Posted by Mike O'Quin | Filed under serving the poor
“Her shoes are nowhere to be found!”
“What?” I said aghast, not really believing that Bree’s nice tennis shoes were really swiped just like that.
The youth group volunteer and I continued the frantic search around the front entrance of our “empowerment center,” a place set in a poor Indonesian neighborhood, designed to empower people out of poverty. Tonight we had just held a party there for homeless teenagers who live around our city’s town square. We played games with them, taught them some English, fed them, and honored their graduation from a free graphic design class we offered to them. We clapped and cheered when the ones of them who completed the course stood to receive their certificates. It was a lively night of celebration.
After the meal, the 18 honored guests shuffled their way out of our empowerment center to the waiting public transportation mini-van that we had rented for them. As per Indonesia custom, both ragged street beggar and wealthy ex-pat teenager had slipped off their shoes before entering our building at the start of the party, and now it was time to find their footwear amid a tall mountain of 40 pairs of sandals and shoes.
Apparently some of our new friends thought this would be a great opportunity to upgrade. We waved the guests goodbye, the van drove them back to the town square and we started cleaning the party’s aftermath. That’s when the shoe search started. As we were looking for the first girl’s tennis shoes, another youth group member approached me. “I can’t find mine either,” he said dejected.
“Oh, Willy, I’m so sorry.”
I felt a rise of anger in me. You mean to tell me the very people we threw this party for—these poor street kids—stole two pairs of tennis shoes right off our front porch? How is the youth group going to feel about this, especially the barefooted ones? Will their parents be angry at me? This is the thanks I get?
All of these thoughts swirled through my head as I continued the fruitless search, grasping at some unlikely scenario that the two pairs were simply misplaced. But deep down I knew better. I imagined those shoes were tucked away inside a tattered backpack and riding back to the town square even as we searched.
The shoe theft was an initiation of sorts for these teenagers into the world on serving the poor. It’s something that sounds very romantic—“serving the poor”—until you spend a lot of time around poor people. Some of them can be lazy, manipulative and sinful just like all of us can. They can even steal your shoes. After getting burned a few times, it’s easy to keep a radio talk show host distance from poor people and judge them as maybe too lazy to help themselves. That’s why the poor are easy to avoid—we seldom run in to them unless we are intentional.
Also if you are serving the poor because you are waiting to get positive feedback from them, you are going to be disappointed. I’ve talked to many relief workers frustrated that while they worked hard in the hot sun to build houses for people displaced by some cataclysmic natural disaster, the people they were serving were just sitting under the shade and passively watching. It infuriated them. So forget about getting a Mother Theresa warm fuzzy all the time.
Another bad motivation—if you’re serving the poor to assuage some materialistic guilt, you’re not going to make it for the long haul. Look at these wretched poor people! How can we drive these nice cars and they have to walk everywhere? How can we eat in nice restaurants when they barely have enough to eat? That kind of motivation doesn’t last very long, maybe long enough to throw a few coins at a social Santa in front of a mall for an annual shopping spree. But it’s not sustainable for the long haul. Human compassion is a very low octane fuel.
Can I suggest a higher motivation for serving the poor? I believe it can be found in God’s heart to serve the poor. He loves them. He wants to lift them. That motivation is high octane fuel, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Tap into it today. You may even get a taste of heaven’s joy as you serve them.
That’s worth a couple of pair of sneakers.
Posted by Mike O'Quin | Filed under social entrepreneurship
I remember one day spotting Mas Weda as I was on the way to an ATM machine. He stood from his wooden bench to greet me, being careful not to knock over the stacks of coins he had accumulated that day. Weda was a parkir, a man who works out of a parking lot, collecting tips from drivers he helps back out into passing traffic. They get about a dime for every car and a nickel for every motorcycle, whether the drivers requested their services or not. I had seen that young man often in that parking lot, just big enough for a few cars and motorcycles, sitting on his bench until it was time to get up and blow his whistle.
We chatted briefly and I re-extended my offer for him to come to of our free graphic design classes later that afternoon. He squinted at the flyer I put in his hand, looking unsure.
“Come on, Weda, you can get some great new job skills, and it doesn’t cost anything.”
He fiddled with the whistle hanging around his neck. “Malu masuk kampus,” he finally admitted, which means, “I’m ashamed to enter a campus.”
“Jangan malu,” I told Weda, “don’t be ashamed.” I assured him that he could come to campus and the security guards would not stop him. I told him exactly where the computer lab we rented out was located. Wouldn’t you like to get some more job skills so that you could get a better job in the future, I asked.
He shifted around in his flip flops and looked up at me, smiling widely. “In’shallah,” he said. It literally means “As God wills,” but he knew and I knew it really meant ain’t no way he was going to come. It’s just a polite way in Indonesian of saying no thanks.
I finally made my way to the ATM, feeling regret and slight frustration. Weda could have had a much better job than counting coins the rest of his life. We were throwing a guy who could never get a formal education a lifeline here, and he wouldn’t even take it. Is it that he was too lazy to swim to the lifeline, or that he believed he could never learn to swim?
Two weeks later I saw Weda again. I offered the same invitation, and to my surprise he showed up at our graphics design class later that day. He entered the computer lab barefoot and wide-eyed, clutching tightly on to the flyer as if it were some sort of golden ticket for a high class party. I tried to joke around with him to put him at ease, and showed him to an open computer station. He admitted he hadn’t really used one that much before, and I whispered to one of trainers to give him special attention. The class was already in its fourth week so I knew he was going to have to learn fast—sink or swim.
