Social Entrepreneurship and Leadership by Example in Guatemala - Part I

Vision, Mission, Values and Trust - an Interview with Greg van Kirk
Jun 21, 2010 11:52 AM ET

The Acacia Group - Socially Responsible Leadership

Earlier this week I had the good fortune to meet again with Greg Van Kirk, Ashoak Lemolson Fellow, and Social Entrepreneur in Residence at Columbia University. Greg is an open, engaging and skilled social entrepreneur who has demonstrated that with passion, intelligence and integrity – communities can be made stronger.

The discussion was rich with information and as a result, over the next week or so this blogspace will contain excerpts from that conversation.  Further information on Greg’s work can also be found at, or watch the video.   Some brief background first:  Greg runs a variety of programs- including Social Entrepreneur Corps, (SEC). This program provides development programs in Ecuador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Working with local agencies, interested local entrepreneurs and with input from seventy-five university students and recent graduates interns from the US – Greg has supported the development of a variety of programs that benefit local villagers in these three countries.   Can you describe your program?   Well we looked at the various programs that existed such as academic programs that focused on the learner’s academic needs, or even volunteer programs that tend to be more relief focus and realized that that would not work for our vision. We don’t see our program as a volunteering program, we are a development organization that focuses year round on developing local people. We have been able to create a structure whereby people can, on a short term basis – focusing as apprentices or interns – share their skills in a manner that adds capacity to the local community; the focus is always on the beneficiaries and the work flows from there. 80% of our current permanent workforce are former interns of the Social Entrepreneur Corps.   I know that you started with the Centro Exlprativo, can you tell me more about that and how that has evolved and benefitted from some of the “incubator” work of SEC? Centro Explorativo, in Nebaj is an education centre that started as a literacy program, but now has over 2000 books, free computer classes, after school classes on math and literacy, along with sports programs – all these services are free up and running since 2003. The program now boasts three teachers, and is owned  and administered by a local organization of Guatemalan’s and has had  thousands of participants.   I know that a logical spin-off was combining the computer skills with supporting the needs of tourists via an internet café? That’s right, from education there has also been a focus on tourism- a site that started as a restaurant, has evolved and created spin- offs such as a guiding business, a coffee shop, a hostel, internet centre, language school –  that have now be owned by local folks since 2004. SEC provided $25,000 of program support resulting in total revenues of $750,000.   These are concrete examples of creating a tangible presence in the community, but these locations are backed up the creation of skills that are portable. SEC is a driver of the micro-consignment model . The purpose of which is to create access to products and services that ordinarily would not exist or are donated.  We stared with the distribution of wood burning stoves,  and now distribute eye glasses, energy efficient bulbs, lamps,  and now water treatment programs. These are just the products but SEC has trained and supported – over 200 women entrepreneurs and also work with broker community organizations like libraries, who can in turn provide training. We help create village campaigns, where we assist entrepreneurs do the marketing, advertising etc to a village, building anticipation and then they show up with their goods –  so far we  have executed over 2000 of these campaigns, sold over 60,000 products.  Earned net income  in aggregate around $75,000.  Now, a social enterprise  has been created to allow this activity to continue and to be sustained–  it is share based company model owned by Guatemalan men and women, homemakers with no experience, now own a company that generates $80,000 annually in revenue.  We estimate that the economic productivity  benefit from this i.e. health issues with a stove, savings from not having to buy water or consume contaminated  water, increased productivity due to being able to see because of glasses is around $1.4 million in Guatemala alone. We have now taken this model to Ecudaor and Nicargaua –  and all sales are even across the board and consistent with the beta work we have done in Guatemala   Greg’s work has captured the attention of the social entrepreneur community and there is a desire to determine how this can be duplicated in other sites. More information on this issue, and the notion of engagement will be discussed in blogs posted later this week.  Stay tuned, or subscribe!   The Acacia Group works with Greg and Social Entrepreneur Corps in Nebaj, and is offering an opportunity for individuals or groups to participate in, observe and learn from SEC and the citizens of Nebaj. This experience is combined with personal and group leadership development coaching before, during and after the trip for up to three months. Interest is building, so book soon at    AG7513