Saturday, July 29, 2006

Getting a Hat from Noriega

So to revisit the NPR theme, there was an interesting "This American Life" program I heard last night about a young woman (Sara York) from the Michigan Upper Penninsula (yup, da UP) that became a penpal with Panama's infamous leader. OK, so I am not going to focus on the underlying theme that she was probably being used by this guy, nor the idea that a thug may have a soft side.

Instead, what I found interesting is that this is a great example of how ACTION is a precondition to getting things started, often of surprising magnitude. It is a human example of those "butterfly wings starting storms". It is also a great example of an old negotiation addage: "You don't get what you don't ask for."

The gist of the story is that young Sara was watching TV and saw General Noriega. He had on a hat she admired, and that she thought her dad might like a hat like that; and she wanted to know more about Panama. Her dad, at first jokingly, said, "write him a letter".... so she did. This started a pen pal correspondence with Noriega, that eventually turned into a trip for this young girl and her mother to Panama. And, he sent her the hat, too.

As social entrepreneurs, we are often in need of "hats" from people that we don't know, and who may seem unapproachable. I am not talking about asking them for money, necessarily, but rather access to ideas, people, networks, a piece of equipment, a little of their time. I think we would all do well to keep Sara's story in mind. It's pretty simple, and proved very effective.

Why did it work? My thoughts:
1) Sara was non-judgemental... she and her parents were well aware of Noriega's reputation. But she didn't dwell on that- she was young, and perhaps a bit naive, but that may be why Noriega opened up to her. My observation is that one difference between social activists and social entrepreneurs is that the latter are at least willing to listen, and then perhaps deal, with those of a different stripe. This sometimes leads to better understanding and forward progress, in short, value creation for both parties.

2) Sara established a relationship. She didn't just say "please send me a hat". If she analyzed it, she could probably have figured out that the General could easily just afford to send her a hat. But she also wanted to find out more about his country, referring to what she was seeing on TV. This led to a number of letters over a period of time. In time, she received many things of greater value than the hat itself.

3) Sara took ACTION. She wrote the letter and stuck it in the mail: "General Noriega, Panama City, Panama." She didn't really expect to hear back, but she did it. That started the chain of events.

I know someone who heard of a movie star's interest in biodiversity, and found out he had a place in Colorado, and decided to go visit him without an appointment. Wow! A colleague asked for a very expensive piece of equipment that could help us better produce low cost cookstoves... the company said "yes" right away.

So whose hat would look good on you? Have you taken ACTION?

Oh, and if you are asked for a hat... look at as an opportunity for engagement. Maybe your hat can really help out someone who needs it more than you!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Where Should Buffet and Gates Invest? would you change the world? The Social Edge forum has been debating whether Warren Buffet's contribution is a good thing (or at least trying... sometimes these forums get SO off topic!).

The basic question, not just for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation ("B&MGF"), but for all interested in large scale social change (and complaining about there not being enough money) is: Given all the world's challenges, where will you invest your time-talent-treasure to make a change?

We all have different issues and passions and there are lots of places where we can make an impact. It is interesting that so many seem to come to this discussion with a "scarcity" mindset, since we are basically talking about human energy and passion. Isn't this a limitless and renewable resource? Money follows great ideas + effective people. I think there may be more money than there are good ideas on how to spend it responsibly. The non-profit and government sector's track record is, to say the least, not spectacular. So where should Gates/Buffet spend their billions? Well, most likely it will be trying to support great ideas and effective people. But where should they start (and where should each of us start)?

To take a popular example these days, what with Al Gore's movie and all... if you assume that climate change will contribute to "catastrophic" events and you have a $60 billion foundation, what do you do? Subsidize hybrids in China, buy carbon credits, promote reforestation or more active carbon sequestration? What is the probablility of success and scale of impact vs. the cost?

While I think climate change is an important challenge, it is a challenge on the minds of those of us lucky enough to live in places like U.S. and Europe (and incidently, we have massive carbon footprints compared to those in the developing world). Should B&MGF spend their money trying to convince us to behave better, or should they focus on immunizing the poor and developing new vaccines against diseases like malaria (which has a huge impact on keeping the poor in poor health throughout the tropics)? or clean water supplies? or alternative energy (as was suggested by a recent interview with Gates in Newsweek), or broadening their educational inititives? As someone I respect often says "it is all good work". If they choose one of these areas, why are so many ready to say it is the "wrong" choice?

