November 10, 2013

BUSINESS NEWS: Social Entrepreneurs Help Communities Through Startups

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By SCOTT GARTENBERG

As many Cornell students try to transform their passions into startup companies, a few entrepreneurs are focusing their work on social causes.

Roshni Mehta ’15 is one such student. Mehta’s project, Nine Yards, focuses on providing employment to women from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who have been disfigured and socially alienated by acid attacks.

“I always knew I wanted to do something about [acid attacks],” she said.

In acid attacks, victims’ faces are purposely disfigured after a woman declines a man offering a date or marriage proposal. When Mehta grew up in Bangladesh, her nanny was a victim of these acid attacks, she said.

“Many times, the woman is blamed for provoking the man, and so she is alienated. She doesn’t get married and doesn’t even get employed. She is lucky enough to survive and basically living to breathe,” Mehta said. “It’s a crime against women, specifically in the lower socioeconomic strata.”

Mehta’s organization’s objective is to employ the survivors of acid attacks by enabling them to produce home décor products through recycling saris, a garment worn by Indian women.

“A prime reason behind using saris was because it kept my costs really low because my prime raw material was donated to me,” she said. “I reached out to all these aunties and family friends I knew. I live in the Middle East so that’s where I got all my collections from.”

Mehta has already employed four women from India, and their first round of production yielded a profit margin of over 70 percent.

Despite her success, Mehta said she has faced challenges, too — such as raising enough capital to support her business and making sure women can work with disabilities like blindness that were caused by their acid attacks. Ultimately, Mehta said, she hopes to give disabled women something that they never had: a sense of purpose through employment.

“I don’t think they really need just money. What they really need is a sense of living a perfect life, [and] employment empowers them,” she said. “Even if I could impact the lives of only four women and completely change them forever, that would be great.”

Another student putting entrepreneurship to use is James Spanjaard ’14, executive director of Social Business Consulting. The group aids developing companies across the globe by giving them advice on product development and marketing strategies.

Social Business Consulting has an additional mission: to help social enterprises overcome challenges, Spanjaard said.

“We work with social enterprises and non-profits and we provide students with an opportunity to get practical hands-on experience … while providing a service to these companies,” he said.

Social Business Consulting is working with multiple social ventures like 5R2I — a community development organization that provides less fortunate citizens of Indonesia with social services — and EduBridge, an organization in India that is trying to educate and employ rural Indians, according to Spanjaard.

“The social enterprise side of it comes up when they are trying to figure out, ‘How do we bring these products to market, how do we create a market for them, how do we structure the distribution?’” he said.

Social Business Consulting also helps Cornell students gain insight into their clients’ businesses, according to Spanjaard.

“We want to help them do better at what they do. … A lot of our members of the organization are business students. [We want to] provide a meaningful and significant experience that makes them feel like they’re making a difference while learning something,” he said.

Though he has always been interested in the business side of affairs, being from South Africa, a place that has a lot of social problems and inequality, Spanjaard said he always had an interest in helping others.

Spanjaard’s current role in Social Business Consulting, in many ways, answers the question that many students today might find themselves thinking about: how can someone simultaneously pursue his or her passions and career interests?

“How do you merge these two? How do I connect my vocational aspirations with what I’m passionate about?” Spanjaard said. “I hope the rest of my life will be doing that very thing, bringing these two together. There are ways of bringing them together.”

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