Entrepreneurs share how life experiences affected their businesses
In a partnership with the MIT Enterprise Forum, UH hosted a panel on social entrepreneurship Wednesday afternoon that showed how opening a business can not only change one’s life, but change the lives of others.
The panel consisted of Michael Zakaras, senior project manager of Ashoka US, the largest network of social entrepreneurship; Hans Hickler, founder and CEO of Ellipsis Advisors LLC and member of the Ashoka Support Network; and three Ashoka Fellows – Rafael Alvarez, founder and CEO of Genesys Works; Jill Vialet, founder and CEO of Playworks; and Katherine Lucey, founder and CEO of Solar Sister. Each of the Ashoka Fellows’ companies support social change in the world.
“We’re looking for people that have the big ideas that are not just interested in running programs or starting programs; they’re challenging the status quo and asking why the world is the way it is,” Zakaras said.
For Alvarez, his journey began after visiting with high school seniors on their graduation day. Most of the students told him they would be continuing with the jobs they already had in fast food, retail or as cashiers, and that college was not an option for them.
“Some people say that your destiny depends more on which side of the tracks you are born into. I am here to tell you that this is not true,” Alvarez said. “Over the last 12 years I have learned that more important than which side of the track you are born into is which track your life is actually on. More importantly, I have learned how easy it is to change that trajectory of life.”
Alvarez then began Genesys Works, a program that gives underprivileged high school seniors meaningful internships at major corporations.
Vialet’s Playworks “creates a place for every kid on the playground – a place where every kid belongs, contributes and is part of the game. It doesn’t matter if they have never played the game before or don’t know the rules or have never been on a team. We create a place that is safe and welcoming, where every kid feels that sense of belonging that connects them more to their school and community,” according to the Playworks website.
Vialet never thought Playworks would be anything more than a local program, but she began getting phone calls from all over the nation.
Playworks is now in 23 cities and has just completed a two-year randomized control trial, which found that Playworks is making an impact.
“They found a number of statistically significant impacts. They found that teachers reported 43 percent less bullying and kids reported feeling significantly safer throughout the day at Playworks schools. There was almost 50 percent more vigorous physical activity at Playworks schools and we found we were recovering about 24 hours’ worth of instructional time in Playworks classrooms,” Vialet said.
“The goal isn’t (to) build the biggest possible Playworks, the goal is to really change the system.”
Lucey’s Solar Sister provides clean energy for those off the grid in countries such as Uganda, Nigeria and Tanzania.
“I am recruiting, training and supporting women to become entrepreneurs — women who are living in rural areas of Africa. We are training them specifically to become clean energy entrepreneurs so that they can bring energy access to their communities,” Lucey said.
“We teach them how to solve problems; we teach them how to encounter obstacles and not to stop dead in your tracks, but realize you can get to the other side of it. You can go over it, around it, under it and you can have the power in yourself to figure out how you’re going to get to the other side.”
The final panelist, Hickler, is a former CEO for several companies but gave it up to become the founder and CEO of Ellypsis Advisors LLC and a member of the Ashoka Support Network.
“As a leader, there’s hardly anything I can’t do if I’m willing to be a change maker. That’s the business I’m in today. I spend 50 percent of my time helping Ashoka and I spend the other 50 percent of the time teaching CEOs that they can be very impactful on change,” Hickler said.
As a member of ASN, Hickler is able to be part of panels for Ashoka fellows that give them advice on everything they need to succeed.
“The bottom line is we are all change makers. It’s just figuring out how to do that,” Hickler said.