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From Malaysia to Maryland: Half a World Apart, Social Enterprises Pivot to Protect Frontline Workers

In response to COVID-19, many of our social enterprises are pivoting to support their communities, sustain their businesses, and protect their employees. One solution is to manufacture personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers on the frontlines battling the pandemic.

Malaysian social enterprise Earth Heir works with over 100 artisans from women’s cooperatives, indigenous tribes, and refugee groups to sell handcrafted heritage fashion accessories. Fair trade certified with the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), the company consciously reinvests into growing their impact among the artisans they serve. Earth Heir has been profiled in Forbes and the New York Times, and fashion magazines Elle and Marie Claire. The organization is currently participating in Miller Center’s second Social Entrepreneurship at the Margins accelerator program for enterprises focused on serving migrants, refugees, and human trafficking survivors.

With the spread of Coronavirus, Earth Heir jumped into manufacturing fair trade PPE for Malaysian medical personnel, social workers, and others on the frontlines of fighting COVID-19. The PPE sets are made in a workshop sanitized to WFTO standards and each set includes a gown, head cover, and shoe covers. These sets are made by refugee artisans living in Malaysia, a country which is not a signatory to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention and where refugees live on the margins with little protection under the law. According to Earth Heir CEO Xiao Cheng Wong, “This project provides a means for refugee artisans to earn an income and supports our national heroes battling the outbreak.”

On the other side of the globe, Baltimore-based Innovation Works (IW) partnered with a collection of local social enterprises to form Makers Unite! — a collaborative emergency response effort to support the region in flattening the curve.

In March 2019, IW and Miller Center formed a strategic partnership to help launch and grow 250 social enterprises in 10 years that will employ 5,000 Baltimore residents and attract $100M in capital to build sustainable neighborhoods and help mitigate the city’s racial wealth divide. A year later, Baltimore, along with the rest of the country, was sheltering in place in response to COVID-19.

Makers Unite! wasted no time in responding to the crisis. Participating organizations have banded together to manufacture personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline healthcare and human services professionals in Baltimore. And by working with local makers, these businesses are providing income to people in their community who might otherwise be unemployed.

Innovation Works is shepherding this massive effort — organizing and managing business operations and the customer marketplace under the Makers Unite! brand. “The collaboration between volunteer makers across the region and social enterprise producers to protect frontline healthcare workers, first responders, and caregivers is truly inspiring. Their hard work and commitment have created a win-win situation.

The hospitals are grateful for the personal protective equipment, and producing them has literally put laid-off workers back to work and saved lives,” said IW president Jay Nwachu.

This effort is no small feat, requiring these enterprises to retool their infrastructures. Among the Baltimore organizations that have pivoted to PPE under the Makers Unite! brand are Open Works, SewLabs USA, and The Codex Club.

Open Works (OW) is a community-centered, non-profit makerspace whose mission is to make tools and technology accessible to all. Before sheltering-in-place, that meant connecting community members with affordable manufacturing equipment, studio space, education, and Baltimore’s largest community of maker professionals in OW’s state-of-the-art facility. In response to the pandemic, Open Works is empowering and mobilizing their community of makers to manufacture face shields under the Makers Unite! brand. The parts are 3D printed by a network of over 200 makers and institutions in the Baltimore metro area, then delivered to Open Works where their production staff sanitizes, assembles, and packages the shields for medical professionals.

SewLabs USA is a local manufacturing company that creates unique, superior quality soft goods constructed from sustainably sourced materials. The company, in partnership with Open Works and Made in Baltimore — a nonprofit that spurs reinvestment in Baltimore City — also provides workforce development to help meet the growing demand for skilled industrial sewers and machine operators in the Baltimore area. With the onset of the pandemic, SewLabs USA quickly obtained design specifications for protective cloth masks, ordered materials, and started sewing to help meet the needs of their community.

Believing that everyone can make a dent, Dent Education empowers under-resourced youth in Baltimore to discover and develop their creative potential as makers and entrepreneurs. Dent students launch real ventures — building solutions to everyday problems and learning that they can create change. With the pandemic, Dent heard from students that their families are struggling and that they are feeling anxious, unproductive, and powerless. So the organization is engaging them to build protective face shields at home, with a goal of 10,000 units in a month: a win-win for students and frontline workers.