I wish I could tell you that Weda graduated from our graphic design class, got a job in our small business and turned his life around. I wish I could report that he and his family have finally escaped the cruel clutches of poverty. But Weda only came to class twice, and the last time I saw him he was on that same corner, counting a small stack of coins. He’s always very nice to me, and gives me a free pass when I park my motorcycle in his parking lot. I think he really appreciated the chance, but for some reason he didn’t take it.
What’s the deal here? I realize in Weda’s case there are probably specific factors to his situation, but overall, why do poor people sometimes seem to seal their own doom? Why do people, for instance, who just received a wad of cash in the form of a micro-finance loan or a one-time government handout, often blow it on something immediate and not invest it into something that could help them in the long run? A concept that helped me wrestle with this came from a class I took on poverty. In one book we read, Walking with the Poor, the author Brian Myers talked about the “marred identity of the poor.” He explained that poverty robs people of their identity as people with inherent worth. From the outside we might judge the poor as just lazy, and although that might be true at times, there are factors that have marred their identity long before we ever meet them.
I believe it’s easier for people to escape poverty now than at any other time in human history because of the opportunities afforded by globalization. On any spot in the world which has access to the internet you could become a “social entrepreneur” and start an outsourcing business that could lift hundreds of people out of poverty. Yet we are still dealing with “marred” people, and their broken self-identity tells them they will never make it out of the hold. Their self esteem is as barren as their wallets.
As we innnovate to offer solutions to the poor, we have to keep in mind that their minds is the first place to start.
Posted by Mike O'Quin | Filed under social entrepreneurship
My doorbell rang this morning at 4 AM. I was expecting out-of-town guests to show up at 6AM, and I figured it was them coming early, way too early. I jumped up in my bed-headed and confused state and greeted the three visitors waiting patiently at my gate.
They had just traveled all night in a chartered minivan from the resort island of Bali, which is one island over and 10 hours away from Java, where I live. They came this week to learn from our team on how to start an outsourcing business, something we did three years ago in Java. All three of them have a heart to see people lifted out of drug addiction and the sex trade industry of Bali, and they know that people who escape that degradation need a steady job to stay free. Prostitutes simply don’t have a lot of other job options, even if they somehow able to pay off their debts. They need gainful employment for the long haul. My three new friends are determined to give people like that new opportunities.
Welcome to the world of Social Entrepreneurship. It’s a blending of the best in business with a heart for community development. It’s fueled by people who launch small start-ups to give others a leg-up. I first learned this concept in 2006 when I read Thomas Friedman’s excellent book, The World is Flat. Friedman contends that the world has been flattened by globalization so that people from any walk of life have access to success, thanks to the internet. He writes, for example, about how people in India used to dream about going to America and striking it rich, and now the visa application lines to the U.S. embassy are noticeably shorter. No need to embark on the New World because the whole world if flat. Not only does he trace the history, good and bad, of a world economy but he introduces us to some people who were harvesting the best out of globalization for the world’s poor. He calls them social entrepreneurs, these people who are teaching a man to fish rather than giving a man a fish.
I was intrigued, as I had lived in Indonesia for many years and had given away many fish. They sure go fast. I remember after a natural disaster here once giving everyone in a village a kilo of rice, and they immediately asked for more the following days. I always felt so limited with how to serve the poor in a more sustainable way. When I read that book a light came on. That’s it…I want to be a social entrepreneur.
We started brainstorming with some members of our English Club on how to start a business here that would give poor people better access to internet-opened opportunities. We kicked around a few ideas and finally settled on starting a graphic design outsourcing business. Our focus became doing high quality PowerPoint presentations at affordable prices. Our promise to clients was to us send us your notes, and we’ll take it from there. Slam bang presentations delivered back to you within 48 hours. Our vision was crafted as “empowering the poor through excellence in business.”
In February of 2007 PowerPointPartners was born (we’re now in the process of changing that to Presentation Elevation). That was three years ago, and since then we have had nearly 300 people go through our free graphic design class for the community. All of them get life-changing jobs skills and the crème of the crop become our employees, which now numbers seven Indonesians. This week’s free graphic design class, taught by its former graduates, features 20 street beggars, all more eager to learn new computer skills than even the fried rice we offer them. It will be fun to see if some of them have the self-motivation and determination to escape the cruel clutches of poverty. We can only provide a ramp for them; it’s up to them if they will take it.
I’m having the time of my life. I’m enjoying running a business that has an eye on more than profit margin. We define success not only in items of profitability, but how many people we can empower out of poverty. The most fun is going into our office and seeing one of our young workers, who just a year ago was unemployed and struggling financially, now creating a stellar presentation for a prestigious Western business. How cool that my partners in Bali are trying this same audacious idea. I wish and pray them well and look forward to the day when former drug addicts and prostitutes get off the streets of Bali and into great jobs.
Sounds fun? Do you want to be a social entrepreneur too? Have you already started? I think we should form a tribe. In this blog I’d love to hear your thoughts below.
Posted by Mike O'Quin | Filed under Uncategorized
Earlier this spring, Presentation Elevation hosted a free graphic design class to kids who live on the streets here in Malang, Indonesia. Our Presentation Elevation staff taught the class. We had around 15 students showing up regularly for the six week course on how to use Adobe Photoshop. We shared with these kids how the internet has connected the world and offers endless opportunities for people just like themselves.