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Women crafting a better world

Transforming lives through global social entrepreneurship.
By Christine Nielsen
Winter 2008 11.1.08

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Woman sewing (Robert Neubecker)

(Robert Neubecker)

Fifteen years ago Nelly Nacino was one of sixty women to receive a sewing machine through a livelihood program in Taguig, Philippines. The sewing machine was not a gift; each woman was expected to pay for her machine on an installment plan. Nelly has done more than that; her contributions have gone far beyond the program’s initial investment in her.

Nelly benefited from support that included a national training program, local government, local cooperative organizations, and Zonta International, a global organization working to advance the status of women worldwide. (I was introduced to her story by Patricia Samia of the University of the Philippines.) But it was Nelly’s motivation to help other women and their families that transformed financial resources and equipment into a thriving business and a social enterprise organization she established, the Mother and Child Community Development Association, Inc. (MCCDAI).

Nelly’s entrepreneurial activity began with the opening of a small store based on a capital investment of 100 Philippine pesos (roughly the equivalent of US$2). Pregnant with her third child while her husband, Antonio, worked abroad, she began selling canned goods, household items, and products she had sewn. In 2000 Nelly’s husband joined her. They hired six employees for store sales, order deliveries, and business administration.

In addition to managing her internal workforce, Nelly now subcontracts rag-making production to thirty to forty members of the MCCDAI. She encourages her neighbors in MCCDAI to become entrepreneurs themselves, explaining that they can earn more if they buy their own materials.

MCCDAI adopted the same motto as Nelly’s enterprise: “We will help you help yourselves.” This motto embodies the heart and soul of the global social enterprise movement. MCCDAI does far more than generate revenues for its workers. It offers seminars (on birth control, family planning) and livelihood training (sewing, food service training, meat processing, baking, and soap-making, among others). Furthermore, the organization enables qualified children of its members to obtain college scholarships. In 2007, forty of their scholars completed college. The organization also provides free school supplies to about fifty children every year.

Events that transform our lives often pass unnoticed at first. They occur within the flurry of our daily lives while we’re focusing on other things. When Nelly received her first sewing machine, she never anticipated that it would start her on the path toward social enterprise development. I’ve had that same kind of experience twice.

The first such event occurred when I was eight years old and eventually led to my career as a professor of international business and strategy. I didn’t realize its significance until many years later, during an interview with the Baltimore Business Journal when the reporter asked, “What was it that led to your decision to enter this profession?” Scrolling back in my mind I realized that the transforming event had been a childhood summer spent in Denmark. Embraced by my father’s Danish family, fascinated with their lives and language, playing daily with Danish children—it was a real cross-cultural immersion for me.

I realized it was that childhood experience that had led me to a lifetime of learning, teaching, and research to better understand the differences and similarities we share with people around the world, so that I could continue to experience—and hopefully help others to know—the joy, sense of adventure, and belonging that I had felt as a child when stepping outside of my own national boundaries.

The second event that transformed my life occurred in 2004. It was a conversation with my friend Phyllis Marsh, during choir practice at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis (UUCA), that led to my current work in the global social enterprise movement. The theme of the upcoming Sunday’s sermon was world peace, and I whispered that we wouldn’t have peace in this world until women had more rights. Unless women could develop economically, their children would continue to grow up in poverty without education, and the cycle of desperation that drives wars and terrorism would continue without end. That declaration during choir practice would lead to a profound change in the focus of my professional life, intertwining its threads with those of my spiritual life as a Unitarian Universalist.

I signed up to attend my first UUA General Assembly as a delegate in 2004 and again in 2005 to speak on behalf of the Women’s Rights Worldwide Study/Action Issue, proposed first by the Rev. Carol Huston and the Community Unitarian Church at White Plains, N.Y., and then in partnership with the UUCA. We studied issues affecting the lives of women and their families; analyzed their disadvantages in economic, political, and social spheres; and sought to understand the extent of their suffering through physical abuse, the slave trade, armed conflicts, and war zones. Our initiative was voted down two years in a row, but we refused to be defeated. Instead we decided to take action.

The UUCA UN Global Justice Committee reached out to the Rev. Rebecca Sienes, then president of the UU Church of the Philippines (UUCP). Together, we worked to develop a program in the Philippines as a model for women’s development. Sienes and her team from the UUCP began by asking women in twelve poor, rural communities on Negros Island what they saw as their most important priorities. Phyllis and I, along with other members of our UN Global Justice Committee, traveled there to hear directly from hundreds of women.

Their number one priority was clear: livelihood opportunities. They spoke emphatically of wanting to contribute economically to their families’ welfare through their own efforts and to help their husbands support their children. We concluded our visit with a three-day strategic planning meeting that forged an international partnership linking Philippine and U.S. Unitarian Universalist organizations with local communities on Negros Island. As a result of these efforts and grants from the UUCA Endowment Committee, the UU Women’s Federation, and contributions of the UUCP, an organization was established for women’s development in the Philippines, called Buhata Pinay (Do It, Filipina).

Since that fateful conversation at choir practice, I’ve been on a steep learning curve, coming to understand the potential that social enterprise initiatives have to transform the lives of disadvantaged people worldwide. I am also learning about its transformative power in my own life and in those of others who are searching for ways to be of service in the face of the staggering social issues that face our world. Still a novice in this arena, I’ve become more deeply engaged in the field of social enterprise, seeking out stories of success and failure, building a research foundation on “lessons learned,” looking for ways to contribute to business skills training for micro-entrepreneurs, and traveling to the Philippines, most recently as a Fulbright-SyCip Distinguished Lecturer in the fall of 2007. I am building relationships with professors and practitioners active in social enterprise development and exploring ways that we can collaborate. We are within a year of launching a joint livelihood pilot project that will expand the network of UU partners working on women’s development in the Philippines.

Along the way I’ve learned that women, working together in spirit, faith, and partnership, can strengthen the global web of life. Starting small and forming partnerships with like-minded people who are committed to making a positive difference in people’s lives is something that Nelly Nacino and I share. We’ve realized that great things can happen if you are willing to take the first step; a single event can start you on the path.

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