Can a business school help one million women in the developing world lift themselves out of poverty? The Street Business School, a tested and effective entrepreneurial training program in East Africa, plans to do just that.
Eleven years ago, three American women with no business training started BeadforLife, a fair trade organization in Uganda that paid women living in poverty to make colorful earrings, necklaces and bracelets out of recycled paper. On the surface, that sounds just like many other social-venture creation stories. What makes BeadforLife’s story unique is that these founders knew from the beginning that they didn’t want these jewelry-makers to become dependent on them or the organization for their future economic well-being.
What if paper beads stopped being fashionable and marketable? What if the organization had to leave Uganda for some reason? What if the skills these women were gaining were insufficient to allow them to be remain financially independent?
Entrepreneurship is the path out of poverty.
Entrepreneurship was the answer. As soon as a woman enrolled in the bead-making program, she started getting trained to create a business that would be sustainable in the local economy. The program was called Beads to Business — something the founders thought of as “transformational trade.”
Of course, the business training had to be customized, to be relevant to these impoverished women, who typically have little formal education. Customer service and basic bookkeeping — even the distinction between profit and loss — were totally new concepts for many of these women. And gaining even basic skills in these areas opened up whole new worlds of possibility.
The organization learned right alongside the participants. By constantly experimenting with the curriculum, testing the results and making necessary changes, organizers refined the program and made it more effective. In the last ten years, BeadforLife has injected substantial revenue into Ugandan communities by buying and selling beads, and has trained an estimated 45,500 women to start 3,250 businesses ranging from vegetable stalls to hair salons to restaurants.
Follow-up studies show that 81 percent of these businesses have remained open after two years, compared to an 80 percent failure rate for businesses in Uganda as a whole.
That’s great news, of course, But Beads to Business’ ability to scale was limited: The number of women who could be enrolled in its education program was limited by the volume of beads the organization could sell.
After struggling with this challenge, the school’s organizers realized that beads were merely a means to an end — the physical manifestation of the work of empowering women and fighting against poverty. The school had gotten good at business training, and there was no reason that that education had to be tied to beads alone.
Street Business School is born.
This led to the birth of the Street Business School — a mobile business school that delivers its powerful entrepreneurship curriculum to women who have never rolled a single bead for the organization. The courses are delivered right in the communities where the women live, and take place over a period of six months. In addition to classroom sessions, the new entrepreneurs get one-on-one coaching from BeadforLife’s trainers, who visit their businesses several times to make sure the lessons are being applied.
As happened with Beadsfor Life and Beads to Business, success followed yet again, with the founding of Street Business School. But, still dissatisfied with the number of women being served, organizers determined to start a global expansion of the School.
The goal is to train one million women entrepreneurs around the world by partnering with like-minded organizations that want to deliver the Street Business School curriculum in the communities they serve. The first immersion workshop — a weeklong training, where staff from other organizations learn how to facilitate their own Street Business Schools — is scheduled to take place September 18-23, with four partner organizations from other East African nations.
For 2018, the plan is to expand, to train organizations on other continents. If all goes well, by 2027, one million women will have been trained by this network of partner organizations.
While BeadforLife continues to sell its jewelry to help fund the Street Business School and its other programs, organizers say they see no limit to the number of women who can change their lives and lift themselves out of poverty through entrepreneurship.