It is very strange to think about how “social entrepreneurship” has become so prominent in my life. Prior to this fellowship, I hadn’t really heard much of social entrepreneurship, nor did I understand what it meant. The term itself is enticing and engaging, taking entrepreneurship, a term most people relate with innovation and silicon valley, with “social” implying some aspect of social good. Long before this fellowship, in my early days at Santa Clara University, I believe I have always been drawn to social entrepreneurship, I just did not know it yet. I craved international work experiences where I could connect with communities and individuals on a human-to-human basis, putting aside our clear differences in language, culture, and socioeconomic status. At the core of this type of connection, stems a value exchange like no other, one that is powerful and insightful, leading to bottom-up, community-driven solutions to difficult problems in our world. I think this is why social impact work is so exciting for me because, at the end of the day, I get to engage with new cultures, peoples, places, make real connections, and put myself in the shoes of those in the heart of the problem.
This bottom-up approach to solving the world’s most pressing issues is necessary and useful. Throughout the course of this fellowship, we have learned a lot about what makes a successful entrepreneur and enterprise. In almost all cases of success, there are deep community ties and trust between the SE and the community. NUCAFE, for example, was started by a Ugandan named Joseph Nkandu, who was born and raised on a coffee farm, his parents were coffee farmers, he was a coffee farmer, and the communities he interacted with were all centered around coffee. From this deep understanding of the coffee sector, he saw an opportunity to lift his fellow farmers out of poverty and take agency over their own futures. In other cases, entrepreneurs have found success even when they are from a different country they are operating in because of the trusted relationships they worked so hard to create. Personally, I would not even consider starting a social enterprise until I had at least 5 years of experience working and living in the community I planned to work in. At the end of the day, one could have the best idea for solving an issue, but if the community does not stand behind you, your organization, and your idea or product, it will not be successful.
I cannot seem to write a reflective essay without mentioning my time in the Bahamas, but I have come to use this experience as a baseline for reflecting and interpreting my other experiences. Living on a tiny island that could be walked across in about 3 hours, with a total population of just over a thousand people, I became pretty close with the community. I really loved this aspect so much; I think the idea of living on such a tiny island would freak people out, but I absolutely loved it. The sharks were great, the ocean amazing, but I loved the local people. I felt so safe, welcomed, and a part of the community. Everywhere I walked or went, I knew everyone and they knew me when someone in the community needed help, we were there without hesitation, and vice versa when we were in need of a mechanic or an electrician. I think this experience is a snapshot of what type of social engagement best suits me. I thrive in uncomfortable and difficult situations, I make uncommon connections, and I love the challenge and excitement of figuring a place out, and everything that comes along with it.
As a result of this fellowship, I applied for a Fulbright to return to Uganda for 9 months to conduct an independent research project to uncover the best method for training on climate resilience for female coffee farmers in Uganda. If you told me this a couple of years ago, I think I probably would have laughed. Uganda? Coffee? Women? Why? I also never would have even thought about applying for a Fulbright; I saw this opportunity as way out of my league, only for the brightest of the bright, the overachievers of our competitive society. I still think a Fulbright is over my head and my chances of receiving one very minimal, but the process of completing the application was rewarding and challenging. Having to design and propose a 9-month long research project confined to 2 pages and a personal statement was no easy feat. The class in the spring, where we had to design our own action research projects was extremely useful. Although at the time it felt overly difficult, considering most projects never go according to plan, I do understand the purpose now, even more so then when we completed it. I cannot only thank the fellowship for preparing me for applying for a Fulbright, but Dr. Bacon’s capstone class was also extremely beneficial. Similar to GSBF, we had to design a research project, however, the entirety of the project was confined to 10 weeks, from start to finish.
Back to the actual proposal, applying to work exclusively with female coffee farmers was not something I probably would have done if I had not completed this fellowship. Women are the key to the future; especially in the developing world! In Uganda specifically, women make up the majority of the agricultural labor force, are eager to learn about entrepreneurship, and tend to spend their income on bettering themselves and their families. I think it would actually be weirder if I did not want to work with women after learning so much about women’s economic empowerment and the social enterprises that are exclusively targeting women; there is a reason for this! This is definitely a belief that has changed in me as a result of this fellowship. Before I was by no means anti-women, I think now I just see the world and the positive impact that everyone can have, if given equal opportunities, more clearly.
