By Robert Young (FEMBA ’17)
Photos by Mark E. Lee (FEMBA ’17)
Coming from a background in service-based nonprofit fundraising, I was skeptical of social entrepreneurship as a way to effect change. Since serving in the Peace Corps for three years, I’ve had an additional nine years’ experience working in nonprofit organizations as a fundraiser, including in my current job handling fundraising logistics at an independent school in Culver City. Until recently, it had always seemed to me that the most efficient way of ensuring that positive change reached those who needed it was via an organization that didn’t care about financial returns and used traditional, proven remedies.
Last summer, I was lucky enough to be a part of a UCLA Anderson Global Immersion course in South Africa, led by Gayle Northrop. After the first couple of days visiting companies and organizations in Johannesburg and Capetown, my thoughts on efficient organizations changed entirely. I now understand the significant advantages that social innovation and entrepreneurship can bring to places where traditional philanthropy just can’t do enough.
The first breakthrough came in a visit to AllLife Insurance, a firm in a suburb of Johannesburg that specializes in delivering life insurance to HIV-positive South Africans. Ross Beerman, the CEO and founder, told our group he had never thought of himself as a social innovator or entrepreneur. Instead, he saw a life insurance market gap (nearly 20 percent of South Africans are HIV positive) and simply wanted to run a successful business in which the positive externalities dramatically outweighed the negative.
This idea stunned me as I realized the market opportunities that are ignored every day around Los Angeles and the greater U.S. simply because potential entrepreneurs assume donors or the government will solve certain problems. I began to reevaluate organizations like the Skid Row Housing Trust, which sees an ignored market in L.A.’s homeless population and seeks to create positive change through low-income housing.
While AllLife changed the way I saw profitable social innovation, our group’s visit to RLabs, based outside of Capetown, demonstrated how efficient and sustainable a nonprofit social enterprise can be. An organization that trains local at-risk youth in technology and entrepreneurship, RLabs uses its own members’ skill sets to supplement its funding. The teens who come to RLabs can work as technology consultants for other companies, and when a teen successfully launches a company out of RLabs, the organization shares a small part of the profits. Instead of applying a Band-Aid to a problem, RLabs seeks to solve it through active change in its own community. By teaching high school students and graduates valuable skills, the organization helps ensure young people’s success and the company’s own sustainability. I looked in Los Angeles for a similar example and learned more about Robert Egger’s L.A. Kitchen, a local nonprofit based on the successful DC Central Kitchen that trains people coming out of foster care and incarceration in food preparation, providing healthy meals at minimal cost to those who need them.
In South Africa, I learned a lot about how Americans can engage in social innovation. I’ve always known that the American culture of philanthropy is strong and, where philanthropy doesn’t solve a problem, Americans tend to expect the government to help. However, in South Africa I learned that even with the structural hurdles we face, a lot of good can come from an increase in social entrepreneurship. Hearing about AllLife’s success and talking with the students and young entrepreneurs at RLabs showed me in the effectiveness of solving problems in innovative and entrepreneurial ways. Applying those lessons here at home, I’ve discovered that socially innovative organizations like Skid Row Housing Trust and L.A. Kitchen are leading the way in how our communities will change for the better.
I’m using my time as a FEMBA to learn how to make nonprofits and social enterprises more efficient: pursuing a Leaders in Sustainability Certificate to address a lack of sustainable energy in nonprofits and working to apply best practices in data collection and analysis to nonprofits. When I graduate in June, I’ll take the lessons I’ve learned and apply them to the causes I’m most passionate about: education, homelessness and public transit.