Pinning to Win: Students Get ‘Grassroots Dirty’ in the Delaware Valley

by Charity Yoro

On a Saturday afternoon in the spring, a group of Bryn Mawr College students walks down Main Street in Norristown, Pennsylvania. They enter the various restaurants and consignment stores on the block, but they aren’t buying lunch, clothes or furniture. They aren’t selling, canvassing, or campaigning either.

These students are spending their weekend mapping local businesses in a contest to win $20,000.

But the contest money won’t be used to buy the latest iPhone or designer bag. Instead, the money will be going back to directly support some of these same businesses as part of a new regional initiative called Lend for Philly.

Haverford College Students

Students at Haverford College practice mapping businesses as part of the Lend for Philly contest.

For entrepreneurs with high ambitions and perhaps fewer opportunities, the problem lies in accessibility. Many low-income entrepreneurs in the U.S. lack access to capital, skills and a qualified labor pool to help start and grow their small businesses.

So to solve this problem, college students are meeting these businesses where they are: at their own storefronts.

Bryn Mawr College represents one of ten student teams competing in Lend for Philly, the pilot project of the non-profit Lend for America funded by Knight Foundation. The contest, ending in May, seeks to foster collaboration between college students and local entrepreneurs by challenging university teams to walk around their community and map small (or “micro”) businesses in the area.

“The experience has been easier than we expected,” says Irina Buchok, a freshman looking to major in Economics at Bryn Mawr College. “Most businesses are eager to participate.”

Most of the businesses the students interview are family-owned. Salons, restaurants, and bodegas alike, many of the establishments share the same needs for growing a clientele base, hiring reliable people, or seeking affordable venues for expansion.

The exercise of interviewing business owners has taken students from the classroom into the ‘field’ to learn the basics of business and finance on the ground, helping to break the barrier that often exists between college campuses and their outside communities.

The budding relationships formed with local businesses as part of Lend for Philly seem to have excited and inspired student participants to take action in their campus communities.

“In college, we have so many students looking for opportunities,” saysYaxuan Wen, student president of Bryn Mawr’s microfinance club and another Lend for Philly participant. “The feedback we’ve been getting from many business owners we’ve interviewed is that they want to recruit quality students to help grow their businesses.”

Bryn Mawr Microfinance Club

Members of the Bryn Mawr Microfinance Club.

As a result of the contest, the students at Bryn Mawr, who met specifically because of Lend for Philly, hope to continue as a kind of “liaison between students and local businesses.” College students, Irina says, have skills in things like website building and marketing that could help meet the needs of these small establishments.

As part of Lend for Philly, the student team with the most businesses mapped, or ‘pinned,’ will receive $20,000 in funding to start a microbusiness development initiative on-campus; with part of the funds to be distributed to five to ten small loans to qualifying local businesses.

“There are a lot of opportunities for students to get involved on campus,” says Yaxuan. “But Lend for Philly has been a really motivating experience for us.”

 

The Lend for Philly contest leaderboard is open to the public at www.lendforphilly.org. Philly area based students have until May 1st to interview and map as many businesses as they can in their communities. For more information about this challenge and other grassroots opportunities, visit www.lendforamerica.org or email charity@lendforamerica.org.

 

Charity Yoro

Charity Yoro manages marketing and communications as an AmeriCorps VISTA for the non-profit Lend for America. She recently returned to the states after years of working abroad, where among other things, she directed village savings and loans programs with rural farmers and women’s groups in Madagascar. In her spare time, Charity runs The Rich Life, a lifestyle blog offering tips on living a “wealthy” life, with less.

The Power Behind Your Purchase

One of the trending methods of fostering sustainable economic development has been focusing in at the grassroots level. By working from the bottom up, it is much more possible to learn of and seek solutions to impeding issues. I truly believe that by working at the ground level we can truly begin to make changes.

