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Thursday, March 06, 2008

StartingBloc Institute for Social Innovation: NYC 2008

By Grace Augustine

StartingBlocLogoWe are all looking for opportunities to develop our ability to address poverty and underserved markets with business solutions. One forum that brings together students and young professionals to connect around these ideas is StartingBloc.

I was encouraged to apply to StartingBloc through WRI staff who have attended in the past and who recommended the program. I was then fortunate enough to be admitted as a New York City 2008 StartingBloc fellow, and I would like to share some of my experiences thus far.

The first of three weekend gatherings was held at NYU-Wagner in mid-February. 115 students and young professionals from 21 countries convened to kick off the program. During the course of the day, we talked about Scojo, Grameen, Acumen Fund, D-Lab, Kiva and numerous other BoP initiative poster children.

The agenda was packed with speakers and sessions on these well-established organizations. Those stories, as exciting as they were, have been told before. I felt that the more unique aspect of the day was meeting the other fellows, who ranged from the ages of 20-35 and carried a sense of unbridled idealism and curiosity.

There was a great energy in the room as we began our speed networking session. From one young woman working for Teach for America in Harlem to another who was dedicated to bringing light to the link between genital mutilation and global hotspots of economic misfortune, each individual was completely committed to his or her cause.

I?d like to highlight a couple of the most interesting fellows that I met:Roey Rosenblith learned through his past experience with technology in the developing world that you have to listen to the voices of the BoP. He spent years helping an NGO develop a technology for agroprocessing in Uganda, only to later find out that despite their best intentions, their "parachute drop model"as he described it, was not successful.

In fact, the African nation already had a far superior technology. In light of that, he has broken off and started Village Startup, where he hopes to start with the notion that there is inherent value that can be created from improving on and sharing native technologies through partnerships with the BoP.

Nicholas Easley has managed to work for BoP leaders Kiva and Water Partners International, all before completing his bachelor's degree. He is now working on his own project aimed at overcoming the disconnect across the multiple NGOs that he saw on the ground while working in Uganda. He observed them each working towards their segmented goal - education, energy, health, etc. - without realizing the systematic linkages between those areas. Nick will take his ideas for bringing together the NGO community to the Clinton Global Initiative University in a few weeks to try to secure funding and support for his recommendations.


These are just two examples of the talent in the room. Other fellows are working for the Chicago Climate Exchange, advancing microfinance in Latin America, speaking at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, enrolling in Cambridge on a Gates Fellowship, interning for Echoing Green, starting online language translation services and refining their skills through top consulting and finance firms.

StartingBloc has received some criticism as being a talking house instead of a forum for action, but I believe that the relationships that will be formed through this fellowship program have the potential to produce real results in the upcoming years. Where were the founders of other successful BoP ventures when they were in their early 20's? What if they could have connected with like-minded individuals early in their careers? There is the potential here for meaningful connections that will further successful BoP enterprises.

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