Entrepreneurs against poverty: a Canadian wins a prize

For a decade now the Ottawa-based group Digital Opportunity Trust has been sending interns trained in technology and business into very poor places to try to pass on their skills to locals struggling to make a better living. It’s a version of the development model called “social entrepreneurship,” and today, DOT’s founder and CEO, Janet Longmore, won a major award in the field—the sole Canadian among 24 global “social entrepreneurs of the year” named by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.

That’s Schwab as in Klaus Schwab, better known as the founder of the World Economic Forum, best known, in turn, for its annual Davos, Switzerland confab of global leaders. Schwab’s foundation is a prime promoter of businesslike ways of fighting poverty. So winning the Schwab award, beyond being a nice accolade, links Longmore’s goup to an influential network. She spoke with Maclean’s about what it means, what DOT does, and the state of Canadian social entrepreneurship.

Q: What does this award do for DOT?

A: It allows us to engage with the leaders and stakeholders who are part of the World Economic Forum and the Schwab Social Entrepreneurship Foundation. We’re at a point in our model where it’s ready to scale. We want to have conversations with leaders in government and private institutions. They are looking for different way to solve the social problems they are facing in their countries and communities.

Q: What is the DOT model?

A: We equip local, young university and college graduates with training and skills for them to go into their own communities and transfers skills in technology, business and entrepreneurship to their peers and community members. They’re working in the slums of Nairobi, rural East Africa, refugee camps in southern Lebanon, and in schools and communities in the southern U.S.A. and Mexico. It’s this path to self-reliance and self-sufficiency.

Q: How many interns do you have at work at a given time?

A: We have over 700 interns in the field right now. We’ve mobilized more than 4,000 since we started.

Q: You’ve already mentioned some countries, but where are you most active?

A: We have a large-scale operation in Kenya. There’s Rwanda and Ethiopia. Tanzania and Uganda just started. We have a very fast-growing effort in Mexico, where the government has invested in the program.

Q: Social entrepreneurship is often touted as an alternative to traditional foreign aid. In developing countries, how big a part of the picture is your sort of program?

A: It’s an increasing sector. Over 40 per cent of young people who are in the Schwab Global Shapers network are on the path of being social entrepreneurs, taking a businesslike approach to solving social issues. Private-sector impact investors are willing to work with these innovators.

Q: There must be a natural affinity between well-heeled private donors, used to working in companies, and this kind of development work.

A: Yes. We’re talking the same language. We’re talking about results, about scale, about sustainability, and how you grow, and how you replicate to do that. So there’s a comfort level in the language, the approach, and the results focus. We’ve had a 10-year relationship with Cisco We work with IBM. We’ve enjoyed that type of relationship since we started.

Q: You’re only the second Canadian to win one of these Schwab awards. Have Canadians broadly speaking been slow to pick up on social-entrepreneurship techniques?

A: That’s a very good question. I’m not sure I’d say slow. But it has not been as fast as we might have seen in Europe and certainly out of the United States. I would think that our way of development in the past has been heavily led by CIDA, government agendas and large-scale enterprises working overseas. We’re catching up. DOT is a Canadian innovation success story.

Q: Is there anything the federal government should do improve the environment for your kind of work?

A: From a government policy level there has to be more support for investing in these kinds of initiatives. Paul Martin’s been out pushing to make that change. There’s no legal environment, a structure, so we could be funded by impact investors who are looking to invest their money for a lower return.

Q: Would this be so an investor could earn a return, but not as big a return as with a normal investment, and have that somehow recognized in the tax treatment of that income?

A: Right, exactly. And, secondly, there should be collaboration within the sector itself in Canada. MaRS in Toronto is doing leadership work, but there is more that can be done.

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