In 2009, my family opened a store in our hometown of Duxbury, MA that specializes in all handmade products. Named ¨ONE: Gifts and Coffee Shop¨ we believe that ONE Gift, ONE Person, and ONE Place can make a difference. We purchase the majority of the products from the artisan themselves, thereby eliminating the middleman and generating more profit for the artisans. Most of the products are sourced from the Boston and New England area, however we also provide products from across the United States and around the world.

one

Storefront of ONE in Duxbury, Massachusetts.

A small seaside town, Duxbury tends to become its own bubble, its residents often keeping to ourselves. I believe that the presence of our shop enables residents to step outside of the comfort zone of this bubble by connecting with the creators of their products.  From handmade necklaces, to ornaments, to wooden bowls, each product in ONE has a story behind it, which we are excited to share with our customers.  Many of our artisans in the Boston area even hand deliver the products to the store, allowing for a direct relationship with the customers. I still think it’s incredible to look at the products and be able to say things such as, “This was made in Hingham with stones and seashells from our beach!” or even “Our braided sailors bracelets are hand woven by a couple in New Hampshire.”

Image

Charlotte Leavitt, Co-Owner of Chart Metalworks, whose designs are featured in this photo

We have also built up international business relationships, working mainly in the rural areas of Nicaragua. Four to five times annually, my mother Jacqueline – owner of ONE – travels there to meet with various artisans and bring products back to the shop. She has built and maintained business relationships with these artisans, tailoring their products a bit more specific to our market. Of these products, a portion of the profits are donated back to communities in Nicaragua by supporting projects of the non-profit Friends New England. I believe that this connection also serves to burst the “Duxbury bubble,” offering not only a connection to an artisan in Central America, but also through a method of aid. We are able to tell customers that by purchasing a purse made of recycled potato chip bags they are supporting Maria and Juana in Chacraseca, Nicaragua. Also, ONE donates some profits of this specific purchase towards the construction of the community’s first library.

Image

In in the top left hand corner, Jacqueline O’Toole, owner of ONE, with various artisans and handicrafts from the store.

Many customers frequent ONE, looking for what new products we have in stock, hoping to learn more stories. Very often I hear how customers prefer this store because they know who they are supporting. Instead of purchasing a factory-made ornament at a big-box store, they can buy one hand painted or made of seashells found in Massachusetts. I hope that this ideology can spread across and beyond Duxbury, allowing for smaller scale producers to be recognized and supported.  This closer connection to artisans has helped to foster even greater support for their work, often bringing customers back for more.  By purchasing from artisans directly, we are able to offer them a higher price for their goods than if we needed a middleman.  Customers are able to put a name, a story, and sometimes even a face to the products they purchase.  Nearly impossible when shopping at a large chain, this deeper connection of producers and customers help to foster a sense of community and often generates even more support.

By working at the grassroots like this, I have been able to grow in appreciation for producers, and continue to seek out handmade products. When I decide to purchase handmade, I am actively choosing to avoid products that were produced in sweatshops in China. Slowly but surely, a greater emphasis of handmade products are growing, examples of which are the Fair Trade movement, and even farmers markets!  If we continue along this movement, society as a whole becomes to better appreciate producers around us.  Through this sense of community, we start to feel more accountable for those around us, and thereby heighten economic development by financially supporting these individuals.

 

Are you a student interested in being a guest blogger for the Oikocredit CHiRP Force?  Contact us at breilly@oikocredit.org to find out how!

Image

Elisabeth O’Toole is a current junior at the University of Notre Dame, studying International Economics, Spanish, and International Development. She has spent time volunteering in Nicaragua as an English teacher, and will be in Guatemala this summer studying fair trade and direct trade coffee. Elisabeth has been a part of ONE: Gift and Coffee Shop since its launching in 2009.

Getting Dirty in the Grassroots!

This week we launch our blog series on local community engagement, called “Getting Dirty in the Grassroots”!  Students and interested professionals are invited to submit guest blogs here.

We just finished learning about how millenials can have an impact on the world. Check out the series here:

The Key is in Your Pocket
What Can I Do?  I’m Only 22.

This blog series aims to answer questions like: How do you define community?  What does giving back in your local community look like?  What are the best practices an individual can partake in to ensure growth in their community?  How can you make your community a better place for everyone who lives in it?

