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Apr '14

Pivoting towards Success

knowledge-vs-experienceOne of the key reasons Aaron and I chose the GSSE program at CSU for Aaron’s MBA program was due to the hands-on structure of the program. We knew that training and knowledge would be valuable to us in whatever we did, but we know that the critical piece is the actual application of this knowledge. The GSSE program is centered on creating a venture that you develop during your first 2 semesters and then spend the summer testing and hopefully starting the business.

Aaron is finishing up his second semester and beginning in early June, he and his team will depart to Nicaragua to start one of the most crucial steps in a business: working with the customer to validate the idea and better understand their actual needs.

This has been a very long journey so far with many “pivots” (a nice way of saying “we’re changing directions, again”).  In order to understand where we are now, I want to quickly walk you through the steps we’ve taken to get here.

We started with the big picture and Aaron knew that he wanted to help alleviate material poverty by increasing people’s incomes. In our view, this is the best way to reduce poverty: Provide a means for people to make more money such that they are no longer in poverty. So far, so good.

He then had to decide what group he would target in his poverty alleviation efforts. In looking at people in poverty worldwide, a vast majority (upwards of 70%) of the poor are farmers. So, in order to have the biggest impact, this would be the group to focus our efforts on. Seems pretty straight forward, right?

Things began to get more complicated as we dived deeper into the lives of farmers. There are so many obstacles that farmers face: low education, corrupt government systems, and lack of access to infrastructure and markets. Compound this with natural disasters (droughts, floods, diseases, etc.) and the challenges seem almost insurmountable.  Almost.

As we researched more about farmers, we began to see “bright spots,” businesses and people who had found a way to overcome these obstacles and bring real solutions to millions of farmers worldwide.  The prospects were enticing and we became convinced that there was a place for us in this space and that we could be part of a solution.

With Aaron’s background in banking and finance and teammates with agricultural experience, they are focused on a venture that capitalizes on their knowledge. What developed is a micro-leasing program that I think is best described by Aaron in this 1 min. video:Growing Capital (The video was submitted as an entry into a competition to raise funds for their summer trip).

As Aaron mentions, micro-leasing is similar to micro-finance (which many of us are more familiar with), but rather than providing capital, Aaron’s venture will provide physical assets that will increase a farmer’s income.  One of the struggles facing farmers is in the acquisition of the proper tools and machines to increase their yield, which money alone does not always allow for.  In creating a lease-to-purchase agreement, we can overcome that hurdle by providing the appropriate tool that will in itself generate the income necessary to pay back the loan.

One good example of this is leasing irrigation equipment such that farmers can increase the number of harvests in a given year, (i.e. farming during the dry season when prices are highest), significantly increasing their income well beyond the initial investment.

So, this is just a brief introduction to “Growing Capital”, Aaron’s GSSE venture. They are working hard to prepare for the summer—visas, airfare (if you happen to have any extra miles weighing you down, we would be ever indebted!), lodging and farmer connections are just a few of the things keeping us up at night.  As the venture takes off, I will be sending more details about what we’re doing and how the Summer is progressing. There will be a separate website or Facebook page to follow the team in Nicaragua which I will send out to everyone as soon as it’s live!

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Mar '14

What is “Social Enterprise”?

As we’ve mentioned, we are currently in Colorado so that Aaron can pursue his MBA at Colorado State University in Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise (GSSE). We realized that we’ve never quite explained what this program is all about and a large part of that is that we’re still trying to wrap our heads around it.

story time

Story Time with Abby

I think the best way to explain this is through the story of how we ended up here. So, gather round kids, get your popcorn and let Auntie Abby take you back in time…

During our trip abroad in the Spring of 2012, there came a point about half-way through that Aaron and I had to make a very important decision: Do we return home to the US or try to find a way to stay in South America long-term? We had an opportunity back home (that ultimately fell through, a small blessing in disguise as it turns out) and had only a few days to decide whether to return home for that or to try to remain in South America.

Decision making

Decision making: Day 3…

After many days talking through the various scenarios, the pros and cons and the consequences of each choice (we did not take our lesson on Brevity to heart yet…), we ultimately decided to return home.

The issue that finally made the decision crystal clear to us was when we asked ourselves what we would do tomorrow if we decided to stay in South America. While we had lots of ideas and knew that we wanted to center our lives on poverty alleviation, we realized that we were very, very unprepared to actually start something in South America.

Through this, we became increasingly aware that what we needed were some skills. So, we decided to return home and Aaron would go to school and gain the necessary skills to allow us to return to South America and actually make a difference.

But, what program should Aaron pursue? Non-profit management seemed a logical choice since we knew we wanted to work on poverty alleviation.  However, Aaron has always been interested in Business and specifically, entrepreneurship, as we have dreamed of owning our own business someday.

We felt like our interests and our long term goals were completely at odds until one day it hit us: “Why can’t we run a non-profit that is self-sustaining in itself? Or, put another way: “Why can’t we run a business that also helps people?” Light Bulb! Why not?! Crazier things have happened in this world.

Aaron began researching this and eventually, stumbled upon the idea of a “Social Enterprise” and the GSSE program in particular.

Alleviating poverty never looked so good

Alleviating poverty never looked so good.

Social Enterprises are typically for-profit businesses that center on solving social issues.  One of the most prevalent examples would be the Buy-One, Give-One Model that has been best exemplified in TOMS shoes.

But, it goes so much further than that.  Social enterprises find ways to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the poor around the world through Business solutions. Business is by far the most efficient system on Earth, so why not apply those practices to solving some of the most stubborn issues facing the Earth and its people as well?

Unlike traditional business, in Social Enterprises profit is important, but it is not the only goal. Instead, social entrepreneurs focus on the triple bottom line: Profit, People and Planet, striking a balance between the three and finding ways to run a business that is both profitable and sustainable to the Earth and the people affected by it.

