Thursday, April 30, 2009


"wait. so are you a non-profit? or a for-profit?"

that's a question i have gotten a lot. and this question serves to reinforce the common mentality about the mutual exclusivity of these two spheres.

non-profits & for-profits.

you do good. or you make money.

and right now, that is about how it works. some companies make money. and then do some good with the profit.

but let me tell you, doing good and making money at the same time is hard. largely because of the dichotomy our society has constructed. choose one: do good or make money.

let me shoot straight with you. the way Sseko Designs runs is pretty inefficient. from our production process, to our supplies and by golly the logistics of producing in a country that...doesn't really produce. in order to use this business to fulfill our end goal of getting these young women in college, we have to make a lot of decisions that increase our costs, our production time, our frustration.

one solution: send our business to china. manufacture these sandals for 1/10th of the cost. send a portion of the money back to Uganda.

why not? making money...then doing good.

but that is not where our heart is. our heart is in integrating these two things.

the primary goal of a business is to make money, to increase value for shareholders. and you know what? that is not at all a bad thing. our world wouldn't work, we wouldn't have medicine and food and roofs if investors didn't invest in people who had a loyalty to these shareholders.

and up until this point, it has been this loyalty, the loyalty to maximizing profits that keeps the bottom line as the reigning king.

but what if we lived in a place where the story of a product increased it's value enough to counteract the costs of doing business in a way that is socially proactive?

what if the excitement of buying a product that directly changes lives was a greater benefit than the higher costs incurred in the way we do business?

what if the word of mouth benefit that comes with a socially proactive business was exponentially greater than the cost of traditional advertisements?

what if our society valued products that have a story, that contribute to communities, that were made in a way that gives honor and dignity to those making them enough that in fact, we were increasing the value of our product and fulfilling our loyalty to shareholders, while doing good?

well then, we would live in a world where companies like Sseko Designs would have millions of brothers and sisters in the family of Not-Just-For-Profit business. We would be one in a sea of others seeking to identify needs around the world, and seeking to fulfill those needs, to change the world by creating socially proactive, sustainable, creative businesses, with the purpose of improving lives.

we want to sell sandals. we want to see these young women become the leaders of their countries.

we also want you to join us by supporting Sseko Designs and making socially proactive and not-just-for-profit businesses become the status quo.

we want to change the way you see your "stuff."

all "stuff" has a story. be aware and proud of the story behind your stuff.

{ ...the lightbulb moment...}

{this is also from my time in Uganda}

Alright. So, the time has come. This post has been like a little bug in my ear (which is serious symbolism when you live in Africa and often wake up to...well, bugs in your ears...) for weeks now.

But this is coming from the girl, who in a single twenty-four hour period is convinced she is going to: go to law school, become a mid-wife, start an ad agency, do voice-overs for cartoons and move to Switzerland to become an ice-climbing instructor. Needless to say, I have a lot of ideas, and they don't always come to fruition. So I got nervous about this one. I felt like I needed to hit that magic (is it 12 weeks?) mark before you can tell everyone about your bun in the oven. So here is my bun in the oven:

I've spoken a lot in the past months about socially proactive businesses (again, i've written about this before, so I am not going to go into detail). And talking about it is pretty fun. On a lot of different levels I am drawn to this business model. But no one likes a big blogger who doesn't actually do anything :) So, that is where I tell you that I am starting a business. A socially proactive business. And golly, I am pretty excited about.

There will be more to come, but I will give you the real-quick low down. The organization I am affiliated with has started a Leadership Academy for young women around the country. They receive over 900 applicants a year, and only choose 25. They come from villages and tribes and clans across the nation, and purposefully recruit young women from tribes and clans that have a history of conflict. Not only is this school a great education, the main focus is leadership training and character development. They teach principles of reconciliation, commitment, servant leadership, integrity and virtue. The Leadership Academies are the cornerstone (no pun intended) of Cornerstone (the organization I am with). The vision of Cornerstone is very focused on developing the next generation of leaders in this country and these schools are one way in which that is being done.

Since coming to Uganda, I have had the privilege of spending some time out at the school.

I (woops) kept some girls up a little late, sitting in a hut, teaching each other songs, talking about how to change the world.

I listened to their stories, heard about their families, their childhoods, their dreams.

Many have lost one or both parents from things including the Lord's Resistance Army rebels and AIDS.

Many come from dire poverty.

But all have shown a will and desire to rise above their circumstances.

I had a great conversation with one young women who wants to be the first neurosurgeon in the country. Others who want to pursue a career in politics, education, entrepreneurship and the arts.

These are the women who will change this country.

If there is one thing I have learned while being on this trip, it is that I cannot change a country in 3 months. I have little to offer. But what I can do is support those who are going to change this place. To do whatever I can to enable them to change their world, their country.

