Guest Post: Four Social Entrepreneurs Who Are Changing the World

Earlier this summer, the bloggers behind My Dog Ate My Blog approached the Cipher about contributing a guest post to our blog. It was an idea that hadn’t really occurred to us, mostly because nobody outside of the Colorado College world had asked to contribute to our project before. But it made perfect sense. Their content is similar to ours–politics, comments on current events, reviews, pop culture, etc.–and we liked the idea of having a new voice put forth under the Cipher banner. Also, since we don’t produce the magazine during the summer, our blog has been sadly neglected for the past three months. A guest post seemed just the thing to inject some life into the ghost town that our blog has become.

So, here goes: the first guest post in what we hope will be a fruitful collaboration with My Dog Ate My Blog and any other like-minded publications. Let us know what you think.


Four Social Entrepreneurs Who Are Changing The World

Somewhere down the line, I think our dreams have gotten too small. Maybe it’s the recession. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re involved in two seemingly never-ending wars. Maybe we’re just jaded. Whatever the reason, I think we all need to take a step back and inflate our egos. Solve world hunger? No problem. Peace in the Middle East? Easy.

Don’t scoff. It can be done, as evidenced by the four men listed below. Here are four social entrepreneurs who don’t just think outside the box; they demolish the damn box. These individuals don’t think their dreams are so impossible. And, given the work they have done so far, they just might be right.

1. Mikkel Vestergaard-Frandsen, Disease Control Textiles

Impossible Dream: That everyone, including refugees, will be safe from preventable disease.

How He’s Making It Possible: Frandsen is an inventor whose products could transform the lives of people, particularly the poorest of the poor in Africa. The two main killers of this population are things we don’t even see as a threat: water and mosquitoes. Contaminated drinking water accounts for millions of deaths in Africa, particularly of children under five. Vestergaard-Frandsen has invented a simple and cheap product called the Lifestraw that could change all of that. When a person puts the Lifestraw into a source of undrinkable water and sucks, the water is purified inside the straw. 99.99% of disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and parasites are removed, rendering the water just as safe as the water that flows from our taps. Vestergaard-Frandsen also has a variety of products that serve as a shelter from malaria-carrying mosquitoes: the Permanet, ZeroVector, and ZeroFly. These products could protect people from the insects and the elements even when they are displaced from their homes.

The challenge with these inventions lies in getting them distributed to those who need them most. Those who are the most likely to have heard of the Lifestraw right now are members of the REI $500 hiking boot club, not refugees. Vestergaard-Frandsen is committed to changing that. Upon winning a $100,000 award for inventing the Lifestraw, he stated, “I want to ensure that each and every cent goes to taking LifeStraw out to the hands of the people who need it the most.” If he is successful, he could transform a continent.

2. Paul Farmer, Partners in Health

Impossible Dream: That the poorest of the poor will have health care that’s equal in quality to that of the rich.

How He’s Making It Possible: Through money from the non-profit, as well as plenty of funds from his own pocket, Farmer gives patients who have no way of affording any treatment the best treatment available. He provides to the impoverished people in Haiti the HIV-fighting drug cocktails that have made AIDS a manageable disease for Americans. He dismisses the argument that such treatment is not “sustainable” or unrealistically expensive. Farmer believes, simply, that every person deserves the best health treatments that humankind has devised. He states, “Charging for AIDS prevention and care will pose insurmountable problems for people living in poverty. Such services should be seen as a public good for public health. Policymakers and public health officials should adopt universal-access plans and waive fees for HIV care.” In a world where most people grudgingly accept that insurance profits will dictate their care, his attitude is so radical, yet so sensible, that it just might catch on.

3. Muhammad Yunis, Grameen Bank

Impossible Dream: That you shouldn’t need to have money to make money.

How He’s Making It Possible: Yunis is the father of social entrepreneurs, but his work is just as important today as it was when he started it in 1976. He started the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which gives small loans to women and men wanting to start businesses without asking for any money up front. In 2003, the bank expanded its reach to include people begging on the street—the bank would lend them a small amount of money, with which they could purchase items to sell for a profit. There is no interest for these loans, and recipients are required to pay back only the equivalent of about three American cents a week. Likewise, the bank does not take its borrowers to court if they do not pay, and the system works completely on trust.

It would be difficult to overstate the impact that these loans can have, particularly for women. 97% of the borrowers are women who have no viable way of making money and are completely at the mercy of a sometimes abusive husband or father. With the loans, they can free themselves and their children from the cycle of poverty.

The idea has the potential to be used for usurious evil and to include sky-high interest rates that will give borrowers the joy of that typically American experience: credit card debt. Hopefully the organization’s good can spread without being corrupted by a desire for more profit.

4. Geoffrey Canada, The Harlem Children’s Zone

Impossible Dream: That poor children in Harlem will have the same advantages that children in wealthy families have.

How He’s Making It Possible: Canada himself grew up in Harlem, and determined that it wouldn’t be enough just to have better schools or housing. The entire culture needed to change. And so, he set about doing just that. He read the various studies that have shown, again and again, that many of the advantages that wealthy families give their kids are subtle: they talk to them more, they take their concerns seriously, they use time-outs rather than corporal punishment. All of these habits, though, mean that the children of wealthy families already start school more primed to learn than children who have grown up in poverty. Add to that the fact that poorer children usually are not as well fed and are less likely to have medical care and the game is already uneven before the child has even reached kindergarten.

Canada seeks to change this by setting up a system that will nurture children from before they are born until the day they go off to college. He went door to door to encourage expectant mothers to enroll in Baby College, a program that teaches them techniques to make sure their infants learn language and thrive. These children will then attend the Harlem Gems preschool, a rigorous program that gives identical lessons to those given at the “Baby Ivies” that the stereotypical Upper East Side mom kills to get her kid into. From there, they enroll in the Promise Academy, which schools them until age 18. In tandem with this excellent education, the program provides food, counseling, medical vouchers, and housing help. Through this multi-pronged approach that attacks every effect of institutional poverty, the Harlem Children’s Zone actually leaves no child behind.

Sarah McCarthy is a blogger for My Dog Ate My Blog. She also writes on online colleges for Guide to Online Schools.

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