If you are interested in contributing for this blog series, check out the “Call for Guest Bloggers,” and email us at breilly@oikocredit.org.  Submissions should be sent in by April 15th.

Our first guest blog for this series will be published Friday March 28th.  Be sure to follow this blog by entering your email address on the right hand panel to see the rest of the posts over the coming weeks!

What can I do? I’m only 22.

As a 22 year old college student nearing graduation, sometimes the world can be a bit overwhelming.  I realize I am standing at a precipice in my life, right about to step into the “adult” world.  However, all I have ever wanted to do since I can remember was make a difference in the world, and sometimes the road to getting there seems impossible.  I think my friend’s dad said it to me best: “All you’re life you’ve been on a road of education and growing to try to figure out who you are.  But, now the road ends, and you have to bushwhack your way through the weeds to make your own path.  Life is going be what you choose.” 

Life is definitely an adventure that can be exciting, but it can also be scary, and it can be hard to find the courage to take the first step.  Personally, I know I tend to underestimate myself when I’m scared about where I’m going in my life: What can I even do to change the world? I’m only 22. 

However, just because you’re young doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference.  Plenty of young entrepreneurs have established themselves within the market.  This is especially noticeable in the tech industry.  Mark Zuckerberg was only 19 when he created Facebook.  The founders of Pinterest, Instagram, and Tumblr were all under 30 when the websites launched.  There is no question that Millenials are driving and creating the culture they are consuming.  However, it doesn’t seem to be the same way for other aspects of the market like social entrepreneurship. 

Every year, the “30 Under 30” list for Forbes reminds me that even at my young age, I can make a difference in the world.  Take for example  Malala Yousafzai, the young schoolgirl from Pakistan who dared to speak out for education for girls, and was shot by the Taliban because of it.  While Malala wasn’t on the list, her chief strategist, 24 year old Stadford grad student Shiza Shahid, was honored by Forbes.  Shiza met Malala in 2009, and in 2012 when she was shot Shiza got on a plane to London and helped to oversee her medical care. Today Shiza is helping to turn Malala’s dream of global education for girls into a reality, and is cofounder of the Malala Fund – proving the power and innovative possibilities when young people collaborate in the face of great need.  

Inspiration for social entrepreneurship isn’t just found on the Forbes “30 Under 30” list.  One of the stories that I find most inspiring is the story of Best Ayiorwoth, a young woman from Uganda.  At 13, Best was forced to drop out of school because her family could not afford tuition. At 19, Best went on to found a microfinance institution that invests in women business-owners who commit to keeping their daughters in school.

Even though I am young, I know plenty of people who are trying to change the world.  I have friends who are activists, friends who are committed to making their local community better, and friends who are committed to creating socially responsible business models.  Looking at Shiza and Best and all of my friends who are committing their lives to making the world a better place provides enormous inspiration for me, and reminds me that even though I am only 22, I can still make a world of difference.

The Key is in your Pocket

by Mihir Khubchandani

They complain that our music is noisy, that our clothes are too casual, and our technology too complicated. Day by day, the gap between Generation X and we, the kids of the millennium, or Millennials, seems to grow wider and wider. A common fear is that as the new generation comes of age and begins making decisions, the world will see a drastic change at the hands of a “me, me, me!” generation.  As that crossroad nears, however, it appears that this is the opposite of what will happen. Due to our dexterity and heavy reliance on technology, we, the millennials, are making much greater strides towards world development than have ever been seen before.

Image

Fig.1 Millennials have access to some of the greatest modern technology. Photo Courtesy of 451marketing.com

Mom and Dad go out to get a new phone. They bring it home, pull it out of the box (“That box is tiny!”) and search for the power button. Slowly, they start it up (“These phones take over our lives!”). As the laborious process continues, their teenage children are already typing furiously, texting, Tweeting, Facebooking, and sharing (“These kids! They never look up from their screens!”). It is herein that the key to development lies: we not only have access to much more technology than has ever been seen before, but they know how to use it in some of the most efficient ways possible. This has been a driving factor behind notion that to develop a spread of technology is needed, and worked as the backbone for some of the most innovative schemes today. The small items that we carry around in our pockets – mobile phones, credit cards, tablets, etc. – are the keys to unlocking great progress in world development, as they improve the efficiency, reach and cost of many of the newest poverty alleviation strategies.