So, these girls graduate from the Cornerstone Leadership Academy in December and will not begin University until the fall. This nine-moth gap is intended to give students time to work and start saving money for college. However, this is a lot more complicated than it sounds.

Many cannot even afford to go back home to their villages. And every penny that they did make, if they could go back, would go directly back to their families who are in desperate need of money.

And finding fair work, where they are paid a fair wage and treated with dignity and respect, is difficult for a young woman in Uganda.

Every single one of these women has the ability to go to University and the propensity to become the leaders of this nation. However, at the end of the day, the only way that is going to happen is if they come up with the money to continue their education.

So. This is where I tell you that the best solution I could come up with was to start a business to employ these girls for this nine month period before they go to University. So, that is what I am doing. This post is already ridiculously long, so the details will come later.

But I will tell you...

It turns out that starting a business is hard. Starting a business in a third-world country is...well, sometimes I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

I have spent entire days, wandering in the rain through the Oweno market, only to emerge more lost than when I started.

I have made a lot of mistakes.

I have come to have a new appreciation for the wonders of Excel (I desperately need an accountant if any are willing to offer their services :) I throw-up in my mouth a little when I try to figure out taxes and tariffs and imports and exports, mostly just trying not to do anything that is going to land me in jail.

I have had violent urges to punch Ugandan business men who try to take advantage of the fact that I am a young, idealistic, mzungu (white) woman.

I have been really close to throwing up my hands and throwing in the towel.

But at the end of the day, my desire to empower these women so that one day they are not taken advantage of simply because they are women outweighs my frustration. My desire to see these women start their own businesses and write their own plays and teach the children of their nation is stronger (albeit slightly) than my desire to punch someone in the nose.

"So we beat on, boats against the current..." F. Scott Fitzgerald

{ the begining...}

{this is a post from when I was living in Uganda, when Sseko was just a glint in my eye...}

Over the past year, I have spent quite a bit of time (mostly at Kaldi's, with the occasional, and by occasional I mean daily, break for some Sparky's Ghiradelli and red wine ice cream) thinking about for-profit businesses and non-profit organizations.

For those of you who haven't been subjected to hearing me do my shpeal a hundred times, these entities and their relationships to one other and the consumer base is the topic of my thesis I am currently working on (and by working on, I mean thinking about...enter dark looming rain cloud that hangs ominously over me as I hop across continents)

Since there are no Kaldi's or Sparky's in Uganda, I continued to ponder solo style until I ran across some like-minded individuals who shared my enthusiasm...for examining these differences, looking at the relationship between these two sectors, and specifically thinking about the way Corporate Social Responsibility fits in to the scheme and can act as a bridge, a Middle Earth (that was for you, Andy) between these two worlds as one possible way of combining and harnessing the strengths of each...

Since the beginning of this journey, there has always been a tension for me. My heart is in the non-profit world. That makes sense to me. I am drawn to the missions, the visions, the passions of the non-profit world. But then there is that pesky brain of mine. And it clicks much more with a business operation model (That is not to say that both don't play an important and distinct role in society, but more so questioning the stark separation between these two worlds, both structurally and theoretically, and questioning if this separation is always necessary and the most advantageous for all constituents).

Not to mention the fact that American consumers are arguably the most influential and powerful group of people in the entire world. More powerful than any government, dictator, lobbyist or royalty.

A ticket to a Hannah Montana concert recently sold for $2,000 dollars.

Hannah Montana.

Laugh at the absurdity of this...

...and then remind yourself that there are 1.4 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day.

and that two hours of sub-par musical bliss for a lip-gloss wearing 13 year old was more than 4x the yearly wages for 1.4 billion of our neighbors.

I really believe that in order to change the world (among other things) we have to change the way the world (and specifically America) does business, their consumer habits, and social consciousness. That is why I am so drawn to the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility. Shifting the paradigm. Taking CSR from being something that a company does to get an edge and a pat on the back, to a survival mechanism. Taking the concept of a socially responsible business from notions of corporate philanthropy, charity, and once-a-year volunteer days, to a concept that infiltrates and dictates every aspect of a business, from planning to manufacturing to advertising to sales.

There is immense power in market demand.

(think Giga Pets)

And if American consumers demand that the companies that keep their lives running, bodies clothed, and bellies full go beyond annual penny wars for a local charity, the beauty of capitalism and competition tells me that their competitors will have no choice but to follow suit.

Next on the agenda: How to create this demand.

Stay tuned...

but I am confident that if ...

a couple of guys with a whole lot of pseudo-precious stones on their hands can successfully build a global demand by convincing the world that an arbitrary mineral, I mean, a diamond is in fact the symbol of true love and commitment (and by golly! now the sign of an Independent Woman too!! Raise your right hand ladies!)...

...or that Hasboro can somehow create an outrageous demand for virtual key chain pets that leave little stinky surprises behind if they are not tended to...

i think we can figure it out