Thus far, the GSSE program has been an incredible experience, providing Aaron with a crash course mixture of Business, poverty alleviation theory and environmental sustainability, combining many of Aaron’s passions and interests.  It is a very hands-on program centered around a Summer venture that Aaron and his team will embark on in just a few months to put into practice much of what he has been learning.  We’re very excited about his venture–it looks like they will be heading to Nicaragua to work on developing a micro-leasing program. Details of that coming in the next post–Stay tuned!

Jan '14

2 years on…The 2nd tier series

A few weeks ago, Aaron and I spent some time reminiscing about our 2012 trip. We looked through our photo book and smiled as we remembered so many good times: Volunteering with the kids in Ecuador and Colombia, Climbing two 15,000+ mountains (and Aaron climbing Cotopaxi at over 19,300 feet), Aaron jumping off a bridge and many other priceless memories

Aaron takes the plunge

Aaron takes the plunge

But, as we continued to talk about it, we started remembering so many other stories that never made it into the photo book and that were on the verge of escaping our memory. With such a long trip, it was easy for stories to get lost in the midst of our travels and for us to begin to take extraordinary events for granted just because they became commonplace.

So, I thought that as it has been 2 years today since we started the journey that led to so many memories,  we would share some of these 2nd tier stories:

What’s that on your bag??…oh….uh…ewwww

Enjoying ice cream and leg room

Enjoying ice cream and leg room

On one of our many bus rides, we had finally gotten over our gringo fear of putting our luggage below the bus and were enjoying a comfortable bus ride with plenty of leg room. As we ended our journey, we stood anxiously outside the bus to receive our luggage:  the bottom doors opened, but rather than our luggage staring us in the face, we were greeted by at least 2 dozen chickens, running wild through the storage area. We had seen these chickens placed under the bus at one of the many stops along the way, but at the time, they were all in cages. Somehow, during the rest of the ride, they had found a way out of the cages and were free, pecking for bugs through all of our luggage.

At first, this was just a rather comical image for the two of us, but it quickly turned to something quite different as the smell hit our nostrils. For anyone who has never experienced the scent of fresh chicken poop, count your blessings. As we tried to cover our mouth and nose to grab our luggage, we knew this would be an expensive laundry trip as we would have to wash all our clothes and even then, it took a few days for the smell to leave our luggage.

..but, I guess it could have been worse :)

..but, I guess it could have been worse 🙂

Frog Concert

DonkeyballMy mom is known for her ability to find the most unique events, sites and activities wherever she goes. Just last week, she was reminding my sister about the Donkey basketball game she needed to go to in Minot, ND (seriously, check it out: http://www.dairylanddonkeyball.com/basketball/index.html)

This reminded me of another gem of an adventure that my mom found for us while she was visiting us in Ecuador: The Frog Concert. We were in Mindo at the time, a quaint little town known for its spectacular bird watching—Can you spot the toucan in this tree? …neither could we…

Do you see it?

One night, my mom had heard about this “Frog concert” but as is typical in Ecuador, the details were sketchy. We knew roughly where it was so off we set in search of the frogs.

Waiting for the show to begin

Waiting for the show to begin

A 45 minute walk later, we arrived at the Frog’s home and were greeted with a small communion size glass of wine with which to enjoy the start of the concert. We sat with another couple from our hostel and all were anxiously awaiting the arrival of the frogs. I wondered if they would have suits like the WB frog.

Frog concert

In the pond beneath our platform, we heard the frogs warming up. Or so we thought.

Turns out, after a brief explanation from our tour guide, that the frogs we heard in the pond were actually our concert.

Ok, we walked 45 minutes to listen some frogs croak in a pond?! The creek in our backyard in Lewisville provided this serenade every night (and kept me up many for many of them, I might add).

Just as we were about to be disappointed, the tour guide directed us to the path alongside the pond and for the next 30 minutes, we went on a scavenger hunt for frogs. It was pitch black (except for the guide’s flashlight), muddy and an absolute riot. Trying to keep up with the guide’s fast pace, and pretending to translate the guide’s information to my mom (“I think she said that this frog is able to jump over tall buildings”) led to a few fits of laughter that kept us smiling the entire walk home again. Just another day in Ecuador.


Drive-by’s – Colombia style

A Minca "colectivo"

A Minca “colectivo”

We spent a lot of our time finding and riding in all sorts of different modes of transportation while on our travels. Volunteering in Minca (a very small mountain town on the Colombian coast) led to some of the most comical experiences we had. Most of the colectivos (privately owned taxis) looked as though they were hand-picked from the junk yard and ran about as well. We were consistently amazed every time we made it up or down the mountain without the car breaking down.

So, we were not really surprised when we were travelling with our Minca family one day to be in an old Ford Bronco that had a nasty habit of backfiring loudly every 10-15 seconds. As we were heading down the mountain, it wasn’t really a big deal, but as we got into the big city, the people around us seemed rather concerned about the loud noises emanating from our car. Our driver, noticing this, came up with a rather “creative” solution: He reaches into the console and pulls out a toy hand-gun and hands it to the Dad, Vladimir, sitting in the front seat. Every time the car backfires, Vladi holds the gun out the window and pretends to shoot it in the air. Being the Americans that we are, quite aware of the violence that has plagued Colombia, we wondered to ourselves in the backseat whether pretending to shoot a gun in the air was going to have some negative consequences. But, eventually, the fits of laughter overtook us as well, and with the music cranked up, we backfired our way to our destination safely.

Thanks for joining in our reminiscing—We’re busy making a whole new set of memories here in Colorado and will share an update on all that we’re doing here soon.