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12/05/2010

A social entrepreneurs' quest to "be the change" and embrace the journey

This fall semester has been about exploring ways to serve the world with two Sloan colleagues, Adah Chan and Erica Dhawan. The three of us came together during the MIT Sloan AgInnovation study tour last spring, a 5-part course that we planned and taught, which culminated in a trip to Brazil and India to learn about agricultural innovations from small farmers and businesses.  

Emerging from that experience we recognized a very special working dynamic between the three of us, and a common quest to find impactful and meaningful careers which change the world in real ways.  Our backgrounds (finance, international development, and supply chain management), built upon a base of our common values of shared wealth + shared success, transparency, humility, and empathy, compelled me forward into that unknown territory of social entrepreneurship, the rollercoaster of start-ups, and an eye-opening personal development journey.

Embarking on the S+E+A (Shayna-Erica-Adah) journey has become the cornerstone of my MBA experience. In July we met in New York and pitched 15 ideas to each other of various social ventures that we could work on and explore during our last year at Sloan, to hopefully launch upon graduation. All of the ideas centered somehow around sustainable food, small-scale family farmers, and living healthy, green, chemical-free lives.  Those 15 ideas narrowed down to two, Supply Change and Mujer a Mujer, both of which we are currently actively working on with the guidance of professor (and mentor) Kara Blackburn.

Supply Change is about sustainable supply chains and the reduction of food waste.  The goal of the venture is to reduce the post-harvest loss of produce in developing countries, providing small-scale family farmers with additional income and increasing the availability of food.  We're building on the core of MIT, technology, to develop innovative ways to track & aggregate produce supply through a cell phone text message, and also develop a fruit processor that could work in rural areas to process fruit before it rots.  We're entering the MIT Yunus Challenge, which this year is focusing on agricultural processes, the Global Challenge, the 100K, and are taking the MIT Development Ventures course.  My Legatum Fellowship is supporting the initiative and team, and we're travelling to Paraguay in January with additional funds from the NCIIA, MIT Public Service Center, MIT Tech Dissemination Fellowship, and hopefully the MIT IDEAS competition!

Mujer a Mujer is a social venture that facilitates the access of green household products to low income communities whom currently don't buy them for a variety of reasons (access, $, awareness). We are working with five community health leaders in southern New Mexico -- which is one of the most polluted areas of the US-Mexico border -- to find ways that the community can invest in its own health by supporting local, green ventures.  

One of the activities that these incredible women have been undertaking is to teach others to make ecofriendly cleaning products with simple ingredients - baking soda, vinegar, water, essential oils - to get off the the dependency of harmful, conventional chemical products.  Based on this idea, together we launched a project and are selling green cleaning products door to door. This direct sales model provides a new avenue for income generation within the community.  We're also a series of Gleaning parties to teach our community here about how to make the products and raise funds for the pilot. We were recently featured on MIT's CoLab website, met with innovative designers and communicators from the IDEO design firm in Cambridge, and attended a Vida Verde green cleaner training (run by a Brazilian women's coop of house-cleaners) just yesterday.

I am so grateful to be on this journey, to have the support of friends and family, and the amazing amount of resources that MIT continues to offer.  Who knows what the future will bring. Increasingly I am seeing that it doesn't matter. Even when others are wrapped up in 'knowing', recruiting, and questioning my path. I know how to respond, and it's that I don't have the answers, but I know the values by which I live my life, and am getting incrementally closer (but will never quite reach) the 'what' ... as the SEA journey continues.