One widely successful example is the use of mobile phones for the provision of financial services, especially in remote areas of developing countries such as India. Our previous post from October 2012 discussed how the spread of this simple technology by forward-thinking minds makes it easy to locate, communicate, and even transfer money among microfinance institutions and individuals. Similarly, mobile phones are used to dissipate valuable information to agricultural workers in Uganda, allowing them to prepare for adverse weather and improve their livelihood by applying better informed decisions.

Image

Fig.2 Mobile facilities are helping increase accessibility of microfinance. Photo Courtesy of Radio Netherlands Worldwide (rnw.nl)

More specifically to microfinance, ideas such as the implementation of ATMs to help widen the reach of microfinance, and the concept of cash-less payments are slowly gaining momentum. By increasing the available technology, a significant barrier to microfinance, proximity, becomes easier to tackle; allowing the services to benefit more people in areas where previously too few borrowers would live, or access was difficult. At the same time, to the borrower, the financial services become much easier to use, and in many cases come right to the door step of the borrower through payment cards (pre-loaded debit cards). This means wider penetration of microfinance services, enabling more borrowers to benefit.

This is not to say that prior generations would not have thought of these innovations and worked towards spreading technology to developing regions. Gen-X made some great strides in developing cutting edge technology, without which many of our generation’s innovations would not be possible. Pioneers from the older generation such as Bill Gates did help push the world forward, and into the hands of the people who grew up with their inventions, the millennials.  However, it is undoubtedly true that today’s modern generation has the newest toys, and relies upon them the most. Not only that, technology development now happens much more rapidly and gadgets are scooped up faster than ever before. We love our gizmos, and might therefore be more likely to be the ones who push them out to the rest of the world. A recent Huffington Post article outlined that in 2011 75% of millennials donated financially to a non-profit in 2011, according to World Vision and the Millennial Impact Report 2012. This is a record figure, showing that millennials are willing to share their resources and donate. This shows that a majority of millennials are willing to share their resources, at least financially and probably technologically too.

There are significant barriers to these great advantages, starting from simple issues of affordability and encompassing problems such as a lack of trust in technology, poor understanding of how the devices are to be used, and the risk of the items not being used to their fullest potential. However technologically savvy our generation gets, these issues will continue to pose a problem. But, to some extent, this is a self-healing trap: as we continue to roll out gadgets, they will continue to penetrate homes, allowing trust, literacy and utility to follow at a slower pace. Rather than an insurmountable disadvantage, Gen-Y faces a barrier to development that they can work towards chipping away.

When discussing development, economists often say that they are looking for the “Big Push”. Typically, they are never certain on what exactly that push is, and have spent decades grappling for just that. Yet it appears that for the first time, we hold the “Big Push”, in our pockets. The technology that we are armed with, from plastic money to mobile phones, has already pulled the world forward in great strides. Therefore, this generation that truly understands the potential of its technology, will be the key in providing the “Big Push” to developing nations.

GW Students & Oikocredit Join for a Refreshing and Frank Discussion about the Realities of Microfinance

On a Wednesday evening late last semester, the Micro-Financing at GW group welcomed a  visit from Oikocredit USA for a discussion about the micro financing industry. There were people who came into the room not having a clue what micro financing meant, and then there were others who have been doing research on the industry for the past 4 months and were well-versed in its intricacies. This range of experience and knowledge made for a lively and engaged exchange. During this discussion with Leah Gage, who serves as the Business Development Coordinator of Oikocredit USA, we touched on many different topics, including the role of the microfinance investor, the microfinance institution, microfinance clients and the products they need, and theories about effective distribution strategies for un-banked clients. It seemed everyone left with some new knowledge in their pockets.

