center once again.  Maupin assigned specific tasks of researching and finding the right equipment and setting everything up.

David Wiebe, Access Services Manager at the College library, was there to help.  With a background in technology and interest in the emerging field of podcasts, Wiebe advised Stikeleather on equipment and software.  “He was in my office all the time!” Wiebe said.  “He was what I saw as the conduit of communication.”

Wiebe, Stikeleather and Maupin met several times to revisit the business plan and nail down the application.  Wiebe had the technological expertise to advise on equipment and trained Stikeleather in software like Garage Band.  Stikeleather was essentially the producer, bringing people together, and handled issues such as marketing.

The process wasn’t without its share of hurdles, of course.  For Maupin, it was trying to incorporate the new technology at the Wilderness Center.  “Whenever you’re dealing with computers and technology, how can you go five minutes without some frustration?”  Stikeleather had to handle the difficulty of balancing his junior year independent study and activities with the very real complications of implementing a business plan.  “The thing about this kind of work is the business plan isn’t as definite a goal as maybe a paper is, so there’s more ambiguity about it; so in that time between developing the plan and letting them know you have to make some personal decisions, you’re not sure how you’re keeping up at all times.”

In the end though, everything came together.  The Wilderness Center’s Wild Ideas weekly podcast has been in operation for a year, boasting over 50 posts.  Every week presents a different topic in nature and the natural sciences, hosted by Maupin, other Center personnel and special guest expert speakers.  Its friendly, conversational tone has made it popular around the world: since being featured by iTunes, it has been downloaded (over 20,000 times) on every continent except Africa and Antarctica.  “It’s not terribly formal but that’s part of the flavor,” Maupin said.  “They get to listen to environmentalists chatting.”

Stikeleather also began playing the podcast on the College radio station Woo 91 (90.9 locally) this year.  “I think it has an enormous social value,” he said.  “It gives a local non-profit organization a voice that really informs anyone who’s interested and anyone who’s willing to tune in.”

Maupin says the Wilderness Center is optimistic the podcast will continue to grow, and is interested in furthering the marketing potential for it, especially in the new social media sector.  “Maybe we could get some students together and get some wild ideas flowing around,” he said, anticipating potential future cooperation with SE again.

Wiebe also enjoyed the opportunity he had to work closely with a student. “I don’t often have that experience, to see a student take charge … in a pretty comprehensive project.”  Since working on the project, he’s also become a regular at the Wilderness Center with his family.  “To make those connections with members of the community, I thought that was great.”

Stikeleather graduates this spring with a degree in urban studies, and will carry the social entrepreneurship lessons learned with him in his graduate studies and career in city planning.  “SE really requires us to assess the social value of anything,” he said, reflecting that it provides “a moral sense to anything that you want to shape, where you’re doing something that has benefits beyond yourself, and such action I think is commendable anywhere in the world.”

Newman, graduating from the department of International Relations and looking toward a career in non-profit work or journalism, also left the program with a strong sense of its potential value.  She recalled, “Karl Marx would talk about how relationships are no longer about how you were judged but what you could buy,” observing how businesses in the modern economy had severed their relationships with people.  She thinks American and global industry needs to move toward a more community-oriented model.  “If the idea gained some popularity and we started thinking about how we could build a better business and community, that would create a better world for all of us.”