On Friday, March 31, 2016, CCLP’s associate director Ev Boyle moderated a panel on social entrepreneurship at the Association of Public Diplomacy Scholars’ annual Public Diplomacy Conference at USC, part of the Master in Public Diplomacy (MPD) program. The theme of this year’s conference was Women in Public Diplomacy. On the panel were Rediate Tekeste, founder of Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship; Morra Aarons-Mele, founder of Women Online and The Mission List; and Lisa Liberatore, administrative director of 31 Bits. Other panels throughout the day focused on Humanitarian Action and Advocacy, Women in the Foreign Service, and Film Diplomacy.
The Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship (EDF) program is designed to promote leadership development, public service, and creative storytelling. Through training, service in an organization in Ethiopia, peer-to-peer mentorship, and storytelling, fellows have an opportunity to increase their own cultural identity and be a catalyst for growth and change in Ethiopia.
Women Online connects the dots from start to finish via strategic, efficient, and impactful marketing programs online and offline. The Mission List is Women Online’s online database of online influencers who are passionate about using their voices in social media for social good and to spread the word about amazing initiatives and products.
31 Bits is a fashion-based social enterprise changing the way business is done globally and setting the standard for greater accountability and sustainability. Its mission is to use fashion and design to empower people to rise above poverty. They work with beneficiaries in Uganda to create fashionable, quality products through counseling, health education, finance training, and business mentorships.
Boyle asked the panel to define social entrepreneurship.
“You have traditional businesses and you have nonprofits, and social entrepreneurship is somewhere in between,” he said.
Aarons-Mele, who is also the wife of CCLP senior fellow Nicco Mele, said the goal of the business is to turn a profit but it’s also to provide some positive social benefit.
“I’m doing some research right now on how social media is developing social enterprise, and from my research I found the social aspects of enterprise can be anything that centers on creating community,” said Liberatore. “So it doesn’t even have to be a business, but some thing that has public diplomacy aspects that brings people together and that has a social component that is creating some type of change. Bringing people together who otherwise wouldn’t is important in communities.”
Tekeste said she’s pretty skeptical when it comes to social enterprises.
“If you’re not intentional about the social mission and its impact, you are a business,” she said. “You serve others, and that’s how you are a leader.”
Boyle asked the panel how to take those first steps once you have an idea.
“Social capital and building your network is really important,” said Tekeste. “As a minority woman, that’s what stopped me. I had this idea, but I thought, ‘Well, what do I do now?’ I didn’t know where to start. And my biggest advice is that you need to surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing. Just come to table with ‘I actually don’t know what I’m doing.’ Come at it humbly and ask a lot of questions.”
Aarons-Mele said the money aspect of it is very important.
“I think the only difference between being a business owner and an entrepreneur is having money,” she said. “If you’re going to start a business, even if you’re going to start a nonprofit, you have to be sustainable. So you need to get outside funding or you need to fund it yourself. And that’s the piece that is the hardest, especially for women.”
“With 31 Bits we try not to put these women in a position where they’re dependent on us for everything,” she said. “We want to give them the tools and skills they need to sustain themselves. The money issue is huge, especially if you’re doing nonprofit work.”
Tekeste said that she found asking for money to be extremely difficult.
“You need to start with your network,” she said. “When you start something, people are investing in you, not your idea quite yet. You are the vision holder. No one is going to love your vision as much as you love your vision.”
Liberatore talked about the idea of narrowing down your target audience in order to be more effective.
“We used to say yes to everything and gave a lot of our time and effort and products,” she said. “But now we have a specific target audience.”
31 Bits created a character named Ella with very specific characteristics and goals and likes and dislikes. This gave them something to compare. They can ask themselves, “Will Ella go to this event or buy this product?”
Tekeste and Aarons-Mele warned against burning out.
“I reject the notion that just because you’re an entrepreneur you have to kill yourself,” said Aarons-Mele. “There’s no better feeling than having power and satisfaction in your work.”
On that note, Boyle reiterated what Nicco Mele likes to say: “Scratch your own itch. Work on things you really care about.”
A student asked a question about the importance of measuring results and program evaluations.
“We’re all about measuring, because we have to,” said Tekeste. “Start talking about measuring from day one. It makes you a better organization. Because we were measuring last year, we can make proper adjustments this year. Not everything can be qualitative. It has to be quantified. Always be measuring; the numbers will drive what your policies could be.”
MPD program director Nick Cull delivered the conference’s closing remarks.
“It was terrific to see how the idea of this conference has grown and to see the wonderful way in which the MPD students have brought it all together,” he said. “This has helped me to understand that connecting across boundaries is not something that formal diplomats have a monopoly on. There are all kinds of people and activities going on and we all really need to find ways to work together. The team spirit represented in each of these panels is very encouraging. Just the fact that so many different kinds of people with different approaches can come together to share their experiences is an excellent indicator of the communal spirit of the world of public diplomacy.”
Tekeste is a first generation Ethiopian-American. She launched her career working with the Clinton Initiative, America Reads program, leading education efforts through community partnerships in low-income areas. She worked for World Vision Ethiopia as a journalist, and then built the communication department at Selam Children’s Village. Rediate discovered her passion for social impact and media could intersect while working as the international field producer/production coordinator for Girl Rising, a documentary about girls’ education in developing countries. She used the cumulation of her experiences to start Integrate Africa, a communications consulting firm dedicated to helping entrepreneurs and creative create socially conscious customer focused strategies. She is now working on a Gates Foundation project as an influencer strategy manager for the Redbird Group. She has a BA in Communications from ASU and a Masters in Communication Management from USC.
Aarons-Mele is an internet marketer who has been working with women online since 1999. She helped Hillary Clinton log on for her first Internet chat, and has launched online campaigns for the world’s leading organizations. During the 2004 presidential election, Aarons-Mele was the director of Internet marketing for the Democratic National Committee. After the 2004 election she founded Edelman’s digital public affairs team where she worked with Fortune 500 clients. She was founding political director for BlogHer.com, and has covered events from the White House to the campaign trail to Harvard Law School in her role as a blogger on women, politics, and work. Aarons-Mele has taught at the Yale Women’s Campaign School, the Harvard Kennedy School, and at the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders forum at Harvard, as well as at the Johns Hopkins Graduate School of Communication. Aarons-Mele has degrees from the Harvard Kennedy School and Brown University.
Liberatore’s experience has taken her across the globe with the United Nations, on Capitol Hill in Congress, in remote islands speaking to women, to the radio waves of current affairs, on inner city streets meeting basic human needs, and within the heartbeat of our global economy in public relations. she holds a Masters in Public Diplomacy from USC and is a current Doctoral candidate in Organizational Leadership at Pepperdine University.