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Seeds of Peace Corps Grow Into Jolkona Partners

Everyone’s lifelong philanthropy journey is different, but most start off with small steps: making a single donation, volunteering your time. Some lead to starting your own nonprofit — which, in turn, guides other donors and volunteers on their philanthropy journeys.

In yesterday’s blog post, we noted that the founders of two Jolkona partner organizations coincidentally served together as Peace Corps volunteers in Benin six years ago. This life-changing experience inspired Steve Schwartz and Sebastian Seromik to create their own nonprofit organizations — Upaya Social Ventures and Dagbé — and empowered them with the tools they needed to make these organizations successful in fighting poverty at the grassroots level in South Asia and West Africa.

Starting Small, Scaling Up

Many Peace Corps volunteers begin their service after university, but Upaya’s Steve Schwartz joined after several years of working in international communications, including some projects for Lawyers Without Borders. From there, his two-year Peace Corps commitment in Benin, developing cooperative enterprise models with village craftsmen and tradesmen, taught him how a whole region’s economy could benefit from creating small grassroots partnerships, then scaling up. In his own words:

These guilds were set up — you can think of a horizontal line. All of the welders in town are going to join the welding guild. But really, they have the same resources, the same training and in a lot of cases, set up shop next to each other – so you have a welding district or the carpenter’s district or an electrician district within the town.

And they serve the same sort of function that any sort of trade association would, in representing the interests of the welders to a government body or to other institutions. But what they’re not really good at, helping the members to crosscut the different skills and the different sectors that they are in, along business lines. For example, you would have six truck welders and the association they’re in, and six truck electricians, and six truck painters, and six truck mechanics all in four different associations. But there was no way for one truck welder, one truck electrician, one truck mechanic and one truck painter to come together and form a single company to do truck restoration…

steve&sebastian2

Steve and Sebastian presenting a meal in Azove during training

That was really what I spent a lot of my time doing. How do you create the kind of collaborative environment where you’re building a company with partners, versus thinking of yourself as a single tradesman. Some of that went well, and some of it didn’t.

That continues to be really important in transitioning developing economies in general, but in particular with what we saw in a lot of West Africa where everything is so driven by the individual being a sole proprietor entrepreneur. A lot of that thinking definitely influenced when it came around to Upaya, which is really there to build business which can be employers for large numbers of people.

Founded in 2011, Upaya has collaborated with five entrepreneurial partners to create jobs for more than 1,000 of India’s poorest workers, focusing on regions with the highest rates of child malnutrition and other markers of extreme poverty. It’s the natural progression of what Steve learned in Benin: that a collaborative approach to building enterprises not only encourages the growth of developing economies, but is also an effective strategy to lifting people out of extreme poverty.

Through Jolkona, you can support Upaya’s project to create jobs for silk weavers in Bihar, India.

Check back tomorrow for Sebastian Seromik’s story about how his Peace Corps stint inspired him to create Dagbé.

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