While in Uganda, the women coffee farmers were the obvious choice to work with. In general, the women were way more interested in engaging with us, our research, and opening up to us. You could really tell that they cared about our project and wanted to be a part of it any way they could. Without ever traveling to Uganda and experiencing this first hand, I never would have had this crucial insight that would shape my future and understanding of where to focus efforts to make the world a better place.
On a completely different note, I have learned that everyone should find what makes them happy and stick to it. Through the vocational exercises in this class, I have thought deeply about my past, present, and future. I am happiest when I am in or near the ocean. This is interesting because Uganda is completely land-locked and the thought of living 9 months there really freaks me out. However, this is a sacrifice I am willing to make because I saw an opportunity where I could have a positive impact on the coffee farmers there. But yes, the ocean is where I want to be. I feel the best when I am sharing my passion with others. I think there are some people in this cohort that could attest to my love for talking about diving, surfing, or fish. It’s kind of funny but no matter the time of day, my mood, or who I am talking to, I instantly light up with excitement. If only I could make a career out of this, I would be set.
Although I am graduating in a couple of months, I am not nervous about my future. I believe I am as prepared as possible as a result of my time at Santa Clara, this fellowship, and other experiences I have had. This thought drives some of my friends crazy. People want the best possible job right out of college but is that what’s going to make you happy? I do not know what my future holds but I am excited and ready to roll with the punches and go with the flow wherever that takes me.
I have always been afraid of interviews, networking, and making small talk with strangers. Although I still do not love it, I have had many opportunities to practice as a result of this fellowship. Through one on one conversations with Miller Center advisory board members, Ignition Fellows, and various informational interviews, I feel more confident every time I am put in these situations. I had the opportunity to talk to Jeff Miller, one of the early founders of Miller Center and the head of the advisory board, a couple of weeks ago. After getting over my initial nerves, I felt confident when talking about this fellowship and my future career plans. This would have never been possible without the professional development of this fellowship.
I have found the informational interviews to be extremely helpful in vocational discernment. I have had interviews with a variety of different people, all different ages and backgrounds; every conversation has been informative. One conversation that stands out in my mind was with Shannon Cosentino-Roush; a graduate of Santa Clara and the Director of Global Policy and Campaigns at Sustainable Ocean Alliance. She was tough on me and pushed me to think critically about what I was looking for in a career. She has been in the field of ocean conservation for a long time and when I confessed my interest of ocean conservation as a future career, I think she laughed a little. She quickly countered by saying ocean conservation is too broad to say something like that, and question after question she probed responses out of me, where do you want to work? Science, education, or policy? Future goals? I have never had a stranger dig so deep into a simple comment about my future. Although a little daunting, I needed this and she told me that she wished she had this conversation when she was my age. I walked away with a new sense of vocation and am more confident about the specifics of my future career aspirations.
For me, the best part of this fellowship has been the people involved in it. It has been such a pleasure and life-changing experience to be able to interact with the other fellows and Instructors. After taking off a year off school, I was really worried this year to return to Santa Clara with limited friends as most of my close friends graduated. I am so thankful to be able to call each and every one of the fellows my friend. From interacting in classroom settings to seeing everyone in the library working on their deliverables, to going to GSBF parties; I have loved every opportunity engaging with this group of kind and driven people.
I have learned more about myself over the last 9 months than I have collectively over my whole time in high school and at Santa Clara. I have never been around so many people that force me to question, think critically, and be more spiritually and mentally in tune. This newfound support system of friends has been such a joy to experience. I have never been one who struggles to make friends, but I believe I have found something very special with this group of people; I feel free to be myself, let my inner nerd out, and really have fun doing what I am passionate about. We all come from different backgrounds, places, majors, but we all share a common drive that pushes us to have a positive impact on our common home.
This has truly been a life-changing experience for me and I cannot thank Santa Clara University, Miller Center, and the other fellows enough! I am sad that this chapter of our lives has ended but I am excited to see what the future holds for this inspiring group of human beings!