OSU Conference Highlights Private Solutions to Public Problems for the Poor
Religion & Liberty Online

OSU Conference Highlights Private Solutions to Public Problems for the Poor

This past Saturday, I attended the Alleviating Poverty Through Entrepreneurship (APTE) 2014 summit. APTE is a student group at OSU in Columbus, OH, and they put together a wonderful cast of ten speakers on the subject of the future of social entrepreneurship. With seven pages of notes (front and back), I unfortunately cannot cover every detail of the conference, but instead I will briefly focus on a theme that recurred throughout the afternoon: private, often for-profit, solutions to public service problems facing the poor.

APTE brought together an impressive lineup of speakers for two rounds of individual presenters, followed by a Twitter Q&A, with a panel discussion on the city of Detroit in between the two groups:

First Group of Presenters

  • Lindsay Stradley, Operations & Consumer Marketing for Sanergy, which focuses on building sustainable sanitation in urban slums. Her presentation focused on the work they do in Nairobi, Kenya with their Fresh Life toilets. They not only build sanitary public toilets for Nairobi’s slums, but collect waste and convert it to reusable energy and fertilizer, employing slum residents and other indigenous people throughout the process.
  • Sonja Nelson-Jones, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Firm Development Group, LLC (The Firm). The Firm provides resources for self-sufficiency and life balance, focusing on financial literacy, career development, health & wellness, professional development, and personal development for the working poor, lower-middle class, and those in poverty in the United States.
  • Veronica D’Souza, Co-Founder of Ruby Cup, which makes and sells “a healthy, high quality and sustainable menstrual hygiene product made out of 100% top Medical Grade Silicone and is reusable for up to 10 years.” While they have been researching employing residents of Kenya’s slums to sell the product, Ruby Cup currently operates under a “buy one, give one” model — when someone in the developed world buys one, a young woman in the Kenyan slums gets one for free. In addition to the great hygienic benefits Ruby Cup offers, lack of adequate menstrual products is the number one reason for young women in the developing world dropping out of school. Thus, it can make a huge difference for upward mobility for some of the poorest women in the world.

Motor(less) City: A Panel Discussion of Detroit

  • Elizabeth Garlow, Executive Director of Michigan Corps, a non-profit network for social entrepreneurs in Michigan. Among other ventures, Michigan Corps founded Kiva Michigan, which provides micro-loans for Michigan businesses, and the Pure Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge, which provides yearly cash prizes, admission to Michigan Corps’ Social Impact Investment Fellowship, and various entrepreneur support services.
  • Amy Kaherl, Director of Detroit SOUP, “a monthly dinner funding micro-grants for creative projects in Detroit.” Detroit SOUP hosts $5 soup and salad dinners in which four presenters get four minutes each to pitch their creative business idea. Participants vote for a winner who gets all the door money at the end of the night. In addition, the event is a networking opportunity for everyone involved. Crediting, in part, her theological education, Kaherl emphasized the importance of authentic community and true neighborliness.
  • Delphia Simmons, Founder of Thrive Detroit, L3C, which seeks to prevent and end homelessness in Detroit through micro-enterprise — connecting people with opportunities to work as vendors for the Thrive Detroit Street Newspaper. According to their website, “We promote and advance purchases rather than hand-outs; dignity rather than disgrace; and incorporation vs. marginalization.”

Second Group of Presenters

  • Elizabeth Sanders, Associate Professor in the Design Department at OSU and founder of Make Tools, which offers consulting and education services for the purpose of collaborative creation and design, seeking the input of intended end-users in the process of planning and production with the goal of addressing the environmental, social, and cultural challenges facing the world today.
  • Neil Bellefeuille, Founder and CEO of The Paradigm Project, which builds supply chains to consumers at the base of the economic pyramid and sells energy-efficient, wood-burning stoves to them as well as carbon credits generated through their use. His presentation focused mostly on the history of business, making the — perhaps controversial — argument that the social business model is the historic and superior one to the shareholder model.
  • Jessica Mayberry, Founding Director of Video Volunteers, which trains men and women in the developing world with journalism skills to cover underreported stories of social injustice, exposing and fighting corporate and political corruption through grass roots media and advocacy. She highlighted, in particular, IndiaUnheard, a first-of-its kind community news service. They purposefully include Dalits — members of India’s “untouchables” — and strive to employ 50% women, whose concerns would be especially underrepresented otherwise.
  • Marika Shioiri-Clark, Founder of SOSHL Studio, “a design firm dedicated to social impact through architecture and design, tackling tough projects for the public good across sectors.” She worked in the past for MASS Design Group, codesigning a hospital in Kenya specifically made to be dignifying to patients on the one hand and to cut down on airborne transmission of tuberculosis on the other.

The theme of private solutions to public service problems facing the poor came out most prominently in the panel discussion on the city of Detroit. The APTE moderator asked the panelists whether private initiatives there represented a new way forward for mass transportation, trash pickup, recycling, and other services often assumed to be public responsibilities. Overall the response was affirmative, to varying degrees. Garlow was perhaps the most enthusiastic in this regard while Simmons emphasized the need for a mixture of public and private initiative.

Across the board, however, examples abounded of ways in which Detroiters are rebuilding their city themselves. Garlow even noted that so far the private initiatives have been far more efficient than if the city attempted to provide these services on its own. And Simmons noted that “the government is not looking to grow.” Nor can it right now, for good or ill. As Kaherl remarked, “The police don’t come; things don’t happen; people take things into their own hands.” This last point, however, showed the resilience of those who remain in Detroit, a willingness to get their own hands dirty for the sake of their city.

This emphasis, however, was not limited to the Detroit panel. Both Stradley and Shioiri-Clark focused on toilet enterprises, in Kenya (Fresh Life) and Ghana (Clean Team), respectively. Plumbing infrastructure and public toilets are expected government ventures in the developed world, but here the failure proved an entrepreneurial opportunity, not only serving the poor but employing them and helping to lift them out of poverty.

Meanwhile, IndiaUnheard advocates for compliance where the rule of law is absent. “India has great laws,” Mayberry said, but in many cases no rule of law. Through grass-roots journalism, people are empowered to hold corrupt employers, politicians, and public workers accountable.

Back in the United States, The Firm seeks to be a way out of dependency on government aid for the poor. Nelson-Jones emphasized that not everyone on welfare is the same, nor is everyone with a criminal record. The assumption that everyone on welfare wants to stay that way does not reflect the reality on the ground: Herself a single mother at nineteen, she ended up on every program available but also learned how to pull herself above that time of adversity.

Inspired in part by pastor Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, Nelson-Jones designed the Firm to help inspire others to consider their own purpose in life (or their vocation, as we might say in theological terms), figure out their passion or motivating force to live out that purpose, come to terms with making a profit (because you “can’t pay the bills with passion and purpose”), build partnerships with others seeking similar purposes and driven by the similar passions, and to identify reliable and effective principles inspired by “rock stars” involved in similar ventures.

So much more could be said about APTE 2014, but this was the highlight for me. The panelists in Detroit especially highlighted the value of true neighborliness. It is one thing to sit around and wait for government officials or big corporations to solve a problem — even when, perhaps, they should — it is another to take responsibility for the needs of one’s own community. These and other stories from the summit demonstrate the great asset civil society and entrepreneurship are for ending social injustice and empowering the poor to lift themselves out of poverty by actualizing their own, God-given potential.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.