I’ve just returned from an amazing few days in Vietnam working with the British Council Vietnam and the Centre for Social Initiative Promotion on the final stages of the Student Women’s Empowerment Movement project that I helped to launch in October 2013. Seventeen teams of students from Universities across Vietnam gathered together for a two day Bootcamp in a hotel in Hanoi. The energy and enthusiasm was infectious. These young people had come up with ideas to tackle social issues ranging from women with kidney problems who can’t afford dialysis, women living in real poverty in rural areas and street vendors who can’t make an adequate living. Many of them had personal experiences to share of family members who had suffered from discrimination because of a drug or offending history, or had been volunteering for some time with groups such as women with a hearing impairment who couldn’t find work because of their disability. They had real stories to tell and had also researched the statistics to back up their ideas.
All of the students had grasped the idea of developing a business model to create a social enterprise approach to address the issues and there were some excellent business plans, many of which had also been successfully piloted. Some of the best involved helping women from disadvantaged groups raise their earning potential through the manufacture of products with good designs and a route to market or the creation of jobs in rural areas through the provision of weekend and summer camps for urban children. What became very clear when I started to listen to their presentations was that they weren’t showing the passion that had started them off on their idea. They struggled to link the social value they were creating with the business model and they had produced an average of 45 slides for a 5 minute presentation. After a day’s training on pitching they worked hard on pruning back the slides, finding the real story that would paint a picture in the judge’s minds and working out the key messages. When it came to the final pitching before the panel of 6 judges and 5 advisers they surpassed themselves. Every group met the five minute deadline and the passion for their idea came through loud and clear even with an interpreter speaking the English version into my ear.
The ten winners were selected by the judges and advisers with a little healthy discussion but unanimous agreement on 9 of the teams. If even some of the ideas become reality the cause of gender equality in Vietnam will be greatly enhanced. The winning teams will receive 6 months of business support and seedcorn funding to start their social enterprises thanks to generous sponsorship from drinks company Diageo so I look forward to hearing of their progress. Part of the prize was a trip to Mai Chau in North West Vietnam to see some social enterprise in action. Obviously the hard work over the weekend and the celebrations that followed took their toll as the students took full advantage of a rest hour in a homestay village!
It was great to spend two days learning more about social enterprises in ethical tourism as well as visiting Hoa Ban whose founder has worked for 18 years to develop a Handicrafts business working with women with disabilities in this rural area. Many of the women have gone on to develop their own enterprises and all have gained in income levels and confidence. It was a delight to talk with them and hear how much they appreciate the opportunity they have been given. It was also interesting to contrast this enterprise with a clinically clean and professional retail outlet on the road from Hanoi to Ha long which also provided jobs for people with disabilities but allowed no photographs or conversations and had no feeling of passion or heart. Hoa Ban may not be as slick or professional but the social value shines through.
It was also fascinating to see young people from the city find out how rice grows in the paddy fields. A new experience for some!
Vietnam is a place worth visiting and as well as the conventional visits to Hanoi, Ha Long and Ho Chi Minh City take a look at http://bloommv.org
Kate Welch, Chief Executive, Social Enterprise Acumen CIC
UK trainer for the Movement 50/50 - Students’ Women Empowerment Movement Bootcamp