Part Engineer, Part Humanitarian: The Making of Social Entrepreneurs

This new type of philanthropist launches profitable as well as socially minded companies

6 February 2015

Some admirable entrepreneurs use profits from their successful businesses to donate items such as shoes and eyeglasses for the needy in developing countries, or they set up libraries, schools, and health clinics. Known as social entrepreneurs, they establish businesses with the mission of using their profits to solve social problems. Another group, however, goes the extra mile by moving into the communities to set up companies that will teach locals the skills they need to become self-sufficient. In other words, providing a hand up, not a handout.

Two civil engineers explained this in the “Rural Development Consulting, Social Entrepreneurship, and Sustainable Development” webinar sponsored by Engineering for Change, a platform for engineers to share resources and work together on social causes. IEEE is one of the founders of E4C. Bryce Gaboury and Daniel Ignacio Garcia founded for-profit companies in Cambodia and Honduras with the mission of employing local engineers.

EYE-OPENING EXPERIENCES

Both were inspired to help after seeing how talented local civil engineers were being left out of engineering projects they worked on as volunteers.

Gaboury went to Cambodia in 2006 as a volunteer with Engineers Without Borders to help rebuild a reservoir used for irrigating rice fields. At the time he was engineering project manager for Bovis Lend Lease, in New York City.

Garcia, a civil engineer for more than 16 years, helped design potable water systems and conduct surveys for roads in Honduras in 2011 and 2012 with the Peace Corps. (In 2012, the Peace Corps suspended its activities in the region because of security concerns.)

SOUTHEAST ASIA

Almost immediately after that first effort in Cambodia, Gaboury and another Engineers Without Borders volunteer and Columbia classmate, now his business partner, discussed moving to the country and launching their own company with the aim of employing local engineers. They cofounded Advancing Engineering Consultants, an engineering and construction consulting firm with offices in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and in Jakarta and Sentani, Indonesia. Gaboury is the company’s director and lives in Phnom Penh.

The company employs 15 people, and all except Gaboury and his partner are from Cambodia and Indonesia. Its motto: “advancing development through sustainable engineering.”

“Our mission is to work on projects that not only help the community but also advance the skill level of engineers and contractors in the countries,” Gaboury says. “We have immense respect for the knowledge and skills they already possess.”

Current projects include designing new irrigation canals for improving rice crop yields, and conducting assessments of sanitation and drinking water systems. The company was recently hired to inspect factories in Cambodia that produce garments for Western companies to ensure they meet international building standards. Clients include nongovernment organizations, international development agencies, and private clients. The Indonesia office focuses on energy access and renewable energy projects, specifically microgrids for villages, solar installations for industrial clients, and energy audits. 

The company also works to get preuniversity students excited about engineering. It created a hands-on project that teaches youngsters how to build a model of a roller coaster. The staff is also building the exhibition booths for the country’s first STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fair, to be held in March.

“Our profits do not leave the country,” Gaboury adds. “We invest them back into the business.”

CENTRAL AMERICA

Garcia is the co-founder of Emergent Engineers, a Central American engineering consulting company headquartered in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The firm serves as a liaison among companies, foundations, and nongovernment organizations that are seeking local civil engineers to work on their projects. Emergent Engineers procures the work and matches engineers from its database. Last year the company contracted five local engineers and partnered with several local and U.S. engineering firms on a variety of projects including repairing sewers, improving roads, and rehabilitating potable water systems.

Many municipal agencies and NGOs doing work in underdeveloped countries outsource their technical needs to consultants and contractors who live outside the country instead of hiring local expertise. But local expertise is really needed for the long-term planning necessary for infrastructure work, according to Garcia. Without this planning, there is no prioritization, which leads to mismanagement of money and resources and often a failure to complete the project, he says.

By using local engineers, he says, he is “ridding Central America and the developing world of their dependency on engineers from other countries.”

“This is detrimental because there is no technical exchange of knowledge and no experience gained by locals to continue doing these types of projects when the financing for a foreign-run program ends,” he adds. “Developing countries have highly qualified civil engineers that, either through lack of information or situations that don’t encourage local labor, lead to design work being done outside the country.”

The company’s local staff provides project management, consulting, and engineering technical assistance. Recent projects include designing potable water systems, suspension bridges, and roads. The company also trains engineers on how to use survey equipment.

WORDS OF WISDOM

The IEEE Foundation, through its IEEE Smart Village Initiative, provides money for projects like those that Baboury and Garcia are working on. The goal, according to Michael Wilson, senior program manager for the IEEE Smart Village Initiative, is to fund projects that will not only yield an immediate and broad impact in the community but also be sustainable over the long term. Wilson, Gaboury, and Garcia offer these tips for ensuring that a social venture will prosper.

  • First and foremost, have a passion with a humanitarian heart to help others.
  • Learn how to recognize a business opportunity, nurture it, and turn it into a successful operation. Find a need that isn’t being met and get creative on how to make a profit by delivering that product or service.
  • Make sure you have access to capital. Getting it tends to be one of the biggest challenges that social entrepreneurs in developing countries face. Funding organizations include foundations, grant agencies, religious and charitable groups, and government aid programs.
  • Access to basic infrastructure is critical. That includes electricity, a telephone, and an Internet connection. Transportation is another must, whether that’s good roads, a truck, or a boat. Be aware that the local government might help or hinder access through regulations and laws.
  • Get professionals to review your business plan. There are organizations that connect entrepreneurs with teams of mentors who share their experience and perspective. Websites and educational programs also exist on how to start a social entrepreneurship business.
  • Learn how to run a business, which involves marketing, budgeting, and managing cash flow and customer relations.
  • Have patience and plenty of it. What you think of as a great new idea like hiring local engineers can be met with a lot of resistance from the international development community, which has been doing the project the same way for decades.

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