Social Entrepreneurs in North Carolina

Social Entrepreneurship is a method of crafting innovative approaches to social problems. Whether they work through a non-profit organization, a for-profit organization, or some combination of the two, social entrepreneurs now experiment with using business methods to solve social problems. North Carolina Now has produced three feature stories profiling social entrepreneurs in North Carolina.


Africa Rising
By day, Jim Thomas is a professor of epidemiology at UNC, but he also spends many hours of his life working as a social entrepreneur. In this story about an organization called AFRICA RISING, Jim introduces the concept of “social entrepreneur” as the practice of people with business skills doing more than making money, using good business practices to address a social problem like hunger, poverty, water quality, or, as in the case of his work, women with HIV/AIDS.

Jim and his associate, Bill Stevenson, began their work several years ago at their church in Chapel Hill. They had an ongoing relationship with a church in Nairobi, in Kenya, and began discussing ways they could respond to the rising incidence of HIV/AIDS.

Jim and Bill and many others in Chapel Hill became involved with an organization in Kenya called Beacon of Hope. They began working in one of the slums of Nairobi, teaching women who were infected with HIV and AIDS how to weave rugs, how to gain an income, how to keep food on the table without having to sell their bodies. Soon Jim and Bill were bringing the rugs to sell in North Carolina. AFRICA RISING was established on the Internet to help manage the relationships and the bottom line.

Mary Muhara, who works in Nairobi but visits North Carolina often, explains, “Africa Rising is helping Africa rise. It's recognizing the Africans that are doing some really wonderful jobs and then helping them, helping them get to another level, but allowing the African people to lead, and that's what is so special.”

Jim agrees. “We are an organization that tries to make things happen. We try to catalyze connections, so if we find a need, then we're going to look for someone who can meet that need. It's not that we ourselves are going to step in and create or build or do what needs to be done, but we're going to work within that network to find the answers, and sometimes those answers are in organizations in Africa.”
Social entrepreneurship is a concept that Jim believes will continue to grow in North Carolina in the months and years to come. “It is a care for society and how it functions and stepping in to do that in a way that doesn't just rely on government, doesn't just rely on others to solve the problem,” he says. “By saying 'I can do something there, more than just for myself,’ we can do something together that's going to benefit humanity.”

For more information, visit the Africa Rising website.

Home of Hope in India
Home of Hope (Prathyasha Bhavan) is an orphanage for 80 abandoned, neglected, abused girls in Kochi, India.  These are the poorest of the poor, whose past lives have seen horrible suffering and deprivation.  Please come into our website so that we might tell how YOU can be their bridge to a brighter future.  Paul and Tracy Wilkes, of Wilmington NC, discovered Home of Hope on a trip to India and serve as US coordinators for all those who want to help these precious girls.

Paul Wilkes and his wife, Tracy, live in Wilmington. Paul is a writer and former director and producer for PBS. In 2005, when he and Tracy traveled to India for a vacation, they came home with a new interest, an orphanage called Home of Hope.

During their visit to Kochi in southern India, a coastal city much like Wilmington, Paul and Tracy said they had a little time left in their day so the driver asked us what they wanted to do, and they said, “Well, we’d like to see what the churches are doing around here. There is so much poverty.” He took them down a rutted road and the gates opened up and many young girls ran toward them and they said, ‘Well this looks like a nice boarding school. But in fact it was an orphanage.”

India is a country that is only about a third the size of the United States, but has four times as many people, and half of them, 500 million people live in desperate poverty on less than two dollars a day. The girls at Home of Hope are from the poorest of the poor families; beggars, rag pickers, people who have lived on the streets, mothers who are prostitutes, this is the lowest economic level of the Indian world.

After Paul and Tracy spent a few hours at the orphanage they asked the nuns there what they could do to help. The nuns told them they needed only their prayers. But when Paul and Tracy returned to Wilmington they busied themselves raising money to send back to the orphanage.

“I just knew that I wanted to do something,” Paul remembers. “It’s like one of those moments in a person’s life---the Good Samaritan story, I mean, I’m not the Good Samaritan, but the Good Samaritan story I think is a perfect example of, you just passing by, ‘OK, that’s fine, I’ll just reach in my pocket and give you a dollar, five dollars, ten dollars, 100 rupees, it wasn’t enough, it just wasn’t enough because I saw also that if you concentrate on one small place, you can make a profound difference. Five hundred million people in poverty in India I cannot do much about.  I can’t go to Darfur. I can’t go to Calcutta, I can’t even take care of some of the problems here in Wilmington, but if you concentrate on one area, one place, then you can make some changes.”