To date, B&MGF has spent more time on infectious disease and education (mostly in the U.S.) and they are learning, building networks and making progress- in short, becoming effective. Should they add an additional focus, as suggested in these discussion board threads... agriculture, poverty alleviation, climate change? Or should they redouble their efforts? This decision may well rest on their analysis of whether there are enough great ideas and effective people in their existing areas of focus. And perhaps, this new money will help attract more talent to these sectors.

A final thought- while Bill and Warren have billions, their overall impact pales in comparison to the work of the millions of people that are out there contributing their more limited financial resources, hearts and minds, to whatever cause they support. Let's all keep up the good work and see how Mr. Buffet's gift impacts what we are doing.

Monday, July 17, 2006

They Just Don't Get It

From today's online NY Times:
"The world leaders at a Group of 8 summit meeting on Sunday issued a communiqué on energy policy that touched lightly on alternatives to fossil fuels, like biomass and wind power, but focused mostly on how to bring more oil to the market. "

Einstein's quote is applicable: "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it."

Well, if you are reading this blog, you probably know my low opinion of the ability of a government to solve problems (and it is compounded by the plural- governments). Suspicions confirmed. The leaders of the free world aren't going to get us off oil. While Mr. Bush (perhaps demonstrating his earlier experiences with other substances) took the first step of admitting we are "addicted" to oil, it is clear that our governments are not ready to take any of the harder next steps to rehab.

So, it is up to us to take an inventory of our individual actions, take responsibility for our lifestyles and make decisions accordingly. Our governments aren't going to take care of it. Anyone surprised?

If you want to reduce your energy use, or carbon footprint, here are some ideas:
1) Reduce your energy use: some ideas from the EPA, National Academy of Sciences, or Al Gore.
2) Offset your carbon emissions: a list of carbon offset services
3) Buy organic or "green products" from "green companies"

Your energy usage is driven, in large part by where you live (type of home and location relative to work/errands), mode of transportation, and what you eat. If you decide you want to reduce your energy usage/eco footprint, be sensible about attacking the low hanging fruit first. What are the easy changes? Then focus on the "big impact" items that can reduce your $$ spent on energy. As with exercise or diet, setting unrealistic goals increases the chance that you and your family will "drop out". Better to set reasonable goals and achieve them!

Good luck!

There are a number of blogs on this topic- find one that suits your disposition and keep informed.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

First Visit to India

Just returned from my first trip to India. Trying to let the impressions percolate... friendly people, lots of rain, lots of work to do. Primary purpose was to visit with potential partner universities for our sustainable enterprise graduate program. Secondary purpose was to do some market research on our cookstove prototype and potential partners for Indian market.
A few impressions/thoughts below:

#1- visiting a small rural village- pretty much everyone interested in alternative energy, microfinance, entrepreneurship. A testament to the hard work of Vinod and Camilla, and evidence that entrepreneurship, microfinance and private enterprise can make an important difference for a village. For more info: and

#2- the incredibly friendly and fun folks at TLC in Nasik. Second generation entrepreneurs... the rising tide. Hungry for success and impact.

#3- the SEWA Bank in Ahmedabad. Inspiring crew!

#4- ran into Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute on the plane back to Colorado. He had some good ideas on integration of cooking/pots into stove design.

#5- visiting well known business school- very early interest in alternative energy, microfinance, entrepreneurship. I need to think about this. Is this lack of info, or lack of interest, or just the overwhelming "other opportunities" these students face?

#6- the cows. Pretty much everywhere. From prior travel, I expected the crowding, the slums, the one-eared dogs, but not the cows wandering around a city of millions.

#7- did I mention the rain? and that Mumbai, despite having had monsoons for many years, does not deal very well with the rain? Neither do the cows.

#8- despite a huge number of slums and squatters in Mumbai, the city does not seem dangerous, but instead reserved. People are friendly, get about their business, reasonably patient, but crazy drivers. Compared to other megacities I have been (Rio, San Paulo, Manila) the poverty is more mixed in, rather than segregated into neighborhoods.

Enough for now. I was impressed, and expect to return later this year to follow up on the good relationships we started.

EPILOG- The recent bombings on the trains in Mumbai... my thoughts are with the many affected by these tragic events.