Imagine starting business and, after payroll, you discover a problem. The majority of your employees don’t have bank accounts. They can’t open them. Why? They never learned to read. This means, of course, none have experience doing any kind of financial planning. For a small business that needs its employees to wear many hats, this situation is a serious problem.
While we hold up the spirit of Silicon Valley as the model of entrepreneurial success, the reality is that entrepreneurs exist everywhere -- even in developing countries. Surviving on the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti is a daily exercise in the entrepreneurial spirit – one that requires initiative, verve and resourcefulness. Most entrepreneurs, however, need more than conviction to rise; they need support, investment and community. In developing countries, even the smallest level of such “investment” can be enough to unblock a business, freeing it to rise to the next level.
The payroll story above comes from a real Haitian social enterprise, Caribbean Craft, a certified Fair Trade maker of beautiful papier-mâché products derived from recycled materials. Caribbean Craft’s founder, Magalie Dresse, realized that to truly grow her business, she needed to invest in her staffs’ skills. Magalie reached out to Provdev, a Haitian nonprofit with an educational mission. Working together, they developed a training program for Caribbean Craft employees. With support from a buyer, West Elm, and the Clinton Foundation, the program launched to remarkable success. Now the employees work as they learn, empowering themselves, their families and communities in ways that go far beyond a paycheck. Caribbean Craft has also benefited from the increase in capacity and efficiency. Newly trained artisans working for the social enterprise can now read work orders without assistance and manage materials budgets for the first time. The product quality improves. In short, this collaboration benefitted everyone.
Collaborative relationships emphasize mutual interests and bring people together.For instance, as consumers demonstrate greater preference for organic and Fair Trade products, certification allows new opportunities for artisans and small farmers. The process of being certified as organic or a Fair Trade establishment, however, can be expensive. Annual fees and costs associated with inspections and assessments are out of reach for many small businesses. Furthermore, meeting new standards requires training. While consumer interest in companies like Caribbean Craft are growing, getting them started in the first place requires a special kind of support. Again, this is where collaboration comes into play.
Michelle Jean of Zesa Raw works with Haitian farmers to find solutions. “Most of the coffee that is traded or sold across the Dominican Republic border is from high altitude farms, making it valuable as a cash crop, yet the farmers are paid a fraction for their yields.” Over time her organization hopes to “to improve the pipeline for export” by increasing access to certification and training. Both Zesa Raw and Caribbean Craft collaborations represent more than a fair deal for the consumers and workers. They stand for a collaborative spirit -- an expectation that collaboration and mutual benefit can be profitable.
Collaborative models are also facilitated by the web. Much has been made of platforms such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo which allow would-be consumers to be participants and patrons. A new generation of technologies are now allowing a greater variety of interests to connect in nuanced ways. A partner of mine, Good Mind Hunting -- the company behind Collaboration Quests, a platform for facilitating global improvement opportunities -- sees the social-networking platform as an incredible -- and largely squandered -- problem-solving machine which can unite sustainable businesses, subject matter experts, and consumers. They see no reason why a model created for young people to rapidly connect to wider networks of friends cannot also function to connect entrepreneurs in developing countries. With the right framework, incentives, and real time mechanisms, even casual connections can have a dramatic impact.
Born out of a decade of experimentation in academia as a project management platform, Collaboration Quests is enlisting universities, NGOs and small businesses from around the world as part of a network of contributing partners. Achieving the ideal mix of participants is vital to the platform’s success. As founder, Marc Bernier explains: “Even the simplest action initiated by a small group of individuals can impact humanity as a whole. Historically that has happened in special places, like coffee houses or chance encounters. Today that is happening online."
Are we witnessing a shift in emphasis away from the mythic entrepreneur exerting unilateral vision to something more collaborative? It would seem that business models, consumer demand, and new technologies are suggesting a way forward. The question no longer seems to be “if” but to what extent these emerging enterprises will converge and bring change. There will only be one factor in determining the answer. It depends entirely, of course, on how many people will choose to collaborate.