Today, I met with three impressive young millennials who are shaping the world through social enterprise. They come from a variety of backgrounds, from a former refugee to a corporate marketer; each of them facing unique challenges that have shaped their journey to make our lives better through their enterprise.
Shivika Sinha, 31 - CEO & Founder, The Veneka Group
The Veneka Group is a consulting firm that aims to reshape capitalism as a force for positive change. 70% of the U.S.'s GDP is contributed by personal consumption. That means at least $12 trillion dollars could be mobilized towards systems that reverse climate change, end poverty and hunger, educate children, cure diseases and much more. The Veneka Group dares to imagine a world where global personal consumption contributes to sustainability and humanitarian betterment. By accelerating growth for environmentally and socially conscious enterprises and helping corporations pivot towards sustainability and social responsibility, The Veneka Group fosters business as a vehicle for good.
Thuch James, 28 - Founder, Rainmaker Enterprise
James Thuch Madhier, from South Sudan, is the founder of The Rainmaker Enterprise. Using a solar powered pump and well, he will build a farm with micro drip irrigation to grow livestock feed and collect water. These will then be sold to family farmers in the northwestern city of Wau at modest prices to help them nourish their livestock in the dry season, increase livestock sale prices, and reduce resource scarcity and conflict in the region
Katie Eder, 17 - Executive Director and Founder, Kids Tales
Kids Tales is a nonprofit that works to empower every kid to find their voice through creative writing. It sends high school students into summer camps around the world to teach younger kids who do not have access to writing experiences outside of school. Kids Tales has served almost 500 kids across six countries, engaged 118 teen workshop teachers, and published 31 books. It has been recognized by AFS-USA, the International Literacy Association, Prudential Spirit of Community Award, and the National Writing Project.
Jessica: How did you decide to become a social entrepreneur? What was your “aha–ha” moment?
Shivika: My journey to social entrepreneurship was long, introspective and life-changing. The journey grounded me with my deepest values that were forged during a global upbringing in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India and the United States. It forced me to reflect upon my earliest desires and professional experiences, like working with UNICEF in rural Bangladesh and volunteering at an orphanage in Vietnam.
As a result of rigorous exploration, deep introspection and realignment, I left my decade-long career to pursue a legacy of positive change and purposefulness for future generations.
Thuch: Systemic problems drove me to become a social entrepreneur. The deadly civil war in my country of origin, Sudan had destroyed most roads and cut off villages from the rest of small towns. This made it hard for the people in the villages to access basic commodities.
At age 12, I started to deliver commodities such as such as salt, rice, painkillers and others to unreachable areas. I became a social entrepreneur on a micro-scale level without knowing what being a social entrepreneur entailed– consequently, I navigating over 20 villages in a span of 2 years. This was the beginning of my social entrepreneurship journey.
Katie: During the summer before fifth grade, I took my first writing workshop. And at that moment, my life changed. Writing gave me the chance to express myself and have a voice. I began to realize that writing was not something most kids get to do outside of school.
I didn’t start Kids Tales knowing it would become a nonprofit. I started it because I wanted to teach creative writing. But at the end of our first workshop, a girl named Alana raised her hand. She had been very quiet the whole week, so I was a bit surprised when she asked me to come over to her table. She looked up at me and said, “Thank you for letting me have a voice. No one has ever done that for me before.” Alana then explained to me that her parents were divorced and she never had the opportunity to express herself and share her thoughts. At that point, I knew Kids Tales was no longer just about me. It had the power to show kids that they mattered.
Jessica: What was your toughest obstacle being both a millennial and a social entrepreneur – describe a time you struggled or failed. What did you learn?
Shivika: All my failures have taught me that you only fail when you fail to learn. A fear of failure is a signal that you’re headed out of your comfort zone into something that will help you grow to your greatest potential. Success and failure are two sides of the same coin.
I’ve been underestimated, overlooked or dismissed so often that I’ve lost count. I’ve been told I need to decrease the scope of my ambition and that my dreams for humanity and business should be left up to others.
Thuch: My toughest obstacle came when I fled my country to a refugee camp in Kenya in 2005. I was reduced from being a problem solver to a problem to be solved! Life in the refugee camp was unbearable and chances for growth were limited.
I had saved some money from my small social enterprise back home and in addition, a relative gave me some money. In total, the amount was $150 dollars. This was a lot of money. I invested the whole amount into repairing an old grinding mill to help the refugees grind their grains, along with two of my cousins. However, it broke down after two weeks, despite our attempt to repair it. This was the first taste of failure for me in a harsh place as the refugee camp. I can’t describe the level of devastation I felt for losing my precious savings. I think a lot of people fear to fail but I believe one will never fail if they don’t try certain things.