With Paul’s leadership the Home of Hope has blossomed. In addition to providing basic needs for the girls---clean water, beds, and school supplies---Paul has fostered several micro-businesses in the community. There are more than 18 groups in the community where the nuns from Home of Hope go out and meet with the women and say, ‘Well, why are you buying your detergent a little bit at a time?  How about if five of you get together and buy 10 kilos of that and you’ll have enough and you’ll be able to sell a little bit more.” Paul and Tracy have helped them to create mini-loans and micro-loans to buy a sewing machine so the women can then sew.  There is a street stall where three women banded together to sell tea and sugar.  For the first time, women are running their won businesses. The orphanage itself is the hub for the community for women’s empowerment.

As Tracy says, “It really is a place of hope. That’s what we feel there. And that’s what the girls feel. Being in this place of hope will allow them to be educated. And education, as we all know, worldwide, is the only way out.”

Paul said they will continue to expand the entrepreneurial aspects of the community around Home of Hope. He invites anyone with interest in visiting India to contact him. He welcomes volunteers who will help to teach or bring other experiences to Home of Hope.

“We have people going all the time now,” he says. “They spend a week, two weeks. If you’re a teacher, a physician, a nurse, if you’re a computer wiz, if you speak English, you can teach English there. If our North Carolina people want to go to India, I will make the arrangements for you. You will stay at Home of Hope and you will be able to work with these precious girls and the sisters that take care of them. And I think that for anybody that goes, it’s a life changing experience.”

For more information, visit the Home of Hope (Prathyasha Bhavan) website.

Juicy Ideas in Asheville, NC
Juicy Ideas is a collegiate competition which will challenge student teams to create value while communicating a message of environmental responsibility through the use of imagination, innovation and creativity around the use of a "throw-away" item. Teams will record their experience via video and upload to YouTube for judging.

Hundreds of college students all across western North Carolina have been collecting their plastic bottles for an internet competition called Juicy Ideas.

The challenge, sponsored by AdvantageWest and their partners at DigitalChalk, was to create something good for the community out of what is otherwise thrown away. They had only ten days to design and build their product and produce a video about it for YouTube.

Troy Tulle, who grew up in the western part of the state and returned there after graduation from NC State University, was part of the team that iniatied the campaign. “The idea was to give them a recyclable item and see how creative they could be,” said Troy, who is the chief financial officer for an innovative company called Digital Chalk. “Could they be innovative and creative and create value out of something that nobody sees value in?”

Of 79 teams in North Carolina, three emerged as finalists. At Western Carolina University (WCU), Engineering Technology students built a wind generator. At Appalachian State University, a team from the Industrial Design created a bicycle they would like see in production. And the Mighty Kites of Western Piedmont Community College (WPCC) came up with the juicy idea of adding recycled bottles to wall insulation.

Corrie Wilson and her team at WPCC in Morganton said they learned a lot about construction in the process of building a wall with bottles in the insulation. Their faculty advisor, Eric Hurley, said the idea of bottles was actually a good one, adding considerably to the R-value of the insulation.

The WCU team struggled to come up with an idea that would really be beneficial. Ben Plowman, a junior in Engineering Technology, said he enjoyed the brainstorming as much as the process. Ben’s team put together a small wind generator. He said they spend less than ten dollars on the project. They only had to purchase the actual electrical unit and wire.  When activated, the windmill generates less than one volt of power, but Ben says he could see putting lost of them on top of fence posts in rural areas.

Appalachian students in the same Product Design major are excited about their recycled bottle bicycle. The wheels, chain and seat came from a friend’s old bike. They shaped the handlebar and frame by using a dowel rod as a base, then melting the bottles with a heat gun. According to Ryan Klinger, they used 300 or 400 bottles, but when they removed the wooden towel the rods were strong. “The bicycle is really light weight,” explains Ryan. “If we had more time and we had the money to really build this right, it would be very inexpensive. Our idea is to provide these recycled bottle bicycles to college campuses or towns to be used as free bikes---people could ride them whenever they needed to, to go where they want to go, and then just leave the bike for the next person. It would be awesome.”

Julia Rowland, the assistant director at ASU’s Center for Entrepreneurship, served as an advisor for the Juicy Idea team. She said that students today are inspired to more for the community. “They really do want to do good and want to implement change,” Julia explains. “And it might be that they just have one concern. And it might be for the environment, it might be for poverty, it might just over all quality of life for people.  But I see that and it’s a strong drive. They’re dedicated to doing something good.”

Organizers for the Juicy Idea campaign are very excited about the quality of the ideas and the enthusiasm of the students.

Dale Carroll, CEO of AdvantageWest in Asheville, says, “The future of our mountain region depends on having an exciting environment where young people feel they’re appreciated, their work and ideas are recognized and Juicy Ideas was a way to bring some structure to that.”

Although the contest began as a regional event in North Carolina, it has already spread throughout the United States. GOOGLE has become involved and is providing a prize to the national winner.

For more information, visit the Juicy Ideas website.