In the face of crisis, Makers Unite! social enterprises in Baltimore are demonstrating their resilience and slowing the spread of COVID-19. When viewed alongside Earth Heir in Malaysia and other enterprises around the world doing the same, it’s clear that we’re more alike than different. And we’re certainly all in this together!

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Growing Businesses in Tajikistan

Tajikistan? If you are like many of my friends, you’re probably saying to yourself right now, “Oh, that’s one of the ‘stans”. It is, and, do you know where it is? It is a country that the Silk Road went through, shares borders with Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and China, and where only 25% of businesses are led by women. In September 2017, Miller Center partnered with the Aga Khan Foundation on a USAID PACE funded project, Central Asia Accelerate Prosperity (CA-AP). The goal of the three-year program is to catalyze small and growing businesses in Tajikistan, particularly women-owned, women-operated and/or having significant impact on women’s employment. Measures of success are the number of women-led businesses accelerated, the number of jobs created for women, and the amount of capital invested into the organizations. Specifically, at the end of the three years, 23 businesses must be funded with AP’s investments leveraging private investments. Our role is to support the Accelerate Prosperity (AP) team, an on-the-ground partner, to accelerate businesses and to work with local finance institutions to create women-friendly financial products so women-leaders can get the capital they need to grow their businesses.

In early December 2018, Anastasiya Litvinova, a Miller Center GSBI mentor and all-star investment facilitation consultant, and I went to Dushanbe (the capital of Tajikistan) to kick off the project. Through 2019 we continued to support the AP team virtually and returned to Dushanbe a year later. During the first year, the AP team has been busy offering acceleration service with many companies, including running its first women-only cohort of incubation services. That has resulted in investing in eight businesses for a total of $73K with two investments pending.

Miller Center Support Provided

Over the last year and a quarter, Anastasiya and I have supported AP by:

  • Sharing our GSBI curriculum and financial models

  • Reviewing AP’s curriculum to ensure it is gender-neutral

  • Supporting AP in building a mentor network

  • Meeting with local financial institutions to introduce women-friendly financial products

  • Training the AP team on investment structuring and alternative forms of financing

  • Creating an investment process that works for the team

Observations

What we have learned, and it isn’t a surprise, is the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Tajikistan is very, very nascent, with little support for women-led organizations. It is a challenge to build a strong mentor network and attract new investors because of the perceived risks in early-stage businesses, currency fluctuations, and the political environment, to name a few. There are no angel networks and if you look at the impact investing community, not many funds are focused on Central Asia. Our role is helping all the stakeholders create tools and techniques to get more comfortable with the risks in order to invest and get more businesses to the next stage.

Banks in Tajikistan, like everywhere else, are risk averse. Trying to get them to adopt financial products that don’t require collateral for instance, is very, very difficult. One of the banks we have been engaged with, MLO, will get board approval this month on a financial product for women-led businesses and pilot it January – March 2020. The other, First Microfinance Bank (FMFB) is still reticent.

On the other hand, we met some powerful women leaders. Last year when we were in Dushanbe, we met Mrs. Mirazorova, founder of a “healthy” candy company. She had experience in the confectionary business but had just started her own company. On the day we went to visit her factory this year, she received the permit she needed to sell her candy. As you can see from the pictures, she had lots of boxes ready to go to stores that had agreed to sell her products.

We got to hear her plans for scaling both in volume and in products. Her plans and passion sounded like many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

At the beginning of the article, I mentioned that Tajikistan was on the Silk Road and it is also a post-Soviet country. As we walked through the city and into buildings, we saw all of the cultural aspects come together. Looking at a building it looks like it could be in Russia— heavy, imposing—but then you walk in and it is so ornately decorated, you’d swear you’re in Turkey. I love how seemingly mismatched aspects all come together and create a beautiful new connection with place and time.

Miller Center will support AP through September 2020, knowing that they will continue to accelerate women-led businesses in Tajikistan, increasing the percentage of women-led businesses nationally.