I started a micro financing club at GW last semester with the dream of eventually creating a stable MFI in the DC community completely run by college students. Since the group’s conception, we’ve been spending a lot of time researching prospective clientele in DC and the currently existing micro financing industry. We went to the Lend for America conference and heard inspiring stories from currently active campus MFI’s and we were further inspired to create one for our community.

Being wrapped up with this fascination of creating our own MFI we haven’t really questioned whether this is truly the best way to have a positive impact in our community. Leah brought this point to the surface during our discussion and it’s had us thinking a lot more about it. Currently,we don’t have the resources or capacity to become a full-fledged microfinancier, but we do have the passion and interest for micro financing and we want to take action. We’re now planning to reach out to several different active micro financing organizations in DC to see how we could be of service to them.

We haven’t given up our dream of creating an MFI of our own but we are going to make more reasonable goals for the near future; reasonable goals that take the well-being of the community into mind.

Overall, it was an enjoyable conversation for everyone who participated and we are very thankful for this visit from Oikocredit. We look forward to more insightful conversations to come!

 

This post was written by guest blogger Valerie Rodden, President of the Micro-financing at GW Club.

Are you a student interested in being a guest blogger for the Oikocredit CHiRP Force?  Contact us at breilly@oikocredit.org to find out how!

 

Create an Impact in Your Community: Shop Local!

Supporting grassroots community development has always been something I have been very passionate about.  As Social Media Team Leader for Oikocredit, I research, read, and write about these developmental issues and how we can support locally based microfinance organizations.  For example, Oikocredit also uses employees on the ground so not only can we can hear directly from the community we are in, but also employ locally.  These kinds of efforts are all a part of our mission to foster sustainable and economic development while building stronger communities.

However, my passion for grassroots community development doesn’t just stay in the office.  In my day-to-day life, I strive to work within my local community to make it a better place or everyone to live in.  One way I do this is by trying to strengthen my local economy as a consumer, so the community will become financially stronger.  My favorite way to do this is through shopping locally. 

There are many benefits that arise from shopping local, including the boost to one’s local economy.  Local shops are much more tangibly tied to the local community in comparison to bigger chain stores.  More people are employed by these local shops, and tend to make better wages than the big chain store counterparts.  In addition, local store proportionately tend to give back to local community organizations or charities at a much higher rate than chain stores.  For example, a study that was conducted in Austin, Texas showed that for 100 dollars spent at a local bookstore, 45 of those dollars went back into the local economy.  Compare that to the local Borders, which only put $13 back into the local economy. 

There’s also a perception that shopping local means more expensive products and limited selection.  If you shop at your local grocery store, then you aren’t going to be able to buy your favorite products for the convenient price you would at a large chain store right outside of the town limits.  This assumption, however, isn’t always true.  In the neighborhood my mother lives in, there is a small, locally run grocery store that my mother frequently likes to visit.  They have almost everything my mother needs for every day life.  Sometimes she does have to go to a large grocery chain to find a certain item, but she likes shopping at her local store because they have great selections and competitive prices in order to keep up with the market, so that they are not only turning a profit but being a reliable source of goods for shoppers.

Another side effect of shopping local is that it leaves less of an environmental footprint.  A lot of local shops tend to also buy food locally, which means the goods don’t travel as far, which in return has less of an impact on the environment.  Not to mention, many local shops set up in town or city centers, which means that less people have to drive and more can use public transportation, and who doesn’t love saving money on gas?  Let alone the positive impact that ride-sharing and using public transportation has on the environment. 

Perhaps the best thing about buying local is that when you do, you build community.  So much of the experience of shopping local is the personal exchange that happens between you and your fellow community members.  And in the process, you are helping the economy grow and creating a better community

So, next time you want a cup of joe in the morning, why don’t you try the local coffee shop instead of that big name chain?  Or go to a small grocer instead of the usual superstore?  Not only are you going to be able to find some awesome new places, you’ll also be giving to your community and helping it grow.