Katie: I had no intention of creating a nonprofit when I taught the first workshop in 2014. After realizing that growing Kids Tales had the potential to impact a lot of kids, there wasn’t a question in my mind about making it a nonprofit. But, many of friends didn’t feel the same way. At my school, the “normal’ thing was to play sports after school or be in the school musical.
Most of them thought I was kidding – many of them thought I was trying to start a nonprofit to get into college (side note with this – running a nonprofit is WAY to much work just to get into college).I so desperately wanted to share good news with my school friends. But, I knew that if I did, I would just get made fun of.
However, I have been able to find other people who support Kids Tales. I couldn’t have asked for it any other way because through Kids Tales I have gotten to meet such kind and passionate people who are doing amazing things. Many of closest friends are other young people who have started nonprofits or other ventures and who continue to inspire and motivate me every day.
Jessica: How do you define success as a social entrepreneur?
Shivika: The Veneka Group is a consulting firm that aims to reshape capitalism as a force for positive change.
As CEO & Founder of The Veneka Group, I define success based on the alleviation of humanity's greatest social and planetary crisis. I review how many people or families are lifted out of poverty as a result of our work with clients. Deductions in carbon emissions, fresh water saved, and other environmental factors also come into play in my evaluation of success. Success on this front includes the number of corporate business leaders I inspire or work with to incorporate sustainability and ethics into their operating models, and market to the rising tide of conscious consumers.
Thuch: I can only count myself successful when a systemic problem I set out to solve has been diminished. For me, it is not about the revenue, it is about the problem. As a social entrepreneur, revenue should follow the focus on the problem.
Katie: People always want to see our quantitative impact. While we do gather that data, to me, big numbers don’t make us successful. I know they are important, but I think that the stories and the real experiences of people are really what makes Kids Tales successful. When I teach a workshop and see a student go from hating writing to loving it – that’s when I know we’re successful. When a teacher tells me they taught a 13–year–old boy in juvenile detention center thanked them because no one had ever asked him how he ended up where he ended up, I know we are successful. When someone sends me an email and tells me that they read a story in one of our books from 9–year–old refugee from Afghanistan that completely changed the way that they see refugee kids, I know we are successful. To me, success isn’t big numbers – success is impacting one single person. To know that Kids Tales has changed someone’s life makes everything worth it. I truly believe that every single person, no matter who they are or where they come from, has a voice and a story that matters.
Jessica: Closing Comments and Top Tips for Social Entrepreneurs
As the CEO of Global Professionals Practicum (GPP), I’ve been privileged to have the opportunity to work with young entrepreneurs world wide.
Social entrepreneurs are particularly fascinating to work with. For many social entrepreneurs, their organizations are started as a result of a “aha” moments: nearly all of them can identify an experience (or series of experiences) that lead them to awareness of systemic problem in their community and an urgency to find solution to that problem. This is true of each of the young social entrepreneurs interviewed today– the companies they found are often deeply tied to their personal experiences, values, and desire to make an impact in the lives of others.
Millennial social entrepreneurs often face a challenge common to all entrepreneurs: following a vision that can seem impossible to others and daunting to the entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs need a thick skin to survive– persistence and resilience are paramount to their success and overcoming failure.
Shivika describes her experiences being “underestimated, overlooked or dismissed so often I’ve lose count”. Katie echoed similar sentiments, and expresses the challenges related to being different from her peer group in following an unconventional path.
Yet millennial social entrepreneurs face the added pressure of being accountable for creating social impact. For these social entrepreneurs, founding a social enterprise goes beyond their desire to create a the future they want to see for themselves, and extends to the type of future they want to see for their local or global community. Each of them defines success as related to creating social impact, often measured in the number of lives impacted. This is particularly true in areas where social impact is most needed, such as James’ experience of experiencing a “first taste of failure …in a as harsh a place as the refugee camp”.
Here are their top tips for other rising social entrepreneurs:
Shiva: Firstly, as a social entrepreneur you have a clear ‘why’, use this foundation as a home to go back to during the ups and downs of your journey. Secondly, always keep a “beginner’s mind”, which is a Zen Buddhist philosophy about maintaining the openness and eagerness of a beginner, no matter how seasoned ones expertise becomes. Finally, don’t let anyone limit your ambition and dreams. You truly can change the world, don’t let anyone take that hope and dream away from you.
Thuch: A useful advice I can offer to social entrepreneurs is to focus on problem identification more than executing the social business idea itself. Being a social entrepreneur is like being a doctor: Identifying and addressing the real disease is crucial. Sometimes, you may be focusing on addressing the right problem at the wrong time. As a social entrepreneur, one needs to be adaptable and flexible to deliver the desired impact.
Katie: My advice: Share what you know and do it now. Everyone has some sort of skill or talent that they love to do or are good at. Find a way to do what you love AND make an impact on the world, big or small. There will never be the perfect time. You will never have enough knowledge. If you have an idea – make it happen now.