In my role at Miller Center, I’m in touch with social entrepreneurs around the world almost daily.These women and men have been fighting the good fight for years, helping to improve the lives of some of the most impoverished people on the planet. Many of our alumni entrepreneurs have been working for years to get where they are and have been gaining real traction — operating economically sound and scaling businesses in some of the most difficult business environments. I’m proud of the work Miller Center does to help them scale their impact and develop as leaders.
And then, through no fault of their own, these enterprises are faced with a global pandemic that threatens the incredible work they’re doing to make the world a more just and humane place. Like businesses here, they’re being forced to work remotely, struggling with supply chain issues, and worried about having to lay off staff. But in a survey of our alumni social enterprises, what these organizations are most worried about is not being able to continue to impact the lives of the people they are so committed to lifting out of poverty.
Here are just a few examples of how our social enterprises are faring — the effect COVID-19 is having on their operations and their impact, and how they’re working to pivot their business models in this time of unprecedented crisis.
All Across Africa’s mission is to create jobs and markets to alleviate poverty in Africa. The company, which makes handcrafted woven baskets and decor, employs nearly 5,000 artisans in sub-Saharan Africa where unemployment reaches 80-96%. And that’s before the pandemic. This profitable business has been creating substantial impact — enabling artisans to fund their children’s education, provide family health insurance, and save money for the first time. Now, their wholesale customers are canceling or delaying orders with US retail stores closed for the foreseeable future. The prospect of putting their weavers out of work is devastating and would leave these women without a significant portion of their income just when they might need it most to weather this storm. All Across Africa is actively fundraising to retool their product mix toward lower-cost items and pivot their distribution model for online sales channels.v
ONergy designs and installs affordable solar energy solutions across 13 states in India. One of their primary vertical markets serves the rural poor, providing last-mile energy access for some of the remotest corners of the country. In these regions, ONergy has installed over 300 solar mini-grids and supported other productive use installations, including solar irrigation pumps, home systems, and street lighting to dramatically improve lives. In total, the company has impacted over 500,000 lives and saved 30,000 metric tons of carbon emissions. But India’s shutdown has halted all solar installations and ONergy faces the prospect of no revenue for 3–6 months. While the company is already making significant staff reductions, they hope to raise funds to retain key staff that will allow them to fulfill and collect on current orders when the lockdown is lifted.
Vega Coffee works directly with small farms and cooperatives in Nicaragua, providing them with tools and training to turn their coffee from commodity to consumer-ready, more than doubling their income. A significant portion of Vega’s revenue comes from direct sales to universities and corporate clients. That revenue has been wiped out with college and office closures. Vega Coffee is seeking investment to fulfill commitments to its farmers and to expand its successful direct-to-consumer and B2B coffee-as-an-ingredient businesses.
Miller Center is deeply committed to accompanying our alumni through the pandemic. Our team is working tirelessly to assure that these enterprises don’t have to shut down. They’re #TooImpactfulToFail. On March 18, we held our first webinar on COVID-19. We were blown away when nearly 90 individuals attended and our team immediately kicked into high gear. Since then, over 40 of our alumni have provided details on how this crisis is impacting them.
In response, we’ve built a crisis management resources website that’s being widely shared in the impact ecosystem. We’ve hosted 3 online webinars (available here) with over 50 unique attendees, and have scheduled 2 more with over 80 registrants each. We’re also creating a custom mentor-led short program on crisis business planning and we’re on track to kick off the brand new curriculum and alumni-focused cohort within the next two weeks.
Working with our partner Beneficial Returns and their founder and CEO Ted Levinson we catalyzed the formation of the Truss Fund to provide emergency bridge financing for our alumni social entrepreneurs. We are excited to announce that we have raised over $400,000 to date, toward our goal of $1,000,000. For more information on the fund, please contact Ted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We will continue to work diligently in the spirit of accompanying our enterprises to ensure that they can keep on doing their amazing work toward eradicating poverty. I’d like to leave you with a quote popularized by my favorite fiction president, Jed Bartlett on West Wing, but that’s actually attributed to cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Thank you for your continued support. Stay safe and healthy!